Olympia & Cecilia
The Story of an Italian-American Friendship During WWII
This is the story of my Aunt’s friendship with her friend Olympia as she related it to me. It is Cecilia’s story—hers and Olympia’s—and I have endeavored to faithfully capture the spirit of their experience in what follows.
The last names of the Italian families have been changed to protect their privacy.
From outside the Marinos’ front door that September Friday, I heard a chorus of voices—male, female, “old,” and young—shouting, complaining, commanding, lamenting, and laughing with such exuberance that the cacophony quickly became a gorgeous harmony, the joyful sounds of life. I’ll never forget it. But for the rest of my life, it was those fabulous cooking aromas that would take me back to the wonderful Marino household every time I smelled tomatoes, garlic, and oregano. I can almost taste Mrs. Marino’s home-made spaghetti with clam sauce, sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan and red pepper flakes. Delizioso. I am now ninety years old. And I am still grateful—and humbled—that Olympia Marino Gardella called me her friend.
I was pretty nervous. My stomach jumped as Olympia put her hand on the latch. On the other side of the door waited a foreign world, which was a little frightening, if exciting. In a sense, this became my first “job interview.” I didn’t know it yet, but escorting and mentoring Olympia—who was a whole year younger than I was—as she made her way to and from Gratz High School and the corner store whenever she needed “young lady” supplies would become my solemn responsibility. Life would take an interesting turn in our North Philadelphia neighborhood that fall of 1939.
The day before I went to the Marinos’ house for the first time, I had spotted shy, worried-looking Olympia exiting our German class, heading toward wherever she was supposed to be next. Her path took her right past my locker. After a rambunctious boy chasing another rambunctious boy ran by and jostled her books to the floor, I noticed her delicate, shaking hand quickly wipe a tear from her cheek before she bent to pick them up, her other hand holding a colorful woolen sweater that I’d have bet was knitted by her grandmother. I went up to her, stooping to help. I said, “Would you like to share my locker?” Don’t ask me to remember why now, but that year in high school lockers were in short supply, and I was one of the lucky ones who had one.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more startled expression on anyone’s face in all my life than the one on Olympia’s that day. When she opened her mouth to respond, I noticed for the first time that she had a slight accent, something I hadn’t heard when she was speaking German—which she did very well. “Oh, thank you, thank you. You are so kind to offer me. But . . . but,” she stammered.
I was confused. If only she knew how nervous and introverted I was, that it was only her misfortune that had emboldened me, she would never have had a moment’s lack of ease in my presence. My parents and my church had taught me well, and my heart went out to this brown-haired girl who stared at me so intently that I thought her sparkly dark eyes could have been black diamonds.
“It’s OK, it’s all right,” I prompted. “I really don’t have much to store in my locker, and you’re certainly welcome to put your things in there, at least for today. Oh!—but I mean it’s fine with me for you to keep sharing it.”
Gross indecision clouded her somewhat plain but appealing face as she looked at her saddle shoes. After a moment, she said, “Would you come to my house tomorrow afternoon when we finish school? I would like you to meet my papa. I will tell you then.”
Now it was my turn to be startled. This was a simple invitation to share my locker, but you might have thought I’d asked her to run away with me and become gypsies or something. “I guess so,” I replied, not sure what I would find at her house—maybe a hunchbacked ogre with a set of brass keys on a large ring, the better to lock her in her dungeon with. And I had my own strict and conservative father to deal with. I would need his permission to make this detour after school, even if I was a junior in high school.
“Oh, that is very good. Tomorrow, then, after school, you will come to meet my papa and my mama, and I will tell you then about the locker.” She extended her hand. “My name is Olympia Marino. I know you are Cecilia.”
She pronounced it “Chi-CHEEL-i-a.” I said gently, “Yes, Cecilia. Cecilia Braddock.”
“Oh, ‘Cess-SEEL-i-a.’ It is nice to meet you, Cecilia. I am so happy we study German together.” I was starting to feel that way, too. Finally, I’d found a fellow shy person who loved and respected her family, like me—even if she was only a sophomore and would not be in any of my other classes.
So, here we were the following afternoon, now on the other side of the front door of the Marinos’ three-story row house. Mystified, I didn’t see a soul—just the soles of feet, the gorgeous harmony of life sounds now replaced by scampering and thudding as the owners of the melodious voices headed toward the back of the house. If it was like our house, the kitchen would be back there, and it would face a patch of fenced-in yard looking out on the back alley. A mournful train whistle sounded in the distance. Four o’clock. I was starting to feel very odd.
“Please, Cecilia, will you sit here?” Olympia pointed to a straight-backed dining-room chair positioned across from an identical one that had been placed dead center in the parlor, a formal sitting room at the front of the house across from the dining room, separated by a small foyer with a stairway. The sitting area was decorated in lively colors with all kinds of floral things, like vases and embroidered doilies, and I saw some little stone statues. Everything looked breakable, so I didn’t dare move. Pretty or not, I just knew that hunchbacked ogre was lurking around the Italian-decorated corner somewhere. I could almost hear the brass keys clanking. Then Olympia disappeared up the stairway, leaving me sitting there feeling as if I should have a bright light shining in my face to make me answer all the interrogation questions. How does one prepare for an inquisition regarding the sharing of a high school locker?
