Mom, me with the glasses and my two brothers. The baby is already gone
My mother Mary would have been 93 years old this week.
She is gone longer than she was here – she will be gone 50 years on April Fools Day. A simple calculation indicates she passed when she was 43 years old.
Mom was the second of five children with an older brother, two younger brothers and the youngest sister. All are gone save the youngest – my dear aunt T now in her mid-eighties.
She was the daughter of Italian immigrant parents Carmelo Lafragola and Antoinette Forte. Of my four immigrant Italian grandparents Carmelo was the only one who became an American citizen.
Carmelo joined the American army during World War I, was wounded in France and awarded the purple heart, I recall as a child that he displayed the medal in his living space behind his dairy store. His service got him his citizenship.
Carmelo owned a “latticini freschi,” a diary store that sold milk, eggs, ricotta and Italian cheeses. They lived where they worked in Brooklyn – a store in front and a small apartment in back.
As the children were growing up their mother Antoinette died. I have no idea why although she passed in the 1930s. She is buried with my parents. It was a time when three could be stacked in a single grave.
With the death of Antoinette the State of New York came calling. Five children living alone with their immigrant father was not considered to be in the best interest of the children – war hero or not. Both my mom and her youngest sister were removed from the home. Aunt T went into foster care while my mom went to an orphanage – a convent actually, run by the Dominican sisters at Our Lady of the Rosary church at 329 East 63rd street in Manhattan. She was listed there in the 1940 census as a Ward of the State.
The church and orphanage are long gone and I’m not sure how long mom was there. I could write to the Benedictine Sisters archives and find out but I’m not sure it really matters.
Mom earned her high school diploma with the sisters, something very unusual for an immigrant child at the time. My father had only an 8th grade education.
What kind of a life did she have at the orphanage? I have no idea. She never spoke of it although I have pictures of her with her girl friends, seemingly having a good time.
Mom with two unknown girlfriends in Central Park. She is wearing her orphanage clothes – 1941
On the other hand, after all those years with the Dominicans, she never attended church again aside from weddings and funerals and insisted her children attend public rather than parochial schools. I guess that says a lot.
When she turned 18 Mary had to leave the convent or join the sisters – she left and returned home to Carmelo’s store. In the intervening years Carmelo had remarried – Mathilda – soon to be known by family members as the wicked witch.
Carmelo wouldn’t take her in. He had no interest in taking in his grown children – even temporarily. His small space behind the store was now big enough only for two.
Mary left the store. She thought about looking for her older brother Joe but had no idea where he was. She had little money, no job and couldn’t drive. She would never learn how. She sat down on the curb with her little suit case wondering what to do. She was 18 and having been raised in a convent, was really a child.
“Mary! What are you doing sitting here?” It was Laura from across the street. Laura and Francesco lived over the fruit and vegetable store, After a brief conversation Laura didn’t hesitate. “You come stay with me!” And so Laura and Mary went up to Laura’ and Francesco’s apartment. Laura took my mother in off of the street when she had no where else to go.
Grandma Laura and my father Domenico – Easter Sunday 1943
Living with them was their youngest son Domenico. Everyone called him Danny. He was 24 and quite good looking in that Italian sort of way. Slender, muscular and dark with a pencil mustache. Danny had only one problem.
Epilepsy. Danny had been hit by a car while riding his bike as a child and suffered a head injury. At least so I was told a long time ago by those who would know. Maybe it’s true. Maybe not.
Epilepsy was something one never talked about in those days.
Danny had left school after the 8th grade – no epileptics allowed. The general attitude of people at the time was (a) its hereditary – or worse – contagious ; (b) it was associated with “feeble mindedness” and violence and (c) many thought those with epilepsy needed to be institutionalized.
So here we had a girl whose self esteem had been shattered when her own father wouldn’t take her in and a young man with no self esteem at all. Two lost souls. These two found each other. Sometimes I suspect Laura knew a match when she saw one all along. I will never know.
After a few months however Laura put her foot down. Mary’s baby sister, my aunt T tells me Laura would not have the neighbors talking about her family. Laura made it clear to Danny – marry her or Mary will have to leave the house. Laura couldn’t have a single woman living in the same apartment permanently, especially when the girl’s father lived across the street. Danny asked. Mary accepted.
