A Biography Tour with My Mom in Rochester, NY: A Remembrance

A few weeks ago, I went home to Rhode Island for a quick overnight visit with my brothers and stepfather after attending a wedding in the area. In a text to my family, I wrote I’d be there less than twenty-four hours, and all I wanted was to have dinner together around the table at home. We had grilled swordfish, every kind of vegetable, and strawberry rhubarb pie. Everyone brought something. We sat around the table and enjoyed our time together. While I sat, I thought, This is great, Mom may not be here, but the family still has it; we know how to do dinner together. Life goes on. Someone sets the table, someone clears it, my brothers crack jokes the way they always have, and the dog still sniffs around under the table looking for handouts. Both Mom’s presence and absence were felt. Her legacy of bringing the family together at the dinner table was intact.

That brings me to this photo from our days when we lived in Bay View.

It has lingered on my desktop for months for reasons unknown to me. Yesterday, it hit me. With the third anniversary of my mother’s death looming, this photo reminded me of my mother when she was Towanda-Mom. Thirty-two, divorced, beautiful, and working full-time while raising five children. She was full of spunk and life and had boundless love and compassion for others. She always tried to live her best life. She died three years ago yesterday. This photo reminded me of that inner strength and beauty and dogged insistence on sitting around the table for meals.

Mom and I and Our Excellent Adventure: a Remembrance 

In the summer of 2007, Mom and I received an invitation to a party for my Great-Aunt Mary’s 90th birthday in Rochester, New York. Rochester is where my Sicilian grandparents settled, met, married, and started their family amongst many other immigrant families from Valquarnera Caropepe, a mountaintop village in Sicily. This is a postcard my grandmother had of Valguarnera from the Fifties.

I had heard stories about Rochester throughout my childhood and into adulthood, but I had never visited the city. I have many recipes with Rochester relatives’ names on them like Margaret’s Italian Cookies, Aunt Mary’s Zucchini Casserole, and Aunt Rose’s Cookies. I can recall references to my mother’s former home addresses with comments that began with when we lived on Clifton Road, or on Lake Avenue, or on Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario. I remembered stories my immigrant grandfather told about the factories where he worked, notably Fashion Park and Bond Clothes where he rose to be general manager, and also the baseball teams he managed. He loved baseball and was a scout for the Yankees. I wanted to see it all, these oft-described places and people whose names I knew by heart.

I called my mother and told her we should go to Rochester; I’d help her get there. I made the airline arrangements and reserved a car. Mom’s cousin, Mary Lou, invited us to stay with her. Everything fell into place. When we arrived, I told Mary Lou and her husband, Jimmy, I wanted to spend the next day bringing Mom to all of the special places of her childhood. My good friend, Corabel, refers to such tours as Biography Tours. Jimmy thankfully insisted on driving us. I tucked this photo of my mother and her family at Lake Ontario in my purse in case we made it that far. Bringing Mom to her childhood beach home was something I had wanted to do for her. This photo was my inspiration for the journey.

We were off on our tour the next morning. Our first stop was Mom’s grade school, Holy Cross. The school was closed, but the janitor let us in and opened up her fourth-grade classroom for her. She was thrilled.

We visited her church.

We went to her favorite frozen custard stand. I had never heard of frozen custard.

We went to her Clifford Avenue home.
 

We went to the area of her Lake Avenue home, but that neighborhood had been redeveloped, and her house was gone. Jimmy brought us to see where Fashion Park and Bond Clothing once stood. Afterward, we drove to Lake Ontario. It took almost an hour to get there. Mom said we took the same route she always took as a child, past the homes where she and her sister would count WW2 military stars hanging in windows. She explained it was a game they played to pass the time. She quickly followed up by saying she didn’t understand the significance of the stars at the time.

When we got to Sodus Bay, Mom had no idea where to direct Jimmy to drive. Although I knew she didn’t have an address for the old house, I was hoping she would be able to guide us there once she recognized familiar landmarks, but such wasn’t the case. Personally, I hadn’t anticipated the town would be so big and the bay so vast. I became skeptical about being able to find the house. Talk about finding a needle in a haystack. We were toast.

