Tag Archive | "Italian-American families"

Arrotini (Grinders)

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A newspaper article that appeared in the November 10, 2011 edition of The Italian Tribune newspaper reminded me of my grandfather, the patriarch of our family.  Arrotini was the name of the article.

If someone would have asked me about the word “Arrotini,” my first response would have been, “It is a pasta made in Italy.”  But to my surprise, Arrotini translates to “grinders” in English!  And, here’s why that word brought my grandfather to mind most recently.

Rocco, my granddad, emigrated to America in 1896.  He hailed from the village of Castelluccio Val-Maggiore in the province of Foggia, Apulia, Italy.  After my grandmother, Filomena, had passed on, Rocco had to leave his son, Donato (my father) with family in Italy, until my grandfather had established himself in America.

Rocco settled in Rosetto, Pennsylvania, where he remarried Giovanna Campanaro.  Upon his marriage, he sent for Donato.  In 1901, my dad, Donato, accompanied by a chaperone from the town of his birth, arrived in Pennsylvania to begin his life in America.

My had grandfather come over with few skills.  All he had were the muscles in his arms and the drive to forge a decent life here for his family.  As a result, he earned his living working as a laborer. One of the skills he acquired was to sharpen cutlery with a small hand-propelled grinding wheel.

Most of his work was seasonal.  During off season times, he would strap that small grinding wheel onto his back and walk through his town as well as neighboring towns, calling out his services to attract business; he  sharpened cutlery and tools for housewives and anyone else with a need.  It has been rumored in the family that on one occasion, he’d walked as far as Pittsburgh, eking out a living for his family.

In 1910, prompted by better job opportunities, Rocco and Giovanna moved to South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they continued to raise their family.  In the ’30s, Rocco managed to procure a job with the city’s Sanitation Department.  He collected trash for a living, in the days when such workers were known as garbage men and not the misleading euphemism of “sanitation engineer.”   It was a job that he would keep until his retirement.

One did not have to ask Rocco what his occupation was; just a simple handshake told the story.  He was a large man, with years of hard, physical hard labor etched upon his face and his character.  His sources of enjoyment were simple: his wife, his family and friends, Italian cigars, and his dark, pungent homemade wine.

During my formative years, every Sunday evening meant a visit to my granddad’s home, which was the gathering place for the entire family. All the kids were assigned to the living room, while all the grownups conversed in the kitchen.  When refreshments were served, the children were then allowed around the table.

Ours was a military family.  My granddad’s eldest son, Donato, enlisted in the United States Navy during World War I.  Donato’s step-siblings were Filomena, Nicholas, Jenny, Lucia, Biagio, and Rocco Jr.: the children who later became my uncles and aunts, and some of whom became U.S. soldiers.

With the attack upon Pearl Harbor, America entered World War II.  As named by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “our sons, the pride of our nation,” marched or were drafted into that long global conflict.  My family was no exception.


Uncle Bill (Biagio) enlisted in the US Air Force and saw action in the North African and European theatres with the 448th Bombardment Squadron.  Drafted into the U.S. Army, Uncle Nick was deployed to Italy as a member of the 34th Infantry Division.  Uncle Rocco, Jr. did not go overseas; he was assigned to the U.S. Army stationed at the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  I followed two my uncles overseas.  Attached to the 24th Infantry Division in the Philippine Islands, I became part of a multi-national Allied coalition in a stabilizing/peacekeeping mission.  For a full year, I was stationed in Japan after that nation’s Emperor had surrendered to the Allies.

My grandparents both passed away in the same year, 1942. Perhaps the timing was a coincidence, or perhaps it was a matter of lifelong devotion to each other, a devotion that did carried into the next life.   When they passed on, they left the family with a legacy of hope and survival.  They never lived to see their sons return from war, or their grandson; they never witnessed the warm welcome that we all received from our loved ones waiting patiently, and praying for our safety, at home.

I guess many families of immigrants can relate to this story, for World War II produced 16 million men under arms before it ended.

As I subscribe to The Italian Tribune and read the articles about Italians, Italian-Americans, and their way of life, I never fail to reminisce about events that happened to, or helped to shape, my family.  All the years that I told people that my grandfather was a garbage collector, I never envisioned when the day would come when I could say that I knew for a fact that he’d possessed a marketable skill, a skill that had put food on his family’s table for a number of years.  Thanks to that newspaper and its illumination of the word, “Arrotino,” I will always equate “grinder” with my granddad’s trade of sharpening cutlery and tools for neighborhoods far and wide.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

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Today, my mother turned 86 years young.  I called her to wish her a happy birthday and somehow, we got onto the topic of politics.  History has taught me nothing, for it’s impossible to have a serious discussion with my mother, the female Yogi Bera and soul sister to Lucille Ball.  This morning, I pontificated, “It’s not possible to run for public office in this country unless you’re filthy rich!”  A heartbeat later, my mother’s asked sweetly, “Oh, when did that change?”

