Tag Archive | "South Philadelphia"

My Other Brother

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This is the story of the youngest of three brothers who shared a life experience growing up in a happy home in South Philadelphia.  Preceded by his older brothers Rocco in 1924 and Thomas in 1926, Anthony Petruzzelli was born to Donato and Rose Petruzzelli on Armistice Day in 1928, ten years after the guns of World War I were silenced at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

 

As was the custom in Italian-American families of that era, my older brother Rocco was named after his paternal grandfather and I after my maternal grandfather.  With no more grandfathers to honor, my mother chose the name “Anthony” for my younger brother simply because it appealed to her, having read a novel titled Anthony Adverse.

 

As to how much adversity my brother had in his life (all puns intended), I cannot attest.  Yet, there are many who believe that a name endows a special quality upon its bearer.  And, I believe that the same might be true of a nickname.  One thing I can state with complete certainty is that a nickname can and often does follow its bearer to the grave.

 

My younger brother was nicknamed “Fats” because, as a toddler, he was pudgy, and the name stuck.  In later years, after I was married, I would visit my Best Man Jim Tedesco and, as we exchanged pleasantries, he would always say “How’s Fats?” which always brought a smile to my face.

 

As a child, Fats was always getting lost on family outings.  When things would get quiet, Mom or Dad would say “Where’s Fats?” and my older brother Rocco would start the search. Despite life during the Great Depression, our family enjoyed many outings, giving Fats lots of opportunities to get lost.  In a far less complex world than that of today, our family enjoyed the simple pleasures of picnicking at parks, cruising down the Delaware River, hiking in Wissahickon Park, and viewing the many sights that the city of Philadelphia had to offer.

 

Then, along came World War ll, and we all participated – in our own ways – in the war effort.  During much of the war years, Anthony was attending Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia, majoring in Aircraft Mechanics.  At that time, he also procured a part-time job as an errand boy at Central Type, a center city print shop.

 

 

His experiences at Central Type became a defining moment in his life.  His employer perceived in Anthony an industrious, eager quality and offered him a Union apprenticeship – an opportunity that Anthony gladly accepted.  Years of study and hard work produced a journeyman printer who would later run the business renamed The Composing Room.

 

Like his older brother Rocco before him, Anthony ascended to management status in his career.  Also like his older brother, he achieved everything through diligence and hard work, coupled with the love of a supportive family.

 

Anthony also found time to serve his country – enlisting in the Naval Reserve when he came of age after the War’s end.  As such, he was the only son to follow in the footsteps of his father Donato, who served in the US Navy as a seaman in World War l.

 

With the end of World War II, Americans across the nation turned their attentions homeward.  The Petruzzelli brothers were no exception.  We all got married and raised families.  Despite the changes brought on by marriage and children, our family retained its closeness.  Each Sunday, we would meet at our parents’ home in South Philly.  Here, we all enjoyed each other’s company and a delicious home-cooked dinner.  These Sundays together were among the happiest times of my life.

 

 

After 40 years of happy marriage, my brother Anthony lost his wife Dorothy to cancer and, once again, we rallied together as a family.  After a time, Anthony called and indicated that he would like to meet my wife and I to discuss an important matter.  We met at a local restaurant where he introduced us to a lovely woman named Palma.  He then said he was considering marriage and wanted to know if I approved.  I responded “if you’re happy, then I’m happy,” as I had experienced the same tragedy in 1975 at the sudden passing of my wife Midge.

 

When he married for the second time, I was delighted to be selected as his Best Man, an honor that had been bestowed upon me many years before when my older brother Rocco was betrothed to his bride Teresa Cifuni.  Prior to his nuptials, Anthony held a family gathering at his oldest son Robert’s home.  At that celebration, I met Palma’s son-in-law Tom who related to me a fascinating, true story about an occurrence during the Vietnam War.  With his permission, I wrote an article about his story entitled Little Flower – an article that was subsequently published and for which I won an award.

 

Anthony’s marriage to Palma Ferri commenced yet another chapter in his life, a life enriched by caring friends and family.  My brother Anthony knew that love was to be shared and share it he did.  He “cast his bread upon the waters” and it was returned to him a thousand fold in love and affection from his wives, children, grandchildren, and friends.

 

This was a fact that was brought home to me recently when I attended his funeral, for – on June 7th – his Heavenly Father called him home.  When his son Robert called to inform me, I was shocked, as I had just spoken to him days before discussing the pros and cons of immunization against Shingles.  Perhaps I failed to mention that my brother, among his many other fine attributes, was also a planner for the unexpected – probably the Anthony Adverse syndrome.

 

As we close the final page on the life of my brother Anthony, I am sure that his earthly passing   was the cause of great celebration in Heaven as Mom, Dad, and other departed loved ones welcomed Anthony into God’s eternal kingdom.  Those of us remaining are left with fond memories and the hope that we too will join them someday in a family gathering that will last forever.

 

In the interim, however, it’s time to say goodbye with love.

 

Brother Tom

Greek Hotdogs

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Growing up in South Philadelphia during the Great Depression was an experience I will never forget.  And, despite tough economic times and the winds of yet another war to end all wars looming in Europe, I still hold that era dear to my heart.

 

For kids, the South Philly of that time was a magical place to live.  I remember with great affection my family’s Holiday celebrations and the annual New Year’s Day Parade that originated on Second Street and wound its way to its conclusion on Broad Street.   Of course, South Philadelphia was also home to great food – both the food my mother made at home and the City’s many eateries.  The original Pat’s Steaks at 9th & Wharton Streets was and remains a landmark.