We pulled into a marina and asked an attendant for help. Without any useful clues to offer, the conversation didn’t get very far. Suddenly shy, my mother told the attendant all she remembered was a long beach with a road between her house and the water. The attendant patiently brought up possible landmarks to help her remember the area. When he asked her if there were bluffs nearby, Mom’s face lit up. She remembered the bluffs. The attendant asked if they were called Chimney Bluffs. “Yes,” Mom said, beaming.

The attendant gave us a map and circled the area where the bluffs were located. We drove to Chimney Bluffs, but it was a State Park, so there were no homes on the grounds. We took a long road to the beach where we found a small parking lot by the water. We got out of the car and looked around. There were no houses in sight. Nonetheless, Mom was happy to be back on Sodus Bay, and I took a photo of her.

The story doesn’t end there, though. We sat on the beach for a while taking in the sea air and the moment. After a while, content with how far this wild goose chase had taken us, Mom was ready to head back to town not wishing to inconvenience her cousin any longer. She didn’t think we would be able to find the house in this area because there wasn’t a road to be seen between the shoreline and the embankment.

As I sat on the beach with my mother, I started to have a case of the heebie-geebies. I felt we were close. I told my mother I was going for a walk down the beach. My mother took this photo of the beach as I walked away.

As I walked, I poked in and out of the trees looking for a field with a white house on a slight hill. Nothing. Just a lot of empty fields. Suddenly, I felt an aura, whether it emanated from my grandmother or the house, I cannot say, but I sensed I was very close. Between the next opening in the trees, I saw this: a white house on a slight slope, just like the picture I had brought from home.

My heart started racing. I took a photo of the house and ran back to my mother. I got everyone back in the car, and we drove down the street to find the house. We saw it from the road. My mother, still convinced we were in the wrong area, warned us not to trespass. Jimmy kept driving. Here is a Google image of the area.

I got out of the car and knocked on the front door. A man came out to greet us. He seemed friendly enough, so I told him our saga from beginning to end. He grinned and said his house had to be the right one because it was over 100 years old and for many years had been the only house on the beach. He gave us a tour and then Mom, Jimmy, and the owner visited on the sunporch while I walked around the property taking pictures. It was all very exciting.

Old photos I found after the trip

Here, my grandmother is pumping water by the front door while my mother and her sister sit on a bench. I noticed there was still a water pipe there when I walked around the property.

Here is my mother in her two-piece bathing suit.

Grandma and my mother’s younger sister on the beach. Mom and I on the beach.
 

I love this shot of all the women at the beach. Not surprising, my grandmother is wearing an apron.

Mom was right-on about the road along the beach. I found this photo after our visit.

Adorable Mom at her beach house, sixty years later.

The next day we went to the birthday party. I loved watching my mother greet one long-lost relative after another. Here she is with the birthday girl, Aunt Mary.

Here I am standing between my two beautiful and spunky great-aunts.

Like for my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents before me, much of life still happens around the dinner table. The strong, faithful women in our family made sure the meals served to us were nutritious and delicious and remained a family event, one that always started with the Catholic prayer of gratitude: Bless us, oh Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive, through Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord, Amen. We at the children’s table could recite that prayer in under three seconds.

Related Posts:
A Birthday Tribute for My Mother: Knitting Neck Warmers with Mom’s Stash
Italian Sesame Seed Cookies
Aunt Bridget’s Chicken Soup with Tiny Meatballs
We Will Remember Them

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49 thoughts on “A Biography Tour with My Mom in Rochester, NY: A Remembrance

  1. Just what a wonderful remembrance! Made me think of family memories of my late mom! Keep the blog going! The blog brightens my day!