As I sat pondering my fate, I saw, rather than heard, a middle-aged woman (actually, she was only about forty) walk slowly past the parlor, coming from that mysterious place in the back of the house where the various pairs of feet had fled moments earlier. Her brown eyes remained fixed on me, unblinking, unwavering, even as she turned her body toward the same stairway that had taken Olympia away. The only reprieve from her stare occurred when she had to turn completely around to ascend the steps. Then she turned back to look at me. Stares and stairs. I just watched, not blinking, not realizing I wasn’t breathing until she was out of sight.
Within seconds, a middle-aged man (of about the same age) followed the woman, repeating the exact same focused-eye performance. Again, I gaped at the sight, not blinking, not breathing. I had just enough time to shiver slightly before a teenage girl appeared, mimicking the elders. She was followed by a teenage boy and a younger girl. All those pairs of Italian eyes, staring, floating by, saying so much, while their owners’ mouths said nothing at all. This was a parade of Mediterranean zombies, and what they were planning upstairs I didn’t know. But I was really glad I didn’t see a stone table in the dining room with a sacrificial knife lying on it. How strange to be in a living room watching a parade of deadish-looking people.
These weird doings had unnerved me, but then I saw an adorable cherub bringing up the rear. This curly-headed angel, her dark-brown ringlets framing soft fawn eyes and cherry-blossom cheeks, was the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. She must have been a mutant, because unlike her predecessors she grinned at me, the smile unabashedly warm and welcoming, a heartfelt glow. Relief coursed through my veins, and I chuckled out loud despite the peculiar circumstances. The cherub ran up the steps, sending giggles at me as she flew up the staircase on invisible wings.
A full five minutes passed before a different middle-aged man and a different middle-aged woman (also somewhere around forty, give or take) descended the stairs, approaching me with faces that seemed to say, “We are here on deadly serious business.” I stopped breathing again, my eyes locked onto theirs. The black-haired man spoke. “We are Senore and Senora Marino. The father and mother of Olympia.” They nodded at me. “Now if you do not mind,” said the man, “my wife will return up the stairs, and I will have a talk with you—OK?” OK or not, Olympia’s mother went upstairs, leaving me alone with the ogre. At least Olympia’s father didn’t have a hunched back.
Mister—Senore—Marino took the chair opposite me. I waited as he cleared his throat and settled himself into what I guess was a comfortable position for him. As for me, I was anything but. Then he said, “So, you are ‘Chi-CHEEL-i-a.’”
“Yes, Cecilia. Cecilia Braddock.”
“Oh, OK, ‘Cess-SEEL-i-a.’ It is so nice to meet you, Cecilia.”
“Thank you. It’s nice to meet you, too.”
“So, Cecilia. I understand that you offer my daughter use your locker at the high school.”
“Yes, sir, I did.”
“Well, I think that was very nice of you.”
I just waited, thinking that agreement would be taken as misplaced pride and might be a punishable offense.
“Maybe you cannot understand, but this is big decision for our famiglia. You would be the first American friend of my daughter. This is very important.”
He was right about one thing—I really did not understand this practice of interviewing friends for one’s daughter. But in hindsight, I not only understand, I whole-heartedly approve. Friendship to the Marinos was a sacred honor, not to be entered into lightly. My “interview” was almost as solemn an experience as it would be some seven years hence for the young man who would ask Mr. Marino for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Poor fella.
Eleven-year-old “Olimpia Marino,” as it appeared on the ship’s manifest, had stepped off the Vulcania after it docked in New York Harbor on October 4, 1934, newly arrived from Naples, Italy. With her were her parents, Vincenzo and Maria, and her sister, Anna, age seven. Already living in the three-story house on Cayuga Street in Philadelphia—where I was destined to spend many happy, and a few sad, hours—were her Zio Fredo, her father’s brother, and Zia Concetta, his wife, with their three children, Olympia’s beloved cousins: another Olympia, about the same age as “my” Olympia; Nicky, a little older and the only boy; and sweet little Rosie, about three years old. To this day I would say Rosie was the most enchanting child I have ever known (with apologies to all my beautiful and enchanting nieces and nephews and to their equally wonderful children).
Over the two years we were in high school together, me during my junior and senior years and Olympia during her sophomore and junior years, she told me more about her family so that I could understand her importance to them—and, I add blushingly, my importance to her. The “interrogation” I had endured that day in September 1939 was a screening process created by Olympia’s father to keep her and her kinfolk enfolded and safe within la famiglia, Italy’s most cherished institution after the pasta factory and the Catholic church (maybe even in that order). In the next few months, I would learn what an honor it was to be the first American of German-English—not Italian—descent to become Olympia’s cara amica, her dear friend.
However, on that particular September day in 1939, sitting on that straight-backed chair with the invisible light shining in my face and Olympia’s father’s very visible intense brown eyes boring into my own, I would have considered it an honor if they’d cut me loose with a quick ciao—grazie, ma no grazie: see ya later—thanks, but no thanks. But my almost new friend was waiting upstairs for me to be approved. How could I let her down, now that she had shown she trusted me enough to bring me into . . . this?
“Yes, sir. I understand how important it must be for Olympia to have a friend that her parents can trust.”