 

But, what I recall best are the colorful characters who inhabited the City.  Like the other major Northeastern metropolitan areas, Philadelphia exemplified the “melting pot” that was America.  People with funny names and habits added color to everyday life.  Every ethnic group added their own unique culture and food specialties to the cityscape.

 

Among my fondest memories, however, were what my family referred to as Greek Hotdogs.  We gave them that name, not because they were made in Greece, but because of the ethnicity of the family who ran the establishment in which they were made and sold.  Their store was at the intersection of Snyder Avenue and the Southwest corner of South Carlisle Street –  just a half city block from the Broadway Theater at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue.

 

No matter the time of day or night, you could always find a crowd of people enjoying with gusto a very special hotdog.  Anyone who ever tasted one will attest to that fact.  Like Lays Potato Chips, you “can’t eat just one.”

 

Although Greeks ran the business that made these taste treats, the unique flavor was really in the special sauce and fixings that accompanied the hot dogs – the exact ingredients of which were a closely-guarded secret.  In my opinion, you just haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a Greek Hotdog, as many members of our military who visited Philadelphia during World War ll learned.

 

After he was married and became a father, my older brother Rocco, who was born and died in South Philly, always dedicated one night of the week to the enjoyment of Greek Hotdogs.  He chose Thursday – perhaps, because of the Roman Catholic prohibition against eating meat on Fridays.

 

Since his passing, his daughter Donna has continued the tradition in his honor every Thursday night.  Recently, during a phone conversation with her, the subject of Greek Hotdogs arose, bringing with it fond memories of her Dad and those delicious hotdogs.  As we were ending our conversation, she said “Remember, Uncle Tom, when you order them, you cannot eat only one!”  As I hung up the phone, I smiled and reminisced of the taste of a lifetime, a taste I remember as vividly today as the day when I indulged in my first Greek Hotdog.

 

Walter Cronkite, the iconic news anchor for the CBS Evening News in the 60’s and 70’s ended each broadcast with the same refrain, “What kind of a day was it?  A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times.  And you were there.”  For me, Greek Hotdogs represented one of the simple pleasures of life, an anticipated change from the everyday.  And, like Cronkite’s audience, I was there.

Nicky Blue

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Lately, my email system’s in-box has been filled with out-of-the-ordinary messages.  Sadly, the last of these was from the grandson of a dear friend, informing me that his grandfather has passed on.  Thus, I am moved to write this tribute to an extraordinary man who touched my life.


My friend was baptized Nicholas J. Prestipino in 1923.  Nicky, as he would come to be called, was raised in an ethnically mixed South Philadelphia neighborhood, in the vicinity of 10th and Ritner Streets: my neighborhood.  Although he was three years older than I was during the Great Depression, we grew up together and even attended the same schools.  It was during these years that he was nicknamed Nicky Blue, a moniker that would stick with him until he was laid to rest.


En route to our manhood, something happened that would forever change our lives.  When World War II erupted, it subjected men between the ages of 18 and 45 to the draft.  Enlisted into the armed forces, many boys from our neighborhood were called to serve their country.


Nicky was inducted into the Army and trained for the Infantry.  His tour of duty would take him to the theater of war known as China, Burma, and India (CBI).  By chance, two other neighborhood boys serving in an Ordinance company were sent to the same arena.  Their names were Anthony Didio and James (Jimmy) Celotto.


Because of the different branches of the service into which they were inducted, these three young men did not serve together.  Anthony recalls that while stationed in China, he and Jimmy decided one day to visit a local airfield to watch planes arrive and depart for various destinations.  As they watched a plane taxiing along the runway in order to refuel, they were surprised and delighted to see Nicky Blue among the men deplaning.  For a brief period, all three had a joyous reunion.


Nicky told Anthony and Jimmy that he was assigned to Mars Task Force Company G, 475th Regiment, as a heavy machine gunner.  Nick said that his company was bound for Burma to battle the Japanese occupying that country. After the plane refueled, Nick had to climb aboard to continue on in his journey as a gunner. As Anthony and Jimmy watched him board, Anthony turned to Jimmy and said, “This is the last time we’ll see Nicky Blue alive.”


The story of the war in that region proved to have heavy American and Allied causalities; it had been a near impossible task to repel the occupying Japanese.  So vivid and poignant were these stories that Hollywood made two movies about this arm of the war, naming the films Merrill’s Marauders, starring Jeff Chandler, and Objective Burma, with Errol Flynn in the lead role.  Thankfully, Anthony and Jimmy had been wrong about Nicky Blue.  His courage and smarts enabled him to survive what so many had not.


When the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, World War II came to an abrupt end.  With its end came the return home of those soldiers who had endured this long conflict.  As the boys returned one by one to our neighborhood, they gathered on the corner of 10th and Ritner Streets to re-forge the connection that the war had interrupted. From these informal meetings, Club Gramercy was born.  This was a social club in which we spent many pleasant hours in pursuit of our past.


As time passed, many of the boys — now men — married and drifted away to pursue family life.  But in 1986, two members met across a meat counter in a Northeast Philadelphia supermarket and decided to bring the boys together again.  These two friends were Baby Joe Carabasi and Tony Griffoni.  Through networking, they accomplished the first meeting of 12 friends at the home of Amadea (John) Adelizzi in Palmyra, New Jersey, a conference of sorts for The Boys of 10th and Ritner.


Within six months, our numbers had more than quadrupled.  Fifty-four friends showed up at Vitale’s Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia for the first official meeting of The Boys from 10th and Ritner.  These meetings continued for more than ten years at Cobblestones Bar & Grill in South Philly.  We celebrated our 10-year anniversary in 1996 at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.


