There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wonder what Jeannie would think about an issue and how we would disagree, that I don’t think about some weird/funny and often inappropriate sayings of Christine that precisely fits a current situation, that I don’t think about Jill, the youngest, who suffered so much and hope that her new life is full of joy and without pain.
My sisters and me – I will always be the oldest, the one forever tasked with taking care of my younger siblings. Even now that they are gone, I continue to pray for them, hoping that they are surrounded by the arms of our loving God and are at peace – perhaps the final part of my work as an oldest sister.
When speaking about life and death our Sicilian grandmother would say – “one by one, we take our leave”. One by one my sisters left this world behind. And I remain here – still – waiting for my turn to exit the stage.
When Jean died, the grief was sudden and unimaginable. I had spoken to Jean just the previous afternoon – not twelve hours before she passed away. Jean was happy at last. After two weeks languishing and worrying in a rehab hospital following her sixth back surgery, Jean could finally move her toes. Her nerves were recovering at last. Jean was looking forward to returning home to her condo and her best friend, Brandy – a very spoiled Lhasa Apso. At 2AM the next morning I received an unexpected phone call – a call so unwanted that no one in their right mind would want to answer. A nurse from Jeannie’s rehab hospital shocked me with the news that my sister had expired. I only remember asking “what?” “what”?”, as though the words that had been spoken to me were in a foreign tongue. After hanging up the phone, I sat on the edge of the bed crying. I prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet twice, hoping that my prayers would speed Jeannie’s soul to everlasting joy. We had just months before begun to make an adult relationship after years of disagreements about our parents’ care.
My sister Christine was next in taking her leave. She and I were best friends, a friendship forged in the fire of caring for our elderly parents and the unimaginable horror of prosecuting the woman who murdered our dad and tried to murder our mom. Christine and I had spent so many late night phone calls making decisions about mom and dad’s care, Friday evening “Cheetos and Cheap Wine” parties doing the same when I was visiting San Angelo to help her. I had “prayed Christine through” her numerous surgeries before the heart attack and that final open heart surgery that took her life. That awful phone call about Christine’s passing came when I was meeting with a friend and spiritual advisor, who prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet along with me, after I learned the news. Thank God that I was not alone at that moment. My life was over, or so I thought.
Finally, the time came for Jill – little sister Jill. After years of struggling with diabetes, gout, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, COPD and disability, Jill took her leave as well. I was sitting in the room with Jill, who had discontinued dialysis over a week before, when Jill took her final breath. I prayed for Jill when I realized she was gone. After a life so filled with pain and illness, I was certain that Jill would be warmly welcomed in our eternal home. We had just begun to connect with one another after many years of just dancing around being sisters, not really understanding one another because of the difference in our ages, not really wanting to make a relationship but forced to by circumstances.
My sister’s photos, along with mom and dad’s, grace my bedroom wall along with little watercolors I painted to remember and honor each of them. Each night I say “good night” to my three sisters and pray that God will bring them ever closer to His heart of love. I hope that they are praying for me as well. From time to time I feel their closeness during the Sunday Mass, as though they are standing next to me with their arms around me. While I have no wish to die, I do hope that when I take my final journey Jean, Christine and little Jill will be there to welcome me to our eternal home.
There is a definite benefit in living a long life. I have had lots of different kinds of experiences, loved and sadly lost many good friends and family members, thought a lot about all of those I had lost and managed to find goodness even in the sad events and losses. Reliving old memories can be particularly pleasant and give a person insight into her life and the lives of her loved ones, uncovering for perhaps the first time the reason for the person’s behavior and choices and shedding a light on one’s own choices.
I was thinking just the other day about my sister Jean. She was two and a half years younger than me and unfortunately died unexpectedly in 2010 after back surgery. I always called my sister Jeannie, although Jean spelled her name somewhat strangely – Jeanine. When I tried to tell Jean that the spelling was incorrect and inform her of the correct spelling of Jeannie, she rebuked me. Jean knew how to spell her “nickname”, or that is what she thought. My sister was quite stubborn, so there was no way to correct Jean’s spelling without getting into a prolonged argument. To be honest Jeannie could never spell my name either. Emails and letters to me were always addressed “Franscience”. I really don’t know where she found that spelling. Not only is it incorrect, it is just plain weird.
The very first memory I have of Jeannie was from about 1950 – I can’t be absolutely certain about the year. I think that there were only two of us children then, so it must have been the summer of 1950, as Christine was not born until December of 1950. Jill would be born seven years later.
