It sat on the stove, a battered and stained pot aromatic with the aroma of deep, dark stability.
It was wartime, so sometimes it was coffee. Most times it was chicory, but it was a constant presence in the kitchen of Lucy Caniano, always brewing and open to the many people who would stop by to share a cup.
Her mother and father were from Naples. But she took pride in that she was American born. The older Italian neighbors not so long separated from their old country awarded her the title of, “Una donna di rispetto.” A woman of respect. This was quite an accomplishment in the tiny enclave of Corona. But those most familiar with her called her, “Coffee Pot Lucy.” Her kitchen stood like a church or a town hall of old. The focus of all activity in the “quartiere.” She was a fixer, a “Fissatore.” And the people on her block came to her with their problems and requests, knowing she would have an answer or lend a helping hand.
She served as a reader and writer for those friends of hers who neither spoke nor read English. They would come to her and she would spend the day reading letters from their sons far away in the war. For those who could not write, Lucy would compose a response to their missives. Always ending them with the sender’s signature, a plaintive plea to be careful and the invocation of the Blessed Virgin. The top of the letter always contained the inscription “JM&J,” an often-used acknowledgement to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
The young girls and the married women whose men were overseas would also come to her with certain delicate matters. Problems that would cause them to be cast out in dishonor and disgrace or worse. Lucy knew people and would make the arrangements quietly. No questions were asked so no answers were given and life went on.
There were those awful days when a green sedan with U.S. Army stenciled on the side would come down the street. They would stop at a neighbor’s house. Two officers would alight from the car and knock on the door, ramrod straight in their uniforms to deliver crushing news. A son would not be coming home. The wailing would echo up and down the block. Some would hide behind their curtains averting their eyes hoping by not bearing witness to this terrible caravan, it would never visit them.
Lucy would marshal the parade of husbands in their dark Sunday suits, somber in their sorrow. The wives, also clad in black, stood behind them. They would march in like a line of crows bringing plates and pots of food as offerings. As if to say “We eat! We live! We will remember but we must go on!” They would then leave the family to face their new reality. One less dish to place on the dinner table. An empty chair diminishing them all by one. Lucy would linger until they were all gathered to make sure they ate.
There were other practical things she did in her position as padrona in her tight knit community. She was an unseeable investor in the health and well-being of those around her. She would scrimp together money from the meager funds her husband would give to her. All the while hiding it from him.
Small loans would be made to those in need. A child needed new shoes; newspaper stuffed in the bottoms long since worn away. Or for an overdue rent payment, the amount to pay just out of reach, the bleak inevitability of the landlord behind every tap on the door. Her door was always open and, aside from the ever-present coffee, pasta and gravy would be simmering in her kitchen or a crusty loaf of bread or biscotti would be handy for those that were hungry.
It was from this home that she had made for her husband and four children that many more stories would flow. And, it was only through fate and happy circumstance that I came to know these tales, some sad, most joyous, that would go back to her youth and then onward until all was finished, and she could rest.
J.A. McNally served as a medic in the United States Air Force Medical Service. He went on to a forty-five-year career in the health care field. He has traveled extensively in the United States and Europe.