Over meals and a little wine, we relived our youth, told war stories and jokes, and shared news of happenings that pertained to us. Today, our members have dwindled to but a few.  Our ages and our accompanying ailments have put up roadblocks to our physical gatherings, but we do keep in touch by phone and email.


When I received the news of Nicky’s death by email, I contacted Joe DeGenova and Anthony Didio to inform them, and to ask them to pass the information on to our other surviving members.  Perhaps not surprisingly, both Joe and Anthony had the same response when hearing the news: “I can’t believe that Nicky Blue is gone!”  Neither could I, because Nicky had always had that “larger than life” personality. 


My wife and I used to gather with special friends every July at the Golden Inn in Avalon, New Jersey.  One year we were introduced to a new couple that spent the weekend with us.  In conversation, they told us that they resided in Hammonton, New Jersey.  This caused me to ask if they knew Nicky Blue Prestipino.  With a broad smile on his face, the husband   replied, “Everybody knows Nicky Blue!”  Indeed, Nicky seemed to touch the lives of all whom he encountered.


An unforgettable person, just saying that nickname, “Nicky Blue,” brings a smile to my face and the face of anyone who knew him.  Nicky has become a legend amongst family and friends. Not just an ordinary person, he exhibited extraordinary courage fighting in the jungles of Burma during the war, and the memories of that war haunted him until the end.  Perhaps that is why Nicky still retained his great zest for life.


In my last conversation with Joe DeGenova, as we reflected upon our lives, Joe told me:


“Treasure your yesterdays.

Dream your tomorrows.

And live your todays.”


I know Nicky Blue lived his life by that motto. A beloved member of The Boys of 10th and Ritner, he will be greatly missed by the surviving members of our group.  We offer the final salute in saying “Goodbye, Nicky Blue,” as we have to all of our members who preceded him into the Kingdom of Heaven.


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.”


Come September

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In contemplating a title for this article, I could very well have lifted a line from a beloved old Grateful Dead song, Truckin’.  “What a long, strange trip it’s been” surely describes my life.  For the most part, it’s been a good life.   For everything that I have put into it and everything that I have gotten out of it, my life seemed to be headed in a certain direction — until I reached my golden years.  That’s when it turned strange.


Growing up in South Philadelphia with my two brothers during the Great Depression, the life lessons learned in my youth held me in good stead as I matured, carving the path that my life has taken.  Hard work and honesty were the cornerstones of my family.  Like most traditional families of those times, my father was the breadwinner, and my mother was the heart and soul of our household.   My dad worked long hours in my grandfather’s barbershop while my mother did the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, and nearly every other household chore, including the most important one: the majority of the child-rearing.   My brothers and I pitched in to help whenever we could.  Back then, when the unemployment rate had skyrocketed to 25%, it took teamwork to get by as well as maintain our sanity.


We may not have been rich, but we were happy.  Simple, inexpensive outings, such as a trip down the river on the Wilson Line or hiking in the Wissahickon Park provided my family with downtime as well as quality time, in which we strengthened our bonds and celebrated being alive.  I remember those times with great fondness, as I do playing stickball and other games in the street along with the neighborhood kids.  Somebody’s mother or grandmother was always peering down upon us, making sure that we were safe and causing no major mischief.  If we were the cause of any trouble, may heaven have helped us as those watchful eyes would report back pronto to our parents, who then doled out appropriate punishments.


Back then, there was no such thing as a Time Out to curtail the behavior of unruly children.  There was no such thing as withholding television from us for our minor sins, because TV had yet to be invented!   There was no such thing as “reasoning” with us or facilitating the development of our “critical thinking skills” that would enable us to see the error of our ways.  In those days, parents had neither the time not the inclination for such approaches.  They were engaged in the very serious task of keeping the roof over their kids’ heads and food in their mouths.  The ideology behind “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was not a philosophy in my house; it was a way of life.   My brothers and I quickly learned that things could be a lot more pleasant if we followed our parents’ rules and mores, including respect for others.


As the years passed, my brothers and I were able to help the family in a monetary fashion.  After-school jobs, such as serving as delivery boys for local grocers, working newspaper routes, or clerking in stores allowed us to chip in a bit at home while still enjoying a little “blow money.”


At age the age of sixteen, we traded our short pants for long ones, for that was the mark of a boy coming of age.  Many of us came of age a lot faster than we’d bargained for, courtesy of World War II.   Two years after I’d begun to wear men’s clothing, I traded those clothes for a military uniform, at the command of the United States Army.


After the war, those lucky enough to return home attempted to recapture the years lost in the conflict by trying to meld back into civilian life.  But we were forever changed, as was the nation.  When the war ended, so did the jobs that supplied the war, mostly in manufacturing.  Because there were not enough jobs for the returning troops, many veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill: a piece of legislation enabling vets to attain college educations or learn one of the trades by way of vocational schools.  With our newfound knowledge, we moved into decent-paying jobs, jobs that helped make our country the most economically sound nation in the world.


In the years to follow, we left our homes and the sheltering arms of our parents.  We began our own lives with the girls of our dreams.  Shortly afterward, we experienced the joys and responsibilities of raising our own families and understood, finally, our parents’ perspectives.   We worked, and we worked hard.  We put away for our retirement, to be able to enjoy our golden years with our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Never did we expect to find ourselves in a situation tottering too close for comfort to the same one we’d experienced as kids growing up in the Great Depression.  At least, I didn’t.


Now that I am a senior citizen, I am floored, dismayed, and disheartened by what I see, and I feel that I speak for many people of my generation.  We served our country; we worked within the system and paid into the system.  We had assumed that our honest and industrious work ethic would bear fruit, for it is karmic law that what you give out, you receive back.  We did not expect to lose our shirts when the stock market crashed nearly two years ago. We did not anticipate that our government would blithely fork over $710 billion in aid – not to a needy working class, but to the elite: those who own and run huge mega-million dollar corporations.