  2. Judy, what an amazing post! Your kind, gentle persistence paid off. What a special spiritual experience and gift for your mom!
    I imagine your visit to the current resident of the house was as special for him as it was for you and your mom. Decades ago (at our previous house) we saw a very elderly lady sitting in a car out front with a younger woman, so I walked out. It was the woman for whom the original house was built when she was married. We had seen the name on old property records, but how we loved meeting her and hearing the history, the source of the wood for the stair case handle, what the original parcel looked like, etc.
    You and your mom share the same beauty — both inside and out!
    Thank you for starting my day in such a special way with this lovely posting. It made me smile 🙂

    1. Oh, Margaret, thank you for this perspective from the other side of such a visit. The owner of the house was a writer who had just published a book — a memoir of spending his summers as a young child in a coastal village in France. He gave us a copy. I didn’t include that part of the story … Thanks for writing, Margaret. xo

  3. That was so touching and beautifully written .I still Miss my mom And she died in 2012

    Sent from my iPhone Dorothy Pace

    615-479-2203 C. 615-292-9333 H.

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  4. Good morning Judy: I have to write and tell you how much joy I found in reading your missile today. It is a wonderful remembrance, lovingly constructed and beautifully written!! It is a gift for your family. Ashby and I are going up to the Biltmore for a few days getaway, and to see the Chihuli exhibits. I will wear my favorite top when we go to dinner.❤️ Annie Moncure

    Sent from my iPhone❤️

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  5. This is your most poignant and lovely post yet, and that’s saying a lot. That house wanted to be found. Here’s to heebie jeebies and intuition!

  6. Well, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and all the trees before. Two things I especially loved:
    your mom was beautiful from beginning to end and you look like her. Better still, you nourish
    all those around you as your mother did as well. What a legacy!

  7. Judy, BEAUTIFUL! This post oozes with love and the prose takes all your readers along on the journey! What a tribute to your sweet Mom ~ I love the pics too!

    Sending big hugs to you and a special hug and a kiss up to heaven to Mary!
    xoxoxoxoxo

  8. Thank you, thank you for sharing this journey. How fortunate you are to have been able to put all the people and places together. I love the photos. Such a treasure!

  9. Judy, your life is a living tribute to your mom. I know she is smiling and so proud of her daughter. You do look just like her – I never noticed the strong resemblance until seeing these photos. I am blessed to call you friend – and I thanked your mom for giving you to the world.

  10. Judy, your posts are so incredibly gracious and joyful. But this one was so special for me since my brother , my mother and I took a tour of Leominister and Clinton, Massachusetts where she my mother grew up. She had wanted to go for some time and we finally made it happen. We looked for houses and found the one she was looking for and just like your experience, the owner invited us to come in and explore whereever we wanted to explore. We took pictures of the house and compared them with pictures taken almost 80 year earlier. We looked for her old school and other landmarks she remembered. It was a gift to both my brother and me but the trip of a lifetime for my mother. What treasureswe have. Thank you for sharing with us. One of the blogs I look forward to is yours and never hit delete until the reading is fully digested. Joanne

    1. Joanne! A kindred soul for sure. Didn’t you feel elated as you went from place to place discovering new things about your mother, not to mention the fun of a successful hunt? I didn’t know you were from that part of MA. When my grandfather left Rochester, he opened his own factory in New Bedford, MA and we soon followed. xo

  11. This was so special for you and your mother but I must say I enjoyed reading this so much. What a wonderful trip for you and your mother and all of your family. Thank you for sharing this with us and all the wonderful pictures.

  12. Judy, I loved every single word of this post. What a tribute to your wonderful Mother and her family. Stories matter. Please keep writing.

    1. Lesley, just found this comment in my spam folder. What a wonderful comment and compliment. I’ll own it! Thank you. You are a dear. Glad you got to read a little bit about the family. Love you.

  13. Sitting here in Ireland where we are on a 2-month visit after my husband’s retirement. I’ve just read your latest story and really enjoyed it. You’ve reminded me of the value of persistence! Thanks for sharing, Judy!

    1. Beth! From Ireland! Congrats on reaching retirement. I’ll own persistence. I’m picturing you in a quaint pub as you write this, or maybe on a grassy knoll. I’ve never been to Ireland but those are the first two images that come to mind about the country.Thanks for all the support about my writing. xo

  14. Judy this is so beautiful! What a lovely remembrance. We have much in common. My mother was divorced with five children she raised while working as a secretary. And we had beach vacations in Wisconsin. Your memories brought back memories of my mother who we lost way too soon! Thank you for this.

