Everybody has people in their life who are like skin tags—unsightly, annoying, but not really life-threatening and easily ignored. Then there’s family; more specifically a large tightly-knit Italian family, where the only cure is intense therapy or total submersion. I was born into a family rooted to the borough of Fort Lee like goutweed—pervasive and impossible to remove. My maternal grandparents met and married in Fort Lee, and immediately began a population explosion. My mother was one of 10 Viola children; had my grandfather not died at a young age she would have probably been one of many more children. And those ten children, whose lives are indelibly etched into the character and history of old Fort Lee, left legacies nearly impossible for their children to live up to.
I was born into the pack of second-generation Viola’s—the grandchildren who overly-populated Fort Lee back in the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s—a time when families moved around, but never moved away. There were about 40 first-cousins who lived within a mile of my house and we saw each other almost daily—we were bonded by blood, proximity, and a four-foot-ten inch grandmother who left her enduring mark on each and every one of us old enough to remember her. We used to get the shakes whenever our parents said that Grandma was babysitting. Let’s face it; a woman widowed with ten children at the age of 37 who worked many jobs to keep her family together was not in the business of suffering whiny grandchildren. She did rub whiskey on our gums whether or not we were teething, but tough luck if you needed your diaper changed! In the ‘60’s, my older cousins actually had to work with her in one of the Fort Lee film labs. My cousin Charlie’s stories about “Working with Grandma” would rival every episode of Seinfeld.
Sundays bordered on the ridiculous, and it still amazes me that Grandma’s pot of sauce (not gravy) never went empty and her apartment in the Gnasso house, now the restaurant In Napoli, contained all our traffic. (Though, God as my witness, I’ll never eat another raisin and pignioli meatball again or sauce with pig knuckles—I always thought the pig was giving me the bare-knuckled finger!) The noise level from those Viola gatherings still ring in my ears—the laughter, the shouting; the jokes, the shouting; the conversation, the shouting. When Uncle Joey asked someone to pass the salt it sounded like an invitation to fight, his voice so thunderous it exploded in my ears. But as a family, we had to live loud—it was the only way to be heard.
There were definite advantages to being a part of such a large extended family. When I was three, my cousin Carol took me on her dates with Richie; my cousin Joey let me and my other cousins play in the engine room of Fort Lee Firehouse #1; my cousin Cheryl let me wear her make-up; my cousin Karen gave me all her “original” Barbie’s; and my cousin Danny, an outstanding Fort Lee football player in the early ‘70’s, would carry me on his padded shoulders onto the field after a home game win. It was the closest I ever came to being “cool.”
When you’re part of a family that big and that close, the lines between brother, sister, cousin blur. When one of us got into trouble, we were always aware and there. And boy, we’ve had our share. Being a Viola is like running with a gang. I remember in high school some boy was giving me a really hard time until someone mentioned that I was a Viola. Immediately his whole attitude changed and he treated me with respect. I realized then, that although I didn’t carry the Viola name, I carried with me the force of 40. It was the first real powerful moment of my life.
Time moves on, and so have we. Family gatherings are now intermittent weddings and too many funerals, but the force of 40 lives forever within me; always beside me; ever-present shadows on the streets of old Fort Lee.