“Hmmm. Si, signorina. Well, I would like to know something or two about you.”
“First—and this is very important: Do your parents know you are here?”
“Oh, yes. I would never go anywhere without letting them know where I’d be.”
“You mean you make decision go out by yourself and tell them after you decide?”
“Uh, no, sir. I mean I always make sure they know where I am. And I always ask permission first before I go anywhere.”
“Even though you are in the high school?”
“Yes, sir. That’s how I was brought up. To respect my parents.”
“I see. Molto buona. My Olympia must always seek the permission from her parents, too—especially the papa. It is my job to protect her, to take care for my famiglia.”
“Oh, yes, sir. I see that. Olympia is fortunate to have a papa who loves her so much.”
“Ah, but it is more than love. It is duty. Sacred duty. I pledge my life to my famiglia. We leave most relatives and friends in Napoli and come to America for good life. I come here several times, back and forth across the ocean, I get started with work and apply for be a citizen of the United States of America. We start all over again. I am expert scalpellino . . . uh, stone mason . . . in Napoli. I give it up and come here and build houses, now with bricks. But someday I have business here in Philadelphia and be true stone sculpturer, carving the fountains and beautiful things. Many Italiani live in this city and buy them. It is my dream.” His voice had raised a notch as he said this, as much with his mouth as with his right hand, the fingertips all touching, his arm bent at the elbow and making quick little back-and-forth movements close to his face.
I sat very still, thinking hard about all this. Something stirred in my heart area and stomach as I imagined how difficult it must be for a family to uproot itself and come to a new country. Now I started to feel a little warmly toward Olympia’s papa and hoped I could live up to his expectations—whatever they were. But when I heard his voice resume his questioning, I started, still trying to understand that his standards were so high because his life was so hard.
He continued, turning from narrator back to inquisitor. “Tell me, Cecilia. What work your father does?”
“He works in the post office as a superintendent.”
“I see. And this is manager job?”
“Oh, yes. He’s proud of his work.”
“Uh-huh. And your mother, what she does?”
“She takes care of us—my father, me, and my two sisters.”
“Ah, you have sorelle—sisters. That is good. You cannot be too selfish when you have sorelle and fratelli. Olympia has little sister, Anna, but no brother—like you, yes?”
“Yes . . . I mean, no . . . I mean you are correct, sir. Just my two sisters, Marie and Mary.”
“Due Maria? Ha-hah!”When he laughed, his hands flew up in the air. “Ah, the Holy Virgin, she no mind. Ha-hah!”
I didn’t see what was so funny and couldn’t imagine how to explain to him that my mother had died at a young age, leaving my baby sister, Marie, and me with our father. He had remarried, and my stepmother, whom I adored, had a daughter, Mary, who was my age. This was too many “Marias” and too many English words for a tense visitor’s mouth—and an intense Italian ear—on that particular day.
He must have seen the bewildered look on my face and said,“Is OK,” making the familiar grimace with a downturned mouth that goes along with being tolerant, head tilting to one side as he shrugged good naturedly. “Due Maria. My wife, she is also Maria. Is beautiful name. Holy name.”
“Yes, it is,” I agreed.
“Si. Olympia, she not have fratelli either. But she have Nicky.”
“Her cousin. You see him already. And she have cousin her age—also Olympia.” He chuckled, but he had a bright, piercing sparkle in his eye. “My brother, Fredo, and I—we always fight . . . how you say . . . compete. We both like ‘Olympia.’ It remind us of big, important thing. But his Olympia, she born first. Madre mia, I was mad! Then I think, oh, well, I also can have an Olympia. Why not?” Again he chuckled, this time with more than a hint of self-satisfaction.
“And then we have piccola Rosetta—our little Rosie, only three years. She also is Olympia’s—my Olympia’s—cousin, the daughter of my brother. Fredo is electrician—very good job. His wife, Concetta, help my Maria with the bambini and the casa—the children and the house. Here, it is never quiet.”
Could have fooled me. “The ladies must be good company for each other.”
“Ah, you think so? Due primedonne in the house? Two Senora Marino? He started to laugh. I smiled with my lips, but not with my whole face. My eyes had work to do—watching every move his made.
By this time, it felt as if we’d been talking at least half an hour. But we weren’t nearly finished. I watched and waited for what would come next.
“Cecilia, you will permit me ask you delicate personal question?” Oh, no. He had lapsed back into calling me “Chi-CHEEL-i-a.” I figured this was a bad sign. And I started picturing myself as a chinchilla.
“Yes, sir. Of course.” I tried to smile, but I probably looked as if someone had just poked me in the ribs with a stick.
“You see boys?”
“Yes, you know—boys. You go on dates?”
“Cecilia, scusi, I no make you embarrass. But I worry about American modern way. My famiglia, we are . . . how you say in America . . . old fashed . . . old fashion. Olympia must not go straying with you or any American friend.”
Just then, a little white shoe with a gold buckle appeared from behind the parlor doorway, and I heard snuffling sounds. I glanced over—eyes only, no head—and saw a three-year-old smile that could have lit up an Athletics night game at Shibe Park. Unable to stifle it, I tittered at the sight of that little girl playing peek-a-boo with me, that big red bow in her hair making the boldest fashion statement possible for such a wee thing.
