I am sure there are families that can remember birthday celebrations in a fancy catering halls, restaurants or perhaps even a Knights of Columbus venue.
But our family, in the true Brooklyn Italian tradition, had our momentous parties in the garage. My grandparent`s house was on a corner of a quiet side street in Bensonhurst. While the house was large, and the basement served us well in the cold months, summer and spring parties went right to the garage. I remember that cars never went there; we parked on the street and my grandfather did not even own a car.
The garage itself was actually a perfect size for parties. It was for two cars and the doors opened right on the to sidewalk, and there was not a long driveway to walk down. My uncle, who was a master craftsman, had made the beautiful wooden doors. Intricate wood panels were carved with precision and they were a sight to see. The sons or sons-in-law would periodically varnish them to keep them fresh. After all, the parties would be there. When it was time for a party, everyone helped out. I remember carrying folding chairs out to the garage. I do not know where they came from, perhaps rented or borrowed from the family or neighbors. There was a row of several folding tables lined up against the far wall of the garage. White linen table cloths would cover the tables, giving the illusion of one very long, continuous table. My family always outdid themselves when it came to a party. After all, relatives from other parts of the family would show up. The cousins from “the city,” would arrive by train.
More distant cousins would come and we would not even know their names. But everyone kissed and squeezed the cheeks of all the children. In order to impress the whole family, the food was extraordinary. Platters of antipasto would sit at two ends of the table. There were trays of pasta and chicken, and meatballs and sausage and peppers and cold cut platters as well. Baskets of crisp Italian bread would adorn the ends of the table. Olives trays and celery and fennel would be there to nibble. There might even be a plate or two of potato chips and pretzels for the kids.
But my favorite part of these parties was the fountain. There was a three-tiered fountain that would allow some sweet punch to trickle from the top to the bottom tier. It was usually red and very, very sweet. You could go up to it with your dixie cup and drink all night. I never quite understood how this worked when I was a kid. Later on I did notice an electric plug into the wall of the garage. But it seemed magical to me at the time.
Trays of Italian cookie and pastries would come out as the evening wore on. There might even be large layered cake with whipped cream and a message on top. Alcohol flowed all night for the adults, beer, wine whiskey and other drinks were consumed in quantity, but the food was eaten up. There was music from the records playing on the record player. Some relatives would burst into song and we would all join in. Kids would dance around and play the whole time. It was a magical time, when the sleepy old garage woke up and became party central. And when the night ended, the food (what was left) was packed up for people to take home in aluminum foil packages.
Then, the garage door would close and lock and look ordinary again. Until the next party.