These events have left senior citizens up the creek without a paddle.  On fixed incomes, we must juggle the costs of necessities against the ever-rising cost of living.  In addition to food, shelter (including the utilities and appliances and everything else within those shelters), and of course, clothing, we must – by law – carry insurance on our cars and perhaps in the near future, our health.


Over and over, my mind spins with questions of how my dad managed just the basics on the salary he earned.  We owned no car.  Our home was not air conditioned, nor did it boast a hot water heater, a dryer, a dishwasher, or other modern-day amenities.  And yet, we still enjoyed life to the fullest.  As President George H.W. Bush recalled the era he lived in, “Life was simpler and kinder then.”  Where did we go wrong?  Is overindulgence the “reward” we must now reap?


If only we seniors could return to those carefree days of childhood.  Until someone constructs a time machine, that’s not going to happen.  For now, here is another hard to believe fact that seniors must swallow.  Although the estate tax for 2010 is zero, it will climb to 55% in 2011!  If you are interested in cashing in on some savings, please refer to my article on this site entitled, Single Shot 45.


I suppose the plight of the Over the Hill Gang can best be summed up in a song.  We’re not talking about the Grateful Dead anymore; we’re talking about an artist of my generation.  We’re talking about Frank Sinatra’s, The September of My Years:


One day you turn around and it’s summer.

The next day you turn around and it’s fall.

And all the springs and winters of a lifetime

Whatever happened to them all?

  

 

 

The Strange Saga of Private Joseph A. Ermilio

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Have you ever had the experience in which you’d met a person for the first time and felt as if you had known him or her before?  Here in the States, we deem this a form of psychic phenomenon; the French call such occurrences deja vu.   No matter what you choose to call it, the experience leaves you a bit awestruck, and perhaps more than a bit.  You realize that life is not random, that it has a pattern, and even a purpose.  And sometimes you realize that, through your experience, you are meant to share what you have learned with others for an even higher purpose.  That is my aim in sharing this true tale with you.


My own deja vu begins in South Philadelphia, when I was boy during the 1930’s. Growing up in the vicinity of 10th and Ritner Streets, my contemporaries and I were, for the most part, the children of hard-working, God-fearing immigrants.  Life was pleasant in my boyhood.  It would be years before the streets of Philadelphia were choked with cars, so it was easy for the kids in the neighborhood to have some good, clean fun playing stickball and other games in the streets.  Although I had my own circle of friends, I also had those “familiar strangers” that we all have in our lives.  Mine were the boys with whom I attended the same school.  I’d see them in the halls and around the neighborhood; although I’d recognized many faces and had casual encounters with the owners of those faces, I was “tight,” as we say today, with my own group.


In the blink of an eye, a single event forever changed my life as well as many other lives — an event that forced boys to become men overnight.  On the morning of December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, thus providing our President, FDR, with the impetus to enter the United States into that long, bloody campaign known as World War II. I was not yet of military age, and neither were most of my friends and peers.  But as the war dragged on and more birthdays passed, Uncle Sam caught up with us via the draft.


One of the boys drafted from my South Philly neighborhood was Joseph A. Ermilio.  While Joseph was not a close friend of mine, I knew him from the neighborhood.  Enlisted into the Army on April 22, 1943, he trained as infantry and was not the first member of his family to serve his country in WWII; his brother Vincent was drafted in July of 1942.  After fifteen weeks of basic training, Joseph was slated to see active duty in the European theater.  There, he found himself in the heat of an invasion of Italy’s coast, near the resort towns of Anzio and Nettuno.


There is an Old Italian saying attesting to the beauty of Naples: “Vedi Napoli, poi morire” translates to,  “See Naples, then die.”  Unfortunately, during World War II, many American soldiers did just that.


In the predawn hours of January 22, 1944, British and American forces stormed the beautiful beaches in a flawless attack that caught the German defenders completely off guard.  Their high command had never expected an invasion in the months of January or February.  One paratrooper attached to the 82nd Airborne Division remarked, “It was a warm, sunny day and you could hardly believe that there was a war going on — and that I was in the middle of it.”


Securing the beaches, the Allies drove the Germans inland, then stopped to regroup.  This small pause in our offense allowed the Germans to counterattack, with a vengeance.  In next four months, the Allied troops would see some of the most savage fighting in this war.


It was during this time that Joseph became a casualty of war, listed as killed in action. At home, the news of his death spread throughout the neighborhood.  By the time Japan had surrendered to the Allies, Joseph A. Ermilio would be the sole casualty of all the South Philly neighborhood boys who had served in WW II.


With the war ending, all of the neighborhood boys, who were now men who’d served our country, gathered at the corner of 10th and Ritner to form a Social Club, which we called Club Gramercy.  As time passed, we all got married and drifted apart, as people do when they assume family life and the obligations that accompany it.


Many years later, in 1986 to be exact, two members of our club, Baby Joe Carabasi and Tony Griffoni, ran into each other in a supermarket in the Greater Northeast section of Philadelphia.  They vowed to get the old gang back together by networking through people that they both knew.  Baby Joe and Tony cobbled together a list, a list upon which the names of the original fifty-four club members emerged. In October of 1986, the first meeting of the Boys Of 10th and Ritner (nee, Club Gramercy) was held at Vitale’s Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia.