Then I looked up at Mr. Marino and saw a cloud pass from his eyes down to his chin. He thought I was laughing at him! At his English! He couldn’t see the little girl from where he sat.
“Oh, excuse me, Mr. Marino, I’m so sorry. I . . .”
The child’s laugh saved me. “Rosetta! Come here, come to Zio.” He hoisted her onto his knee. “Scusi, Cecilia, I see now that Rosetta play with you.” He shook an index finger at her, but she gave him the gift of her smile, and he laughed and hugged her. “Now go see Mama.” He patted her lightly on the bottom, and she slid me a sideways glance and a not-at-all shy smile before she ran toward that stairway to . . . somewhere. The red-and-white gingham dress disappeared upward.
“So, I ask you again about boys.”
“Oh, no, sir. I don’t have any boyfriends. I’m happy just being with my family.” This was true. From then until now, people have thought I must have missed so much and that my life was dull because I didn’t date and never married. But I thought life with my family was fulfilling and fascinating, and I was always happy. Nervous, but happy. I guess that was just my nature.
“OK, buono, buono. So why you want my Olympia use your locker at the school?”
This abrupt change of subject got my attention. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t obvious that I had just offered Olympia my locker because I was doing what I thought was right. Nothing to get excited about.
“Well, uh, she seems to need it. Other kids are sharing lockers, and I wasn’t sure Olympia was aware of that because she’s so new. There aren’t enough lockers to go around, and I have plenty of room in mine.”
“Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” His head bobbed, his eyes half-closed; the corners of his mouth drew down, and his hands flipped open. I see. I see.
“You want be friend for my daughter?”
I thought that was probably what I wanted, so I nodded, figuring the more agreeable I was, the sooner I’d be able to go home.
“Yes, sir. If that’s all right with you. I’d like to be Olympia’s friend and let her share my locker.”
“Ah, buono. You nice girl, Cecilia—very polite, very interested in everything I say. No boys. You would be good for my Olympia. Can you come this house on Monday morning and walk with Olympia to the high school? Then you walk her back home to her famiglia after school, yes?”
“Insegnante, insegnante!” The happy sound came from the “hiding place” around the corner, the gingham girl apparently having crept quietly back down the staircase. How such a big, complicated word could come from such a small, impish mouth I didn’t know, but the little girl seemed gleeful when she said it, clapping her hands.
“Rosetta, Inglese—you say ‘teacher.’” Turning back to me, he said, “Little Rosetta, she understand that you help her cousin, so she call you ‘teacher.’” He laughed. I smiled. The “teacher” had passed the friendship-and-locker-sharing test. Buono.
From that day forward, every time I arrived to pick up Olympia and walk her to school, to the pharmacy, or to Germantown Avenue on a Saturday to do a little shopping (after chores, of course), little Rosetta, Rosie, would open the door, clap, grin, and say “Teacher here, teacher here!” That child was pura gioia—pure joy. Your face just opened into a wide smile whenever you saw her—you couldn’t stop it.
Once in a while, I was invited to stay for supper. Olympia’s father and uncle spoke pretty good English, but only to me. To each other and to their Italian-speaking wives and children they spoke with mouthfuls of vowels and waving hands. The cousins spoke English to one another and to me, but not to the adults. Watching them transform from Americani to Italiani and back again made me feel lightheaded, but I was usually glad I didn’t know what they were talking about because I didn’t have to say anything. One night, Mr. Marino said, “Ah, Cecilia is the perfect guest in the home of a scalpellino. Maybe she model for me sometime.” It wasn’t the first—or last—time I’d be thought of as stone faced. But I was always so interested in what was going on, despite my stony look, even though the only word I ever recognized during these dinners was “Chi-CHEEL-i-a.” I figured this was probably the only thing about me that would ever be exotic, so I didn’t mind.
I never was a big eater, and my family worried over it. “She eats like a bird,” they always said. And my mother was a great cook, too. Years later, my niece would beg me to dig around for her recipes for roast fresh ham, orange chiffon cake, cole slaw, coffee percolated to “a pretty color” as Mom used to say, apple dumplings, chicken-in-a-basket, and all the other wonderful meals we had at our house. I had to tell her that Mother never used recipes—she just cooked. My disappointed niece still talks about Thanksgiving as if it was a feast made in heaven, certain she will never duplicate her grandmother’s rich, delicious food. But she does try!
When I had a meal with the Marinos, however, I became a real porker. Maybe it was because at home our food—delicious and perfectly prepared as it was—was “All-American” and something I came to take for granted. Also, my little sister got all the attention. Here, I was an honored guest. Whether any of this explains my appetite for the food coming out of that cucina doesn’t matter. The fact is, the ladies, who seemed to compete with their food (but good naturedly as far as I could tell), used to smile and bob their heads when I’d ask for more chicken cacciatore, ravioli, or pasta e fagioli. But the first time I had their spaghetti with clam sauce (I wasn’t sure who’s it was until later, when I learned that it was made by “my” Mrs. Marino), they laughed delightedly when I asked for thirds. They started to clap in rhythm and sing, watching me with large, round brown eyes, while Rosie did a pirouette or two, grinning and giggling the whole time. When I realized what a spectacle I’d made of myself, I was mortified—but very content. That clammy spaghetti slid right down my throat, and I slowly fell asleep that night slightly intoxicated by the aroma of olive oil, garlic, and savory spices in my hair.
