Category Archives: family history

The Junior League.

Mum was a seamstress, a dressmaker, a tailor of the finest order. She could take any off the rack dress, jacket, pant, gown and make it fit any body assigned. She could make three piece fully lined suits from Vogue patterns, ball and wedding gowns, even curtains and upholstery covers. And, she did all this, from her sewing room at home.

While I was growing up, Mum would often ask me to go to the piano and perform for her customers. I would comply, choosing the flashiest solo piece I’d most recently prepared. All the ladies would rave, and compliment Mum on her daughter’s talent .

Marlene was among the most vociferous.

Her family lived a couple blocks down the steep hill, on East 28th Street, in a brick house with a porch. Marlene and her mother, Emma, were very close, coming to the house biweekly for their fittings. Most of Mum’s customers were from the same extended family of second generation Italian-American ladies, working clerically or teaching but, during my high school years, Marlene grew to become a business administrator, community leaders increasingly recognizing her efforts and accomplishments. All the while Mum dressed her, impeccably, Emma duly proud.

Perhaps a gesture intended to give back to Mum, after the decades she’d spent keeping Marlene looking sharp, whatever the motive the day came when, out of nowhere, Marlene declared her intention to sponsor Betty’s daughter to the Junior League of Erie.

Founded in New York in 1901, the Junior League was formed to instill social responsibility and a spirit of volunteerism among community women. Over the years, however, the charitable organization had become a vehicle for debutantes, a class marker for the up and coming young. Being sponsored to join the League was an honor with huge implications for future social and professional connections, not the least of these eligible men of the same rank and level of social recognition.

The act generated by Marlene was directed as a gesture toward her treasured seamstress. In the spirit of the relationship between Marlene and her own mother I was to accept the gift by joining the order, in turn bringing my mother pride by association.

But, I screwed up.

I said no.

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A few months ago, in the middle of the summer, both of my brothers were able to come through town for a single evening. The younger, now a traveling quality control representative in the health care field, hadn’t been home since Dad died ten years before, and the elder, former divisional medical director turned director/consultant for a major diagnostic laboratory, almost as long away. Both were in town to do inspections. Both lived in southern states, raising their families and working thousands of miles away.

I remember feeling ecstatic that they could both be here, at once. I only had two siblings, no sisters, and no offspring of my own, so any feeling of family I’d ever known had to come from my vicarious association with their sons and daughters’ lives. But, having them both actually here together would reunite us as brothers and sister, like when we were growing up.

We’d planned to eat at a nearby Italian restaurant. Both of them loved Italian restaurant food, both having been to Italy – the elder, several times – each of them working on the road; but, my upstairs wall HVAC unit on the fritz, they also booked hotels. They booked hotels because they also liked staying in hotels, don’t get me wrong; but, had the upstairs loft been temperature controlled, I’d have loved having them both here together for the weekend, in my home.

They arrived, entering via the shed door, and greeted each other in my music room. The elder was shorter and greyer than I’d remembered; the younger, wider. I took their picture. Moving to the kitchen, we addressed my need for construction advice on a household addition; then, we piled into the vehicle assigned to the elder, and headed to the restaurant.

For well over fifteen minutes, both of them charmed the hostess. She was most gracious. I have no idea if she needed to do other things, but she remained in conversation with them without even a hint of distraction. I, with my five year history as a hostess and waitress, was proud of her professionalism.

We’d chosen to dine outdoors on the restaurant patio. I sat in the seat closest to the dividing wall, and they sat opposite each other. Once we finally placed our orders, they continued the conversation they’d begun in the front seat of the vehicle en route the few blocks to the restaurant. I watched them, thinking about how the pandemic and age had overtaken us. I spent a lot of time sitting there thinking, before we got our food, when our food arrived, and after we were finished eating. I was able to do this, because they asked me no questions of any kind. I asked them no questions, either, principally because there was no break in the conversation the two of them were enjoying.

After probably two and a half hours, I invited them to present me with any questions they might have. My elder brother said nothing. My younger brother asked me if I had any friends here, and my answer included a reference to my students and their families as my friends – much like Mum’s customers were, to her. Then, I mentioned the elder’s former wife, with whom I’d had a reuniting phone conversation only days before after fifty years of no contact. The response to this offering was a ten minute dissertation directed at both myself and my younger brother on the woman’s character, as expressed in her past behavior.

Thus ended the dinner.

Returning me to my home was swift. We stood chatting on the sidewalk for a few minutes and, dusk settling and mosquitoes emerging, I said my goodbyes. Entering my house, I watched as the two of them stood at the curb for another half hour, talking with each other in the dark.

******

It’s true.

I’d said no to the opportunity provided me by Marlene, now CEO of a major, burgeoning health care and educational facility in the region and already-former bank president. She didn’t marry until later in life, but had a daughter who would become my piano student. Emily was 10, then, and probably hated those lessons. Maybe she never really wanted to play piano. Or, maybe she just didn’t want to slum it over to my house, on West 22nd St, hauled there every week by Aunt Lena.