My mother’s comedy routines began in early childhood.  It’s not that she set out to make people laugh; it’s just that … like certain angels … trouble simply followed her.  Hilarious trouble!

At the tender age of nine, my mom was a product of extreme poverty.  The Great Depression and my grandfather’s illness meant no luxuries of any kind, for it was a struggle in those days for my grandmother, the sole breadwinner, to put food on the table, pay the rent, and clothe her family.  Understandably, when my mom’s Uncle Dan pulled up in front of her brownstone one day in a shiny brand new car, she thought she’d landed in Oz’s Emerald City.   My mother’s aunts were already crammed into the car’s front and back seats, but Uncle Dan rolled down the window and hollered for his young niece to hop into his new jalopy.  She didn’t need a second invitation for her very first ride in an automobile.

As the aunts yammered on excitedly, Dan made a rather sharp turn at a corner.  Like kids piled into a carnival ride, the aunts all shifted en masse … against my mother.  Under their combined weight, the door flew open, my 9-year-old mom rolled into a puddle, and the aunts continued to chatter on, oblivious to their loss.  Dan had his eyes on the road ahead of him, not the puddle behind him.  No one missed my mother as the car rolled blithely along with the passenger door flung gregariously wide.

A few minutes later, a wet and very ticked-off little Mary came up to the car, wind-milling her arms and legs and hollering at the top of her lungs at her stunned relatives, who blamed her for the tumble.  My mother was completely unharmed, for as she often says, “Thank God I was born with a hard head!”  Hard as it was, that head still gave her some trouble.

At the age of twelve, tomboy Mary was playing in the street (probably the same one into which she’d rolled three years earlier).  As it was not considered “lady like” to play where cars rolled by and horses clopped, all the other kids on that street were boys, including my mom’s two brothers.  Now, my Uncle Vince had a good friend nicknamed Whitey.  The reasons for his nickname were his platinum blond hair and pale blue eyes.  In an Italian-American neighborhood, the fair Whitey stuck out like a sore thumb — but his looks were not his only distinction.

Whitey, though young, was already in possession of two JD (Juvenile Delinquent) cards, courtesy of the NYPD.  New York City law demanded that if a boy incurred three JD cards, he’d become a guest of the State.  Unruly boys were jailed in those days.  And these were real jails, not today’s politically correct holding pens where perps “get religion” and subsequent early release.

That day, Whitey the JD was amusing himself by tossing rocks around.  He knew not to aim at the other kids or the windows on the brownstones.  Being a city kid with no pond upon which to skim stones, he was flinging rocks at nothing in particular.

My mother had just finished chalking up the street with a hopscotch diagram.  She straightened up to proudly admire her handiwork.  In the instant that she did, she caught one of Whitey’s rocks right in her third-eye chakra: smack between her eyes.  Under the impact, she swooned to the ground like a Victorian maiden, bleeding profusely.  Housewives hanging out of windows screamed bloody murder.  They screamed for my grandmother.  Whitey turned even whiter and ran for the hills, not even stopping to see if he’d done away with my mother.  Quick like bunnies, my uncles snatched up my mom and ran with her straight to the pharmacy, with my screaming/praying grandmother in tow.  In those days, few people had money for doctors, so pharmacists filled the bill except in the direst of emergencies.

Bleeding and woozy from her ordeal, my mother endured the two stitches that the pharmacist put in her head.  As if sewing up a hole in a sock, he was not artful as a physician would have been.  His handiwork would leave a scar between my mother’s eyes in the shape of Jesus’ cross, an appropriate and most noticeable symbol for one pulled all too often out of harm’s way.   Whether out of guilt or pity, the pharmacist then handed my mother a cool, delicious ice cream cone, free of charge.  Ice cream, a costly luxury, was never, ever seen in her home.  Immediately, her brothers commandeered the treat, telling their injured sister between licks that she was too ill to eat the cone!

Whitey vanished into thin air.  For years, no one had seen him or heard from him, not his family and not even my Uncle Vince, who had been his close friend.

When my mom was all grown up and working in the department store in which she was destined to meet my dad, management put her behind the sweater counter, selling fine women’s sweaters sewn with sequins and other feminine embellishments of the day.  She was a natural saleswoman, warm and friendly with customers.  Hardly anyone walked away from her counter without making a purchase.

One day, a couple strolled into her department.  As the woman examined the sweaters my mother had placed on the counter, my mom took a good long look at the man.  Something about him nagged at her as she struggled to recall a childhood face matured into that of a man.  Suddenly, it dawned.  “Whitey!” my mother exclaimed.  Instantly, Whitey turned, well, white.  “You — you must have mistaken me for someone else,” he stammered.

“You mean you don’t remember me?” my mother asked incredulously. “I’m Mary, Vince’s sister, from the old neighborhood.”  “I’m sorry; you’ve mistaken me for someone,” Whitey insisted again, guilt written in his pale blue eyes and the blush creeping up into his platinum blond hair.

