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Sal Mineo’s Thanksgiving Miracle

Mama Mineo will get up at about 6:30 on Thanksgiving morning. The others will still be fast asleep—Pop, Sal, Sarina, Victor, Mike. But Mama will be up early so she can get her big meal started. After all, there’s the antipasto to be made—with its slices of salami and ham and cucumber and its vinegared peppers and olives and anchovy strips. And there’s the lasagna—with its three layers of macaroni and rich tomato sauce and its two kinds of cheese and its hundred tiny meatballs. And, of course, there’s the turkey. And with the turkey there have got to be fried artichokes, Pop’s favorite, and stuffed eggplant, Sal’s favorite, and sweet potatoes, everybody’s favorite. And, because, as Mama Mineo says, “I don’t like the table to look boring,” there will be a platterful of roast beef or leg of lamb to follow the turkey, with “a nice simple lettuce-vinegar-and-oil salad on the side to help the digestion.” And then finally there’s the dessert—or rather, desserts—to be considered: a giant bowl of fresh fruit salad “‘with just a little bit of Manischewitz Jewish wine in it to give it that right flavor” and a pair of flying saucer-sized pies, one blueberry and one rum cheese.

Mama Mineo, alone for the next few hours, will putter around the kitchen of her family’s three-story brick-and-shingle house in the Bronx preparing her holiday meal. And, alone, before the others get up and come bounding downstairs for a kiss and breakfast and then go bounding off to church to say their formal prayer to God, she too will quietly give her thanks, the private prayer of a grateful wife and mother.

The house will be quiet for those next few hours, very quiet. As she works, Mama Mineo will repeat her prayer many times. Sometimes she will smile as she repeats it, for there are funny moments she will remember. Sometimes she will not smile, for there are sad moments she will remember, too. The others, asleep in their beds now, will recall some of these moments during dinner, maybe, when they’re all seated around the big table and talking about things past. But their recollections will probably be short—a flash here, a flash there. The kids and Poppa will want to talk more about the present and the future—about Christmas coming up and who-wants-what and New Year’s Eve and who’s-going-where-and about Sal’s next picture and about the ’58 car designs and about some crazy new record albums and about all the other hep things they can think of.

It will be different now; early that morning, however, with Mama Mineo there in her kitchen, alone, giving her thanks, looking up and quietly saying:

Thank You, dear God, for giving Poppa the strength to make good at what he started that time we needed Your help so much.

Thank You, dear God, for your miracle in making Sal’s eye get better.

Thank You for making Sarina and Mike and Victor strong and healthy now after what they’ve been through with sickness.

Thank You for making all four of my children get along so good together giving them so many good and for things.

Thank You for the new house where we will all move soon and where You will always be welcome with love and respect.

Thank You, most of all, for bringing us all together on this day.”

Yes, it will be different now with Mama Mineo there in her kitchen, alone, giving her thanks. “Because a mother is not as hep to the future as she is to the past—because a mother remembers the past when others have forgotten or half-forgotten. And there are things in the past that neither Mama Mineo, nor any of them, can ever forget. . . .

The happiest they had ever been

The day they moved from their first apartment to their first home, for one thing. That was fourteen years ago. Mama and Poppa Mineo had lived in the apartment ever since they were married. It was the apartment in which Mama Mineo had given birth—every second year for eight years—to her four children. It was a tiny Bronx apartment and after the children came it seemed to get tinier and tinier.

“Poppa,” Mama Mineo said to her husband one night as they lay in bed, “the children have no room to play.”

Lo so,” Pop said. “I know.”

Mama Mineo looked over at the crib where Sarina, the daughter, was sleeping, then over at the door leading to the small room where the three boys slept. “We must buy a house,” she said. “Even though we are poor, we must buy a house.”

“A house?” whispered Poppa. “How can we afford it?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Mama Mineo said, “but we must do it. The street downstairs is dangerous and it never gets the sun and the stairs are so high here on the fourth door and yesterday I went up to the root go hang the clothes and I found Sal and Mike standing near the edge looking down. . . .” She gasped.

“We will get the house,” Pop said, taking his wife’s hand in his.

The house they picked out was on 217th Street. It was, as they all recall, the oldest, most dilapidated house in the BRONX—but it was a house, not just an apartment. That first morning Mama Mineo walked to the kitchen window. Then, softly, she began to cry. Poppa walked over to her and put his arm around her waist, consolingly. “I know,” he said, “sei stanca—you are tired.”

