A few weeks ago, I went home to Rhode Island for a quick overnight visit. My husband and I had a great meal with my brothers, their families, and my stepfather. We prepared the meal together. While I sat at the table, I thought, This is great, Mom may not be here, but the family still has it; we know how to get a meal on the table. Life goes on. Someone sets the table, someone clears it, my brothers crack jokes the way they always have, and the dog sniffs around under the table looking for handouts. Both Mom’s presence and absence were felt. Her legacy of bringing the family together around the dinner table remained.
That brings me to this photo from our childhood when we lived in Bay View, in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. My mother, a single, working woman, always got a hot meal on the table for dinner, and looked good doing it.
The photo 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.
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