No; I never accepted Marlene’s sponsorship into the Junior League of Erie. I was afraid to become an elite member of our community. I didn’t think the other girls in the League would accept me, a daughter of blue collar skilled artisans. And, I wasn’t sure I wanted to become a member of an exclusive strata of society, either.

Had I said yes, I’d have probably met and married a doctor or lawyer, raising my children on Southshore or near the Kahkwa Club. My brothers’ families and I would likely have shared holidays, each of us making sure our children spent time together. We’d have compared notes, throughout our lives, bragging on our childrens’ IQs, their grade point averages, their excellence, their ranking, their accomplishments, their spouses, our grandchildren, and how much the Lord had loved and bestowed His blessings upon us.

But, I didn’t. I married a transplanted, white collar New Englander, a man who would leave me nearly three years hence and continue his rise in the technical world of computerized software. Divorced, I would continue to work, pay off my house and car, establish a music studio, accept performance opportunities with the Union orchestras, and teach public school. My private piano students morphed into cellists, many of both the students and their parents becoming integral to my list of those still endeared to me.

Marlene’s daughter would become a litigating lawyer, and marry a local political figure; Emma would live to be nearly 101; Marlene would continue to oversee the health care facility, long beyond retirement age. And, the Junior League would breed its own, filling the coffers of the needy and establishing multiple community facilities for the arts, for education, for enrichment across the four corners of the region.

I would remain in the periphery of all these, a solitary creative, an observer of the life unfolding among those just beyond my reach. My brothers would recede into the margins of my world, feeling neither obligation nor need with respect to me.

Mum’s mark on the world she served remains. Marlene, at the time of her Betty’s blindsiding death, would stand at the casket exclaiming: “This is not. happening.” So many women would need to find somebody else to take in the seams of their garments, to let the rest out, to form the bodice, measure the hem, and fit them for the stages of the most grandly acknowledged.

From whatever league, as with my two brothers I affect their lives in absentia. Unless otherwise required, I’ll be in my music room, at home.

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Copyright 11/9/22 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. No copying, in whole or part including translation, permitted. Sharing by blog link, exclusively, and that not via RSS. Thank you for respecting integrity.

littlebarefeetblog.com

The Snooze.

CHAPTER 49.

Her niece was getting married the very next week. A lovely young woman, about the same age as she was when the body clock sounded its first alarm.

Instead of retiring “at a decent hour” as her beloved departed father would have insisted she decided to succumb to the more customary, post midnight mania and try on her intended outfit in front of the full length mirror. Her gut was talking; should she look frumpy, maybe last minute flight cancellations wouldn’t be the only reason to stay home.

The sleeveless jersey A line with its graduated greens to blues seemed a fit; thank God, becoming scrawny again still bore up under generic M sizing. Her faded greying hair, freshly trimmed and styled, seemed the right length for the scoop neck and bangly geometric necklace. Bohemian fabric ankle boots held up well around thick, multi colored socks and the olive stretch leggings, their color chosen to complement the bridal party palette, would likely work nicely to hide untanned calves. By all appearances, she was cleared to take off for the much anticipated event celebrating the last single child of her eldest brother’s brood.

Then, facing the glass, she saw them. Bubbles, and ripples, cascading down her forearms and over the tops of her hands. What?

Blood vessels. Every vein, bulging, like a 3-D map of the Interstate highway system. What? She stared, recoiling. Is that why she looked so old in the candid front porch photos beside the beloved little 4 year old music student? She’d thought it the bright sun, meeting the digital phone lens designed to capture detail beyond that which the human eye could see. But, this. This? This was how her arms looked – in real life?

Having melted all the midlife fat the previous pandemic year, she’d devolved to wrists the width of twigs. But, this was a different animal. This was a topography heralding the unmistakeable, unavoidable hallmark of old ladies everywhere. This was age.

At least, that’s what Google said. Skin, thinning; vein valves, weakening; blood, wearily making its endless, return trip back to the heart like some army of tired ants.

She’d remembered touching her grandmother’s skin, the part of her neck draping the throat, marveling at its velvety texture; was this nature’s way of making that which could barely be seen anymore in the half light of the old fashioned boudoir something to be felt, instead, tactile pleasure displacing what could no longer entice the eyes?

She wondered if a man would bear such a preference.

The gathering was a destination event, pulling all family members from the four corners of the continent to meet their new in-laws for the first time. As such she, the most remotely connected of any among her own kin, might put a kink in it. She’d stayed “home” to build her life; the rest had moved miles away. Career choice, and time commitment, plus the absence of proximity had formulated an equation, the opposite side of its equal sign a brand to a relationship void of social attachment; she would be as much a stranger as the whole lot of those awaiting their guests’ arrival.