Mama shook her head. “It’s not that I’m tired,” she said, beginning to smile through her tears. “It’s because . . .” and she brought up her hand and pointed out the window, “. . . because, Poppa, look!” She was pointing out at the shabby garden in the back of the house, at Sal and Mike and Victor laughing and trying to climb the skinny peach tree, at Sarina sitting on the grass playing with a buttercup she’d just pulled out of the ground. “Look at the room they have now,” Mama said, “at how safe they can play now, at how nice the sun shines down on them.”

The Mineos stood watching the scene for a long, long time. It was the happiest they had ever been. . . .

Something he’d never done before

Then there was the day about a year later, probably the most important day in the family’s life, when Pop went into business for himself. He and Mama had come to realize that they couldn’t make a go of it on the money he was earning as a laborer. And so Pop decided to do something he’d never done before. He decided to borrow money, and start a business of his own. He knew something about coffin-making and chose that as the business he’d sink or swim with.

The morning he opened his little shop, Mama kissed him goodbye at the door and wished him luck. An hour later, she showed up at the shop with the four children.

“What are you all doing here?” Poppa asked, amazed.

“I decided,” Mama said.

“Decided what?” Poppa asked.

“I decided you needed a secretary,” Mama said. Before Poppa could say he couldn’t afford a secretary, she continued, “Now you are going to be busy making the coffins, no? So how are you going to have time to call up the parlors and get the orders? So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll get the orders for you. And I want a salary for this, Poppa. And don’t make a face like that already. I mean that whatever little money extra you can give me for working, I want to put on the side for all the things we should give the children. You saw how Sal sat down at the piano when we went to your cousin’s house that time? Well, I want to get him a piano and give him lessons. And you see how Sarina is always dancing around the house? Well, I want to give her dancing lessons. And the other boys like to read and we’ve got to buy books and . . .”

Pop realized there was no stopping Mama. “But what are we going to do with the children?” he asked.

Mama had it all figured out. “Some days,” she said, “so they don’t forget who are their parents, they come here to the shop and they stay with us. Other days they can stay home. Listen to what we’ve planned!” She turned to her oldest son. “Victor, what are you going to do on those days?”

“I’m going to take care of Mike and sweep the floors,” Victor said.

“And you, Mike?” Mama Mineo asked, turning to her next-to-oldest.

“I’m going to take care of Sal and wash the dishes,” Mike said.

“And you, Sal?”

Sal blinked his big black eyes and took hold of his baby sister’s hand. “I’m going to take care of Sarina and take the garbage to the big pail out front every day,” he said.

“See?” Mama said, turning back to Poppa. Then she sat down at a makeshift desk, picked up a classified telephone directory and got busy on the phone. It wasn’t long before Sal was taking his piano lessons, Sarina was learning her tap and ballet and the other boys were swamped with all the books they could read and took lessons on instruments.

All sorts of mischief

“Of course,” Mama Mineo recalls, “I had to take them to the shop more than I thought I’d have to. Because they were only children and they couldn’t seem to stay home all day without me and not get into some kind of mischief. One day Id be on my way home from the shop and an old man would stop me and say, “Mrs. Mineo, those boys of yours were on my roof today and they started a fire. And I’d say, ‘My boys would never do a thing like that!’ Another day a woman would stop me and say, “Mrs. Mineo, your Sal was up in my cherry tree today and picked all my cherries. And I’d say, ‘My Sal doesn’t pick cherries from anybody’s trees—and, besides, why don’t you put a fence around it?’ And then I’d get home and I’d bawl the boys out for starting the fire and Sal for picking the cherries and when their father came home I’d tell him and suggest very loud that he should spank them. I think his hand would have fallen off, God forbid. But he’d make believe he was very angry because it was important to teach them discipline.”

Days of no laughter

And then there were the very bad days, the days of no laughter, the days of sickness and doctor bills and prayers to God and all the saints to please make the children all right again.

Mike was the first to get sick. He was ten when he got scarlet fever. For forty days he had to remain in his bed, quiet, all the shades drawn, unable to see anyone but his mother and the doctor.

Sal, eight years old at the time, was next. Mike had just recovered from the fever when Sal came down with it. To top it off, Sal’s attack was worse than his brother’s and he had to stay in bed for sixty days.

Sal had barely recovered when all four children got the mumps. “We didn’t want to take any of our medicine,” Sal recalls. “Sometimes we would even cry because we didn’t want to take it. And sometimes Poppa would feel for us and help us pour it down the sink.”

