Feb 14, 2023, 05:57AM

Vera and Us

The old outhouse still stood in the backyard but it was now just full of old paint cans.

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The last picture of the author's parents together.

Veronica Anne Hanlon was born in 1920, one of John and Mary Hanlon’s six children. John Jr., Rose, Frances, Peggy and Betty were her siblings. They grew up in Fairfield County, Connecticut with horses, chickens and a few other barnyard animals. The old farmhouse sat by a small railroad station parking lot on a street called Belmont Place, with the spare, brick ticketing building across the tracks in what had been a small fishing village called Rowayton, part of Norwalk. I vaguely recall seeing a huge pile of boards that had been the Hanlon barn. The old outhouse still stood in the backyard but it was now just full of old paint cans. My older brother Fred remembers when the bathroom toilet was put in and it was a big deal. Vera was what everyone called my mom, although a nickname in her Norwalk High School yearbook was “V.”

My dad, Fred Morelli Sr., was a late-in-life child after his parents, Joseph (Giuseppe) and Mary (Maria) Morelli lost their first son, Joseph Jr. to scarlet fever. Aunt (Bea) Beatrice and Aunt Alice were Dad’s older sisters. My grandfather Joe Morelli died 20 years before I was born, some years after he contracted Parkinson’s. As his condition worsened my dad quit school and got a job. My Italian grandfather had two markets at one time. A combination of his illness and the Great Depression resulted in losing the business. Dad worked many different jobs to support his mother and sisters. He could fix anything on a car, do plumbing and electric and had worked in his Pop’s market as well as other grocers.

Vera met my dad when they both worked in a factory and then were married, moved in with my widowed Italian Granny and started having kids. The house was on Webster Street in South Norwalk. Fred (Jr.) told me that the street was all 19th-century city houses. Ours had three stories with one of dad’s cousins on the third floor. The Morelli lot had a large garden in the back yard and fruit trees. The family owned a garage that was right behind the old telephone company building. The phone company rented it. There was a barn a few doors down and Fred played in it with another kid on the street. The Cluett, Peabody & Co. factory at the corner of Webster and Main Sts. manufactured Arrow shirts among other items. In the 1940s guys pushed carts downtown with fruit and vegetables and Fred told me of a “Rag Man” with a horse-drawn cart who bought and sold fabrics.

Born in 1949, I was the third kid after Fred and Mary Beth. The house in downtown South Norwalk was sold when my Irish twin brother Bill was born 17 months later. Dad bought an 1890s Victorian in Rowayton, right around the corner from Vera’s parents. At church or around town dad’s buddies would break his chops about moving to “God’s Country,” their semi-derisive term for Rowayton. It was becoming a bedroom community with access to the railroad station and several residents took the train to New York five days a week. My dad’s mom came with us on the move. The home sat halfway up a hill with a street running up that hill. Our driveway was halfway up and perpendicular to that street. The cellar was stone and mortar with a dirt floor. There was a wrap-around porch with stairs to the front door and a side entrance with small stairs that faced the driveway on the right side of the house. The first floor had a front living room, dining room, kitchen, small bedroom for Granny and a tiny hallway to the back door. The second floor had the master bedroom, a large second bedroom for us three boys with a closet, a third tiny bedroom for Mary Beth and a small bathroom with a tub.  There was a door that led to stairs to the third floor, the attic.

Vera organized family gatherings and settled family disputes. She was a tough Irish lass, about the same height as my dad. My earliest memory of mom was when I was around four and threatened to run away from home. She didn’t seem too upset and set about packing a few things for me. She then escorted me out the door to the back stoop. Another time I was shopping with my Mom and she discovered that I’d helped myself to some candy. We were outside when she saw it and was pissed. Vera marched me right up to the register where I told the man behind the counter that I had stolen the object and I apologized.

I remember roast beef dinners on Sunday afternoons, having guests over, picnics with the Morelli side of the family at Sherwood Island which was a wonderful state park in Westport, beach trips with my mom’s sister Betty, and occasional restaurant forays. All four of us kids had swimming lessons at Bailey Beach in Rowayton. Before it was called Playland, the amusement park in Rye, New York was simply called Rye Beach. We had picnics there, rode the roller coaster and enjoyed the funhouse. There was a slide you went down while sitting on a potato sack and when you sat on the benches an unseen mastermind would give you a shock.

That old Hanlon farmhouse that sat by the railroad station was the setting for Hanlon family holiday feasts and cookouts. Christmas and Thanksgiving always featured a huge turkey, stuffing, potatoes and other trimmings. My dad and all my uncles played pinochle into the night. On the 4th of July my Grampa’s handmade stone-and-mortar barbeque was loaded with charcoal and the grill was laden with hot dogs and hamburgers. My aunts made mounds of potato salad, macaroni salad, coleslaw, baked beans and several pies. Since my mom grew up in Rowayton she knew the backwoods—which are now all developed—well. She led us on hikes through the woods where we’d pick wild blueberries. I recall her blueberry cake and ginger bread with whipped cream. There was also a rhubarb patch behind the Hanlon homestead so strawberry rhubarb pie was a staple every year.

Grampa Hanlon made stuffed clams or a heap of fried smelt and told stories to whichever of his 16 grandchildren were listening. Grandma Mary Hanlon hadn’t walked since before I was born. Every one of my siblings and cousins called her Nana. I called her Grandma. She watched TV all day and she could swear up a storm for a woman her age. I have a feeling my mom did too although I have no recollection of it in the few memories I have of her. I vividly recall sitting with my grandma one day after school as she explained to me that a certain character on one of her soap operas was “screwing every guy on the show.”

