As a child, author Tara Clancy shuttled between a fisherman’s shack in rough-and-tumble Broad Channel, Queens, and an estate with her own lagoon in the Hamptons, adding up to a unique childhood. She watched and learned but never lost her affection for the crusty old working-class relatives and neighbors who made her who she was, a fifth-generation New Yorker and a third-generation bartender. Nor has she lost the authentic voice of her early influencers, which allows her to bring us a coming-of-age story from a slice of the city even most New Yorkers never see, The Clancys of Queens.
MY MOTHER WAS always out of place, even when she wasn’t. As a kid she preferred the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or the library to the ball games and beauty parlors where other girls with names like Carmella Riccobono hung out. And when all her friends were squirreling away their allowances and birthday money for records and roller skates, she was saving hers for a porcelain vase she had spotted at her uncle Jerry’s antiques shop in upstate New York.
Going from Park Slope, Brooklyn, to Uncle Jerry’s home in Pleasant Valley every summer was the only family vacation my mother and her five siblings had ever had, and my grandmother squeezed as much mileage from it as she could: Madonna! If you don’t stop with the noise, nobody is going to Jerry’s! You had better finish that good food I made you, or nobody is going to Jerry’s! You don’t want to listen? Nobody is going to Jerry’s!
My grandmother’s incessant threats, though brilliant at invoking both fear and guilt, were nonetheless empty—they always made it to “Uncle Jelly’s.” My mom and her siblings gave him this nickname not because they couldn’t pronounce Jerry, but because it suited him. His un-Americanized name was Giulio, which, like Jelly, was a lot more appropriate for a man who was forever in an ascot and captain’s hat, collected nineteenth-century birdcages, and whose life partner, John, was an interior decorator.
They had met at my great-grandfather’s restaurant, where Uncle Jerry, along with all four of his brothers, worked as waiters. It was family-style Italian trattoria on the second floor of a factory building on West 37th Street in Manhattan’s garment district, with checkered tablecloths, finger-loop gallon jugs of wine served by the glass, and no menus—the brothers announced the day’s specials. “Today we have chicken or porgies. What’ll it be?” The joint was as simple as simple could be, but it was nonetheless called the El Dorado.
(I have always admired the overwhelming optimism of immigrants who name their humble restaurants after
grand wonders, like the greasy Chinese takeout joint called The Great Wall of China, or the bare-fluorescent-tube-lit Indian place with tablecloth-less, church-basement-style card tables called Taj Mahal 2. And I feel a strange pride that my great-grandfather did the same thing, maybe even more so for his choosing the mythical South American city of gold over something actually Italian.)
After a few years together Uncle Jerry left the restaurant to work with John in the decorating business, and they bought a home upstate.
A sprawling country house on a lake with a screened-in flagstone porch, library, fully appointed Victorian-era dining room, and a half dozen bedrooms meticulously decorated with antique furniture, Oriental rugs, and lush silk curtains, Uncle Jerry’s home was my mother’s very own Versailles. Back in Brooklyn, Mom shared a twin bed with her youngest sister, Lucille, in their parents’ bedroom. And, though a three-bedroom apartment housing a family of eight was not exceptionally small by Brooklyn standards, Uncle Jerry’s space was a complete revelation for her.
While Mom’s brothers and sister did a perfunctory spin around the house before darting outside to play in the grass and trees, she would slowly work her way through each room, running her fingers across the mahogany dressers and night tables, ogling the candelabra and porcelain statues. Midafternoon, when Uncle Jerry would announce that he was heading over to his little antiques shop nearby, she was the only one interested in tagging along.
It was on one of these trips that she first spotted the vase. She was only eleven years old, helping her uncle tidy up, when it peeked out from behind her feather duster. She stopped, straining her neck to follow the winding pattern of birds and flowers around the back, afraid to actually touch the vase to turn it around. Eventually she stepped back to gain perspective, time flying by as she fantasized about where it might have come from, how many homes it had been in, and what the types of people who’d owned such a delicate and beautiful thing might have looked like.
The vase’s $75 price tag was one hell of a sum in 1963. And my grandmother just could not understand. “Minchia! What a little girl wants with such a thing, I’ll never know?!” But my mother was undeterred. And, after combining all the allowance money she had saved for years, and pleading on her birthday and Christmas that, instead of toys and dresses, her parents, grandparents, and multitudes of aunts and uncles consider contributing toward her vase fund, when she was twelve years old, it became hers. Since then, the vase has gone wherever my mother has. That is, for over fifty years she has been the type of person who owns such a delicate and beautiful thing; hers are the homes in which it has lived.
Reprinted from The Clancys of Queens: A Memoir. Copyright © 2016 by Tara Clancy. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.