Add to all that, age. Who’d want to talk to the old, childless aunt? Only those trained in the art of polite exchange would muster up. Could she adopt character, be the jester, an angle proving workable in the past? Oh, wait; in this clan, that would be the patriarch’s domain. Rob him of his coveted role she would not, lest he be named naked Emperor in front of all.

These were anticipating their first opportunity to establish extended family connection. Energy was to be focused. Best not to distract, by provoking extraneous noblesse oblige. Detach; observe; record, like the ubiquitous camera filming the reality show. Would anyone notice?

She’d been 36, the year of her own wedding; her niece was now 38. Twenty four additional months spent deliberating, in quiet expectation. Like ten minutes of Snooze on the alarm clock, more time to resist the inevitable.

Maybe the airline would discover a staff shortage. Perhaps maintenance, or an empty terminal bay, would send the schedulers in a mad dash through their Rubik’s Cube of impossible variables.

She’d let reality play, sans voyeur’s lens. Wedding days came, and wedding days went. Marriages were supposed to endure. Time to take ten, and wait it all out.

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Copyright 9/4/22. Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, the old aunt, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. No copying, in whole, part, or by translation. Sharing by blog link, exclusively. Thank you for sitting with your own family.

littlebarefeetblog.com

“Even If We Cry.”

I met Kelly after a show, in 2015. She’d been in so many others, our meeting rendered me utterly fan girl helpless. Everything you’d ever want to experience, from a consummate dramatic talent, Kelly was impeccably, comically hilarious; deeply, even darkly introspective; and, visually dazzling.

What struck me most, in real world terms, was Kelly’s warmth. This girl wrapped her arms around a person, gathering you in like a grandmama in a much younger woman’s body. Her soul was so open. She really, genuinely, cared about other people and, even with an ever burgeoning audience of admirers, still able to take us one at a time. Perhaps it was a kind of timing, on my part, but I found her affection much needed nourishment to the heart.

I, being about ten years behind the social curve, had to catch up on this local gem. Turns out she was mother to three dear boys, two of them twins, and shared their parenting with a young man, Jeff, who would stun me with his own, equally gargantuan talent, versatility, and depth. Both together and separately, Kelly and Jeff easily displaced every celebrated actor whose characterizations I’d ever venerated. Not only were they both world class, to Kelly their relationship was special; I can remember her telling me, wide eyes glowing: “I’ve never loved anybody so much in my life.” Given that she had produced multiple lives at once (the twins, within a minute of each other), it was no wonder she had love that big – plus, enough for the rest of us, too.

As the years unfolded, we would continue to cross paths, more recently finding ourselves together in my home preparing a musical revue in rehearsal. I found her to be easily relaxed in ensemble, then earnest, intensely focused on her own skill building at closer range, as if not realizing how she’d long since already arrived beyond fully prepared. I was so honored with the opportunity to work directly with this magnificently gifted woman, even taking her interior home layout advice regarding my insistent red rug as coming from a natural set designer. After she left solo session I, who never let anybody tell me how to do anything, moved that rug into the next room just as she’d suggested.

As time and life events would change us all, so they’d altered Kelly and Jeff’s landscape. Discreetly, they’d become coparents in separate living situations, but continuing to thrive as performing professionals and enjoying their growing family. Via social media, I would observe as she and her boys interacted with a newly acquired pup, grieve with her after one of our last rehearsals when this dog had escaped the yard to be fatally struck on the road, then vicariously celebrate the next pet who came to comfort them. Through it all, I could clearly see; Kelly the grandmama spirit loved her house full of boys with the same, open, giving, heart we all had come to both feel and try to return.

The pandemic scourge was particularly hardest on these most gifted stage performers. They treasured their privacy, but thrived in live character; how to make life work, day to day, in such enforced proximity was new and almost formidable. Managing in home virtual learning scenes was a far cry from a sitz probe. Understanding young, tender boys entering adolescence even more daunting.

This is where the curtain rightfully closes. None of us from the outside looking on can know the challenges of another during this universally imposed condition reduced at times to mere existence. Life has become both momentarily exultant and cruel. Just the night before last, Kelly’s entire, rapidly blending family had celebrated her mother’s birthday and, the following morning, the unthinkable; one of her dear boys born within the same minute had breathed his last, reasons known only to the God we’d hoped would be there.

The obituary appeared just hours ago, written in bursts of expressive color, each detail tumbling over the next as if enough could not be said about this boy named Kris whose emerging dreams lay just before him. Primal screams with no outlet swell our chests. Arms whose reach we cannot even extend grasp the air for the feel of another’s beating heart. Kelly, Jeff, and Mark and the boys remain to endure. From Kelly: “Please be a good friend and a good brother in his honor…… talk to us about him when you see us, even if we cry.”

Kelly, I vow to grant this request. We’ll be bringing our tears, too.

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© 10/4/21 Ruth Ann Scanzillo.

https://www.goerie.com/obituaries/psom0075544