Once Upon a Sunday: Sundays in Rockaway 1940s-50s

 Once Upon a Sunday: Sundays in Rockaway 1940s-50s

By Jean Caligiuri McKenna

Once upon a time, Sunday in America was a vastly different day from all the other days of the week. In spite of its tradition as a day for rest and leisure, at one time, there were no professional baseball games played on Sunday, no Broadway shows scheduled, no alcohol sales permitted, and with few exceptions, no stores opened for business. Though some of these edicts were relaxed by the latter 1940s, there was still an accustomed sabbatical rhythm to the day across communities from Queens to the Bronx. In Rockaway, the distinctive hush of Sunday morning emitted the quiet calm of an autumn day on the boardwalk, its stillness reflected in the darkened storefront windows along Rockaway Beach Boulevard. The normally bustling shoe repairs, tailors and barbershops (Papa’s included), along with Simon’s Hardware, Maskin’s Men Clothing, and Harold’s Jewelry were shuttered, with only Greenberg’s candy store, Samuel’s Pharmacy, Cott’s grocery and several bakeries open for a few hours.

The two staples of the day, however, centered on family and going to Mass, which everyone seemed to attend. Churches from Far Rockaway to Belle Harbor all held services on the hour from 8 a.m. to noon, and whether for worship, social aims, or by plain habit, going to Mass on Sunday was something you just did. With St. Rose of Lima just across the street from our house, my mother would always go to 8 a.m. Mass so she could return early to begin the day’s cooking. Before leaving, she made sure to wake me so I would be dressed in time to go by myself to the 9 o’clock Mass, which was referred to as the ‘Children’s Mass’, as all youths were expected to be there. To my friends and me, the church’s vaulted ceiling murals and echoing liturgies in Latin gave all the air of a High Mass. Obediently, we would respectfully sit upright in the pews looking straight ahead, (no talking) under the scrutiny of the elder usher ready to hush us at an eyelash notice. Though inside the church was serious business, the social intermingling outside after Mass had all the jovial spirit of a town square gathering. There was always a feel-good release of goodwill in the air as the exiting and incoming parishioners all flocked the sidewalk in commingling unison. Engaging families, young couples, children, and the elderly altogether formed a flowing atmosphere of friendly chatter.

On pleasant weather days, amidst the foot traffic and parking frenzy, visiting drivers could sometimes be treated to an unofficial traffic director. Lussendrino, an elderly, slightly off-kilter, eccentric man, whom my father had taken in at one time to look after, would stand in the middle of the wide street waving a walking stick in all directions above his snow-white hair at the parade of arriving and departing cars. Attired in white suit, red carnation, and sunglasses, he would “guide” the autos by wielding his cane in the air like a conductor’s baton, yelling in Italian at the honking cars, all to the amusement of by passers who knew he was harmlessly “off his rocker”.

After soaking in this festive humanity, a few of my chums and I would scurry to the boulevard to release our pent-up morning silence. With adolescent exuberance we would briefly catch up on gossip and banter in front of Piazza’s Bakery, sometimes huddling in its doorway on rainy or blustery days, before hastily heading back home to our families for lunch.

Despite the varied weather and seasons, in my memories it is always sunny on these Sundays after Mass in the late 40s and early 50s. In our house at 171 Beach 84th Street, Mama would always have a pot of hot coffee on the stove prepared with her Sunday specialty “chocolate pudding graham cracker pie topped with whipped cream.” I would always look forward to my older brother, George, and his wife, Catherine, stopping in with my young nephews and niece to enjoy the tasty lunchtime desserts and chat with Mama and Papa in the kitchen. To the background sounds of a ballgame on the radio, my big brother and I would sometimes sit at the living room window, basking in the lively comings and goings of the parishioners across the street. Not only was it a comforting connection to the community, but also a front row seat to a “Sunday-Best” fashion show. Gazing at the passing throngs, we would play a game of picking out the best dressed among the gallery of attractive ladies in kid gloves, colorful kerchiefs, elegant hats and spring coats as well as the men in their dapper suits and fedoras. The vitality of the day would center on these simple pleasures until around 12:30 or 1 o’clock when the last Mass ended. Though many Italian family homes, like my friend Nikki’s, made their Sundays an all-day feast event, Sunday dinner time in my house was always a simpler affair after 5 o’clock. This gave me a good 4 or 5 hours to meet with my pals and leisurely pass the afternoon at the movies on Beach 81 St. (or Playland in the summer) until it was time to return home to complete my Sunday ritual with a welcoming hearty supper of spaghetti and meatballs or roasted chicken, potatoes and escarole.

As I got a little older after high school, my social Sundays shifted to evenings after dinnertime, as my girlfriends and I would bus to the RKO Strand on Central Avenue in Far Rockaway, then to Pickwick’s ice cream parlor or the Greek diner on Mott Avenue for hamburgers and Cokes. In these later years, I’d contently spend the afternoons at home with Mama while she cooked for dinner. On one serene Indian summer afternoon after Mass around 1954, an older woman, whom I occasionally would see wearily walking alone past our house in the boardwalk’s direction, paused at my front gate to share some cordial small talk with me. Knowing her only as Mary, I felt sorry for her and on a whim (with Mama’s okay), invited her inside for a cup of coffee, which she happily accepted. As she slowly walked up the sturdy but creaking wooden porch, I studied her white hair and ruddy complexion while guiding her inside to the kitchen where my mother was preparing Sanka instant coffee (‘Instanta’ she called it). Sitting at the table together, we exchanged light pleasantries as she enjoyed the fresh hot coffee, an omelet and a nice piece of crumb cake, while dividing her amiable glances between me, and Mama standing at the sink. Behind her pleasing Irish blue eyes, I sensed a loneliness about her, as she wasn’t married and had no family to speak of. That didn’t seem to dampen our time together, and as we all stood on the porch to say goodbye, she smiled and humbly thanked us for our fellowship before unhurriedly resuming her Sunday stroll up the block towards the beach.

I don’t recall ever seeing Mary again after that Sunday afternoon, and had no idea where she lived, but she did leave a brief heartfelt note in our mailbox a short time later thanking Mama and me for with “filling her emptiness” with “warmth and light.” That unassuming visit would always serve as a poignant remembrance of the Sundays of my youth, when the manic topsy-turvy of everyday would ease to a gentle halt, yielding to simpler serenities of prayer, togetherness, good food and time well spent. Slowing the clock’s tick with an idyllic cadence, the unfailing “warmth and light” of Sunday could always be counted on to bountifully make ordinary hours a little more extraordinary, kindness and charity a little more contagious, and a slice of crumb cake a little bit sweeter!

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