Over the years, my friends and fellow soldiers celebrated a ten-year anniversary at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Today, we are but a handful of that old gang and do not meet as often as we did.  But we do keep in touch.  In the many meetings we attended together, one name always came up whenever we would discuss what we’d seen and done overseas, during the war. That name was Chatty Joe Ermilio, a nickname given to Joseph by one of the neighborhood boys.  In my youth, South Philly was famous for nicknames in our crowd.  We had Nicky Blue, Baby Joe, Happy Joe and Happy Joe Jr., Duke Campisi, Fishy Yellow Gooney Ercolani, and many more monikers that would bring a smile to your face, as they did to ours.


As a writer for this website, I have contributed stories of my experiences, including tales of some of the people who have touched my life.  These stories, which you can find here, include An American Hero and The Boys of 10th and Ritner.  At the beginning of this particular story, I had promised to explain my deja vu experience, and I’m going to make good on that promise.


In researching some of the material and quotes for my articles, I came across a man named Joseph, who commented on An American Hero.  He said he was directed to my article when he entered his name into Google, and the search engine indicated this website.  It turned out that this Joseph was the namesake of his Uncle Joseph A. Ermilio — the same person whose name appeared in the article I had written, the uncle who had died protecting our freedoms in World War II.


Since then, I have spoken with Joseph A. Ermilio II and learned that he has a son who also carries the same name.  Joseph the II wanted to keep alive the memory alive of an uncle that he and his son had never known.  He told me that he is the oldest living member of his family, and had little knowledge of his uncle, but for the fact that he died an unsung hero on an Italian beach in World War II.  As fate would have it, the Internet directed him to find some history of his uncle in an article written by me, the boy who had once shared the same neighborhood, a wider circle of friends, and service to our country with that uncle.



Joseph the II also told me that his parents and grandparents had moved out of South Philly to Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, and that Upper Darby is where he’d spent his youth.  His grandparents never experienced closure for their son’s death, even though the soldier’s remains were returned to American soil in 1948.  They brought their unease with them when they, too, were laid to rest, leaving Joseph the II to ponder the life of his namesake.


In my conversation with Joseph the II, I gave him a list of contacts that could shed more light on his uncle’s early days of growing up in South Philly.  I reminded him not to wait too long to contact the other members of club, because time is not on our side.  He said he’d spoken with Joe DeGenova, who is mailing him information.


Was it fate, deja vu, or the hand of Providence that allowed me to connect with a direct relative of the only boy who never returned to our neighborhood from the war?  Was it technology that enabled many intervening years between my boyhood and the present day to collapse for a brief moment, even as those years expanded to illustrate how Joseph A. Ermilio still lives on in his bloodline, through descendents hungry for information about the infantryman who had died on the soil of his ancestors?  Or was it Joseph himself, reaching out from the great beyond to direct his nephew, in effect, to me — knowing that nephew was searching for answers? 


As I ponder these questions, I have no real answers.  However, it is hard to believe that a story I wrote could have such a dramatic ending.   In the final analysis, I don’t think that this was a coincidence.  I feel that this seemingly chance encounter with Joseph the II contains a message for the American people. I believe the message is to remember those who took risks and offered the supreme sacrifice in protecting the freedoms we too often take for granted.  There are certain times during the year, such as Memorial Day, that our nation sets aside for just this purpose.  Too often, we enjoy that holiday as a time to relax, forgetting why we really have the day off and who, in effect, gave us that day.



My Brother Rocco

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Born December 19, 1924 and named, in the Italian custom after his paternal grandfather, my brother’s entry into this world was the beginning of a life that would come to enrich our entire family.  Twenty months later, I was born; our little brother Anthony came along almost four years later.  Early in Rocco’s life, he demonstrated the qualities of leadership.  Always an honor student through the course of his education, he was the pride of the family.


As the sons of an Italian immigrants, Donato and Rose, my brothers and I grew up during the Great Depression in a happy home in South Philadelphia.  We had great times together as a family, even though our economic situation, and that of other families we knew, was poor.  My dad was a barber who worked for my maternal grandfather, who happened to be my namesake.  This was convenient for all involved in the business, as the barbershop was situated on the corner of the street where we lived!


In years to follow, our uncles and aunts came to reside in the same neighborhood.  It was a fortuitous occurrence, because in the Italian-American culture, family was a big part of our lives and as you will soon see, it was also lucky for one of our aunts.  We all celebrated the major holidays together as well as the smaller glories that every family enjoys.


As kids, Rocco was the leader of our gang; he assumed the responsibilities of watching us and keeping us out of trouble every day of the week as well as during those occasions when we ventured beyond the neighborhood.  This included the simple pleasures of life afforded us by hiking through Wissahickon Park, taking a steamboat ride down the Delaware River to Riverview beach, and, of course, the many family gatherings.


When World War II erupted, Rocco, being of military age, was called for the draft.  Considered physically unfit for military duty, he was classified as a 4-F.  However, he proudly graduated Bok Vocational School first in his class by merit of his grades, and was presented the American Legion Award.  Here is how that happened.  Because his major was Machine Shop, during the war, he trained adults during night school in the use of many machine tools.  These folks took their skills into the factories, where they made equipment needed by our troops.  During the war years that followed his graduation, in addition to training these workers, Rocco was employed as a shop foreman by Clark Cooper Corp. in Palmyra, New Jersey.  This company produced vital equipment for the U.S. Navy.


When the war ended, my brother married the one and only love of his life, Teresa Cifuni; I was Best Man at the their wedding.  In the ensuing years Rocco would become the proud father of Donna, his only child.  He purchased a house across the street from my parents and went on with his life.