We had an old car – just one car in those days, probably black in color, as only the newer models could be ordered in a pretty color, though I don’t remember the make and model of the car. Dad worked at KDKA television as a technician, so dad didn’t make enough money to buy something new. Not only was the car old, but it had the kinds of doors to the back seat that opened to the front with the door hinges at the rear of the door. They were called “suicide doors”, though I don’t know where the term came from. As you will see from the story the term “suicide door” was appropriate and the door was rather dangerous.
On one particular weekend afternoon, dad was teaching mom to drive; Jean and I were accompanying them. I remember driving past the home my Aunt Sadie and Uncle Johnnie owned. I don’t remember if we had stopped in to see them or not, though that was likely that we would visit. The two lane street on which we drove turned into a larger, four lane heavily traveled boulevard named East Ohio Street. We traveled this way quite often, as it was on the way to our grandparent’s home from our new home on Mt. Troy Road.
Jean and I were standing in the back seat of “old Betsy” as my dad affectionately called every car he owned. In 1950 there were no seatbelts and definitely no laws that the children had to be strapped into a harness. There was no traffic light at the intersection of East Ohio Street then, but the traffic had cleared enough for mom to turn into East Ohio Street. As the car started moving I tapped on my dad’s arm to get his attention. “Quiet” he said, “mom is driving”. “But daddy”, I said over and over, as I was persistent even then, “Jeannie is not here anymore”. My dad turned quickly in the passenger seat, ascertained that I was correct and yelled to mom, “Stop the car!”. Mom couldn’t remember where the brake pedal was and struggled to control the moving car. In the meantime, dad opened his door and jumped from the moving vehicle to rescue his youngest daughter from the oncoming traffic.
Jeannie had been playing with the locking mechanism while we were riding in the car and when she leaned on the door handle, the door flew open and out she went. Jeannie had fallen to the street and rolled a bit to the curb. Dad rescued Jeannie just in time and returned to the now stopped car. While I don’t remember the exact sequence of events after that, I believe that dad took over the driving while mom held her youngest child, silent and still as death, while we rushed to Allegheny General Hospital a few miles away. The result for Jean was a cracked skull, but fortunately there were no internal injuries. After several days of observation in the hospital, Jeannie returned home.
Thinking about this episode in my family’s life, I can’t help but believe that the incident led to Jean wanting to be a nurse and making that career her life long work.
Jean continued to get into trouble as she grew – that never changed, but she managed to survive childhood and went on to make a productive and valuable life for herself. During her working years as a nurse, Jean helped and cared for many patients and was successful in her chosen path. Though my sister Jeannie and I saw “eye to eye” on almost nothing and Jeannie refused to be “educated” by her older and no doubt smarter sister, I miss Jeannie. I regret that we never had the chance to make an adult relationship after mom and dad passed away.
My sister Jean passed from this life on October 10th, 2010. On the way to her funeral onboard a Southwest Airlines flight to San Diego, I wrote about Jean’s life as part of an attempt to prepare my thoughts for giving a eulogy at the wake or writing an obituary. Here is what I wrote:
My sister Jean passed away early Sunday morning in San Diego. Her death was unexpected. Jean had undergone very serious back surgery to stabilize her spine and had begun to recover from the surgery. I had spoken with Jean the afternoon before her death and she was excited about getting back to her home, her beloved dog, her friends and the life which she had made for herself. God had other plans for Jean.
Jean had been a nurse for all of her working life – nearly 30 years. Jean had wanted to be a nurse even from childhood. She had earned bachelor and master’s degrees from the University of Arizona in Tempe. She had earned advanced certifications in Orthopedic, Neurological and Emergency medicine during the course of her career. Jean had held positions in the Neuro Nurse Association, a nationwide association of nurses who specialize in neurological nursing.
When Jean became disabled due to constant back problems, she continued to associate with her nursing friends and organizations, hoping to revive her career at some time in the future.
Jean also began developing her artistic skills, first with her counted cross stitch work and then with her handmade jewelry. Jean created many lovely gifts for friends and family and had placed her jewelry designs in local businesses.
Jean leaves behind three sisters, many cousins, an elderly aunt, many friends and business associates and a very spoiled Lhasa Apso, whose presence and antics both delighted Jean and kept her running.
Jean had been married briefly in her twenties to a young man who could not see her for the gift which she was. After a couple of years of physical and psychological abuse, Jean sought a divorce. Jean never again found someone with whom she wished to share her heart and her life.
