Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Puppets

My aunt, uncle and Naunie volunteered for a clinic for kids from inner city neighborhoods in New York City for many, many years.  I remember visiting there when I was a little girl.  My aunt worked in the office and handled a lot of administrative things.  My uncle ran a drama club and had the kids perform plays.  And my Naunie taught sewing classes.

The clinic was held on Saturdays at a community center type place in Queens.  The kids were often unruly and disruptive and not well-behaved.  They were loud and silly.  The adults would all complain about the kids' attitudes and the disruptions.  But my Naunie would say, "Gah, they are good kids.  They are fine.  They are nice kids."

They all thought she was just being kind, big-hearted, which would both have easily been words anyone would have used to describe my Naunie.

One day, they looked in while she was teaching this group of rowdy, inner-city girls from a gang-populated, tough neighborhood.  My Naunie sat in the middle of the circle, speaking softly and all the girls were leaning in, quiet as mice to hear her.  They were trying their best to do what she said.  They looked up to her.  She was patient and kind, she spoke softly and they listened.  She had a way about her that let you know she had lived a hard life, leaving her family at 17 to cross an ocean, never to see her parents again; she had loved a man who died too young; her marriage had been arranged by her brothers-in-law and she had lost three babies to illness; she had survived the Great Depression and many other smaller, personal financial hardships.  And yet she was not bitter, she was kind, she was patient, she was understanding of these boisterous teens.  She had a lot of love in her and these young people felt it.

One of the many legacies my Naunie left is The Puppets.

The Puppets were created for the clinic puppet shows that my uncle used to co-ordinate finding scripts and having the kids practice and memorize lines and learn to use the puppets.

They did Robin Hood and Scrooge and Joan of Arc, among many others.

When I was a little girl, The Puppets were kept in a drawer in a spare bedroom at my Naunie's house.  And once in a while, not often, but once in a while, I was permitted to play with them.

The details of these costumes are amazing.  They are a labor of love and tale of long hours spent imagining and creating.  They are a testimony to my Naunie's skill as a seamstress, a skill she had learned as a young girl in her Sicilian village, a talent she has passed on to my mother and to Allie.

The heads are made out of rubber balls.  The pink kind that kids in my mom's day used to bounce against the sides of their New York City apartment building and homes and stoops.  My uncle cut holes in the balls and painted faces on them.  My Naunie sewed hats and attached them to the heads very firmly, they have not even come off a little in over 40 years.

There are pockets in the costumes for your hands and then you put the ball over a couple of fingers.

There was no pattern for these puppets.  My uncle and my Naunie just dreamed them up and created them.  My Naunie sewed the clothes without a pattern, and you can tell she loved every second of it, for she put so much detail into each piece.  It has been more than 40 years and there is not a tear or a rip or a seam that is coming undone.  These costumes are of higher quality than most things today.

Now my girls play with them.  They create stories for the puppets and act them out in the garden, just as I had done as a child.  It's not something I allow them to do often.  The Puppets can't be an every day thing, they need to remain special.  And they need to be passed on to my Naunie's great-great grandchildren and hopefully her great-great-great grandchildren.

I have my Naunie's china.  And there are afghans she knitted and photos all around, but when my girls play with The Puppets, when they see those exquisite details, the love that went into those puppets created for strangers and street kids, then my girls know more about who my Naunie was and how special she was.

Today would be her 110th Birthday.