A snapshot-in-words of life in an Italian enclave on Detroit’s East Side in the 40s and 50s.

Dear Mamo:

How’re you doing? I haven’t seen you since grade school. I think about you from time to time. Especially when I tell my kids stories about you and the old neighborhood. How things were in our grade school seventy years ago when we used WWII knapsacks for school bags. We called our neighborhood, Cagalupo. It’s hard to explain what it was, what it meant. It’s a place where we lived—where the street cars made a loop (car-a-loopo for the old Italians). It was an Italian ghetto in a blue-collar neighborhood.

It was a safe place. At least it felt safe and secure with relatives, friends or a well-known storekeeper on every block within a square mile. Although I have to admit that you were a source of terror for me and my friends. “Gonna get you after school…” would have us quaking in our seats all afternoon. Well, you were thirteen-years old in the fifth grade. No wonder we were scared.

You gave the poor nuns a hard time too. Sometimes I wonder if they saw them­selves as missionaries—Polish nuns teaching in a predominantly Italian parish. Sister Stella, one of the Felician nuns I remember most fondly, would occasionally share her thoughts with us. “Mario”, she remarked one day, “you give me gray hair. Every night I look in the mirror and see more gray hair.” We all stared with our mouths open—nuns have hair?

Then there was the time she had to diplomatically ask you not to sing at daily Mass because your voice was chang­ing. She must have laughed under her wimple (if she had the sense of humor I suspect she had) the time she set you up with, “Mario, do you mind when someone calls you a dago?”  You an­swered, “Sister, I don’t mind when another dago calls me a dago, it’s when a dumb Polack calls me a dago that I get mad.”

It was obvious that you had trouble with school. But I wonder if you weren’t pretty smart after all. I mean, there was me, one of the smart kids in the class, but I took everything the priests and nuns told us very seriously: the ranks of angels—cherubim and seraphim, personal guardian angels, anti-communism, saying short prayers (ejaculations…so called) throughout the day, buying mission babies and especially all the guilt and fear about impure thoughts and deeds, about dying in the ‘state of sin’ and going to hell. I bet you didn’t worry about all that—at least not very much. I bet you weren’t scrupulous, playing the rules of casuistry over and over in your mind trying to somehow prove to yourself that some imaginary sin wasn’t really a sin. You were dumb enough to take all those warnings and rules as nice suggestions and move on with your life. It took me many years to catch up to you.

Looking back on that school as an adult, it must have been hard on those dedicated women who taught us. Do you remember that we had forty-eight kids in our eighth-grade class—all in one room with no gym, no recess? And the priests. The daily Masses at 7:40 and 8:20. The ‘Praised be Jesus Christ, good morning, Father’, shouted in unison whenever the priest visited the classroom. The First Communions with all the little girls in white dresses and boys in blue suits and white-ribbon arm bands carrying lilies in a procession around the church.

When you think about it, the priests used the First Communion routine to get non-practicing families back to church. And there were plenty of those parents around. For them, religion was part of their heritage. They were born Italian. They were born Catholic…‘and don’t you forget it’. But they only stopped for religion at important crossroads of their lives.

The priests knew who they were dealing with. The devout parents—no problem. The other ones needed a little friendly persuasion. Parents were expected to flank their first-communion-child at the altar rail and if they didn’t want to look bad in front of their friends they had to go to confession and receive communion even if they hadn’t done so since their wedding. Smooth move by our old-school Italian pastor, Father Anthony—playing nominal Catholicism against family pride.

The priests and nuns had their work cut out for them in the parishes of Cagalupo. And when they weren’t dealing with the generation that came directly from the old country, they were trying to change the religious attitudes and practices of the second and third generations—us—by making sure we had the education, the attitudes, the kind of self-control we needed to make a decent life for ourselves and our kids to come. I wonder if the priests and nuns thought about their churches, their schools, their boys’ clubs, altar societies and parish outings as ways to make whole groups of people otherwise isolated and ostracized in the larger society, feel part of a larger group in which they were an important element?

