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L is for Lion - Annie Lanzillotto's New Memoir - a Bronx Butch Memoir

Annie Rachele Lanzillotto - Author
Excelsior Editions
SUNY series in Italian/American Culture
Price: $24.95
Hardcover - 300 pages
Release Date: February 2013
ISBN13: 978-1-4384-4525-0

Review by Kathleen Zamboni McCormick, SUNY Purchase, in “Italian Americana” Volume XXXIV, Number 2, Summer 2016, pp213-218

 L is for Lion: An italian bronx butch freedom memoir by Annie Rachele Lanzillotto. Albany: SUNY Press, 2013, 335pp. Edited by Rosette Capotorto

Audiobook: narrated by Annie Rachele Lanzillotto, April 2015.


“From the moment I was born, I mourned the day I would lose her”—

Annie and Rachele’s Life-Giving Relationships in L is for Lion.

I am writing this review on July 23, the day of the funeral of Rachele Clare Lanzillotto (October 20, 1926—July 13, 2016), Annie Lanzillotto’s mother and the person to whom this memoir is dedicated—“for my mother, my best friend.”  Though I know Rachele only through Annie’s words and through the pictures she’s posted on Facebook, because of the strength of Annie’s storytelling ability, of her fierce and constant love of her mother, I mourn her loss.  Only ten days before Rachele’s death, Annie “came out” as a blueswoman with the album: Swampjuice: Yankee With a Southern Peasant Soul.  In her email announcing the album, she wrote: “I am proud of these songs. You’re gonna love ’em.  My mother does!” These may have been the last public words Annie spoke about her mother before her final decline and they were jubilant and affirming.

L is for Lion  is a tour de force of voice, storytelling ability, and sheer capaciousness—the book has been reviewed as an Italian, lesbian, New York, illness, and social class memoir—all of which it encompasses, like an intricate set of Italian stained glass windows.  Those bright windows depict pink spaldeens whizzing past faded two-family Bronx houses, multi-colored laundry, and silver people; a father, shining in so many scenes, but also tarnished, frightening and dangerous.  Many of the men, minds red with war, look like him.  On that window, you can see Brown University and what GranmaRose calls Educationa Girl walking past a bronze horse.  Brown looks like it’s in the Bronx, except for that one picture of a mustachioed person which seems to be set in Cairo.  One window is devoted to Sloan-Kettering with hosts of black and white men and women entering it, and a shapeshifting girl with a baseball cap walking out, surrounded by a blur of flowers and family who all appear to be talking at once, and where cars idle outside at a green light.   Over here, young golden women are spooning and kissing, but Educationa Girl keeps looking anxiously at crucifixes hidden in dark recesses.  But wait, here she’s olive green and looks happy, blending with a and a woman the color of Jade.  A peach tree encircles the entire set of stained glass windows and, if you look closely orange peaches are everywhere, along with yellow fritatte with touches of green and burnt sienna, brown maple tables, violet batteries, red lasagna, saffron rolling pins, flour-whitened dough, black pocketbooks, and blue eyes.  The blue of those eyes matches the lead that holds each piece of these elaborate windows together.  There is a special blue chapel devoted to Our Lady of Mount Carmel off to the side—“what a blessed color is blue.”  And there are two women kneeling, holding pinkies, praying.

            L is for Lion is also a story of a mother and daughter’s love, which this review takes as its focus, and not only because it commemorates the life of Rachele Lanzillotto.  When listening to the audiobook, in addition to the thrill of hearing the book read in Annie’s Bronx cadence, always triumphant, even when it is hoarse (and knowing that she’d needed over a year to record it), I was struck with an early passage—Annie’s tapping on the pipes with solid silver spoons—that quite dramatically changed how I heard the book from how I’d read it previously, where I had focused primarily on the rich stories behind the images mentioned above.  The vital need to protect her mother from her father’s violence—“Come down quick, Jesus Christ, he’s gonna fuckin’ kill her, ppkink, ppkink! Call the cops… Wake up quick…I can’t stop him”—is conveyed by the care young Annie takes in the spoons placement—one at each pipe; the head almost touching the pipe, the tail hidden in shadow, ready to grab with maximum speed to bang on a pipe and alert those upstairs.  The urgency is clear in the writing, yet I found it to be even more dramatically communicated by Annie’s voice in the audiobook where spoon on pipe sounds an immediate SOS from a child who would have called the cops herself if she could have reached the phone.  How had I missed the detail in print that she’d been too small to get to the telephone?  Annie’s intense bond with her mother—powerfully evident so early on in the audiobook—heightened my listening for her intonation at each subsequent detail of her relationship with Rachele.  Her voice in the audiobook repeatedly reveals the force of their connection.  Listening to L is for Lion  for the linkages between Annie and Rachele makes the combined written and audio versions of the memoir even more finely wrought because while some aspects of their closeness are directly expressed, others are unsaid but palpably present.

