Cliff Street runs east west on the palisade on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. The east end faces New York City where the cliff drops off to the Hudson right after a chain link fence. The west looks out over the meadowlands of the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, flat and watery until reaches the hills going northwest. I understand that my paternal grandfather and his friends built the four-family apartment house after living in a Hell’s Kitchen tenement. I lived in the House on Cliff Street until I graduated college and married. I was the first to graduate college in my father’s family. During my childhood the apartments were usually filled with family.
My grandparents, Rocco and Sarina Adamo, came from Sicily. They left the island together without two children, grandfather’s son and grandmother’s daughter to follow later. I assume they left for a better life. However, lurking in my mind is the thought that they ran from something sinister that my writer’s imagine concocts and does not really know. They had two more children together in the United States. My father, Liborio and his sister, Camella.
My grandmother worked as a seamstress of children’s coats in the garment district in New York. I must have been about four when she made my sister and me green wool winter coats with leopard collars and cuffs and matching Dutch girl hats. My grandfather was a mason in his young life and later made a cleaning fluid which he sold up from a red wagon walking up and down the neighborhood. Both were great gardeners. In the small backyard and the fabulous in soil on the cliff, they grew tomatoes, peaches, cherries, figs, fragrant roses, peppermint, and a cacophony of chickens. At one time, they had a goat who lived in the empty lot of a few doors away. I don’t know if we eventually ate it.
My father lived in the house on Cliff Street until he passed away at 72 years old. He graduated from high school and became a barber. He was lucky enough to be classified 4F after drafted by the Army during World War II. He was honorably discharged due to flat feet which became life long discomfort while standing on his feet all day cutting hair. Lebo, my father was a community treasure. He was a volunteer fireman, a member of the Lions Club and an usher at St. John’s Catholic Church which sits catty-corner to his barber shop. I heard he never needed a car. All he had to do was start walking down Anderson Avenue and someone would offer him a ride. He was popular in our small town. He became Fire Chief and president of the Lions Club. He gave free haircuts and shaves to the GI’s. He took pictures of toddlers having their first haircuts. His barber shop thrived enough to pay for college for my sister and me. The house on Cliff Street was his stronghold. He never left. He held onto it like a tiger holds its prey. In her later years my mother did too.
We lived in the upstairs from apartment. My father’s widowed brother-in-law and his three sons lived upstairs in the back apartment. Our grandparents lived downstairs in the back looking over their garden, and after a friend moved out, my father’s cousins, Aunt Fanny and Uncle Tony moved in the front downstairs which they say was originally a dry goods store. Aunt Fanny, also a seamstress, fashioned baby hats. Mothers and godmothers, aunts, and friends of little girls begged her for hats. She always came through. Uncle Tony had a laundry delivery service for bars and restaurants. On New Year’s Eve they would come upstairs and play Bingo with us until midnight. They spoke Italian and English. Sometime when I was kissing my boyfriend goodnight in the vestibule, Uncle Tony would light his cigar in the hallway, I am sure he intended to signal us to cease and desist before he opened the door. I love that thought. I was charmed and really adored them both. I was fortunate enough to have them at my wedding and see some of my children.
Holidays in the House on Cliff Street were big and joyous with my father’s family. My mother would cook a huge family dinner. My uncles and cousins who lived in the back apartment and other cousins from Staten Island happily shared the meal of antipasto, lasagna with meat gravy, roasted turkey or breaded chicken parts, salad, vegetables, Italian bread fresh from Pedota’s bakery, and pastries and coffee for dessert.
The apartments were four rooms square, each only twelve by twelve feet. When company came we often set up tables from the kitchen into the living room or took down the bed and set up tables from the living room into the bedroom in our apartment or in the dining room in the back apartment. The cousins from Staten Island were a gregarious family of parents, two boys and two girls. My father enjoyed a close relationship with Uncle Lou and Aunt Mary were close. Uncle Lee as my father was called, was godfather to the oldest boy. I sometimes spent summer days in South Beach, Staten Island with them going to the beach in the daytime and amusement park in the evening. My favorite ride was the carousel and I loved trying to catch the brass ring. The swings that reach out over the sea were not. The youngest cousin was a girl and she was closest to my age We enjoyed sleepovers together either on Cliff Street or in South Beach. We slept in my parents’ bed. It’s odd, but I don’t remember where my sister and parents slept during those nights..
In my younger years my mother, uncle and cousin would have dinner with my grandparents in the basement of the apartment house. The big coal fired furnace warmed the place in the winter and the breeze from open windows and doors cooled the damp air. My cousin would carry me on his shoulder down to dinner. After my grandmother passed away, my mother cooked for my grandfather, uncle and the one son who stilled lived there. They ate with us every night until they moved to their own house. The youngest son married and moved to another town. Both these guys were my favorites. I often think they were like my big brothers. Sadly over the years we lost contract. A family dispute sharply cut the ties I thought would last forever.
My mother’s family is another story.
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