There are things so urgent, so meaningful, that you never forget the details. Forgive me if potty training is bad subject matter.
So imagine the scene I describe. As master chef, my dad owned an Italian restaurant in Cohoes, NY, originally a pizza restaurant, since he was 19 years old. By master chef, I do not mean to imply a structured education in the culinary arts. But a beloved family tradition and specialization in the art of culinary; part ancestral memory, part lifetime of study in the heart of his Italian home, and the love of food. My grandparents immigrated here from Calabria and Naples when they were 10 and 11 years old. They had two boys and a girl, and my father loved being in the kitchen with his mom.
Stories told say he spent most of his time in the kitchen with his mom, and my grandfather preferred the freedom of his generous backyard garden, watching his vegetables grow, and the smokes, and cheap wine hidden among the peppers and tomatoes, the pure meaning of farm to table..
My father, as a young foodie, opened his first restaurant when he was 19, married, had two boys, me, and grew the business and his culinary skills into full menu while also honing his drinking skills at his well-managed bar. It’s a good business, the bar business. Less yelling than in the kitchen, and most people were happy. I knew how to mix most drinks before I could drink them. I once made a diorama for school out of bar-mixing sticks of straws, swords, umbrellas and monkeys.
I remember the layout of the original Roma. You walk in and the hostess counter and entrance is at the front left wall of the building. You go straight into the left side of the dining room to the back corner of the building where the restrooms were. Run along the back wall was the kitchen behind a wall with two swinging doors one in, one out. (Don’t mix them up!) and to the right side of the dining room to the front wall which was the bar with a long picture window looking out on the street. The jukebox was against the wall separating the bar from the dining rooms. And lastly, the coat room before the exit.
Since I was too young to work, I was basically baby-sat by the bartenders, wait staff, and weekend musicians. Big John was my favorite bartender. He told me stories of such complexity and intrigue I sometimes would lock in so hard on his recall to an almost trance like state. He also let me wash the glassware, and a few years later, taught me to tie cherry stems into knots with my tongue.
I have a distinct memory of being dropped off at the restaurant in my tutu, home from my after-kindergarten-school beginners-dance class.
Proud to be a performer of grace, I helped at the bar and proudly accepted compliments on my attire and aspirations as a dancer. (I hadn’t seen the performing hippos on “Looney Toons” and didn’t know how absurd I looked, yet).
I was so excited about this wonderful new world…but lets go back a few years, to a time that was mid-potty-training, before I could independently do so.
My first memory of this time was my aunt Jenny wiping my little meatballs when I was just a wee tot. What made this super funny was my aunt Jenny was blind. How could she perform the most basic, but to me, complex task of cleanliness without being able to see? Life was a mystery to me at every turn. and very funny!
She had a bunch of hard candy spheres in a glass jar, that I coveted more than any sweet I had experienced thus far. We shared favorite songs, and sung often and loudly with the radio.
Sugar!na na na na na na oh, honey honey! na na na na na na you are my candy girl, and I can’t stop loving you!
Which was the theme song to that jar of candy spheres.
When I proceeded to advance my potty training ability I was awarded with one of these spheres, and I had to choose wisely, because, thanks to her brilliant training methods, I may not have to go again til morning so I better love the flavor I took.
Diabetes back then was treated differently than it is now, but those hard candies were my aunts sugar drops and she was supposed to use them in times she felt faint. So I could never get one unless I did something amazing, which included going on the big girl potty. Since she was blind, I desperately tried to tip toe and abscond a piece, or fake a potty, but she always caught me and it was a mystery. At the time she white lied that it was due to a sliver of her right eye, that had just enough sight, to keep me in line. I believed. That was fun.
Then poor Jenny’s health started to fail her, Uncle Pat had to take over potty duties and I was mid-training and not having it. That was humiliating and very hard so I just didn’t have to go anymore.
Eventually my parents gave up on family members as sitters and just kept me at the restaurant every night, to run amok.
I loved the jukebox, fave “Knock Three Times on the Ceiling”, bumming deserts off the diners, and playing with Big John. But the restaurant was always busy, and there was never a good time to go potty and I was of the age that only my mom could help me.
On this occasion, I remember counting the dings from the kitchen bell to count how busy my mother was, the number of dings being the particular waitress the chef was calling, to pick up pastas and pizzas while they are hot. But I felt I just couldn’t wait, even though I tried.
The atmosphere in the restaurant is dim lighting, fake grapes, and the scent of fresh bread and tomato sauce, jukebox music and the smoky conversations of a roomful of happy patrons…and bell dings and shouting from the kitchen.
Counting the triple dings, I knew she was too busy but it was an emergency and I begged her.
I did not embarrass or overly alarm her in front of customers but I was insistent that this time I couldn’t hold it. It is beyond me, looking back, what was so difficult about this final action necessary for complete potty independence, but it was baffling at the time. The number of dings method to call waitresses made sense, yet I struggled with the most basic function as an independent human being.
The timing and aunt Jenny’s sudden demise, right in the middle of her potty training program, surely interrupted this healthy development, but this particular day was the worst of all.
So convinced that she had to take me, we finally get to the potty and I climb up on it and try to go. And I couldn’t. My mother was livid.
Perched lipstick lips and cigarette breathe crashed in my face with near-silent screams “.. to go or get off the potty! I have a pizza to deliver!”
My belly hurt and I knew this was my chance to relieve myself but the emotional pressure was worse and insane. I, too, heard the triple ding rung, again and again. I knew he was gonna be pissed and she, too, would get screamed at.
Then, she did what only my mom could do. She told me the very significant lie that there was a tiger in the toilet and he would bite my ass if I didn’t go right now! I flew off that toilet and suffered a long retention time and great distress.
I do not remember wanting help in the potty ever again or even admit I use a potty.
And even now I think about that Tiger every time and everyday when I visit that porcelain jungle and the very real terror that lurks to catch dawdling potty goers. My advise to myself and other tortured souls with similar fears is:
Wait till the last-minute, do not commit your full weight, finish up quick and get gone from that jungle-pot and don’t let the tiger bite you on the way off.