“Oh yeah?” my mother countered in her best Edward G. Robinson voice.  Pointing to the cross between her eyes, she demanded, “Did you forget this as well?!?  You put it there!”  At that, Whitey snatched the sweater out of his wife’s hands, tossed it onto the counter, and hauled her out of the store as if his butt were on fire.  Across the selling floor, my mother’s department manager was stunned.  “You didn’t make that sale,” the woman said in surprise.  “That man looked as if he’d seen a ghost.  What did you say to him?”  “Beats me,” my mother shrugged innocently.

Like Ricky Ricardo’s Lucy, my mother was always getting herself into a pickle.  She had a real problem with doors that locked, particularly bathroom doors.  Being a modest woman, she insisted upon locking those doors. But being mechanically inept, she also managed to lock herself into a number of bathrooms in her lifetime.

When I was eleven years old and suffering from the flu, she did just that.  A frantic pounding and howling from behind the bathroom door roused me out of bed.  Hot with fever, I told her not to worry, that I’d phone my dad.  When I did, he snapped, “Deal with it!  I’m at the office; I’m trying to earn a paycheck here!”  “Hang on,” I told my mom, “I’ll go get Grandma and Grandpa.”

My grandparents lived in the apartment below us; it was their house.  My grandfather was more meticulous than Felix Unger could ever hope to be.  To give you but one example of his fastidiousness, my grandfather ironed and folded rags! That day, he and my Gran were hanging wallpaper that had a very distinct pattern; one screw-up and their walls would have looked like hell.  “I’m hanging wallpaper here,” my grandfather insisted. “So? Your mother’s always locking herself into bathrooms!”

With no hope on the horizon, I shuffled upstairs in my bathrobe and leaned against the bathroom door — wherein, my mother was having a very serious panic attack, for she was claustrophobic.  Like Dracula’s Renfeld harnessed into a straightjacket, she was working herself into a real lather … except that my mother’s straightjacket was a locked bathroom door.

Rationally, I told her, “Ma, you’ll be okay.  You have running water if you’re thirsty.  You have a toilet if you have to go.  And you have a window for fresh air.  Go open it and take a good deep breath.  Ma … you opened the window?”

“Yes.  Thanks.  You’re so calm!”

Of course I was; I had a fever of 101â—‹.  “Don’t worry,” I soothed. “I’m gonna call the Fire Department now.  They’ll bring a ladder and you can climb down.”

“Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!!” she shrieked.  “I’m afraid of heights!!!!!!!!!!!”

“Ma.  We’re only two stories up.”

“I am not climbing down that ladder!!!!”

“Okay, then stay there ’til Daddy gets home.”  It was ten thirty in the morning, and Daddy would not be home until about 6 PM, if the subway gods were kind.


Summoned by the screams through the open window, my grandparents had left their glue pots and curling wallpaper to check out the situation.  “Break the door down, Grandpa,” I suggested mildly, suddenly wanting to see some action.  My grandfather looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.  “You know I just painted that door last month.  I’m not ruining my house!”

Thus at a loss, he consulted the neighbors.  In a matter of minutes, every neighbor on the block was convened outside my bathroom door.  This meeting of the minds included Mike, a convivial little terrier of a man who lived directly behind us and was rumored to like his booze.  Come to think of it, Mike did smell a tad medicinal that day. “Don’t worry, Mary,” he said to the door, “we’ll just remove the door frame, get at the hinges, and take ’em off.”

“Over my dead body!” thundered my granddad.  From behind the door, my mother alternately moaned, screamed, and supplicated as if she were being dismembered.  I eyed my grandfather knowingly. “You’ll never get that room wallpapered at this rate, Grandpa.”

“What else ya got?” he then demanded of Mike.

“Nuthin’,” Mike shrugged.  Neither did anyone else.  They wound up removing the frame and the hinges, after all, and then replacing everything.  When my dad got home, he arrived suspicious, for my mother, as I’d said, had had problems with bathroom locks all her life.  He walked into the bathroom, locked the door behind him, and then jiggled the lock, as you would a thing that has a tendency to stick.  It opened easily!

My mother was so grateful to Mike that, after her escape, she ran to the fridge to liberate the lone can of beer in there (my family were not big drinkers).  She tossed the can over the fence to Mike, who caught it with a gleam in his eye.  A few minutes later, our phone rang.  It was Mike.  “Mary,” he drawled, “you lobbed that beer at me like Whitey Ford pitchin’ a ball.  It exploded all over my kitchen ceiling!”

Trouble follows some angels, yes.  But even some angels are afraid to tread where my mother goes!

Of Roses, Thorns, and Stevedores

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He’d inadvertently witnessed a Mob slaying when his wife was eight months pregnant.  Under cover of night, taking virtually no possessions, they fled New York City for Boston, grateful to be escaping with their lives and that of their unborn child — their first of ten boys and girls.