Determining to better himself and thereby, his family, Rocco decided to pursue a career as an engineer.  To prepare for entry into this field, he applied for admission to Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Because he held a diploma from a vocational institution and not a regular high school, he had to make up the credits he did not receive earlier in his education.  After twelve years of attending college three nights a week, for which he paid the entire tuition himself, my brother graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering.   Upon his graduation, Clark Cooper Corp. elevated his position to that of plant engineer.  A few years later, the company was purchased by another corporation, which offered him the same position but in a different city.  Not wishing to uproot his family, he sought work elsewhere and was ultimately accepted at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Aircraft Division.


Rocco’s working knowledge of his trade soon came to the attention of his superiors, who utilized him as a troubleshooter.  Traveling extensively nationwide, he investigated and resolved technical issues with mechanical equipment.   His home phone was connected to the switchboard at the Navy yard!  One night while I was visiting him, I listened as he spoke to an American sailor in Naples, Italy.  Well before the age of computers and emails, my brother instructed this man remotely as to how to repair some equipment aboard his ship.


When the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard transferred the Aviation Division to Lakehurst, New Jersey, Rocco was assigned the job to coordinate the move.   He organized a shuttle bus system to transport workers to their new location, thus solving a problem for those who could not find transportation readily. Eventually, he was selected to serve as Acting Plant Manager at Lakehurst, in charge of the Aviation Division.  When he achieved that particular promotion, he informed me that his next salary increase had to be approved by the U.S. Congress!


When Rocco finally retired, he was given a testimonial dinner at the Cherry Hill Inn, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  My brother Anthony and our wives were invited, in his honor.  Needless to say, we watched and listened in awe as the Navy brass extolled the accomplishments of my brother.


Retirement for Rocco came easy, as he had lived in a modest home and well within his means. He said, “I am going to relive my childhood and have all the things I wanted but could not afford when I was younger.”  Thus did he acquire beloved stamp and coin collections and model trains, the latter of which were fully equipped with all the appropriate paraphernalia that any aficionado might covet.   He even got involved in home repairs.  Being a perfectionist, anything he built would outlast the Seven Wonders of the World.


When Mom and Dad passed away, Rocco was the glue that held the family together.  Then the question arose as to what to do with Aunt Angie (Mom’s sister), who was living with my parents and getting on in years.  Rocco called a family meeting and announced that we’d had two choices: allow our aunt to move in with her sister Lucy and her husband Ray, or let her stay and finish out her years in the house that was willed to we three brothers.  My aunt, who was always a loving aunt, was not always easy to live with.  In fact, she probably would have driven Uncle Ray to an early grave.  This left us with the one remaining choice.  Rocco therefore devised a plan in which we three brothers would share the expense of maintaining the house while Aunt Angie resided there.  Little did we know then that our frail aunt, who’d been sickly most of her life, would live to be 92!


An extremely generous person, Rocco offered to take up the slack if my brother or I fell short on the monthly payments.  Over the years as our family grew, my older brother’s nieces and nephews coined a phrase pertaining to Rocco and his wife.  Reflecting their generosity, RUR and RAT meant “Rich Uncle Rocco” and “Rich Aunt Teresa.”


On May 17, 1989 Rocco said goodnight to his wife and daughter and retired to bed, not knowing that these were the last words he would ever speak.  Rocco passed away quietly in his sleep, leaving a family devastated by his loss.  My brother, with all his generosity and attributes, was always a planner; in his wisdom, he left his family well cared for.  He also possessed a great sense of humor and serenity when meeting life’s many challenges.


Today as I reflect upon his life, I cannot help but count my blessings. I have lived a charmed life thanks to my mother’s prayers, the omnipresent and once-dreaded cod liver oil, and most of all, by being part of a happy home with loving relatives, such as my big brother Rocco.


In retrospect, I suppose my brother Rocco should have been christened Rocco III, after his grandfather and uncle. Whenever I think of him, he brings a smile to my face as I reminisce about the things we have done together and most of all, the joys we have shared.


I am now the oldest living member of our family that still on carries the tradition of naming youngsters Rocco.  My Rocco is our beloved Pekingese dog.  Sometimes I tell him about the men he was named for, and that he should be proud to have such a heritage.  My dog looks at me quizzically, as if he understands.  But don’t get me wrong; I do not believe in reincarnation!


As I have said before, I have lived a charmed life.  Among my few regrets is the fact that the younger members of our family will never have known my wonderful brother Rocco. 

The Boys of 10th and Ritner

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My friends and I grew up in a culturally diverse neighborhood in South Philadelphia, near the intersection of 10th and Ritner Streets.  Our childhood occurred during the Great Depression, a time of immense want for so many people.  Somehow, though, I remember it with fondness, as do my friends.  In the ’30’s (that would be the 1930’s for anyone who hasn’t studied American history as you should), the streets of the city were not clogged with automobiles or choked with smog; public transportation was the mode of travel.  To us kids, life was pleasant as our parents struggled to eke out an existence, keep the roofs over our heads, and food on our plates.


To get to our neighborhood schools, we wore out a lot of shoe leather; there were no buses to transport us.  We carried our books, pencils, and papers, as well as our tasty homemade lunches (no prepackaged chemical and preservative-laden stuff from a factory). After school, we would walk home and play in the street before suppertime.  The boys would play stickball or tag; the girls would write in the streets with chalk, play hopscotch, and tend to their baby dolls.  Occasionally, one of the girls would cross the line and we’d let her, provided she could hit, run, and throw … the ball, not us!  Gender equality had not yet fully blossomed, so we may have been just a bit ahead of our time for enduring the tomboys.