Over the years my relationship with Jean varied from warm to difficult and back again. At times Jean was very demanding of my attention which caused me to back away from a close relationship and friendship. At other times we enjoyed many interesting conversations and even visited with one another even though we lived in different states.
There were things about my sister Jean which I never understood. She was overly generous with her friends and yet her immediate family were given what seemed like “leftovers”. I don’t believe it was from a lack of love for her family. Perhaps Jean felt that she had professional obligations and after she had fulfilled them, there was little left to share with her immediate family. It wasn’t the cost of the gifts which she gave to her family; it was the haphazardness of them which so upset me.
I would like to believe that in the 62 years of knowing my younger sister that I understood her, but I didn’t.
Jean was a middle child, at least until our youngest sister, Jill, came along. I have read that middle children often feel left out. Perhaps Jean felt that way as she was always trying to prove that she was lovable and that she was accepted.
In high school the counselors suggested that Jean abandon an academic curriculum and focus more on a less aggressive course of study. The counselors thought that Jean didn’t have the ability to do serious, difficult work. Jean proved them wrong spectacularly.
Jean was a person who insisted on having the last word. Even with our father, Jean refused to be silent when it was demanded of her. That habit always caused Jean a lot of heartache.
Jean had a better relationship with her father than with her mother, perhaps because she saw her father as a kind of “Horatio Alger”, a doer and achiever. Jean never understood how her father’s success had a great deal to do with her mother and the kind of home life that mom provided for dad.
Jean could be bossy, especially about medical things. She could never accept opinions contrary to her own, most especially by her family.
Jean had definite opinions about art. It angered me when Jean tried to tell me about what constituted great art, though I considered art my “area of expertise”. I didn’t realize until she had passed away that Jean wanted to share something she loved with me, perhaps even express her appreciation of what I could do. I failed Jean in this area – we could have shared much if I had been open to her ideas.
After a period of several years when we barely talked after dad and mom’s death, I finally offered my forgiveness to Jean and accepted hers, even though I believed that Jean was the cause of most of the dissension. I thought at the time when I offered my apology that Jean and I might finally have an adult relationship, free of the usual attention grabbing behavior that was part of our childhood. That adult relationship never had the time to come to fruition as Jean passed away several months later.
After mom and dad’s deaths it was just the four of us sisters looking at the scary future without our parents or older relatives. Now it is just the three of us. Why God? Why couldn’t Jean be allowed to stay a little bit longer? Why does life have to be a series of “if only’s”, of misunderstandings, of unused opportunities, of stupid choices and even stupider arguments?
Why does it take so long to figure out how the world works, who we are or how to love one another? Why do we let such petty things bother us? Why do we push away people who care for us just because a relationship with them is difficult?
During the last years of my mom’s life as she struggled with dementia, mom would ask her daughters how old she was. When we told mom her correct, current age, she would disagree with us. For example, if we said “you are 82 years old”, mom would forcefully reply, “No I am not!” So my sisters and I began lowering the number until mom heard an age that she would accept.
“How about 75”, we would ask. Mom would reply, “No!” “How about 70?” was met with another “No!”. When my sisters and I finally reduced the number to “59”, mom would finally accept that age.
Of course, my mom told people for years that her true age was 39, even when her daughters had long since passed that magic age . It is understandable that 80+ would never do.
Just the other day I thought about my own age – 75 going on 76 in a few months. I have become like my mom, though I don’t have dementia. I cannot believe that I am 75! How or when did that happen? I cannot recall all those years between 25 when I was married and now. I remember specific events along the way, but the day to day events that I traveled to reach this age are not even a dim memory. Now all I have to do is come up with an age that I can accept. Maybe 59 is a good number? I would be walking in mom’s footsteps, so that can’t be all bad.
Do you ever wonder where or how our parents obtained their wisdom? Who taught our parents all that they needed to know to navigate this fallen world and to raise their children to be healthy, responsible adults? As someone who became a parent quite some time ago, I relied on what I heard my parents say when I was young and what they did in similar situations to guide me through my “child raising” years.
When at the end of my rope with a demanding teenager, who would not accept all the reasons that she couldn’t do whatever it was that she was demanding to do, my “fall back position” was one that I heard from my parents: “Because I said so!” with all the authority in my voice that I could muster. I knew, of course, that my voice didn’t have the authority that I once heard from my parents – it never could. As my growing up teenager walked away grumbling and sighing, she couldn’t believe that her mom could be so old fashioned and so hard hearted.