On another occasion when I’d been invited for dinner, right before it was time to sit down at the table, Olympia’s father decided we should have another talk in the parlor. Oh, Lord. I followed him to where I was sure I’d find that light pointed in my face, glancing over my shoulder at Olympia, who shrugged and smiled, nodding encouragingly.
Mr. Marino had put a record on the phonograph, and I heard tunes playing softly in the background, some of which sounded familiar, as we sat down on two dining room chairs facing each other—just as we did on that first day. During our chat, he would occasionally interrupt himself by telling me the name of a song. The only ones I can remember are “O Sole Mio,” “Funiculì Funiculà,” and “Santa Lucia,” but there were many more.
“Cecilia, I think your face say me you have some question. Please,” he gestured with an open palm for me to speak.
I looked at him, blinking. No words passed my lips because none had formed in my brain. This wasn’t a house where anybody except Mr. Marino—my Mr. Marino, not his brother—asked questions. I didn’t want him to think I was prying or that I mistrusted him.
“Cecilia, don’t be shy, not like my Olympia. Speak up. Is OK.”
I kept wondering why he thought I wanted to ask him something when I didn’t know this myself. Then I thought maybe he wanted to tell me something. Swallowing, I heard myself say what I didn’t even know I was thinking about. “Well, Mr. Marino, I was just wondering . . . well, I was thinking . . .”
“Yes, Cecilia? You were wondering and you were thinking . . .”
“ . . . about what brought you to America—not that I’m not glad you’re here!” I hurriedly added this last point.
Raising a hand to his chin, cupping it between his index finger and thumb, he gave a little laugh and said, “Cecilia, you like the opera?”
Opera? Opera? I racked my brain for something to say so I wouldn’t sound stupid. My favorite radio program was Fibber McGee and Molly. But I thought Italian men were supposed to like all kinds of music, so I said, “Well, I like the music you’re playing now. And Daddy—my father—also likes music very much. Every Saturday night we listen to Your Hit Parade on the radio.”
He paused for a while, just looking at me. I thought I saw his head shake from side to side, ever so slightly, but I wasn’t sure. Finally, he said, “Cecilia, let me tell you something. One of my friend, Antonio, he come to America recently with Rosaria, his wife. They from from Sicilia. Ah! Like your name, the way you say: ‘Sicilia . . . Cecilia!’ Buono! Anyway, Cecilia (back to the chinchilla pronunciation again), he have a young son who is opera singer—baritone. In this famiglia we listen to opera on the radio. When you come our house next time, I play opera on phonograph for you—we have Italian opera on 78 records. Meantime, Cecilia, tell your father I recommend you find Gian Carlo Menotti on the radio—he write beautiful little opera called The Old Maid and the Thief. You tell him. NBC radio. I hear Menotti will take his opera to stage in Philadelphia someday, but you tell your father about the radio, OK?”
I nodded vigorously, having no blessed idea what he was talking about. But I was agreeable, knowing I had manna from heaven waiting for me in the next room, god-like food that smelled of oregano and basil—and garlic, of course.
“Anyway, Cecilia, you wonder why we come in America. Let me tell you. You remember our first talk, when I tell you I am expert stone mason, no? We come in America for better life. Why, you ask yourself? The young son of my friend, the opera singer—his name is Francesco . . . Frank—he want singing in New York, with Metropolitan Opera. He is wonderful! He go in Milano as apprendisto, what you call apprentice, some year ago, and we visit and hear him sing there. He say me and Fredo, political situations in Italia very bad. He no love fascist. ‘Mussolini is maniaco,’ Frank, the singer, tell to us. ‘You should get your wives and children and go in United States of America. Depression is maybe bad, but still is better there than with Mussolini here. Fascists no good for Italy. They no allow labor strike. Depression is over someday anyway.’ So, I listen to him because his career introduce him to many people who know such things. And anyway, I have friend in America from long time who invite me be stone mason with him, so I come back and forth across the ocean and make good living until finally I become citizen, then I send for my famiglia. So, Cecilia, here we are.”
I think my mouth fell open, but honestly it was because he had my rapt attention. Mr. Marino, stone mason from Italy, was apparently much more worldly-wise than little American-born me. And during this pause in the conversation, I realized I needed to compose myself and find something I’ve heard called “grace under pressure” and find something halfway intelligent to say.
Finally, I gulped and opened my mouth. “Mr. Marino, that’s very interesting. I think you’re very brave leaving your homeland to come here. And I’m happy you brought Olympia to America. I think the opera singer gave you some good advice.”
“Ah, Cecilia, me too. And it is so good that Olympia have nice friend like you. Everything OK at the school? You learn many things? They teach you about Europa?”
I pretended to think about this to buy some time while I racked my brain for buried information. We had just learned about Mussolini in history class, but I couldn’t have guessed it would ever have anything to do with me. My grades were OK, but after I took tests I used to more or less forget everything I’d learned. I vowed to pay more attention in school, especially since Germany had just invaded Poland, starting World War II overseas. I used to hear my father and his club friends talk about the war, but at the time I really didn’t understand—and wouldn’t until December 7, 1941. Once I heard Daddy say that an Italian man in his club had graduated from “Whassa Madda U.” And now I was afraid Mr. Marino would think I was one of its students—my mind was a total blank about Europe and the situation there. “Wassa Madda Me?”