Thus was the unborn child in this real-life drama, my grandfather, the only one of his siblings to emerge from the womb not in The Big Apple, but in Bean Town.  Due to the very real fear of a Mob reprisal, my grandfather’s birth in 1891 was so clandestine that all his parents ever recounted was, “Joe was born on a hot day in July.”  Since that was like saying that Eskimos lived in the cold, my granddad, as a boy, adopted the Fourth of July as his birthday.  It was a date appropriate for a budding patriot and future war hero.

As an American-born kid of Italian immigrant parents, he grew up fast and hard in a town a lot more Irish than Italian.  When the Mobsters in question were all safely behind bars, the family moved back to New York City, a literal stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Bridge.  Joe took with him his street smarts and wry sense of humor.  Both of these stood him well in his job as stevedore on the rough Brooklyn docks.

In those days, mobs of n’er-do-wells, tipped off by their buddies on the wharf, would lie in wait at night to overcome and sometimes kill the stevedores in order to loot the valuable incoming freight.  The Irishmen on the docks didn’t like Joe any better in New York than they had in Boston, but he never backed down from a fight.  Eventually, they grew to respect him, his fists, and his “never say die” attitude.

Joe worked hard, but so did his wife, my grandmother Rose.  Rose only married him to get out of the house, or so she’d vowed, and often, right in front of my grandfather!  But theirs was a true love story, bittersweet and inspiring.

Held a virtual captive under her father’s roof seven days a week for eight long years as her family of eight’s sole source of income (she sewed gloves purchased by a manufacturer in the city), Rose was not swept off her feet by Joe, whom she had met at a rare family function, in a rare moment of respite.  But he fell hard for her beauty and natural charm, and she liked his humor.

She liked the fact that he stood up to her father, the family despot.  She liked it that Joe dressed nattily when he wasn’t dockside, with diamond pins in the lapels of his fine suits; she liked it that he’d been to the opera as well as the motion pictures (unprecedented treats for her).  She liked that he was knowledgeable and passionate about politics.  She liked that he took her to ice cream parlors in the days when women were still frowned upon in such establishments, and that he proudly showed her off there.  Joe was a man of the world and she, a quiet Italian immigrant eleven years his junior, an immigrant, at the time, with no English language skills.

On the eve of their marriage, in church, Joe and Rose sat a little too close together for my maternal great-grandmother’s tastes.  She told her future son-in-law to keep his hands where she could see them.  Joe grinned his famous mega-watt smile and asked if his mother-in-law-to-be would like to sleep between him and his bride the following night!

Joe taught Rose English.  She taught him spirituality.  They shared a sense of humor wrought of growing up in hard times.  All went well with Joe and Rose, and their growing family, until he became permanently disabled as a result of an old, increasingly debilitating injury sustained in World War I.

Theirs had been a traditional marriage, but when my grandfather was no longer fit for dock duty, or any job for that matter, my grandmother secured work in a factory, sewing those gloves.  Her skill, persistence, and strong people skills earned her the job of supervisor: a decent-paying job to which many men of her class aspired, particularly during the Great Depression, when so many were jobless and hungry.

Joe stayed home to raise their four children.  Rose made the money and eventually purchased a family home in a nicer section of Brooklyn, all on her own dimes.  Once, pushed to the limit and knowing her rights as a sworn-in American citizen, my grandmother broke the back of a corrupt union.   She did it single-handedly, logically, and courageously, knowing that she had five mouths to feed at home and knowing how rough the unions were, even in those days. Methinks she learned a thing or two from her husband, the former stevedore — but her victory was won without ever striking a literal blow.

My grandmother was a strong, spiritual woman; my grandfather, a strong, spiritual man.  Neither one of them groused about their odd but workable role reversal.  They were simply partners, life partners supporting each other and their family.

The habits that Joe had acquired during the early days of this role reversal were never discarded; as a small child growing up under his roof, I saw them firsthand.  Never have I known a woman to keep a house so neat and orderly as my granddad, never — and in the Italian-American culture, this is saying a lot.  He kept the house, cooked the meals, gardened, and made sure his kids toed the line and grew up right.

As the first grandchild born into his house, I became his primary lifeline to the outside world.  He had his daily newspapers, TV, radio, and Life magazines, of course; he had the neighbors and his nine siblings and their families for conversation and company.  But it was me he took an interest in most.

From my grandfather, I learned about politics; from him I gained an appreciation for the early, laudable mission statement of the Democrats.  I’d come home every day in my little Catholic school uniform, and he’d want to know what I had learned in school.  We’d discuss those things, and then he’d illuminate what the nuns had not: who President FDR was, why he was such a great man, and how he’d saved the nation during the Great Depression.  He’d speak also of the intrepid Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.  He’d held up John F. Kennedy as the greatest President we’d ever had, after George Washington and Abe Lincoln, of course.