There were times when my mom voiced her final “fall backposition” to me: “Wait till your father gets home!” That was enough to bring tears to my eyes or a trembling to my voice. Dad was the final authority, unless you asked him first before you asked mom. If I asked dad first and he responded to my question, “ask your mom” what he really meant was “no”. Somehow my parents had worked that one out without my knowing.
There were other little sayings which I heard from my parents, especially my father, sayings that many children have heard. Many times there were some responses or directions that were unique to our dad. Dad’s little sayings were often so appropriate to the situation that I accused him of having a little black book where all the odd sayings were written down. I wanted a copy of that little book, but it wasn’t forthcoming, and I couldn’t find the book after he passed away.
When asked once by a friend why dad needed ketchup during dinner, dad said: “if it tastes good, it tastes better with ketchup”. The list of appropriate foods included eggs cooked anyway you liked them, macaroni and cheese casserole, steak, bacon, hamburgers, and the reliable childhood favorite, fried bologna sandwiches. Mind you now, ketchup is always spelled with a “k”. Dad would only eat Heinz ketchup.
When dad worked as a cameraman for KDKA television in Pittsburgh, early in his professional career, he operated the camera for a television program about the Heinz factory in Pittsburgh. Dad was so impressed with the cleanliness of the factory that he would eat no other kind of ketchup. Dad said of his experience: “you could eat off the floor at Heinz. That is how clean it is.” So have I ever eaten any other kind of ketchup or catsup? Not if I could help it, as it would be almost heresy in my dad’s eyes.
Do you ever save some special dessert to eat later? That is not a good idea according to my dad. He would say: “he who saves, saves for the cat.” I am guessing those words of wisdom came from his own mother who had responded thusly to a complaint from one of her six children. If dad saved some morsel of food or a piece of cake for later, it was likely that he wouldn’t find it when he wanted it. One of dad’s two brothers or three sisters would have found the treat and enjoyed it before he did.
Who among us has heard the words of wisdom:, “don’t burn your bridges behind you”? How often in our lives have we wanted to tell someone what we truly think, to let it all out, to tell the offensive person that he or she is permanently out of our lives? I have wanted to voice that many times out of anger, hurt or frustration. Usually when tempted in that way, I hear my dad softly whisper “remember, don’t burn your bridges.” Those simple words are great advice, as our heightened emotions will calm down after a time and rationality will return eventually.
During my teenage years as I was earning a little money from odd jobs like babysitting, I was so tempted to spend all my cash. I wanted things as every teenager does, things my parents couldn’t afford or wouldn’t buy for me. Dad had a prescription for handling money that served him well over his own lifetime. “Save first, then spend. A good rule of thumb is saving 20% of what you have earned and then you can spend the rest.” Once I began to work regularly for businesses that reported my earnings to the government, dad was in charge of preparing my tax return. His first question was “how much have you saved?” And he wanted to see the statement from the bank! Woe to any of dad’s children who didn’t have a reasonable amount tucked away in their savings account. His scowl would frighten anyone.
So often as I was growing up, I would leave a light switch on, because I knew I would shortly return to where I had been. Or I would leave a door open to the outdoors, because I was coming right back. Those two things were “no no’s” in our home, and if dad or mom noticed, I would be met with the question: “were you born in a barn?”. I hear those words in my head even now and rarely exit a room without turning off any lights which I had turned on.
My dad was someone who didn’t talk about his feelings, except to mom, of course, to whom dad often spoke special words of love. I never heard words of love directed to me from dad – not that I remember anyway. Mom said those love words often, but I guess, being a mom, that was her job. So one New Year’s day I made a resolution to ask my dad if he truly loved me, as I was his oldest daughter. It was the only New Year’s resolution that I ever kept. Forget all the promises to lose weight – those usually went by the wayside the day I made the resolution. All the leftover Christmas treats were too much of a temptation to ignore.
I spoke often to my parents, every day if possible, especially after I left home and was on my own. So one particular New Year’s day I called to wish mom and dad “happy New Year’s”. Mom answered the phone as was usual and after exchanging greetings, mom said that my dad had something to say to me but wouldn’t tell her what it was. I blurted out without thinking (a frequent occurrence unfortunately), “maybe he wants to tell me that he loves me”. My mom repeated my statement to dad, because that was who she was, and then dad took up the phone. “Of course, I love you”, dad said. When I questioned why he had never spoken those words to me, dad added that he believed that “words are cheap; it is only one’s actions which count”.