So there we were in this old house with four kids, a granny and mom and dad. Mom juggled all this as well as her invalid mother around the corner. She cooked meals, cleaned house and did many other chores. With so much on her plate it’s no wonder that she smoked heavily. Mary Beth remembers the Pall Mall cigarette packs.

The big event of my early childhood was Aunt Betty’s wedding at a venue in Norwalk called Chatham Oaks. Betty was in her 30s, old for a single woman in the 1950s. Betty married a widower with three sons between high school and the mid-20s. It was a big bash with the entire extended Hanlon family on hand. I was about four.

I went to Rowayton Elementary School for kindergarten. My older siblings Fred and Mary Beth were already taking a bus across town to St. Josephs School, which was grades one through eight with no kindergarten. I remember that my mom often walked me to kindergarten as it was only about a mile away. Old Mrs. Griffith had a tiny store with groceries right down the street on Rowayton Ave. Further on down the road the Browns had a small grocery next to the White Bridge, which connected Darien and Rowayton. We often went the distance down the road because the bread was fresher at the Browns. We’d walk fast past Mrs. Griffith’s store on the way back. I had a good friend in kindergarten, Graham, who’d just come over from England with his parents. Our mothers hit it off and we wound up hanging out with each other all year. His mother made great hamburgers. Life was pretty good.

There was always somewhere to go and my mom was a social butterfly with friends and family. She was the organizer for the celebrations with the Hanlon clan as well as dad’s side of the family. Every morning as a tot I waved out the window with Bill as my dad drove off to work. My mom listened to Arthur Godfrey on the radio and watched him on TV.  I recall her ironing clothes while listening to the radio  Many years ago I heard “Blue Tango” on the radio and I remembered hearing it while my mom was ironing.

When it was time for first grade I started riding the bus to school with Fred and Mary Beth. It was a huge adjustment going to St. Joseph’s, starting with the nuns. They were called the Sisters of Mercy, but mercy was the last thing on their minds. My dad and his sisters all went to St. Joe’s. Boys wore blue trousers, a white shirt and a blue bow tie. The girls wore blue skirts and white blouses.  Although I did my best to be indifferent to education I came out of St. Joe’s literate and capable at math. The memories I have of first grade are blurred. My mom had a night job. She was around less and less. I remember moaning about missing her. Some of my older cousins babysat for us a few times and we were sometimes left with Grandpa, who loved having us around. My first recollection that something was wrong was when Fred, Mary Beth and Bill and I came home from school to find the door locked. When we looked in the window, my mom was lying on the floor of the dining room. Fred kicked in the door and called for help. I know now that the diagnosis was leukemia, which in the 1950s was a death sentence. Her condition worsened. Vera was losing her sight and Aunt Betty was having dinner with us one night when she announced she had a gift for our mother. Could anyone guess what it was? Mary Beth saw that the old washing machine had been moved and uncannily guessed a new washing machine.  Aunt Betty looked at her and declared “You little shit.” She guessed right.

Vera spent most of her time in the hospital. We’d visit and wave up to her at the window as she wasn’t allowed children visitors. We had everyone praying for her at St. Joe’s. The last time my mom got together with her family at Grandma and Grampa’s house somebody snapped her last picture sitting with my dad. Not long after that I woke up one morning with my dad sitting on my bed with a very sad look on his face. I heard my sister screaming “I want my mommy” from her room. Bill and Fred were shook up. I just sat there and stared ahead. We lost my mother when I was in second grade. Within a few days one group of cousins and an aunt or two went through our house and made off with a lot of our mom’s clothes and jewelry. Dad was in mourning and we were too young to do anything about it. My sister saw one of our cousins later and remarked that she was wearing one of our mother’s dresses. She showed Mary Beth her watch and noted that it was also once my mom’s. I never heard about any of this until years later.

It seemed we spent a week at our grandparents’ house after the funeral and I recall a cousin saying I’d probably have to live in an orphanage. I believed him and cried the first tears for my mom. I have no memory now of her voice or mannerisms. Our lives changed dramatically. We were latchkey kids. Granny moved in with Aunt Bea and Uncle Dick. She died a few months after my mom. It was a tough year for Pops. At the time he worked at an auto parts store and then he managed a warehouse for an auto parts distributor. None of our lives were ever the same again. Dad was a good Catholic who became more zealous in his faith after losing his wife and mother within a few months. We went to church every Sunday where we saw our cousins and the St. Joe’s crowd. The family outings stopped. We never had guests over for dinner again. Bill and I figured out how to cook eggs, pancakes and grilled cheese when we got tired of crackers or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We all learned to wash our clothes and iron them.

A few years later my Dad mortgaged the house and bought a delicatessen and we all worked there. It was a pretty good way for Dad to keep an eye on us guys. Until he retired, Dad worked seven days a week there and Fred, Bill and I worked until we finished high school. My siblings and I did well and that’s a testament to my dad holding it all together. My life has been easy in comparison. Dad was always reacting to things. It seemed his whole life he was ambushed by one thing or another and my Mom’s passing was the crusher. Naturally, I feel that Vera was cheated. She never saw her kids grow up. I’ve no idea what would’ve been different had Mom lived. Dad would’ve had help dealing with my slack-ass attitude toward school. I floated through school until I got drafted into the Marines.

I’ve been influenced by many people and events in my life. I can’t deny that Mom’s death had much to do with the product of me but can’t put a number on it. I have a soft spot for kids who lose their moms and can’t stand to see a kid disrespect their mother.  


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