Finally, I thought of something to say.“Yes, sir, we learned about Europe in history class. It seems so far away to me, but of course it’s your home. So you understand more than I do. But I enjoy listening to you talk about it.”
“Well, Cecilia, anytime you want talk about Europa, we talk about Europa—especially Italia, the land of my heart. And next time we will listen to the opera. Now, che mangiamo. We eat!”
One could always count on being saved by food in the Marino home.
After German class one Friday, Olympia said to me, “On Monday, Cecilia, can you ask your parents for you to stay at my house after school for a little while?” The first thought in my head was, Oh, no—opera! I have to listen to opera! I didn’t even know how to pretend to like those voices that reminded me of dark, heavy drapes, and I certainly had never talked to my father about that Manicotti guy on NBC radio. I was afraid I’d be so bored that I’d fall asleep and drool, like that time Daddy took me to the movies to see The Wizard of Oz. Crazy monkeys and witches and scarecrows. He never understood that I much preferred watching real people.
“Uh, sure, OK. Any special reason?”
“My papa told me to ask you. You’ll see.”
I had a lousy weekend.
On Monday afternoon, Olympia and I walked toward her house, my reluctant feet seeming to drag behind my body. “Cecilia, something is wrong?”
“No, no. I’m fine. It’s chilly out. That must be bothering my feet.” She just shrugged and walked.
We arrived at her door, opened by Rosie as usual. “Teacher here! Teacher here!” She clapped and laughed, more excitedly than usual. “’Lympia pahty, Lympia pahty!”
I looked at Olympia, who patted Rosie on the head and said to me softly, “Today is my birthday. Papa and mama wanted me to have a party.”
Olympia’s father appeared. “Cecilia! Benvenuto! We are so happy you here. This is party for the American friends!”
I was taken aback, because I didn’t know any of Olympia’s other friends. She’d told me that most of them were the children of her parents’ friends at the Italian-American club in South Philly. So I was surprised—and also apprehensive. I was imagining yet another gathering where the only intelligible sound would be the chinchilla version of my name, the only word I ever recognized when everybody else was speaking Italian.
“Olympia’s mama, she bake Italian rum birthday cake. And we have cold cream . . . I mean ice cream, gelato! The party is in next room. My Maria, she decorate—balloons and everything. You will like it! You and Olympia will love it! Come with me.”
Shoulders erect and head high, he acted like a giant of a man, although he stood at only five feet two inches, like me, smiling proudly as led us to the dining room. My heartbeat quickened, and I felt pretty awful. I didn’t even have a card for my friend. But I didn’t know it was her birthday, either. And I guess she didn’t know when mine was, which was fine with me because I hated to be the center of anyone’s attention (other than Daddy’s). Olympia’s mother waited just inside the doorway, extending her arm, beckoning us in with her hand, smiling and nodding. “Benvenuto, Cecilia.” Taking Olympia’s head in her hands and kissing her on the forehead, she said happily, despite the tear running down her cheek, “Buon compleanno, Olympia!” Then, haltingly, “Hab-by bird-day, dar-ling dot-ter!”
I looked around the room. Yes, I saw balloons, all right, two colorful bunches of them, one tied to the back of one chair, one tied to the back of another. A colorful tablecloth and napkins in pastel colors adorned a card table, which held a beautiful cream-colored swirly cake with sixteen pink, blue, green, and yellow candles, already lit and melting into the frosting. And there were party hats. Two party hats. Only two party hats. . . .
“OK, OK. Olympia and Cecilia will have the party now! But first, everyone must wish Olympia happy birthday.” Oh, no! Another Italian eye parade! But this time, everyone entering the room, single file, was warm and smiling as they wished their relative many blessings on her special day. As before, Rosie brought up the rear, running up to “’Lympia” and giving her a pecky kiss on the lips as she eyeballed the cake with an unsubtle sideways glance. Then she came over to me and put her little arms around my neck and squeezed, glancing over at the cake and not saying anything as I felt her warm breath on my cheek. Oh, my, how this child could make you want to dance and sing, clapping and laughing to Neopolitan music. She seemed to hug me in Italian song language that only she could hear.
So, Olympia and I celebrated her sixteenth birthday at a party for two. Everyone in her family seemed to think it was a very happy—and formal, as well as normal—occasion. So even if my stomach was trying to tell me something was wrong with this situation, I would just have to ignore it. I was the honored guest at my friend’s “sweet sixteen” party, and Olympia smiled as she sat across from me at the card table. I told her she should make a wish and blow out her candles. I had forgotten to tell her to make the wish silently to herself, and she said, “I wish that Cecilia would always be my friend and enjoy my family.” Then we discussed the dative case in German while eating our cake and ice cream. I can still taste the rum, both in the cake and in the rum-raisin ice cream. Her family liked consistency.
I didn’t stay for dinner that night because the family portion of the party commenced after I left. So I wished Olympia a very happy birthday, said thank you and goodbye to everyone in the house, and gently peeled off Rosie’s little arms so I could get my coat on. The last thing I saw as I left the house was a three-year-old smile full of love. It was heart-stopping.