I have to admit that dad showed his love with actions all the time when I was growing up from always being available to help with math homework when I was younger, to checking the oil in my car, or changing a tire or coming after me if I was out and stuck somewhere before I was married. As I grew older and had a family of my own, dad would make special things for me if I asked – an easel for a painting class, a folding screen, because I wanted to try to paint one, an earring tree, because I thought it would be nice to have. Dad was always ready to talk and to give advice if I asked him, even though I didn’t always follow his advice, much to my regret.
Dad had a couple of funny sayings which he spoke occasionally over the years. Some are quite common – things like: “fish and visitors smell after three days” or “doesn’t do anything for me”. We hear those sayings everywhere now or see t-shirts or plaques made with those words on them. But there were several wise sayings that were unique to my dad that I have never heard or seen anywhere else, though I have been alive quite a long time.
“Don’t cry with a loaf of bread under your arm.” You can imagine what that had to do with – dad and mom’s children moaning and complaining that something we wanted that we couldn’t have, when all that we needed was already ours or ours for the asking. Dad worked hard for his family; mom stayed at home and took care of the children. We didn’t have a lot as we were growing up, but there was always food on the table and a roof over our heads and people around us who loved us. Now I can say with certitude, “What more was necessary?”
“Always defend your family – family comes first!” Dad grew up in an immigrant area of Pittsburgh. During the 1920’and 1930’s Sicilians and other immigrants were often targeted by other Americans who had been in the country longer with prejudice, racial slurs and even violence. Dad would say to his daughters, “when the chips are down, you can’t depend on your friends”. Those words came from dad’s experience; he and his brothers often had to stand up together and fight either for themselves or to protect their sisters. So dad never forgot his family; he was always there to help if a brother or sister or his parents had a need that they couldn’t fill on their own. And dad’s family was always there for him as well.
When speaking to a younger sister who was complaining about something she wanted or needed to buy, dad said “ if they don’t sell it at Walmart, you don’t need it.” Walmart does seem to sell everything necessary, although those words didn’t please my sister.
Let me close with what is the most important wise saying my dad taught me and lived throughout his whole life. “Always keep your promises”. It may be the only thing others will remember about you when you are gone, because keeping that promise shows the love and respect you had for others and reflects who you truly are. When mom and dad married, dad made a promise to mom to take her to visit her family in South Carolina every year, no matter where they might live. Dad kept that promise for 60 years. Dad passed into the Lord’s arms in mom and dad’s 61st year of marriage.
While we may voice complicated theories about life or read well researched books about how the world works or the proper way to act, the really important lessons which help us in our day to day lives are in the pithy, short sayings we hear from our parents and relatives. The real wisdom and knowledge of this world usually comes in small “love wrapped” words. May we always remember those words and the people who spoke them.
My Christmas cactus was so pretty this year. It had been outdoors most of the summer where some bugs had tried to take big bites only to leave brown spots on the fleshy leaves. I brought it in when the weather started getting cold. I placed the plant in a north facing window once I brought it in, and eventually, the plant bloomed. This was the most blooms I had had since I purchased this Christmas cactus several years ago. I had never had any luck with these before.
My blooming plant reminded me of a similar plant that my Aunt Rose had had for some years, though Aunt Rose’s Christmas cactus was fuller and much larger than mine is now.
Aunt Rose had a funny – almost unlikely – way of taking care of her house plants. She watered the plants once a week whether they needed watering or not. That was Aunt Rose’s schedule, and the plant would just have to adjust to the rules.
The same was true for a large vining philodendron that had been in Aunt Rose’s bedroom for nearly 30 years. But I am getting ahead of myself. I will talk more about the philodendron later.
In the wintertime when the Christmas cactus began to bloom, Aunt Rose would set the plant on the television set which was just in front of a large picture window. As long as the plant was blooming, it remained on the TV for all to admire. Once the blooms started to fade and drop off, the plant was moved to the basement, where it would continue to grow and thrive.
Aunt Rose’s home was built on a hill, which meant that part of the basement was exposed. There was even a door leading from the basement to a small back porch which then led down some stairs to the sloping backyard. Everything in Pittsburgh is built on a hill, so Aunt Rose’s home was no exception.
In Aunt Rose’s basement there were the usual accoutrements for an older home in the area. If you know Pittsburgh it will make perfect sense to you that there were windows in the basement. In Aunt Rose’s basement was a washer, dryer, 2 cement wash tubs for soaking clothes, a pantry closet built under the front stoop to keep things cold, the old kitchen table from Sandusky street (probably 70 years old and still in perfect shape) and even an adjacent small paneled living area mostly separate from the laundry area which could be closed off from the living area. There were even clothes lines strung from the ceiling rafters for hanging laundry. In addition there was a commode under one of the basement windows in the laundry area. Yes I know, the commode had no privacy unless you were using the basement area alone or had closed the door to the living area. A perfect Pittsburgh basement to be sure.