We’d peruse the newspapers together and he shielded me from nothing.  The Vietnam War raged on during my grammar school years, and the animosity between a tiny, brave nation (Israel) and a bloodthirsty Middle East was really heating up.  The papers, and Life magazine, were filled with the most horrible stories and photos.  Although a decorated war hero, my grandfather would turn his dark, solemn eyes upon me and say, “War is never glorious; war is hell.”

I don’t think they ever realized it — and my grandfather barely lived to see it — but his patriotism and hatred of war, coupled with my grandmother’s courage and fundamental knowledge of U.S. law, set the table for me to demonstrate peacefully for positive change, both in New York City and our nation’s capital.

During the summer, when school was out, I’d become my grandfather’s secretary.  He’d dictate letters to me and I would write them out longhand. But he always posted them himself.  He’d joke, “I want to be sure you put them in the mail box and not the fire alarm box.”  Some of the letters were to his cousin, one of the founding Sisters of the Carmalite order, of whom he was very proud.  Others went to a surviving war buddy; still others were sent to family friends.  When I finally borrowed a typewriter in my early teens and he spied the results on paper, he was astounded, wanting to know how I got the print so very neat!  He taught me politics and I taught him the technology of the times, including the benefits of a transistor radio during a major blackout.

My granddad, along with my grandmother, also taught me the joy of cooking.  It was he who taught me never to overwork dough for pastries, for it would become tough.  Upon my first solo attempt at cinnamon rolls, he cracked, “We can send these to the Israelis to use as weapons.”  I was hurt, he apologized, and we both had a good laugh.  And never again did I muck up the pastry dough!  He died at the age of 80, as a direct result of that old war injury, the worst of which he’d managed to keep at bay for decades.  My grandmother had told me many times, “In those days, men died like flies on the operating tables, with injuries like that.  God spared your grandfather for many good years.”

Some of my relatives still recall my grandfather as a hard man, intractable in his views and, like his political heroes, speaking softly but carrying a big stick.  I remember a man who still flirted with my grandmother when they were both senior citizens, a man who always took the time to speak with me as if I had a brain instead of being a child to be “seen and not heard,” a man who quietly solidified the unflagging spirituality that had bolstered my grandmother through some very hard times.

To this day, I do not carry a single bad memory of my grandfather.  All I have are fond memories that never fail to make me smile.  When he passed after I’d turned 16, I had a dream about him, almost as soon as we’d buried him.

In the dream, I was walking along the avenue on which we’d lived.  I ran into my grandfather coming from the opposite direction and cried, “Grandpa, what are you doing here?!?”  Even in dream state, I was well aware that he had passed on.  Excitedly, he said, “Kat-a-leen, we always talked in life.  You always gave me good advice and I gave it to you.  Up in heaven, where I am now, I met this Jewish lady.  She’s very nice.  But more than that, she knows her politics.  We have wonderful heated discussions; they’re so lively and I enjoy them so much.  What do you think about that?”

He seemed to want my approval.

Shocked, I blurted, “Grandpa!   If you’re having a relationship with this Jewish lady, even a friendship, what are you going to tell Grandma when she joins you in heaven?!?”

He looked just as stunned as I’d felt.  “You’re right!” he exclaimed.  “Of course, you’re right. I didn’t think about that.  Thank you!”  With that, the dream ended!  

In retrospect, I am not so sure that it was a dream; it may have been a nighttime communiqué from my granddad, from the other side, for it was so very like him.   To this day, I wonder if my grandmother, when she got to Heaven to join him, went looking for that nice Jewish lady to give her a piece of her mind! 

Remembering the Greatest Generation

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To the best of my knowledge, my grandfather Rocco Petruzzelli was born in Italy in 1865.  In 1896, he left his homeland and the village of Castelluccio Valmaggiore near Foggia / Apulia, Italy and set out for America, leaving his son and my father Donato – born a matter of months earlier on October 31, 1895 – with relatives.  Apparently, Rocco’s wife and the mother of Donato, Filomena (nee Schiavone) died during or shortly after childbirth.

Upon arrival in America, my grandfather settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania, an enclave populated primarily by Italian immigrants and named for the village of Roseto Valfortore in Italy.  There, he met and married Giovanna Campanaro and, shortly thereafter, sent word to Italy for his son to join him.

Donato, then age 5, left Castelluccio accompanied by Domenico Rosso, a family friend from the village.  Years later, he told me that when he left home, he was riding on the back of a donkey and that, as he and Domenico departed, the villagers came out to wave goodbye.

They arrived in New York City, America in January 1901.  Anxiously awaiting their arrival, my grandfather somehow missed them as they landed at the dock.  Frantic, he contacted the New York Police, and they searched the entire area to no avail.  The police advised him to return to Roseto where, they reasoned, the person accompanying him would likely go.  Arriving home, Rocco found that his son and friend had preceded him from New York.  Safe and sound in Roseto, a joyous reunion and celebration commenced.