            In her 2012 YouTube video, “Live from the Nebulizer,” Annie asserts that her “lungs have absorbed all the abuse of generations,” abuses that run the gamut from literally injurious air such as cigarette smoke, to the anger, violence, and dis-ease that she had to to breathe in all of her childhood life.  While most of the men in her family are sources of this toxicity, her mother, in contrast, is established as a force for health, support, safety, and cleanness.  Early on in the book, we’re told with a voice of childhood pride, “My mother doesn’t just clean, she purifies.”  Purity is one of Rachele’s crucial characteristics.  Indeed, Rachele is almost beatified in L is for Lion: she embodies “the miracle of our family’s existence.”  At the age of two, Rachele survived a fall from the window of her family’s apartment that is somewhat mysterious for most of the book.  The fall occurred on July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, for whom she maintains a special devotion all of her life.

            Rachele Petruzzelli set high standards for survival years before Annie is threatened with cancer.  Throughout the book, there exists recurrent mirrorings and complementarities between Annie and Rachele that result in an unsentimentalized depiction of a life-giving empathy.  Annie writes, “I loved when my mother was fierce, determinate, strong”—the very characteristics of her voice when she speaks of Rachele throughout the audiobook.

            While Annie is having her first cancer examination at Sloan-Kettering, she hears her mother coughing and worries about Rachele rather than herself: “No one would think to get her a glass of water and she wouldn’t get it herself.”  While her body is being examined for cancerous lumps, Annie knows—through the curtain—that her mother is trying to get rid of a wad of tissue.  “‘The pail is under the doctor’s desk, Mom,’ I spoke at the curtain,” Annie says as she displaces her concerns regarding her own tissue onto her mother.

            While part of Annie recognized that she was a lesbian for years before she came out, she suffers from having a “Catholic emergency brake on, when it came to sex”—something that we never sense in her mother.  Indeed, Rachele’s compassion is so strong that when a sexually confused Annie calls her frequently at night from Brown wanting to “rid myself of ‘this mortal coil,’” Rachele insists on speaking with one of Annie’s housemates, getting her to promise to stay up with Annie, and then calls Jade, the woman who introduces Annie to real sex and a genuine relationship, who “threw me a cure party at the Essex Hotel on Central Park South,” where Annie is more concerned about the number of cousins she has who are gay than she is about Rachele and Jade’s discussion of her sexual interests, another sign of trust between Annie and her other, particularly in light of her brother CarKey’s open homophobia: “I know what you are…Stay away from my kids.”

            Annie plays an active role in the second miracle of Rachele’s life, her recovery from heart surgery, which clearly mirrors Annie’s recovering from her cancer surgery in college.  Both illnesses are discovered suddenly.  Both require a long recuperation with complications.  Both don’t have great odds.  Both “survivals” are aided by the care each gives the other.  And both are reinvigorated by a physical place.

            Rachele’s repeated assurance that “everything will be okay” parallels Annie’s incantation: “Live Mom, Live Mom, Live Mom, Live…Mom Mom Mom heart beat like a drum Mommmmm.”  Rachele’s empathic promise to Annie when her cancer is diagnosed that “We’ll go through this together” is mirrored in the intensity, constancy, the “togetherness” of Annie’s care for her mother after surgery: “Only I wiped my mother’s chest wound.  Only I knew the effort healing took.”  The infusion of each into the other’s consciousness is particularly strong in this section of the book.  Annie writes: “I’d look at the wound and she’d look at me.  My face was the mirror of her wound.  She would judge by my expression how it looked, so I had to believe it was healing.”  The capacity of mother and daughter to unify, to support, to help restore each other is epitomized in this moment where Rachele literally requires Annie to become her eyes.  As CarKey’s homophobia contrasts with Rachele’s love and acceptance of Annie, Aunt Patty’s “realism”—“you don’t even know if your mother will ever come home”—throws into sharp relief Annie’s faith and passionate love for her mother.