Aunt Rose’s Christmas cactus spent most of the year sitting on the top of the commode, where it received adequate light from the small window above. It seemed a strange place to keep a treasured plant, but it worked for Aunt Rose and the Christmas cactus. Being close to the cement laundry tubs meant that there was the necessary water for the once weekly drink. Being a basement in Pittsburgh meant the area was cool all year, just the right temperature for a growing Christmas cactus. When the light was just right, the cactus came to life again with magnificent blooms. Just in time for the holidays the cactus began its once yearly trek to the TV top and picture window upstairs.
Now back to the philodendron in the bedroom as I had promised – My mom had made Aunt Rose a pretty ceramic painted pot and a long macrame hanger. Mom was very talented in those areas. Mom used the colors that Aunt Rose preferred to decorate the pot and the hanger. Aunt Rose planted a small vining philodendron plant in the pot. Then my dad hung the macrame hanger and pot with the little plant from the bedroom ceiling next to a south facing window. And there the plant stayed for all the years, more than 30, that Aunt Rose lived in the Valley View home.
While visiting Aunt Rose one summer in 2004 or 2005, I asked for a cutting from her philodendron. I surmised that if the plant, which looked “leggy” to me, had survived Aunt Rose’s weekly habits, it must be easy to grow. Aunt Rose gave me some cuttings which I wrapped in wet paper towels and put in a plastic sandwich bag, hoping the cuttings would survive the 3 day drive back to Texas.
As soon as my husband and I arrived at our Texas home, I put the cuttings in a glass of water and waited for the roots to begin to grow. It wasn’t long before the cuttings put out roots, so I prepared a pot with soil for my “Aunt Rose philodendron”. The plant I had received from Aunt Rose was not only sturdy, but was so eager to grow that I am now inundated with numerous “Aunt Rose philodendrons”! I have given away several plants from the original cuttings and have four of them in my living area. All four need a “haircut” as my friend Karen calls trimming off the excess.
How is it that these four little cuttings have grown and multiplied over the years? The answer, I believe, is love. Aunt Rose had love in abundance – enough for everyone. Throughout the years Aunt Rose blessed everyone she met with her joy, her friendship, her wit and her wisdom. Aunt Rose’s watering schedule and the sweetness of her personality made her plants grow – I am certain of it! Someday I will tell you about Aunt Rose’s mum which had flowers of differing colors on the same plant! Only at Aunt Rose’s home could such a thing happen.
The photo heading this page is from 1949. It is a holiday meal with grandma and grandpa Henry. As you can see with all the family present, the meal had to take place in the basement. Grandma’s home on Sandusky street was small. On the downstairs (street) floor was a bedroom in the front on the home near the street, a living area and a small eat-in kitchen. Attached to the kitchen was a small unheated room that was used originally for storage and then over time became their daughter Rose’s bedroom.
Originally the second floor had three bedrooms and a bath, but my grandparents converted the second floor to a small apartment to rent once their children were grown and out of the home. The basement was used for storage, for laundry and had a bathroom built into it after the second floor apartment was built. When there were a lot of people invited for a family event, the obvious place for a meal was the basement.
At the far end of the table holding a small child was my grandfather, Mariano Iannarino. Next to him was my grandmother, his wife, Provvidenza La Manna. Next to Provvidenza was the youngest daughter, Rose, then the family of Jennie and Gasper Scibetta with their daughter, Linda. Jennie was the second daughter of Mariano and Provvidenza. I am not sure of the identity of the child and woman seated next to Gasper Scibetta. Nearest to the viewer, at the end of the table on the left was John Gross, the husband of Sadie, oldest daughter of Mariano and Provvidenza. Seated next to John was his son, Jan. Sadie’s head can be seen over Jan’s. Next to Sadie, it appears Mary and Tony Henry, second son of Mariano and Provvidenza, are seated, and at the far end next to Mariano is a woman I cannot identify – perhaps Frannie, the sister of Mary Henry.
Even as a young child I enjoyed these family gatherings. Everyone brought food for the party, so there was a wide variety of things to eat. No one minded that the “banquet table” was made from boards suspended on saw horses or that the washing machine and concrete wash tubs were in the same room. What mattered to everyone assembled was the love and warmth of the Sicilian family gathering. There was enough to eat and plenty of happy conversation. What could be better.
