The love of family
The Smithwicks of 55th Street in Brooklyn were a fierce bunch. Mary Ann and Benjamin Smithwick had seven children, three girls and four boys. Six lived into adulthood.
The first-born boy died when he was four of a mysterious disease that his sisters, my Aunts Mina and Lucy called Marasmus. Only toddlers themselves when this occurred, they remembered a doctor advising alternating hot and cold baths as the treatment for the malady. The doctor charge $4 a visit, a veritable fortune in those days. Four dollars for a prescription of dubious value.
One wonders how the other three males survived. But survive they did. Each was quick witted, well read, opinionated and ready to defend whatever position an opinion created. Gatherings of the Smithwick siblings or any combination thereof, were only for the strong minded.
They excelled at sarcasm, making it the back beat of their “discussions.” You had to have a thick skin to be a part of this group. Despite their spirited and sometimes acrimonious conversations, they would as fiercely defend and go to the ends of the earth for each other. As individuals or a group they were there to help with a sick child, celebrate a wedding, mourn a passing loved one or renovate a newly purchased home. God forbid anyone outside the family who criticized a sibling.
My Dad was the dapper one of the boys. He wore a suit to work every day, complete with a natty top coat and fedora hat as the weather dictated. He didn’t go to college. He only finished two years of high school.But he was widely read and aspired to be something more. We didn’t have much of anything in our house, but we did have a Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedia that sat proudly on a shelf over the washing machine in our kitchen.
My Dad was good with his hands, could build a sunny day if asked. So many of our toys were made on his work bench in the basement, everything from doll cribs to strollers to magical scooters made from discarded pallets and old roller skates. He was a lover of music but didn’t play, unlike his siblings, any instruments. He loved to sing and I have strong memories of participating in four-part harmony as we drove from Brooklyn to Lake Carmel. “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” was the anthem of our little family.
My father was the recipient of the second strangest name in the bunch. His older brother who died young was named Publius. Daddy was Marinus. Odd names for anyone, they were especially suspect in an Irish Catholic family which was supposed to name their offspring after saints. It was only recently when searching Google that I discovered that my Dad and his brother were named after saints, one from Malta and the other from Italy. How Cosmopolitan! Especially for a family that lived in cold water flats in Brooklyn, and it may help confirm a family legend that Benjamin Smithwick, my grandfather, spoke eight languages … or not.
My Uncle Chris, the youngest of the boys was the shortest, the one with curly hair, an infectious laugh, an angelic singing voice and a collection of funny stories that didn’t end. He inherited the Smithwick talent for music and could play any tune on the piano without written notation, crediting something called the “Wind Method” for his prowess.
He was also the first of the boys to move away from Brooklyn. He took his family to Patchogue where he lived in a suburban house totally unlike the row houses on 55th Street. We would visit Uncle Chris and Aunt Agnes as if we were visiting another country, almost expecting them to speak another language. He was kind, gentle, warm and he was my godfather who walked me down the aisle on my wedding day.
I never did know what my Uncle Chris did for a living, but my Uncle Joe, the oldest of the boys, was a lithographer… in modern parlance, a printer. He was the tallest, the one with the most nasal sounding voice and the one who cared less about the approval of others in or outside of the family. Uncle Joe and Aunt Jane lived across the street, three houses away from my Dad’s sister Aunt Mina and her husband, Uncle Mike.
In those days there was no preface or preparation for entering a relative’s house. Maybe you might ring the bell or knock on the door or just poke your head in the door before entering, but being in and out of your family’s homes was as natural as being in your own. Uncle Joe’s house was, like Uncle Joe, unique.
There was almost no furniture in the house. Most of my father’s relatives were rather spare in their approach to decorating. We, for instance only had three small faux paintings in the living room and two knickknacks. That was it. But we had chairs and a radio and a rug. In Uncle Joe’s house, there was a sofa in the living room, a table and chairs in the kitchen and that was it. No rugs, no side chairs, certainly no pictures on the walls. And, according to the lore shared around my Aunt Mina’s kitchen table, little housework was done as evidenced by the dirty floors and dusty window sills. The Smithwicks were, if not forgiving, observant.
This was an active household with five children…all, by the time I was wandering into their home, were adults. All of them lived at home and all had active social lives. The boys in that branch of the family were exceptionally athletic. It was the story of my cousin Alan’s ski injury, described by my mother and aunts in great gory detail that has linked that sport in my mind with the word maim as in really big ouch. Alan and his younger brother, Joseph became New York City Fireman.
Uncle Joe, Aunt Jean and the five children moved out to Canarsie to the most exciting house my child’s mind could imagine. The rest of the family had mixed feelings. It was located close to the waters of Jamaica Bay. They moved into, and Uncle Joe was so proud to have been able to find one, a war surplus Quonset hut, a half circle shaped house with a corrugated metal roof. Outfitted with real rooms and furniture, it was a big departure from their rental on 55th Street. In addition to the Quonset hut, Uncle Joe had acquired a storage shed in which he kept his shoe collection which Aunt Jean had made him keep in the cellar of their house on 55th Street. Uncle Joe would haunt the garbage dumps looking for “still good” shoes and over time had collected more than a hundred pair, none of which fit him. We all have our idiosyncrasies.
I often wondered at the patience of Aunt Jean, but I do remember that, at my wedding, when Uncle Chris was my Dad’s stand in, Uncle Joe came and honored me by, as my Great Aunt Gen, told me later, “Joe put in his false teeth for your wedding, something he only does for important occasions.”
Ah, family. Love them all
Nov 16, 2018
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Nov 16, 2018