  15. I love this post, Judy. I especially loved the feeling of “heebie jeebies” when you were close to your mum’s lake house. We had a gathering way back in 2005 for my Dad’s 80th b-day. We met in south Virginia and toured three different graveyards looking for our ancestors. Along the way, we visited the spot where the mill sat that was run by my great-great grandfather. I had been there once before a few years before with just Robbie and the boys. My dad had described roughly where it was, but without GPS and such, it was a shot in the dark as to whether we would find it or not. As we were driving down the road, I got this prickling feeling that I’d been there before. I knew this place, as if the DNA in my body was responding to it. just after that trip, I read a novel that centered around a writer researching a book that she had set in the area of her ancestors. The heroine of the story ends up having what she calls “genetic memories” as she wanders the coast of Scotland. I knew exactly what that felt like. What a fascinating idea, that along with all the other genetic traits we inherit from our ancestors, we could also inherit memories!
    I always enjoy your food-related posts, but it is your family remembrances that touch me the most–thank you!

    1. Thank you for the nice compliment, Liz. I’ve heard some other stories like that since posting this story. What is the name of the book? I’d like to read it. In my family, we kid we inherited the family gene for anxiety!!

      1. The book is The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, a “historical romance” and somewhat formulaic as far as novels go, but it stuck with me because of the whole “genetic memory” idea. As far as inherited traits go, my sister (who is known for her malaprops) coined one of our family favorite sayings: “we all have the Ward genes CURSING through our veins!!!”

  16. I so enjoyed your walk back in time. I love looking up my own old family photos and searching out places my grandmother and her sister used to go. Such an inspiration. You are lucky you were able to spend this wonderful time with you mom and create new memories.

  17. Judy I loved this story about your mother. I sent your post to extended family who live in Rochester. Tim Mancini is principal of St. Thomas Aquinas High School.

    Sent from my iPhone

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    1. Thank you, Donna. Thanks for sending it to friends, as well. I’m was so glad to get this story written down. The picture of my mother sitting on the beach is the one we used for her funeral. I was so glad to be able to tell my family the origins of the photo and that it was a happy day. Thank, again.

  18. Judy, this is such a beautiful story and I must say, brought tears to my eyes. Last night I returned from a weekend in Atlanta , with my Swiss friend of 27 years, to see a mutual friend we hadn’t Seen in 13 years… I stayed in my old neighborhood vicinity at at Airbnb, drove the few minutes to MY neighborhood to go by the 3 houses I lived in between 1940 and 1952 ( when I went away to college)…just diving the streets was delicious nostalgia… had brought my children to the last house before my mother passed away in 1965…so many wonderful memories… And I so relate to the family dinner table…the last time my children were here was for my 80th birthday 3 1/2 years ago and just haveing a meal together, around the table, is the most meaningful for all of us…my brother turns 80 in Dec, my children will all be here and we can again have that family time around the table! When my daughter got home from my bday week/end, and asked her then 13 year old son what he liked best about the weekend, he told her when were all sitting around the table talking and laughing!!! That just meant the world to me!! Thank you Judy for your beautiful recount of that joyous trip and all your stories…just so lovingly beautiful❤️😘😘 Much love to you dear heart!!! Margot

    Sent from my iPad

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    1. Thank you for sharing your remembrances, Margot. My kids loved the table time, too. It doesn’t surprise me that your grandchildren get it too. Thanks for writing and compliments. xoJudy

  19. This is from Judge Arnie Ciaccio now age 88! I lived with grandparents Carl and Marion in Arlington Mass. while I was in my first at Harvard Law school. They and my parents were close friends and colleagues. We visited them at a summer residence, not at Sodus point but at Port Bay about 10-20 miles east and also on the Lake. Our time in Arlington spanned the time that their daughters—your aunts -passed away on 14 name Carol and 4-5 year old-Judy with leukemia. Grandmom Marion bore up these heartbreaks well. I have more—-

    1. Judge Ciaccio, so wonderful to hear from you. Yes, I would love to talk to you, I may even come and visit! I will get your contact info from Andrea when she gets back in town in September. So good to hear from you!! Judy

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