Last Saturday, the 20th of February, my husband and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. It wasn’t the celebration that we had planned. Because of the pandemic restrictions due to the China virus, we decided to have a simple celebration – dinner with our daughter and her son – and save the party with family and friends for another time. But even that simple meal in a nice local restaurant wasn’t to be, for this was the week of the once in a generation winter storm in Texas. Everything was frozen. There was no power in many places including our home. In addition, our own home had been without running water for over a week, since our rain water collection system had frozen even with all the storm preparations that we had made.
But that horrific winter storm wasn’t what would have canceled our anniversary. The circumstances which would have led to the cancelation actually happened quite a few years before. My husband had retired from his job of over 38 years in 1990. During the time of his employment my husband had risen from the position of electrical engineer to a mid-level manager who had more than 50 people under his employ and a very profitable manufacturing line to oversee. Leaving his place of employment where so many people were responsible to my husband was a difficult transition for him.
It was an even more difficult transition for me, because I had managed our household with all the attendant tasks that the job requires for all the time that my husband was working during our marriage. I was the “boss” here and didn’t like for anyone to interfere with my work or disrupt my schedule. But now this extra person was under foot – right in the middle of my domain and looking for someone to tell what to do. I was determined that person wouldn’t be me.
As the days, weeks and months passed during that first year of my husband’s retirement, I learned that I didn’t load the dishwasher correctly; I vacuumed too often and talked on the phone to my friends a little too loudly, too long and way too often. As a way of escaping the criticism and frequent requests to fulfill the next task he had for me, I tried to spend a lot of time outdoors just to get away and give each of us some space. Our property was pretty rough looking – we had had the home built the previous year on a wild, tree filled acreage lot five or so miles outside the city. The property had been a place where the other building contractors had left debris for as long as the subdivision had been in existence. There were piles of dirt and rocks and assorted trash items like children’s broken toys, bed springs and the like strewn about, especially in the front yard.
I planned to make an iris garden in the front yard with the aim of having beautiful flowers and cleaning up the mess others had left for us. My painting friends were always thinning out their iris plantings and giving me their extras, but I didn’t have a good place to plant them. The front yard would be a perfect place, if I leveled out the piles of rock, cut down a few small elm trees and spread some dirt. I worked in the area everyday. My goal was to move five wheelbarrows of debris and dirt each day, which I did faithfully. Eventually the area was ready to move my iris.
One day during this process I needed something retrieved from the barn which was across the way (through the woods) from our home. I was feeling pretty low at the time, as I thought that my husband and my relationship would soon be over. We had been married almost 30 years, but at no time in those years had we been so at odds with one another as we were since his retirement. I was convinced that my husband, who occasionally saw his old friends from work as his only outside activity, would soon be telling me that he was moving out, that our marriage was over. I knew that I could not be his only source of entertainment and had told him so, and I certainly could not replace all the folks whom he previously “bossed around”.
I walked over through the woods to the barn and noticed that next to the barn was the 1969 Chevelle that Larry and I had dated in so many years before. My husband couldn’t bear to part with the car, as it was his first “new” car. Then the thought struck me, as though God had needed to remind me – my husband wasn’t leaving for “greener and more peaceful pastures”. I was one of those “old things” that he had had so long that parting with it was unbearable. My “job” was secure. I retrieved what I wanted from the barn and returned home. Over the next weeks and months our relationship improved.
That Saturday during that Texas hundred year storm we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. Instead of the nice restaurant where we had planned to eat for our anniversary, my husband and I celebrated by sitting in front of the fireplace adding logs, as the old ones burned down, trying to stay warm in our cold home and eating Hebrew National hot dogs and Bush’s baked beans that we had cooked in the fire. What a memorable time that marked 50 years together!
The Christmas after dad died, I bought a small stuffed bear for mom. She loved toys. My sisters and I recognized that since mom had none of her own as a child – at least none that we knew about, she would love to have some now. The little bear I bought was dressed in a red dress, sweater and bonnet. When I brought the bear to mom, a caregiver had already bought her one. The caregiver’s gift bear was dressed in blue overalls, much as a small boy would wear. When Christine saw the bears, which the caregiver and I had set together on a tabletop, she named them Frankie and Bertie. Christine then held the two bears together and pretended that they were kissing each other. Mom was not happy. She said that she didn’t want anyone kissing Frankie.