After our playtime, which cost little or no money, we did not waste electricity and did not fry our brain cells a la cellular technology.  Instead, we knuckled down to do our homework, sans Internet search engines and computers.  If we really needed to research a topic, we had the public library at our fingertips.  Rooms and rooms of wall-to-wall books, and nary a coffee urn or a gourmet pastry to be found!  And no chatting, either; it was “Silence is Golden” at the library, so that everyone could study in peace and quiet.  Before snuggling into bed for the night, we listened with rapt attention to radio programs designed to scare the pants off us kids (e.g., “The Shadow”).  Ah, the thrill of a delicious mystery conducted sight unseen over the airwaves!


Later on, a cataclysmic event occurred that would forever would change our lives. When the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor, America was dragged into World War II.  Some say that Roosevelt had advance warning of the attack, but allowed it to happen anyway, in order to better market the war to the American public.  We knew of no such rumor at the time; in fact, such a rumor would have been unthinkable.  All we knew is that our beautiful Hawaii had been bombed, with no prior attack on our part.  Everyone in my neighborhood was left reeling; in fact, most of us were unaware of exactly where Pearl Harbor was located, until the radio broadcast the stunning news.  Congress dove into action by initiating the Draft to conscript young men into the Armed Forces.  Factories and shipyards began to retool, run primarily by women as the men went overseas, to produce the materials and equipment we needed to wage war.  Japan had woken a sleeping giant.


When the bombs destroyed Pearl Harbor and so many lives, a lot of us kids were not quite military age, so it would be a few years before we were called.  But as the war progressed with no end in sight, we knew it was inevitable: as soon as we’d reached the age of 18, we would receive a notice from our local Draft Board. This was the summons to appear for medical and mental competency tests, to see if we were going to be accepted into the Armed Forces.   According to our ages, one by one, the neighborhood boys were swept off the streets by Uncle Sam, thus forcing us to become men practically overnight.  Since many of us passed the tests, we entered the Armed Services and remained there until the end of World War II.


During this global conflict, members of our neighborhood group fought in both the North African/European and the Pacific Theaters.  Some fought in Tunisia, Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge; some were shipped off to the Pacific and China, as well as India, Burma, and following Japan’s surrender, the Occupation of Japan, as peacekeeping forces.


To mention a few of our friends, Nicky (“Blue”) Prestipino fought with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma, Andy Scrocca helped save the USS Intrepid after a kamikaze attack upon that noble ship, Jimmy Tedesco was wounded at the battle of the Bulge, Anthony Didio was awarded the Soldiers Medal in India, and Joe Ermilio was killed in action at Anzio.  Thank God, he was only casualty of the war, and he was very much missed and mourned.


With the end of the War, the neighborhood boys returned and began to congregate once again on the corner of 10th and Ritner.  Trying to recapture the best years of our lives lost due to the war, we decided to form a social club named Club Gramercy.  As time went by, we all got married and drifted away to pursue new lives with our spouses and ultimately, our children.


In the spring of 1986, two members of Club Gramercy met across a meat counter in a Greater Northeast Supermarket and talked about getting the old gang back together again.  Those two men were Joe (“Baby Joe”) Carabasi and Tony Griffini.  By networking with other members, Joe and Tony managed to contact 54 former members of Club Gramercy!  In October of 1986, at Viterelli’s Restaurant in the Greater Northeast section of Philadelphia, the first meeting of the Boys of 10th and Ritner occurred with all 54 members attending.  We had a joyous reunion!


Back in the old neighborhood, news of the Boys of 10th and Ritner spread, and more people clamored for membership, or at least, attendance at our gatherings.  We decided to have more meetings in the old neighborhood at the Holiday Inn, in South Philly, to accommodate larger groups.  This went on for a few years, after which it was decided to have our meetings more often and in a less formal fashion.  The site for these meetings was Sam Cobblestone’s Bar and Grill, where we met every second Tuesday of each month.


At Sam’s, we’d gather and for a few short hours, would share a dinner and relive our past exploits of glory. John Carosiello would chair the meetings and Romeo Celommi served as our recording secretary.  Our meal would start with an appetizer, usually mussels (in red and white sauce) with roasted peppers and anchovies; these were accompanied by fresh, hot Italian rolls, and were followed by the main course from the menu.


After dinner, the chairman would inform us about members who could not attend and any other news that concerned us.  After all the formalities were discussed, the meeting would be open to conversation by the members as we relived our youth.  This included jokes by the aptly named Happy Joe Jr. and stories by “Baby Joe” Carabasi, Nicky (“Blue”) Prestipino, Jimmy (“Pinerck”) Tedesco, and others among our band of brothers.


Although most of our members were of Italian descent, we did have one member of the Jewish faith.  Danny Rose, God bless him, could bake Italian pizzelles that would rival many Italian bakeries (pizzelles are a type of flat, crunchy cookie, pressed flat in a hot grill). Our meetings continued till Sam Cobblestone’s establishment closed.  Bidding Sam’s a bittersweet farewell, we then took up the torch at Tony Luke’s restaurant in South Philly on Saturday afternoons. As time went on, we started to gather at Serra Torres restaurant in Morton, Pennsylvania.


In 1996, The Boys of 10th and Ritner held our 10th Anniversary at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The members who participated, along with their wives, stood as a testimony to friendship born of a group of neighborhood boys who refused, despite a long, bloody war and various life circumstances, to let the camaraderie die.


Since then, God has called some of our boys home; due to attrition, our meetings have reduced in frequency and members.  But the spirit of the old neighborhood, and the good times we wrested out of some the worst times this nation has ever seen, still live on in the hearts of the remaining members of The Boys of 10th and Ritner. 

A Christmas Reminiscence

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Christmas Reminiscence

In today’s fast-paced, rapidly changing world, the Holiday Season is upon us and gone before we know it.  As I consider my own Christmases past, I think about the simpler and yet – in many ways – more joyful Holidays of my youth.