Next November 6, I would remember to get Olympia a birthday card. But this year, I knew it was me who had been given the gift.
The day I knew I had become an honorary member of the Marino family is burned into my memory like the after-images from a soft-white light bulb. It was May, about a month after Easter, 1942. Some early spring colors were already fading, the yellow daffodils and forsythia having just turned into green again, with the pink swatches of azaleas and cherry blossoms still imprinted on the landscape like lipstick smears on a cup. And the later spring flowers had started to hint at their coming blooms. But even now when I close my eyes, I see folds of snowy-white satin that seem to float forever, and I imagine an ocean of soft foam with endless miles of gentle waves carrying her to a place where sweet and wonderful dreams come true for the pure of heart. I would be reminded of this pillowy vision six years later when Olympia got married, six years after she graduated from high school, six years after this American-born girl of German-English descent had become an unofficial member of the Neapolitan community.
As she often did on a Saturday—about once a month, actually—Olympia called and asked me to go to the drug store with her. I never minded doing this because it was always a happy thing to go to the Marino home for any reason, especially because the special treat called Rosie always greeted me at the door. “Teacher here! Teacher! Teacher! Cecilia!” She pronounced my actual name as a sort of cross between the English and Italian chinchilla version. No one before or since has ever given me a round of applause just for showing up—or for any other reason, for that matter. As soon as I saw her I would always feel the giggles escaping from deep inside myself before I could hope to catch them, like bubbles.
But on this particular May Saturday, a note in Olympia’s voice had sounded different, a bit urgent, and she had called later than usual. Also, it was raining, threatening to wash away the lipstick-stain colors that still lined the North Philly streets of row houses between my block and hers. But I thought as I put on my raincoat that the light and gentle rain was more likely to rinse the air than to scrub it of all color by pummeling crushed blossoms to the ground. What I didn’t yet know was that the next day the rain would become a flood of tears.
By this time, I had already graduated from high school and was working in the billing department of the Bell Telephone Company, which would be my business home for forty-seven years until I retired in 1988. Olympia was in her final year of high school and was already thinking about her graduation, only a few weeks away now, nervously anticipating going out into the working world herself. A couple of weeks before the May drug-store trip, she’d said to me, “What I will do after school, I’m still not sure. Earning my own money! This scares me! I can’t imagine how I will do it.”
“You’ll be all right, Olympia. Like my Daddy always told me: when the time comes you’ll find the right job with a good company, just like I did with Ma Bell. Then you’ll be set for life. You won’t have to worry. The company will take care of you in your working years with a salary and benefits, and after you retire they give you a good retirement plan with a pension and health insurance.”
“Retire! No, no . . . I can’t think about retiring from a company! My family believes . . . well, anyway, my uncle thinks he might be able to get me an office job with the electrical contractor he works for. At least I would know someone there, although Tio Fredo is out on repair calls all day.”
“Your uncle’s company has been around for a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, but it is a family-owned business. Not big and permanent like Bell Telephone. But anyway, I don’t think I will need to worry about a company pension and insurance. I think I will have another retirement plan. ”
I didn’t understand this because Daddy had always told me how important it was to build loyalty with a company so I could feel secure for the rest of my life. Olympia seemed to be like me, a quiet young girl who was happy with her family, and she would want this kind of security for herself . . . wouldn’t she? Well, as I found out later, security meant something different to Olympia than it did to me. Mere honorary membership in the Italian community hadn’t led me to understand what really motivated Olympia’s life. In the end, we turned out not to be as much alike as I’d thought.
Arriving at the Marino home around five o’clock that May Saturday, I shook my umbrella out on the front step, anticipating my usual delightful Rosie greeting. But Olympia herself opened the door, hastily closing it again after I entered. “Cecilia, we are just finishing an early supper. I’m sorry I didn’t call you earlier to invite you, but . . .”
“Teacher here? Cecilia?” I heard a very soft version of the chinchilla version of my name, but this time it came from the parlor and not from the front door. The smile I had prepared had disappeared behind the worried look on my face.
“Cecilia, Rosie is on the couch in the parlor. Would you mind sitting with her while we finish? Maybe five-ten minutes?” Olympia asked.
“Oh . . . sure. I’ll be happy to.”
Olympia walked me into the parlor, where I gingerly sat beside Rosie, who took up only one cushion. At the end of our last conversation two weeks ago, Olympia mentioned that Rosie’s parents had taken her to the doctor because her head hurt. I remembered how her voice had trailed away as she described how her cousin was undeterred by doctors and medicines, continuing to run around the house and out the front door, playing and bringing joy to everyone. Something didn’t seem right, and a nervous feeling grew in my stomach as the palms of my hands began to feel as if electric currents were running through them. This always happened when I was ill or afraid of something.
I sat down next to Rosie, whose eyes were closed, the almost -black lashes lacing her uncharacteristically pale cheeks, her dark curls spread out beneath her delicate head on a little pillow, a few straggles of hair damply matted against her forehead. She must have had a fever. Touching her hand, which lay lightly on her belly, I was surprised to hear her whisper “Hello, Cecilia. Teacher here.” Olympia walked back to the dining room, leaving us alone for a few minutes. I thought I heard a sniffle, but her head was turned down toward the floor as she left us.
