NETCONG STORY #5 from the COLLECTION OF 6 NETCONG STORIES
ONCE UPON A TIME IN NETCONG, NJ
I love sepia tinted antique photographs of all kinds, but especially this one of my grandparents 1926 wedding. Indeed, it is one of my favorite family relics. There's the Father-of-the-Bride, Great-Grandpa, standing smack in the middle of the newlyweds, who are themselves flanked by a wedding party of 18 bridesmaids and ushers. It's a rather large, luxuriously dressed wedding party for a little working class town peopled by Italian immigrants as Netcong was in 1926. But the Father-of-the-Bride's construction company was thriving and he -- as it was known in local parlance -- "had made good." He was giving his daughter a grand wedding to prove it.
When I see him standing in the middle of that wedding party I imagine him to be showing off not only the grand wedding, but also the great stone house in the photo's background -- the house he'd built with his own two hands. Great-grandpa was trained as a mason in Italy and when he immigrated to Netcong his construction company specialized in the kind of stone house seen here, on College Road in Netcong. That stone house stands to this day, which I find fitting, as I liken my great-grandfather's gorgeously austere, boulder-hewn house to his personality: old fashioned, practical, sturdy. Tough.
He was a tough old guy who was leery of the young Italian man, Tommy Romano, who'd just asked for his only daughter's hand in marriage. Tommy was too slick -- he drove a Rickenbacker for lord's sake! And he made his living in an entirely unacceptable manner: he drove a liquor truck for the mob in defiance of The Prohibition. Grandma made her Tommy quit that job before she'd accept his marriage proposal. But her father still was not satisfied. The story goes that Great-grandpa would not approve the marriage until Tommy had calluses on his hands. A real man should not have soft hands!
It was like those fairy tales where Kings would only offer the Princess's hand to the man who could pass his test and complete an arduous task: in this case, building a stone wall. Great-grandpa's stone houses were known by their matching stone walls and if that slick young man, Tommy, wanted to marry his daughter then he'd better come to work with him and build one. Tommy completed the task and duly presented his hands for inspection. The King looked at the young man's hands, then looked at his face. "Now," he said, "Now you can marry my daughter!"
Mom loved to tell this story -- it was her absolute favorite in the trove of old family stories that she'd passed down to me. I like it because it gives me some insight into my great-grandfather, who is otherwise a mystery. He arrived to Ellis Island penniless, succeeded in building a thriving construction business, had 4 healthy children and should've been happy. Nevertheless, he one day went to the attic of the house he'd built with his own hands, put a rifle in his mouth and blew his head off. He had pulled the trigger with his toe.
Nobody could say why he did it; bipolar had no name in the 1920's. Some conjectured that when he felt the demons invading his head, as they had so many times before, he feared being committed to an insane asylum. His sister-in-law, you see, had just had his brother Leo committed to Greystone, the NJ State Asylum for the Insane.
Greystone was erected in 1876 at the end of the Victorian era and with its great towers and elaborate turrets it showed the Victorian's romantic obsession with madness and madhouses. At one time horse drawn carriages passed through its iron gates then rode down a 1 mile long driveway lined with 2 strict rows of poplar trees to reach its front door. My mother once drove me over to see Greystone when I was a kid and I thought it thrilling: it looked like a wind-swept, moody, mysterious castle that materialized through the midst atop an isolated hill. I'm sure it appeared the same way to Great-grandpa, but with a decidedly different effect. An insane asylum looming like Dracula's castle would've scared the shit out of an uneducated Italian immigrant.
I can see fear of commitment like his brother Leo being a factor in Great-grandpa's suicide, but surely not the entire reason. Who knows what storm was crushing through his mind the day he killed himself. I only know that the story of his daughter, my grandmother, had a much happier ending. Grandma had inherited her fathers bipolar demons -- or, as they would've said in the Victorian era, she had "tainted blood" -- but she'd also inherited his energy and drive. He had left her a small deli when he died, which she proceeded to build into a chain of 5 ShopRite Supermarkets. Grandma did this while being checked in and out of asylums for "nervous breakdowns." She was luckier than her father because doctors had by now discovered Lithium, which helped her to control the demons and carry forth running her business, raising her 4 children and living with her husband right up until his death on the 50th year of their marriage. fitted lace wedding dress
A thriving business, healthy, happy children, and a long, loving, 50 year marriage. I look at this photo of Grandma's wedding day and think, yes, she had a pretty good tally at the end of her life. She had even gotten a Prince with callused hands! Yes, it can happen, and it truly did happen Once Upon a Time in Netcong.