Many years ago my cousin Billy, the eldest of the 11 cousins on my father’s side, compiled our family history and gifted us with a written copy. Recently, I told him of my wish to share it on my blog and he agreed.
Pictured below are my father, the third of five children, as an infant, with his parents Nicola and Mary, and his two older sisters, Madeline (Billy’s mother and the eldest of the five children, and Angie, the second child).
The story consists of 9 short, easily read chapters which I will break up into 2-3 chapters over the next couple of weeks. I hope you will take the time to come back each week and read the story to the end. It is a story of courage, determination and love of family and country, appropriately told during this season of giving thanks and counting blessings.
One crisp autumn day, the exact year now escapes me, I found myself, with suitcase packed and nestled warmly in the trunk of my car, on the Long Island Expressway heading west, hopefully for a very quiet and pleasant weekend stay in Jersey City with my great-aunt and great-uncle. I needed to get away somewhere peaceful to unwind and have time to think. And I must admit there was another reason for choosing this two family brick house where Dominick and Mary Sorgente lived: it was to collect facts; memories; lives. It had been many years since my maternal grandfather had died, and my Great-Uncle Dom was the last link to the past, my past. What was that past? And how did it come about? I had to know. The chance of asking my grandfather had slipped away; I was too young to realize the need or identify the desire within me to know. But now, while I had the chance, I would extract the whole story.
The ride was long, or at least it seemed long, and while I was driving through the Lincoln Tunnel, my body quivered with excitement at the thought of seeing those two gentle people once again. The traffic was as usual bumper to bumper and as I sat waiting to enter the Jersey side, I thought of my grandparents and how much I really missed them. And then I came to the realization that Uncle Dom and Aunt Mary had become, by silent mutual consent, my new grandparents. I was glad.
Their house was on a one-way street, and as I pulled up to the front of the house and parked my car (there seemed to always be an empty parking space directly in front of their house), I caught a glimpse of Aunt Mary’s white hair through the big thick curtained window facing the street. I could imagine her scurrying around the house making sure that all was right. With suitcase in hand, I entered the door that would unlock my past.
Aunt Mary immediately asked, after a kiss and a hug were exchanged, “What took you so long? I’ve had lunch ready for hours.” To this ritual question I replied, “The traffic”. And while this exchange was taking place in the middle of their parlour, I noticed Uncle Dom struggling to get to his feet. It had been a long time since I had seen them, and I remember remarking to myself at the time that Uncle Dom seemed old. I bent over and kissed him on the cheek, and I was instantly aware of the sparkle in his eyes. He had been anticipating my arrival with great excitement, and his joy was apparent.
We sat down to lunch, which was always a feast, and talked about my idea to gather the Sorgente family history. Aunt Mary informed me that Uncle Dom had taken my idea to heart, and between the time of my phone call and today, he had been recalling incidences from his childhood that he had not thought of in fifty or sixty years. Some of them made him sad, she said, and depression would set in for a time, while others made him happy, and he would sing and joke around with her to the delight of this kind old lady. It was wonderful, she finally admitted, to see Dominick excited about something again; it had been a long time.
After lunch Uncle Dom and I were ushered out of the kitchen. Aunt Mary would not hear of my helping her with the dishes, and we were told to sit in the parlour where coffee would be served shortly. The parlour was filled with antiques. Let me clarify that; they were antiques to me but not to the couple who owned them. They were bought new some sixty years ago, and to Aunt Mary and Uncle Dom they were just their old furniture. What set the tone of this dark, but not depressing room, was the heavy drapery and sheer curtains that covered the entire front wall where the big picture window overlooked the street. Not much light filtered through those drapes, and one had to rely on several beautiful white flower designed porcelain lamps to illuminate the room. There was one such lamp on the end table next to the sofa that I switched on as Uncle Dom and I sat down to chat. I kicked off my shoes and rested my feet on a genuine brown Persian rug with a classic pattern, and settled very comfortably with pen and paper in hand on an old Victorian sofa that had the look and feel of elegance. Meanwhile, Uncle Dom took his usual place in his Queen Anne arm chair with its matching foot stool next to the window. Coffee and cake were then brought in by Aunt Mary on a lovely silver serving tray. She did not stay-something about shopping for dinner. And after observing Uncle Dom follower her out the front door with his eyes, we settled down to an afternoon of coffee, cake, and storytelling.
Uncle Dom’s tales jumped around in no special chronological order, and he would sometimes doze off in the middle of a sentence for up to fifteen minutes at a time, which caused me to refresh his memory of where he had left off each time he would reawaken, for either he would start a totally new story or continue the one already started at a point further down the road. Upon such occasions when he napped, I had time to reflect on what a remarkable thing was unfolding before me. But this made me also question whether or not my dream to know the family history would ever become a reality. But the story did indeed unfold…
To be continued…
If you’d like to read the second installment, please click here.