            The miracle of Rachele’s recovery finally reaches fruition months later in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market when she tells Annie to leave the wheelchair in the car, where they stroll around, have cappuccino, and eat, cleaning their plates with the heel of their bread.  The return to a place where her family had shopped for three generations, a place that held so much of Rachele’s past was recuperative—“It could have been nineteen forty-three, she could have been sixteen again…For my mother.. [the] slice of sopressata had the memory prodding magic of Proust’s madeleine.”  Rachele’s coming back to the Arthur Avenue Market echoes Annie’s return to Brown after her cancer surgery.  While the market revives Rachele through invocations of her past, Brown revives Annie by opening her future—intellectually and personally.  She discovers an opportunity to study the workings of cancer for three years in Dr. Alfred Senft’s lab “night and day.”  This work ignites her desire to gain clinical experience in Cairo which, in turn, causes her to contemplate passing, which leads to the creation of her moustache, her penis-doll, and culminates in her meeting Jade: “I wanted to stay inside my skin for the first time in a long time.  Skin has many purposes, and as I was learning, this one was ecstasy.”

            No one would ever discuss the details of Rachele’s fall from the window when she was just two years old, which only increased Annie’s suspicious that something was being concealed.  Annie, in contrast, reveals so much about her own childhood that one feels nothing serious is left to disclose.  When Aunt Patty finally tells Annie what seems to be the complete story of her mother’s accident—Rachele simply pushed a bench over to a window to better see an airplane and leaned on the screen and fell out—Annie is struck with its shocking lack of complication: “[I]s that it? No mystery, no culpability, no negligence, no crime?”  This discovery contrasts with Annie’s late revelation about her own childhood and why she reacts with such anxiety to the sound of breaking glass—whether it be the glass of a recycling truck or in her dreams.  Annie questions her mother and Rachele immediately recognizes the root of Annie’s fears: “One night he [her father] went berserk out of the blue.  You were in there with  him  He pushes me out of the kitchen and blocks the door frame with the refrigerator.  He broke every dish, every cup.  You were screaming.”  We learn that the mystery, culpability, and negligence projected onto Rachele’s fall is, in fact, a further attribute of Annie’s childhood and one that not only haunts her in panic attacks and nightmares, but that also plagues her mother with apprehension about her children’s well-being and with a deep sense of loss:  “you think I don’t see your suffering? …He robbed me of everything, even my children’s egos.”

            Near the end of the memoir, Annie asks Rachele why she withholds any form of indulgence for herself and learns that her mother didn’t have enough to eat as a child, and Annie recognizes another connection between herself and her mother:  “It hits me that my overeating and grandiosity is reactionary to my mother’s paucity.”  Whether in similarity or direct contrast, throughout the entirety of the memoir, the union between mother and daughter continues to unfold.

            Annie Lanzillotto is able to write a memoir in which readers can love and sympathize with her father, recognizing the positive role he played in her life, despite the damage he caused the family and particularly Rachele that perhaps deepened the empathic and loving relationship she has with her mother.  The story of the spoons near the beginning is bookended by Annie’s statement close to the end of the book: “I was the only witness to the bulk of the violence.”  Throughout the memoir, beginning with the Preface, we learn that the New York Family Court laws at the time did not protect women from domestic abuse.  In reading L is for Lion, we have all become Rachele’s witnesses—not only of her abuse, but of her many miracles—from surviving her childhood fall to the magic of her fritatte to her forging a relationship with her daughter of support, fierce commitment, and intense devotion.  And we witness a daughter returning those gifts to her mother in such abundance.

            When Annie sees her parents’ wedding picture with Aunt Tess, she wishes she could speak to her young mother: “I want to tell her young twenty-one year old self, ‘You will survive, and have many happy years…will be blessed many times over.  Coraggio!’”  In L is for Lion, short of time travelling, Annie does just this.


