One of my favorite features of this family cookbook I’m writing (besides the recipes, themselves) is the collection of stories from family members. Usually, they’re short anecdotes that I relay in the context of a specific recipe. But, sometimes the stories have special significance, so they deserve their own space and to be told in the voice of the original storyteller. This is one of them, written by my dad, just in time for cherry season:
I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut during the early 1950’s. My family rented the lower floor of a triple-decker in a lower middle-class, ethnic neighborhood in “the Hill.” Originally called Sodom’s Hill, it was initially the Irish section of town before the Irish moved on and the neighborhoods were turned over to the newer Italian and German immigrants. My childhood address, 163 Spring Street, was very much a part of the Italian community, which was centered on Columbus Avenue about four blocks away, with its beautiful parish church, Sacred Heart.
Our landlords were a wonderfully ethnic Italian family known as the Mell’s. The house itself was a wonder to me, with its high ceilings and wood floors. The stove in the large kitchen was huge and had a very large vent pipe (according to my parents, that was the way Santa Claus got into the house since we had no fireplace). My sister and I shared a bedroom with a walk-in closet, long before we thought it was anything special. The cellar was old and unfinished, and one of the highlights of the day was evening time when my Dad took me down to put coal in the old coal-burning furnace. TV was an old black and white nine-inch RCA set and the memories of my donning a red towel around my neck and flying around the living room during and after “The Adventures of Superman” are still vivid.
Outside, a very long driveway ran to the left of the house. It continued on past the main yard and Mrs. Mell’s vegetable garden before widening out to a gravel-surfaced area leading to a three-car garage, a chicken coop, and a rabbit hutch. I, of course, assumed that the Mell’s chickens and rabbits were pets, and I loved to help feed them. Near the garden was an ornate birdbath that I would fill to overflowing whenever someone would be nuts enough to give me the hose.
Past the garden, two white stone blocks bordered the driveway. They appeared to be crude benches, but Mr. Mell told me the terrible, secret truth: they were the tombs of Mr. and Mrs. Mussolini! Back then, I didn’t know who the heck the Mussolinis were or why they were buried in the Mell’s yard, but I knew they must be important, for just to the left of one of the “tombs” was a very large and very old cherry tree. It was the only cherry tree in the entire neighborhood, to the best of my knowledge. It seemed so out of place as it towered over the more typical elms and chestnuts.
For most of the year, the tree was like any other on the property. Since I was too young for climbing, trees were just obstacles to be avoided while motoring around on a tricycle or pedal toy car. Then, in the spring of 1951, something enchanted happened. Roger Mell, the landlord’s eldest son, climbed the tree and began raining bright red cherries down on to the ground. At first, my sister and I didn’t quite know what to make of it all. But Roger invited us to help ourselves and we did. We gorged on the juicy, fresh cherries, laughing out loud and running around, grabbing them off the freshly cut lawn as Roger threw some here, some there, so we all got a share. My sister and I competed for who got the most. She was bigger, but I was quicker, and we both got all we could eat.
The tree became my treasure. I became so protective of it that I once rashly challenged some high school kids who were picking cherries from the branches that had grown over the fence into the next yard. Thank goodness it was 1953 or those kids would have found a way to stuff me into Mussolini’s tomb!
To this day, I have never tasted cherries as good or as fresh as that. I spent the whole year waiting, often pelting poor Roger with the hopeful question, “Is it time, yet?” I was afraid he wouldn’t remember, but he did. The cherry festival went on every spring for a few more years and was as anxiously anticipated as Christmas or my birthday.
My last memory of the cherry tree is circa 1955, when our family was evicted so the Mell’s newly married daughter could move into the apartment. Still, it’s hard to be mad at them: they gave me something worth remembering for a lifetime!
New Haven, Connecticut
Next Recipe: Italian Cream Pie
(Previous Recipe: Pignoli Cookies)