So on November 25, 1941 Domenico and Mary married at St. Bernadette’s R. C. Church, where I would be baptized and eventually married.
After my birth the following September Danny and Mary got their own three room apartment on 66th street and 13th avenue. It was one large kitchen with a sink, “pantries” and a Franklin Stove, a “master bedroom” separated from the kitchen by “French doors” and a 2nd bedroom eventually for me and my brother who came along 4 years later.
Danny took a job as a “hod carrier”, a common laborer, for an Italian construction company. It was the only job an immigrant with an 8th grade education and epilepsy could get. He worked hard and they didn’t fire him after a seizure. He kept his epilepsy relatively controlled by taking phenobarbitol and dilantin supplied to him without prescription by a childhood friend who became a pharmacist and owned his own drug store on 78th street. I usually got sent in to pick up the drugs. “My daddy says he needs the red and white pills and the white pills too please!” Nobody would suspect the kid. My father never saw a specialist; he couldn’t afford it. He medicated himself. Sometimes I would notice his glassy eyes. I only witnessed three seizures, the first when I was 12. It was the first time I saw my father cry.
Mom, me, my two younger brothers and a childhood friend on the left – at the elementary school Spring festival – 1953
Life did not go well for Mary. In the summer of 1949 she suffered facial scarring in minor fender bender of an automobile accident.
Mary was holding baby Nicholas. With the sudden stop her seat pivoted upward toward the windshield. There were no seat belts nor car seats in those days and the 1932 Plymouth had no safety glass. Mary held Nicholas, covering him with both of her arms….and her face went through the windshield……and then came back.
Nicholas was safe but Mary was cut to ribbons. There was blood everywhere (I still remember). People ran out of their houses with white towels to stanch the blood until the ambulance got there. I remember sitting on a wooden bench at Coney Island Hospital while the doctors tended to Mary until my Aunts came to the hospital to take me and my brothers home.
My mom was scarred for life and lost a number of teeth. There was no money for plastic surgery if it existed at the time. She was 24 years old.
When I was 14 my father was able to buy us a little “bungalow” on a dirt street on the outskirts of Coney Island. It wasn’t much of a house, even by the standards of the day. It cost $5,000 and the sellers held the mortgage privately. Today it is under the parking lot of a Home Depot.
Mary was diagnosed with diabetes after the birth of her three children. I got the disease at the same age as my mom. She began taking the old style pig and pork insulins with a large glass syringe which had to be sterilized before each use. No disposable needles. No blood glucose meters.
She developed cataracts early on and had to have eye surgery. After the clouded lenses were removed she wore the thick coke bottle glasses; no artificial lens replacement available like I have.
She was old before her time.
Mary and Danny in front of our little bungalow. The ghost in the glass is me
Through all the years I never saw or heard them argue. I never heard an unkind word pass between them. Through all the troubles and heartaches they remained happy and devoted to each other. And they were good parents to their sons. Poppa worked hard at his unskilled but unionized job and we always had a roof over our heads, hand-me-down clothes and food on our table. No vacations, A 1953 blue Chevy; but we were never homeless or hungry.
Momma was always home for us whether for an after school snack or a bandaid on a scraped knee. Mary would be dead at 43 in 1966 from the complications of diabetes and heart disease. Two of her brothers would also die of heart disease in their forties.
I was in the Army when my mother died. I had enlisted when I turned 21 for four years in order to lessen the burden on my parents. I flew home from Texas when I got the word to come as quickly as possible. When I first saw her I burst into tears and a nurse had to take me out of the room. “She doesn’t know me!” “No” was the reply. “She waited for you”.
Half an hour later she was gone. My father was never the same without her. Six years later he too was gone at 56.
Did Mary have dreams? I’m sure she had hopes and dreams for her children – but did she have any dreams of her own? She never spoke of them and I was too young to know enough to ask. But now I know she dreamed for, after she passed, I fund her book.
a Franklin stove
simmering Sunday sauce
I often wonder if you dreamed
Besides your hopes
your dreams for us
did you have any which belonged to you
and you alone?
You are gone now
gone longer than you were here
but I know;
I know you dreamed
for when you left I found your book
leather bound, embossed in gold
with carefully penciled notes of no perfect heroes;
No happy endings
And from your penciled notes
I know you dreamed;
for all true dreamers love