The Petruzzelli family continued to reside and grow in Roseto.  Not a skilled worker, my grandfather worked laborious jobs to eke out a living.  When there was no work available, he would strap a small grinding wheel on his back and seek out opportunities to sharpen knives, scissors, and various types of cutting tools.  Often, the search for work would find him walking to other towns.  One year, he walked all the way to Pittsburgh, a distance of more than 250 miles, sharpening knives and tools to provide for his family.

Nine years later, he moved his family to Philadelphia in an effort to enhance his own employment prospects and the quality of life for his family.  They settled in South Philadelphia residing in a house at 1240 South Iseminger Street.   My grandfather secured a job as a laborer with the Philadelphia Street Department, and in 1912 at the age of 47, proudly became a Naturalized Citizen of the United States of America.   At the time, his wife Giovanna (Joanne) was 14 years his junior, and they lived with their five children – Donato age 17, Filomena 8, Lucia 5, Jane 3, and Nicholas 1.

A few short years later, they purchased a home in the 1100 Block of Cross Street that would be our extended family’s gathering place in the years to follow and their residence for the remainder of my grandparents’ lives.  Here, they had two more sons, Biagio (Bill) and Rocco Jr., bringing the family total to 7 children.  When the United States entered World War l, my father Donato left this home, enlisted in the United States Navy, and served until he was Honorably Discharged on September 3, 1919.

In 1942, my grandmother Giovanna passed away only to be followed a few short months later by my grandfather Rocco.  Both were laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania.  At the times of their deaths, the winds of war were fanning the flames of World War II in Europe and the Pacific.  Ultimately, three of their sons, Nicholas, Biagio, and Rocco Jr., as well as their grandson, Thomas, would all make contributions to America’s war effort.

Today at age 83, I am the oldest living member of the Petruzzelli family and filled with fond memories.  I recall a trip to Roseto with my grandparents at the age of 8.  We spent a week visiting my grandmother’s relatives.  As a city boy, I found it a wonderful experience seeing how they lived in the country.  They raised chickens and had vegetable gardens and grape arbors that stretched from the chicken coops to the house.  They even had a goat that produced milk.  Offered a glass of it, I found it strange drinking warm milk, and everyone had a good laugh at the look on my face as I drank it.

At every opportunity, I try to instill in my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren their Italian heritage in hopes that they will know about their cultural roots when I am gone.  As I reflect on my own life, I realize that my most enjoyable times were spent in the company of family and friends.

Tom Brokaw, a well-known journalist and news anchorperson on NBC, wrote a book entitled The Greatest Generation.  It was the story of the generation of Americans who lived through The Great Depression and then fought and won World War ll.  And, I am very proud at being numbered among that group.

Yet, Tom Brokaw never met men like my grandfather and all the other Western European immigrants who left their homelands to come to America seeking a new and better life for themselves and their families, many arriving with just the clothes on their backs.  In my estimation, it is they who are worthy of the designation as “The Greatest Generation.”

Happy Mother’s Day (Buona Festa Della Mamma)

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In the United States and other countries around the world, a day is set aside to honor motherhood.  In the U.S. and many other nations, that day is the second Sunday in May.   Regardless of the precise date, Mother’s Day is a special day in our lives to recognize the women who bear the pain, nurture, guide and love their offspring selflessly their entire lives.

Not limited to humans, the strong bond and caring between mother and child can be observed throughout the animal kingdom.  In Roman Catholicism, the Virgin Mary is worshipped and adored as the spiritual Mother of all.

Growing up in a family of Italian heritage, my brothers and I considered our Mom special not just on Mother’s Day, but all year long.  She was always there for us when needed, toiling endless hours cooking and cleaning.  She took care of our family business while Dad was earning the money to put a roof over our heads and food on the table.  Despite her seemingly endless household chores, she still found time for Dad when he came home from a hard day at work.

She did all these things and more out of love of family and did them without complaint, calling it her duty.  Today, it would cost a King’s ransom, even without perks, to pay an employee who kept a home as tidily and lovingly as did my Mom.

When things got out of hand amongst us kids, she stepped in and solved the problem.  And, if you thought you could avoid punishment by being fleet of foot, forget it.  The average Italian Mom could nail you in the back of the head with her shoe at fifty paces.  Ask George W. Bush how difficult it is to avoid a shoe attack.  And, he saw them coming!  Call it tough love or any other politically correct term you choose, we soon learned the secret of getting along with our friends and relatives.

Yet, we always felt the protective shield of Mom in our lives.  Always watchful of her brood, Mom could transform herself from meek and mild-mannered to ferocious in an instant, should anyone or anything threaten her family.  And, when Mom wasn’t happy, nobody was happy.