Volume 39



Annie's Italian Bronx Butch Freedom<br /> Memoir


Downstate You should not read Annie Lanzillotto’s L Is for Lion: An Italian Bronx Butch Freedom Memoir just to learn how to catch a fly ball in oncoming traffic, or simply because it’s the best tough-minded and deeply poetic prose I can remember reading since Hemingway—“a voice, writes author John Gennari, “as richly soulful as her mother’s lasagna and as bracingly unsentimental as her father’s Marine masculinity.” You should also not read it because it’s the best depiction of a Bronx childhood since Kate Simon’s Bronx Primitive.You should not read it because you’re a New Yorker who wants to understand the impulse to freedom that defines the city, or to revel in a deeply sexual coming out story. You shouldn’t read it just to learn “how to cook a heart” from a butcher at the Arthur Avenue market. You should not read it because it’s the most heart-rending depiction of an abusive father suffering from post-traumatic stress after surviving Okinawa. Don’t read it for the stories of a two-time cancer patient, the only one to survive her support group called Teenagers with Terminal Illness at Brown.You should also not read the book for its astonishing and often outrageous array of metaphors. To discover, for instance, how Annie’s father—who called her “Daddy”—handed her a bucket of batteries and taught her how to find which ones had a charge with the tip of her tongue—which she puts to use years later with utter abandonment in her lesbian love affairs where “my tongue was sensitized to the salty sting of energy.”Set all that side. You need to read this book because it’s the most powerful depiction I have ever read of how a human being can draw on her folk culture, her humor, and her poetic insight to pull life-affirming meaning out of the gutter like a lost Spaldeen.The Spaldeen is the New Yorkism for the ball that became ubiquitous on New York City streets and playgrounds, sold at the corner store and manufactured by the Spalding Company, from whence comes its mispronounced name. Playing Shirts against Skins on Zerega Street in the Bronx (and upset that she always had to be on the Shirts), Annie describes how “Spaldeens hid behind car wheels . . . . Spaldeens took on the smell of the street. Spaldeens sweated and got dirty. Spaldeens taught me soul; to find adventure, to fly, to roll, to hide, to float, to be buoyant, to bounce back even after you rolled down the sewer.” At night, “I’d wash my hands and face, and my Spaldeen. I scrubbed it in the sink with soapy water and a washcloth. It smelled clean, ready for the next day. I slept with it under my pillow.”More than a decade ago, the Smithsonian brought Annie down to perform at the folk festival as an iconic New York City storyteller when they featured New York folklife. Among her most well known monologues:

I grew up playing in traffic. Under the arcs of balls, balls hit high—til they became small and black in the sky. The ball’s going back and all the while you have your inner ear on the car at the intersection. You don’t miss the ball. You don’t get hit by the car. With a car coming at you, you face the open sky. You never miss a pop fly because a ball is coming at you. You listen. You turn your ear to the horizon. The ball is in the air. Your feet are moving beneath you. Your ear tracks the speed the car is coming at you. Your eye you keep on the ball. With your throwing arm you flag the car around you. You figure which side of the street the ball is favoring in the wind. You wave the car to the other side of you. You may temporarily halt the car ‘til the ball is square in your hands. The car inches forward ‘til the ball is in your hands, then the car proceeds. The car is your audience rushing to find you. The car came all this way, down this particular street, around several corners, jumped the exit ramp, to back up around the corner to see you make this play. The car in the middle of the play is part of the play. It’s all in the timing.

The Spaldeen taught Annie to bounce back. “What do you think, you’re made of rubber,” her mom called out as Annie skinned her knees playing on the street. “Yes, I’m made of rubber,” she answered, and her Bronx childhood supported and inspired her as she struggled with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 18, thyroid cancer at 37, along with double pneumonia, a deflated immune system, and recurring tumors through the years.

All through her life, the illnesses came at her like the cars along Zerega. But keeping her eye on the ball and the poetry of everyday life, she flagged them all around her. In the waiting room for chemo as a teenager, she recognized a friend whom she had recently beaten at pool. “What’s up Kimosabe?” she said. “Yeah,” he answered, “Chemo-sabe.” With her unflagging sense of humor and poetry, she called the third chapter of her book, “Kimosabe” and—with her sense of humor and poetry intact—did far better than survive. L is for Lion is a lesson on how to live.

Photo of Steve Zeitlin
Photo: Martha CooperSteve Zeitlin, Founding Director of City Lore, in New York City——————————————————————————————————-





(as printed in Michael Carosone’s column in the Huffington Post)