by Bob Jandoli
Ask anyone who grew up in the Oranges in New Jersey and they will tell you that it was an unusual place to live: very unique, and full of adventures. The characters who came and went through the years were even more peculiar, and of all these, there was one who seemed to be the most memorable. Emma Cantore was just this person. “Emma the Bear”, “Crazy Emma”, were tags we knew her by. She looked more like a man than a woman- her large, masculine physique didn’t help, making it difficult to recognize her gender if you didn’t know her.
Emma would wear the strangest outfits: from a Davy Crockett hat to a WWI helmet. She would adorn herself with all kinds of articles, buttons, and medals, and to add to her look she was usually seen riding a bicycle that was draped as outrageously as she was! Rumor had it that she once wrestled a carnival bear and won, another tall tale was that she was at one-time Tony “Two Ton” Galento’s sparring partner, and even knocked him down. She did hold a job for a while as a trolley car driver in the mid to late 1940’s. Oddly enough, Joseph Fagan, a West Orange historian validated these rumors, to our surprise, finding them to be true.
Although peculiar, she was a rather nice person, as long as nobody bothered her. We knew to steer clear of Emma, so you could imagine my surprise when I discovered, in my early teenage years, that Emma was a distant relative of mine from my father’s side. It was a deeply held family secret. Of course, I never mentioned it to any of my friends.
On Christmas Eve of 1965, in the early afternoon, my close friend, Victor Melchione and I had some last minute shopping to do. We headed out to Main Street in Orange. This was years before indoor malls. Main Street was then a happening place to shop, and we loved it. Victor and I hustled around from store-to-store, picking up anything that was left, and, of course, we had to stop by Joe Facchiano’s House of Fashion to purchase something to wear that night. A week before I had ordered a cardigan sweater and had it monogrammed. Victor picked up his usual Italian knit. As we headed home the snow started to fall and, as was par for the course, we were not dressed for the storm. Iridescent pants, high roll collars and leather jackets didn’t cut it in a blizzard. Not having gloves, hats or scarfs didn’t help, but hey, we looked good.
Through the biting wind we started walking up Main Street and made the usual left onto Scotland Road. The storm was growing stronger and by the time we got to the bridge, visibility was almost zero. We could barely see fifteen feet in front of us. To make matters worse, we were becoming frost bitten, mostly due to the fact that we couldn’t keep our bare hands in our pockets because we were carrying shopping bags. Victor and I thought we would never make it home.
Suddenly we spotted a figure coming toward us through the blizzard. It was Emma on her bike, and in what was probably three inches of snow on the ground she was gliding effortlessly, like it was summer. We held our heads down so she wouldn’t notice us. Emma rode past us, but then suddenly turned around, yelling “Hey Wally, whatta ya doin’ out here in the snow?” Wally was my father’s nickname and though she didn’t remember my name, she knew I was Wally’s son. We could barely answer her because of the biting cold, but I managed to tell her we were on our way home from shopping. Without any hesitation she handed me a brown paper bag and said “Buona Notalle.” Victor and I opened the bag and saw two brand new pairs of fur-lined leather gloves. We ripped them from their plastic packages and put them on like we had just found gold. By the time we turned to Emma to thank her she was gone, like an angel in the night. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon and we needed to continue our trek home. Suddenly we noticed there was a calm all around, a peaceful, serene calm that accompanies a snow fall when all you can hear is the sound of snowflakes landing on a snow covered ground.. There were no sounds of traffic, no voices of other shoppers. Then, all of a sudden, we heard the sound of church bells. We couldn’t tell what church they were coming from-there were so many in the area-but we didn’t care. The bells started playing “Silent Night”. Victor looked at me and said: “Bobby, man, this is the kind of Christmas I imagined Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby having.”
In due time we finally got back to the West Orange Valley, and even though we were running late, we had to stop at the “store” to check-in with the guys. We told them what had happened with Emma. Most of them laughed, some of them said maybe it wasn’t Emma, maybe it was an angel. Timmy Cardone yelled from behind his lunch counter: “It wasn’t Emma, it was Clarence. He needed to get his wings!” Victor and I looked at each other and realized we were the “laughing stock” of the store. None of the guys believed us.
Later after Christmas Eve dinner at my home, my girlfriend, Diane and walked down to the corner to Valley Road and met Victor. Together, the three of us walked to midnight mass at The Lady of the Valley Church. We told Diane our story of what happened earlier, and though she seemed to be listening with enthusiasm, we discovered later she thought we were full of crap!
Regardless, Victor and I shared a wonderful moment and years later we still agreed it was one of the best Christmas Eve’s we remembered. We made a pact that the next time we traveled out to Main Street and ran into Emma, we would thank her for saving us from being frozen alive. That act of gratitude never came to be, because, sadly, Emma was struck and killed by a car in Orange. Victor and I were together when we heard the news. Immediately we scrambled to find out when she died: was it before or after she saved us from the cold? Thinking that maybe we were truly visited by an angel. Later we found out that Emma died two days after her good deed. We were relieved to learn the truth, but something inside of us wished it was a true miracle. From that day on I was proud to let everyone know that Emma was a relative of mine.
Victor and I shared our story with others in the years to come. No matter whether anyone believed us or not, we knew it was true, for sure, and that it happened to us, and for a reason. Sadly, he passed away at the young age of thirty. Diane, herself, left this mortal coil many years later. The three people I shared this event with are together now: Emma, Victor and Diane. They’re watching over me as I pass through the streets of Orange and elsewhere, forever they live in my heart and in my memory, and this memory remains my favorite Christmas experience.
Merry Christmas Emma, Victor and Diane. Rest in God’s Eternal Peace.