Dr. Ed is back. In between trips to Italia, sips of espresso, heaping plates of Bolognese pasta, gatherings with friends and, yes, an occasional game of golf, Edward Iannuccilli has managed to write another charming book about growing up in an Italian American family in the 1940s and 1950s. What Ever Happened to Sunday Dinner? and Other Stories is a gem, a must-read for anyone longing for simpler days or an escape from our turbulent times.
If Ed’s name sounds familiar, it should. A retired gastroenterologist, he’s a former chairman of the board at Rhode Island Hospital. He’s also a member of that distinguished club of physician writers. The man can turn a phrase, evoke a tear or two and make you smell the meatballs sizzling in garlic and olive oil on the rear burners of his grandmother’s Barstow Stove.
I wrote about Ed two years ago following the release of his first book, Growing Up Italian: Grandfather’s Fig Trees and Other Stories, which also vividly describes his childhood in Providence’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, where he roamed the streets in his high-top Keds searching for the next big adventure that he would happily conceal from his loving parents. In his time, kids were expected to wander — and they did.
Ed and I met for coffee one snowy day back then and hit it off. He’s a friendly and gracious man who is thrilled — and a little amazed — that he has found a second career as a writer.
After he retired in 2001, he submitted an essay to The Providence Journal about his childhood. To his delight, the paper published it. Brimming with confidence, Ed sat down at his walnut desk and wrote more essays, all compiled in his first book.
The essay in Growing Up Italian about Vincent Troiano, Ed’s grandfather, burying his fig trees to preserve them for the spring is one of his best, a touching portrait of immigrant life in America. Vincent would dig a ditch by the tree, wrap cloth around the trunk, pull the tree into the ground and then cover the grave with dirt, leaves and boards. Peering down to the snowcovered garden from his window, Eddie imagined he was looking at the hump of a sleeping elephant.
Over the years, Ed and I have kept in touch. His first book was such a huge success – he sold 5,000 copies in a few months – he realized that he might be on to something. He discovered that people were drawn to personal essays about an America that seemed less harried and impersonal than it is today.
Ed says it best in his preface in Sunday Dinner: “Growing up in a neighborhood of family and friends was a journey to cherish. That neighborhood and the people living, working and playing there, though from diverse ethnic backgrounds, ha strong traditions of family, caring and mutual respect. I am grateful for the simplicity of the time.’’
He was raised in an enormous three decker on Wealth Avenue, with his family – his parents and younger brother, Peter – on the third floor; his grandparents and great-grandfather on the second and his aunt and her family on the first. Laughter and the smell of brewing coffee filled every corner. I see Ed racing up the well-swept back staircase to taste his grandmother’s “gravy,’’ or pasta sauce; I see him praying at night to a picture of baby Jesus – “the Infant of Prague’’ – on his bedroom wall; I see him playing hide-and-seek on summer evenings, using the streetlight as a base.
Ed’s new book gives us more sweet details about his idyllic life. This curlyhaired towhead who used Emu shoe polish to make his Buster Browns shine, loved Holloway’s Milk Duds, Peter Paul Mounds, Root Beer Barrels, Oreos, Nehi soda, and Hoodsies, whose covers he licked clean to reveal pictures of movie stars.
He loved the smell of the inkwells, library paste and oiled wood floors in his public school, a short walk from home. Grab bag day at The Outlet was a highlight of his week. He hated waking up early on weekend mornings to deliver the newspaper, but liked dressing up in his pressed white shirt and bow tie for Sunday dinners. His favorite TV program was the Howdy Doody Show, sponsored by Hostess, maker of his favorite snack, the Twinkie. He wore out the 78 rpm of Jack and the Beanstalk. His cousins jitterbugged to big band tunes on the RCA Victrola.
In the summer, he cooled under a sprinkler (such simplicity!) or at Waterman’s Lake in North Smithfield. The Woonasquatucket River in Olneyville, smelling of leather and metal, was his swimming hole. He made balls from hot tar scrapped off streets and killed rats at the local dump with his slingshot.
He played baseball with tapedup balls on a sandlot at Valley Street Playground and spied on teenagers kissing in the “big barn,” a decrepit garage owned by a grumpy old man. On sticky nights, he caught fireflies.
His bike, a maroon and silver Monark Rocket Royal with sleek red, white and blue streamers on its handlebars, filled his 10-year-old belly with butterflies when he found it by the blue spruce Christmas morning. The fenders glimmered with chrome. The horn honked with one squeeze. It had a kickstand.
“My bike had nothing but speed,’’ Ed writes. “I rode it everywhere; on the neighborhood’s streets, to the brook, to sandlots, rivers and stores, pedaling with little effort. There were no boundaries. My world opened up beyond the neighborhood, and I explored.’’
His remembrances during those long hours away from home on The Rocket under the spread-out sky gave us two wonderful books. Alone, far from hovering grownups, the little boy’s imagination soared. He stored those memories away, until now. We should all be so lucky.