The day I marched off to war, she tried to keep a stiff upper lip when we said goodbye, but she could not hide the tears in her eyes.  My future uncertain, I knew that I would be atop Mom’s prayer list.  They say, “A mother’s prayers go straight to heaven.” And, while I am certain that my Mom’s prayers helped keep me safe, I also think of another old adage, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”

So as we celebrate Mother’s Day, I would like to take the liberty of including the entire writing staff of Write On New Jersey in wishing all mom’s of every time and place a “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Jumping into the Hole

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On a bleak, 3-degree New York winter’s day several weeks ago, I buried a relative by marriage.  As my husband was a pallbearer, I drove to the cemetery with my brother-in-law, who muttered repeatedly under his breath, like a mantra, “Please, let them not take us up right up to the hole.”   My own family buries our dead in a more genteel manner, so I was a bit taken aback by this never-before-experienced prospect, particularly after my brother-in-law added, “Do you know how many funerals I’ve attended where those left behind have tried to actually jump into the hole?”

While this was an image I could have done without, I still wasn’t getting the “hole” picture until we trudged over the half-sodden, half-frozen ground, right up to the grave site: that inescapable six-foot hole cut into the earth.  One of other pallbearers slipped over the unforgiving ground and nearly slid into that hole.  And with the earth so soggy, I too nearly took a header into the grave as I leaned in to place a rose upon the coffin in a final goodbye.  Afterward, my brother-in-law confessed, “Do you know how relieved am I that nobody tried to jump into the hole after him?”

The man we buried has quit this Earth, but his was a wake and funeral will live with me forever; I have never before stared down into a grave awaiting its booty.  Along with thoughts of how brief life is in this plane, my brother-in-law’s words haunt me still.   I wondered who might want to jump into my grave, when the time comes.  Whoever it is (and I have a pretty good idea), they will be robbed of that “privilege.”

The Catholic Church forbade cremation for centuries, but since I made a conscious decision to leave the Church years ago, I will not be facing the flames of hell for breaking with dogma that has since been altered.  Rather, the body I will no longer need will be licked clean by a manmade fire.  Half of my ashes will be sprinkled here in the States, and half overseas, in locations known only to my nearest and dearest.   In making this decision, and in laying plans for my own funeral, I realize that I have spared my loved ones the sturm and drang, the emotional and fiscal costs associated with a more traditional send-off.

My goodbye will not be what constitutes, in my eyes, a rather barbaric custom.  It will not leave people asking themselves that which I’d asked myself of this aforementioned relative’s wake. “Why was he not more considerate of his family and friends?” I wondered. “He knew he was dying.  Why did he put us through all of this: the trip upstate, the money laid out for three nights in a hotel, the special funeral attire (I never wear black), the three squares a day in local restaurants, the pricey flower arrangements?  Why did he do this to us?  Did it bring him some comfort to force us to mourn him in this archaic and painful manner?”

And then it hit me.  He may have done nothing to us.  It may have been his family wanting the old-fashioned Italian wake and burial, as the deceased was of Polish descent and a damned brave man to have married into a family comprised almost solely of Italian-Americans!

And then I wondered why on God’s green Earth would his family have wanted to put themselves through such an ordeal?

The man who had passed on had suffered from a form of cancer once remitted and then returned to attack other parts of his body.  In the casket, he looked nothing like the vivacious, wisecracking, generous soul he had been in life.  In fact, his gray, sunken face told of his suffering.  His wife was well prepared for his passing, or so she had led us to believe.  Why did she wish to stare at his shell in that box for hours on end, over two days plus another few hours on the morning that we put him in the ground?  Was this respectful to him?  Although my family takes care of these things in a much quieter and quicker manner (and yes, I am an Italian-American), I thought that perhaps this was the widow’s way of jumping into the hole after her husband; maybe it was her way of grieving.  

As I sat at length in that too-warm room redolent of the sickly odor of lilies, I realized that perhaps the mourners were not weeping for the deceased; they were crying for themselves.

Their lives would be diminished by the passing of this great big bear of a man who always had a joke on his tongue, enjoyed spectator sports vociferously, and whose front door and refrigerator were always open to guests, both invited and unexpected.  They would miss his heated political arguments that usually ended in him poking fun at the strunzes in our nation’s capitol.  They would miss making fun of him as he turned up his nose, as he had for decades, at the fried calamari and other cultural delicacies that most of the rest of us ate with gusto.  And no doubt, those grieving wondered who would take care of them.

The dead man had left his wife well cared-for financially, and they owned a large piece of property with a house to match.  Who, now, would mow that property, seed it, and weed it?  Who would chase the deer away from the roses and fruit trees in the summer?  Who would chop the firewood and rake the leaves in the autumn and remove the snow in the winter?  Who would keep the widow company in a house far too large for a sole occupant whose mind and heart would turn again and again to the empty chair, the empty place in the bed beside her?  

Perhaps she had restrained herself from actually jumping into the hole by going through a long, drawn-out, emotionally exhausting process of the two-to-three-day wake and funeral still favored by my elders.

