Age of innocence


You know those words that open “Star Wars” — In a galaxy far, far away? As I look back through the years, that’s the way our neighborhood might look to you today, like a planet far, far away. Lives were much simpler back then. We might as well have been aliens to you young folks living today.

My Aunt Mary was and is a beautiful woman. I’m not just a nephew bragging on his aunt. And I’m not talking about any of that inner beauty stuff that people talk about when they’re describing someone who is bone ugly (“She does have a nice personality”). Mary was what they called a “looker” in her day, like the actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in her prime (except maybe Mary Elizabeth would come in second in a beauty competition with Aunt Mary).

Mary grew up in a home with five brothers. The goings on in that house would’ve made a good movie, the kind of black-and- white movie they made back in the late 1930s that you can find on Turner Classics Movies all the time starring James Cagney. The boys could be a real pain-in-the-neck trying to overprotect their beautiful sister.

Back in her teens, Mary had a secret crush on the movie actor Robert Taylor. You might be too young to remember Taylor, but he was a real heartthrob back then. Mary was a big fan of the movies. Her father was a barber, and he used to get free movie passes for the old Colonial Theater at 10th and Moyamensing Avenue. The Colonial was the purveyor of dreams, the place where kids gathered at Saturday matinees to root for the good guys and boo the baddies. The old movie theater is gone now like just about all of the neighborhood movie theaters, replaced by homes or discount drugstores. The Colonial was where Mary first “met” Taylor, at least met him on the movie screen.

She kept her crush from her brothers, who likely would only have teased her about it. One day she decided to write a letter to the actor, as young girls whose hearts are aflutter were wont to do. Even today, she can’t remember what she wrote to Taylor, just that it was not something she wanted to share with the rest of her family. Mary never mailed the letter. Maybe she had second thoughts about the propriety of writing to a big movie star (I’m not saying the contents were steamy because young girls like Aunt Mary did not do steamy back then). Maybe she just couldn’t find an address where to mail it. Whatever the case, her brother Pete, who was to become my father and the subject of some of these columns, found the letter.

Pete sensed danger in his sister’s letter. Why, she just might be thinking of running off to Hollywood to meet this Taylor guy! Pete ran and told their mother, Florence. She was a heavyset woman with a gold tooth that twinkled when she smiled (which she did often). Unlike in many Italian families of that day, Florence was the dominant figure in every way. Her husband Tony was a quiet man who deferred to her all the time, except at dinner where he preferred his fava beans cooked on the firm side. Florence was not a tough disciplinarian. She knew the boys sometimes took their role as protector a little too seriously. She settled for taking away Mary’s movie passes for that weekend.

For some reason, the movies had a way of causing unexpected problems for Mary. One afternoon at the Colonial, she watched with rapt attention when George Raft kissed Joan Bennett. Mary found that kiss the very definition of passion. She stayed to watch the movie over again to see that kiss (there were continuous showings back then). Mary lost track of time until she saw her brother Anthony walking down the aisle. Anthony was surprised to see his sister still in the movie theater.

It was already dark outside, and Mary knew she was not allowed out after dark alone. He warned his sister to get right home. But when Mary told her mother about that dreamy movie kiss, Florence didn’t have the heart to discipline her daughter. Likely she wished she had seen that kiss herself because she secretly thought that George Raft was wonderfully handsome.

Mary had a habit of staying in the bathroom too long to suit her brothers. There was only one in the house for eight people. Her brothers complained to their mother all the time about it. This one time, Pete really had a bathroom emergency. Unfortunately for him, Mary had a new ribbon that she had just placed in her lovely dark hair that day. She just kept staring in the mirror trying to make sure that her ribbon looked just right. Pete finally peeked through the keyhole and saw his sister dallying. He promptly reported Mary to his mother.

Pete learned a lesson that day from his mother: Never peek through a bathroom keyhole at your sister. To his surprise, he was the one who got into trouble. He didn’t quite understand why.

Aunt Mary must’ve looked really pretty with that ribbon in her hair. I think she still has a crush on Taylor. ■

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