Three years later when mom died, we placed Frankie bear in the casket with mom along with dad’s service flag, a rosary and a cross on a chain. We also placed the love letters which mom and dad had shared so many years ago under her feet. Christine had suggested that the letters go with mom, as both mom and dad were very protective of those letters. We never read them, except for two which we had given mom after dad died ,so that she could remember what they once had shared.
I took the original Miss Bertie home with me. Miss Bertie rides around in my car with me, a daily reminder of the lovely lady who had been such a big part of my life. I decided one day to try to paint a picture of the bear. I painted three different paintings of the bear, but there was only one that I liked. I framed that one and gave it to Christine, who was still struggling with the loss of both mom and dad.
The original painting has a much cuter expression on its face, almost as though mom is saying: “kiss my grits!” as she often did when she was angry. The newer painting has a wide-eyed expression on its face. I was thinking this morning that it, too, was like my mom. Mom had a genuine love for life, a willingness to experience new things. Mom thought of her life as a joy. So the new painting as well as the old is an expression of the sweet lady who had given so much to my sisters and me.
When Christine passed away, I wanted the painting of Miss Bertie that I had given to Christine. I decided that Keith needed to have Christine’s things around him, so I never asked for it. Instead I painted another one. This week I put a frame on the new Miss Bertie and hung it in my room.
My life has been filled with love from its very beginning. I had wonderful parents who loved me, sisters, aunts and uncles and many cousins who showed me love. I have a loving husband, daughter and grandson. There were even times when strangers were loving to me. I had experienced love, but I had never “seen” love.
My husband, daughter and I had traveled from our home in Texas to visit relatives during a summer vacation many years ago. We stopped in Indiana to visit my husband’s relatives and had a lovely visit, meeting Larry’s extended family for the very first time. Then we traveled on to Pittsburgh, where I was born and had lived for the first 14 years of my life. Most of my dad’s family still lived in the area. We usually stayed with Aunt Rose while we were visiting, as she had a spare bedroom to share with us.
One Sunday afternoon during our time in Pittsburgh, we visited with Uncle Tony, my dad’s older brother, and Tony’s wife Mary. There was a celebration planned and many relatives were invited. I don’t recall what the purpose of the celebration was, but then my family didn’t need much reason to celebrate. Anytime a group of relatives got together was a reason to make coffee and bring out the cake and cookies.
In my mind’s eye I can easily recall the setting. Uncle Tony and Aunt Mary had a very small home, but one that was filled with their love. There were two bedrooms, a bath and a small living and dining area. The kitchen was also very small and led out to Uncle Tony’s famous vegetable garden. Most of the adults were sitting in the living area – the children – our daughter included – were seated together in the dining area working a puzzle or playing a board game. Aunt Mary, Aunt Rose and Prudy, Mary and Tony’s daughter, were preparing the coffee and treats.
At one end of the room, in his recliner, sat Uncle Tony. There was a small fireplace between his and Aunt Mary’s recliner. Across the room, on the sofa, were Aunt Jennie, one of my dad’s sisters, and her husband Uncle Gasper. I think Prudy’s husband, Mel, was there in the room as well, though I cannot be sure. My husband Larry and I were seated across the room either on chairs or on a smaller sofa next to a TV.
We were all enjoying one another’s company, talking about everyday things, about our trip from Texas and our life there, when Uncle Gasper spoke up and asked Uncle Tony to tell a particular story. Uncle Tony, who was a retired police officer, was our family’s storyteller. From the funny to the frightening and even to the sublime, Uncle Tony had a story for every occasion. We all enjoyed listening and laughing with Uncle Tony as he wove his stories. The story Uncle Gasper had asked to hear again was one that I had heard often, though after so many years, I don’t remember what the topic of the story was.
Everyone listened with rapt attention as Uncle Tony retold his story. And as the story progressed, Uncle Gasper would ask questions about the characters involved. Tony and Gasper had known each other for many years, so I am quite sure that Gasper had heard this particular story many times before. But Gasper’s interest in the story, his attention to what Tony was saying and his “drilling down” into the motives of the characters delighted and surprised me. I remember thinking to myself at the time that I was witnessing “love”. The respect and kindness that Gasper showed to his brother in law, Tony, was so vast, so impressive, that it could only have been love which was born of shared memories, respect and the years that they had known each other. I was awestruck and speechless.
We all laughed together with Tony as he finished his story. The coffee was hot and the cake was ready to eat. The party ended after everyone had enjoyed the treats which were provided. Though most of the participants have now passed into God’s kingdom, I will never forget that moment in their company when “love” was made visible in a small and tidy home on the Northside of Pittsburgh.