Hey Mamo, none of us belonged to a country club, not even the YMCA (a Protestant organization), right?  But we had our parish with its boy’s club that met on Monday nights. We cut out plywood figures with jig saws and painted them. We wrestled and ran in the gym. Mainly we got out of the house to give our mothers a break. On Tuesday and Thursday we practiced basketball with vol­unteer coaches. One season we even got matching T-shirts and played four games against other parish teams—our answer to organized sports.

And we had paper drives. And we had a Christmas pageant every year. And each spring the whole school took buses to Walled Lake Amusement Park for a day. Remember? Altar boys got free tickets, priests wore sport shirts, nuns took rides in a Chris Craft on the lake and I re­member holding hands with Marie Miller in the spooky house.

Parishes. If you wanted to belong, you had something to belong to. If someone asked where you went to school, you said, “St. Joe” and they knew it wasn’t St. Jude, nor worse yet the public schools—A.L. Holmes and Burroughs. The parish was an important part of Cagalupo. It centered a lot of energy and in turn shaped us for later life.

As a kid, didn’t it seem that the parish, the school, the neighborhood and our relatives all ran together?  And why not?  On any given May evening I might collect cousins who lived across the street and walk to church for a rosary and benediction. On the way, we could stop at any of five different corner stores for penny candy. I could wave to Uncle Leo who lived on Isham, Uncle Tony on Peter Hunt, Uncle Jim on Rohns. After church, I could hang out with classmates, stop at a friend’s house…maybe say ‘hi’ to Gramma.

On Sunday after church, my Dad used to shop at Ventimiglia’s. How about that store? There were snails in wicker baskets, bananas hanging in bunches next to dried oregano and garlic, barrels of olives and bins full of roasted chick peas. And across the street was the fish and chicken market—live chickens waiting in cages to be selected, dispatched, plucked and dressed. In those pre-TV days that was a lot of enter­tainment—smells, sounds, blood and gore. Well, maybe not for you. I was easily entertained. Next block was the Spada cheese company where they made ricotta cheese. Who needed supermarkets? A person could find everything within a couple of blocks—hardly more distance than a good-sized jumbo mart today.

Did your grandfather belong to the Italian-American club? That was much more important than church for my grandfather. As often as he could, he would walk over to see his buddies to play briscola or pinochle by the hour. It was a place where a man could feel at home, or at least remember something of home, far away in the old country.

But now my grandfather is gone, as are his friends. The club is no longer. The ghetto moved north, the other side of Eight Mile Road, to Harper Woods and Roseville and St. Clair Shores. Ventimiglia’s followed. The corner stores closed. My uncles have passed on. My grandma’s house on Georgia was razed. Our classmates became architects, teachers, FBI agents, priests, ex-priests and who knows what else.

The church has been converted into a non-denominational congregation. The pastor who had so lovingly brought statues from Italy and had angels painted in the arches would be revolted by the current state of the property. In its prime, there was a grade school, a high school, a gym, a rectory for the three priests and a convent for the fourteen Felician nuns. The fence post next to the convent drive way is still bent where my mother backed into it, years ago, but the convent itself—once a place of cloistered serenity and whispering robes is now agape—doors and windows opening on garishly painted rooms.

The whole neighborhood, as we knew it, is gone.

So, Mamo, I don’t know if I would recognize you if I saw you. Or your sister Rose, for that matter. And I don’t think we could ever go back to the way things were, even if everything could have stayed the same over the years. I wouldn’t be afraid of you beating me up, I’m guessing, because at our age, three years older means just the opposite than it did then. And I know I could correct some of the facts-of-life you taught us in the boy’s bathroom. But that whole time and place called Cagalupo is gone. It was a rich experience. I’m glad we were part of it. It’s sad that my kids couldn’t experience it. But it’s gone and we’ve moved on.

All the best,

Joe Novara


5 thoughts on “A Letter to Mamo

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