Then, shortly after, they all got the whooping cough and Victor got it so bad that he’d black out and pass out constantly and Mama Mineo had to scrape together what little savings she and Poppa had and take the boy to the country for two months.

It wasn’t long after this that Sal started having trouble with his eye. He was supposed to wear a patch over it for a few weeks. But like Sal says, “I was in The King And I on Broadway—I had one of the child roles—and I just couldn’t wear a big black patch on my eye.” So Sal’s eye took the strain and the eye didn’t get any better. Finally it took a whole series of treatments to clear up the condition which had become so nearly magic.

And then came the worst day of all, six years ago, when a doctor was called to the house to see what was wrong with little Sarina and the doctor told Mama and Poppa Mineo that the girl had polio and that she might die.

“Before I found out that Sarina was so sick,” Sal says, “I used to spend all my spare time writing her crazy joke cards with drawings and pictures I used to lake. Then, when I found out how serious her condition was, I somehow didn’t feel like making the joke cards anymore or making the crazy pictures. Instead I began to sit down and write her letters now—long, serious letters. This is when I became very serious myself. I wasn’t the life of the party anymore. I was writing these letters, I found, as a much more mature person. I began to understand people a lot more and got a different outlook on life. Maybe this is how I began to become an actor. Anyway, I wrote Sarina all these letters and as I wrote them I used to think to myself, “She’s so young. Why did it ever have to happen to her? I’m a boy—and I’m older besides. Why doesn’t it happen to me instead?”

His dream come true

Sal and his mother never talked about Sarina after that night on the subway. But he knew, from his mother’s expressions, from the way she was acting, that his sister’s condition was getting worse and worse. He knew, too, when Sarina’s condition was at its most critical point.

And then one morning he woke up and he smiled and he rushed into his folks’ bedroom.

“Mama . . . Poppa,” he yelled, “I just had a dream and a saint came down and told me not to worry, that Sarina’s going to be all right.”

At eight o’clock that night he took the subway back to the theater for the evening performance. No doctor had come to talk to him. He knew no more now than he did before.

But at eleven o’clock, when the show and the curtain calls were over and Sal walked off the stage and into the wings, he saw his mother standing talking and laughing—talking and laughing—with one of the stagehands and he knew, right then and there—his dream had come true.

Mama Mineo remembers this night, too. And she will remember it on Thanksgiving morning as she prepares her big meal, along with all those other times of past laughter and tears.

Sal’s miracle

And she will remember other times, too, more recent times.

Like the time last June when Sal had to have that operation on his eye. It all started one night after Sal had come home after a long personal appearance tour. He was tired and had gone right to bed. He had closed his eyes immediately. Then he opened them and brought up his hand and rubbed his left eye. There was something in it. He rubbed it again, and then again, but whatever it was wouldn’t come out. “I jumped up and ran to the mirror,” Sal says. “I saw that the eye was red and swollen—more than it would be if I had just gotten a little speck of dirt in it. The next morning I told Mama about it and she got scared. I went to the doctor that afternoon and he’ said it was lucky I had come when I did—that what I had was serious. I had an ulcer on my eye, he said, and I would have to have an operation.

Then when I had the operation and it was a success and I knew that I would have my eyesight, Mama and I looked at each other and knew—knew that God had given me my eyesight and that it was a miracle.”

Like the wonderful times when a mother watches her children—playing, talking, working together—and knows that they are happy.

“It’s so good the way they get along,” Mama Mineo said. “Just the other day they went to buy a new -car and they acted more like three detectives than anything else. First they got all the books they could on the car and read them. Then they went to the store to look at the car—and Mike looked on the top of the car and Sal on the bottom and Victor on the inside. And then they got together and had this big whispering session and one said, ‘Don’t you think he’s charging us a little bit too much?’ and the other two gave their opinions. And by the time they came to a conclusion and bought the car you would have thought they’d just decided something for the UN or something like that.”

Mama Mineo will stop and smile as she thinks of this. And then she’ll wipe her eyes a little with the bottom of her apron and get back to work. Because, after all, today is Thanksgiving and the family will be up soon and down in the kitchen and Sarina will want to see how the turkey is browning in the oven and Poppa will want his coffee and his holiday buns and Sal, as usual, will sneak a couple of meatballs out of the meatball pot and the other boys will start picking at the fruit salad and—well, a mother’s got only so much time to give her Thanks. 



Sal Mineo can now be seen in Columbia’s THE YOUNG DON’T CRY.



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