Me, I won’t be doing this to my loved ones when my times comes.  Years ago, I left a living will for my best friend to carry out, and it will not be a lavish, somber affair in the old Italian tradition.  After doling out all of my still-functional organs to those on waiting lists who truly need them, what is left of my body will take its final journey down that burning log flume.  There will be nothing to bury and no waiting hole in the ground to haunt my loved ones with its starkness and finality.  There will be no headstone, for I will not be in the ground.  My spirit will be with the Being who created me, in whom I have the utmost of faith. 

I hope no one wears black to my send-off, for black is the absence of all light.  Mine will be a fine Irish wake, replete with “craick” (story telling and jokes), “hoisting a jar or two” (enjoying alcoholic beverages) in my honor, and playing specific selections of music that have lifted my heart throughout my life on this planet.

There are those who hope that their spouses, family, and friends will shed copious tears upon their passing.  I am not one of those people.  If my loved ones weep, I hope they do so in private, for I want no sad faces, and misery loves company.  Oh, they will mourn because the rock of the family has passed; they’ll wonder who will take care of them.  But their lives will go on until they, too, are called Home.

Most of all, I hope that those who truly knew me enjoy the stories of how I lived my life rather than how I died.  And I hope that they tell them often as they remember me, until we meet again in the Light of the Lord. 

La Famiglia

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Earth from Space 2

The Holiday Season, in the midst of which we find ourselves, is a time of giving, sharing, and reflection.  As we gather together to enjoy or endure (in whatever situation you may find yourself this year) the blessings of the season and conclusion of another calendar year, many of us will pause to remember Holidays past.  For me, what made those occasions special were not the gifts given or received (most of which I can barely recall) or the food and drink consumed, but the people with whom those times were shared.  If you were fortunate enough to have grown up within a close extended family, you have a sense for that about which I am speaking.  The offspring of members of two tightly-knit Italian-American families, I – of course – shared those joyous times with parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins!


And, during my childhood and adolescence, our family gatherings were not reserved simply for Holidays, but were a regular part of life.  Every Sunday was like a mini-Holiday!  For, on that particular day of the week, my mom, dad, brother, and I all traveled from our home in New Jersey for a day with our families in Philadelphia.  We began with dinner at the home of my paternal grandparents in the early afternoon.  Later in the day and evening, we joined my mom’s side of the family at her parents’ home.  Why and how that particular schedule was established, I do not know.  But, what I do know is that for the ten-plus years that I remember our Sunday pilgrimages to the City, the dinners and family gatherings were attended, with extremely rare exception, by each and every aunt, uncle, and cousin.  Regardless of what was happening in our individual lives and nuclear families, we all made it a priority to join with our extended family for that one day out of the week.


My father was one of three brothers and my mother one of five sisters.  And so, our Sunday dinner with my father’s family was usually shared among fifteen adults and children, and the evening gathering of my mom’s clan customarily totaled twenty-one.  As Americans of Italian heritage, we always viewed our families as being more loving and closer-knit than those of our non-Italian friends and neighbors.  And indeed, I, to this day, know of no other non-Italian-American families who were more in each other’s presence or whose lives were more closely intertwined than were those of my mother or my father.


Imagine experiencing Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter on a weekly basis!  That is what my childhood was like.  The incredible food was just a small part of the equation.  The truly amazing aspect of those days was the overwhelming sense of love and fulfillment that was enjoyed by all on those occasions.  Now, I do not mean to suggest that my mom’s and dad’s families did not have their share of disagreements and even animosities, as most people do.  But, in the presence of each other, those feelings faded away, as the snow melts on a mild spring day.  Harmony reestablished, we were liberated to enjoy the reverie, camaraderie, and peace that one can only experience in the presence of those whom he or she truly loves.


It occurs to me now that there was one other individual who, although unseen, must have attended our weekly gatherings.  If Heaven is the presence of God, then He must have been there among us.  And, if His presence can create harmony and joy among biological family members, then why not among all his children?


The day is fast approaching when all of us must come to the realization that our peace, harmony, and very survival are interwoven with those of our brothers and sisters inhabiting this planet.  Fuel, food, and clean air and water, in diminishing supply, are among the commodities that we must equitably share.  The root causes of hatred and violence must be illuminated and eradicated.  And, we must all learn to tolerate and even celebrate our cultural and religious differences.


Perhaps, as naive as it sounds, we should begin by acknowledging ourselves as members of the same family, relatives not by place of origin but by common Creator.  Then, perhaps, we may feel inspired to gather together and discover the enriching power of sharing a meal or companionship with our brothers and sisters of every race, culture, nationality, and religious persuasion.  In the presence of each other and our Heavenly Father, we will surely see our differences melt away and be left with a sense of peace and fulfillment, as well as a blueprint for resolving the difficult problems that we share.

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