 

Growing up in an Italian-American family in South Philadelphia, I viewed the Holiday Season as the most wonderful time of the year.  And, for those uninitiated in Italian-American culture, any Holiday was an occasion for a sumptuous feast fit for a King.  

 

Despite growing up during the Great Depression, I experienced no want in my family’s Holiday celebrations.  My maternal grandfather owned and operated a Barber Shop and, for these happy occasions, he would set up a long banquet table in his Shop.  There, the entire family would gather for a multi-course food fest.

 

With Thanksgiving ushering in this most joyous season of the year, we celebrated in grand style.  Our feast would begin with Meatball Soup, a soup created from chicken stock with tiny meatballs.  Next, was a pasta course comprised of homemade ravioli and gravy meats including meatballs, sausage, and braciole.  A short time thereafter the turkey would appear with all the trimmings.  For dessert, we enjoyed a wide variety of homemade pies and cookies, as well as fresh fruit and ice cream.  And, the best part was the thought that we would do it all over again the following month for Christmas!

 

After Thanksgiving, my parents would take my brothers and me to Center City where we would tour the decorated department stores and look at gifts for Christmas.  We were each allowed one small gift and the highlight of the evening was to eat at Horn & Hardart’s Automat restaurant.

 

The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas was a time of wonder and anticipation for a young boy.  When December 24th arrived, we celebrated with the traditional Italian Christmas Eve fish dinner.  Then, we decorated our Christmas tree with tinsel and put the star atop the tree and the Nativity Scene beneath it.  Listening to the radio and hearing Silent Night, Adeste Fideles, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Jingle Bells brought a feeling of peace and serenity.

 

Christmas in our family was a Holy Day and so, we went to church before enjoying the family feast at grandpa’s.  When grandpa passed away, the duty of family gatherings was passed on to my parents.  Yet, I will never forget those wonderful Holidays of my youth with grandpa at his Barber Shop.

 

As I reminisce Christmases past, I also think about my service during World War II, when the Holidays found me half a world away from family and friends.  The song I’ll Be Home for Christmas still rings in my ears.  And, as I consider Christmas present, my thoughts turn to our troops manning the lonely outposts of the world during this Christmas season.  May the joy of Christmas lift their spirits and may “Peace on Earth, good will towards men” lead us to a better tomorrow.

Where Were You in ‘22?

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Philadelphia 1922

Eighty-seven years ago on this date, my mother was born.  World War I was a memory, and the United States was embarking on a period of prosperity known as the “roaring ‘20’s” when women were Constitutionally-recognized as “equal” to men and technologies like automobiles, trains, and mass communication by radio and telephone began to proliferate.  It was a time of hope inspired by “modern” conveniences and ways of thinking.  Short-lived though it was, it must have been an exciting time in which to start life.

 

In addition to my mom’s birth, 1922 witnessed significant breakthroughs in science and medicine.  Human growth hormone was discovered and insulin was first isolated and used for treatment of diabetes.  Two British Egyptologists caused quite a stir by unearthing the intact tomb of King Tutankhamen, the only tomb that had been untouched by looters through the centuries.

 

Of course, 1922 also produced less positive news.  In Italy, Benito Mussolini marched on Rome and formed a Fascist government.  Also in 1922, a Commission formed as a result of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I established German reparations to be paid the Allies (the U.S. opted out of these reparations) at 132 billion gold marks.  The onus of this staggering debt created historic inflationary pressures in Germany that contributed to the rise of Hitler and his Nazi Party.  Thus, the stage was set for yet another “war to end all wars.”

 

It is difficult to understand the modes of thinking and motivations of those living in another time.  And, I doubt that I can truly understand the world in which my mom grew up.  One of five daughters of Italian immigrants, she undoubtedly faced discrimination from those of Anglo-Saxon heritage who represented the predominant culture of the time, but I don’t ever recall her mentioning it.  In fact, she may not have even given it much thought.  She lived in a neighborhood in South Philadelphia composed largely of families of Italian heritage.  And so, in her world, everyone was largely the same.

 

As I was growing up, I was taught to be proud of my Italian heritage and would frequently hear my grandmother comment on the disgraceful practices and behaviors of the “Medigani’s” (or, Americans) as she referred to all non-Italians.  And, I’m sure my mother was schooled in her mother’s beliefs. 

 

My mother was raised in an environment in which “family” was of primary importance, and this was a tradition that she perpetuated.  In fact, as a child, I spent an enormous amount of time with my grandparents, uncles, and aunts.  I considered my cousins to be my closest and best friends.  I don’t know if any extended families today are as close as was mine.

 

My mom and her sisters were extremely close-knit, you might say “thick as thieves.”  Although they might argue with each other, they never permitted anyone outside of the “family” to come between them.  In fact, unfortunate would be the individual who crossed my mother or one of her sisters, for that person would find himself at odds with all of them.

 

Although I did not realize it then, I was privileged to have grown up with such love, caring, and devotion showered upon me.  As I think back to Holidays spent with my extended family, I only wish that others could experience the unadulterated joy of those occasions.  In fact, in our family, every Sunday was a holiday of sorts when we all gathered at my grandparents’ home to enjoy each others’ company.

 

More than thirty years ago, my mom passed on to her reward, all too young and much too soon.  And, I believe that she is waiting there, amidst the company and love of others in our “family,” for the day on which we can be reunited.  For me, the wait is interminable.  For her, it is brief, for scores of years are but seconds in eternity.

 

Happy Birthday, Mom.  Love you, miss you, see you soon. 

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