“Hello, Rosie. How are you feeling? Does your head hurt?” She shook her head very slightly, opening her eyes briefly to let me know she recognized me and knew what I was saying. But she had stopped saying anything. Somehow, I felt I should keep talking to her, and she kept looking at me, calmly yet searchingly. I could barely see her breathing.
Stroking her forehead, gently moving the straggling damp curls away from her face, I said, “Are you comfortable, Rosie?” She looked at me with eyes that said what her lips couldn’t, just “Love, I love you, Teacher,” and I thought I saw a tiny smile on the muted mouth. Funny that Rosie still called me “Teacher.” She wasn’t quite six years old yet and hadn’t started school.
“You’ll be all right, Rosie. I think Olympia wants me to go to the drug store with her so we can get you some medicine. It will make you feel better. Can I get you anything now?”
The slight movement of her head told me no, but I felt her hand reach for me. She squeezed my index and middle fingers gently, then more firmly, gripping them the way a baby holds onto a beloved rattle. Her eyes closed. Then Olympia came in and said it was time to go. As she approached us, Rosie opened her eyes and glanced at her cousin, then turned her hazy gaze back to me. She just looked and looked, so hard, as if she was trying to tell me something with the light that burned in her eyes. She wouldn’t let go of my fingers, so Olympia delicately, lovingly pried Rosie’s small fingers open and laid her empty hand on her small stomach, saying softly, “Riposare ora, piccola. Rest now, little one.” Rosie’s eyes were closed, and she was breathing very shallowly.
As Olympia and I walked to the drug store in the gentle downpour, she started to sob, worried about her newly frail little cousin. “Last time we talked, I didn’t tell you what the doctor said to my aunt and uncle. He said he thought Rosie’s headaches might be from something serious, but he didn’t say exactly what it was. He gave her medicine, but now she needs a different prescription. This is why I called you to go to the drug store with me. Nicky would have gone, but I need . . . you know, the usual stuff.”
“Oh, no! I had no idea! I never thought of Rosie as being fragile before, but when I saw her lying there . . . poor little thing.”
“I know. Until the other day, Rosie was still playing and smiling. She didn’t know she was sick. She didn’t know the doctor was worried about her. She didn’t know her parents and my parents spoke in whispers when she was out of the room. All Rosetta said was, ‘The nurse in the doctor’s office gave me a lollipop. Cherry! Nice lady!’”
When we got to the counter and handed the pharmacist the prescription, he looked at us a little somberly after reading the name and age of the patient who needed his drug. As Olympia paid, he nodded, looking at her, then at me, then at her again. He knew which one of us was Rosetta’s family, and he sent Olympia sympathy with his eyes. After we got back and Rosie’s mother gave her a teaspoon of the drug-store liquid, we went in to check on the little patient, who was asleep. I patted her on the hand as Olympia stood behind me, and Rosie’s eyes fluttered a bit as she seemed to register who I was. But she said nothing. She just trained her lovely little gaze on my face then closed her eyes again. I said good night to Olympia and goodbye to her worried-looking family, those floating Italian eyes, watery now, watching over their bambina in perfect unity.
Then I left for home. I didn’t eat the supper Mother had kept warm for me that night. I had a lingering aroma of tomatoes and spices in my nostrils from a family meal that I thought must have been laced with anxiety, and the jittery feeling in my stomach told me I was right. I didn’t let myself think too much about the pain in my heart.
At quarter to seven the next morning, Monday, the phone rang. I picked it up before it woke Mother and Daddy and my sisters. When I answered, I heard Olympia’s voice, shaking, telling me between muffled, gentle sobs, “Cecilia, oh, Cecilia. Rosetta . . . Rosie died during the night! Now I know. She had a . . . brain tumor. You were the last person she recognized, the last person she looked at before she closed her eyes . . . forever. Cecilia, you were the last person she spoke to. Her last words were ‘Teacher here.’”
My mind shut down as I hung up the phone, a single tear leaving a tiny puddle of sorrow on the black receiver.
I went through the motions of getting ready for work, telling Mother and Daddy I wouldn’t be home for dinner. This time, I didn’t ask permission. During the whole subway trip downtown, I swallowed and blinked hard to keep all the fluids inside my face. Of all days to have forgotten my hankie. I guess I must have just sat there staring straight ahead, unaware of everything, despite the clattering noise, except for the mental pictures of that sweet child dying on the sofa in the Marinos’ parlor. I could still feel the grip of her little fingers on mine, thinking of the baby she once was holding onto her favorite rattle. A tear escaped and rolled down my cheek. As I brushed it away, the young man sitting next to me offered me his handkerchief, not saying a word. I took it because I had to. More tears came. He got off at the next stop. This would become the handkerchief I would wash and put away for some other sad occasion, although “sad” just wasn’t a big enough word to describe the loss that the Marino family was suffering.
When I arrived at the Marino house that evening, it was Olympia’s father who opened the door. And it was at that moment that I saw in this man’s face, the face of a gentle giant who stood only five-feet two inches tall, a deep well of love and kindness that had been the source of every decision he’d ever made about his family. His world seemed to have stopped spinning. “Hello, Cecilia. Please, come in and be with us. With Olympia.” Then he walked silently up the stairs to resume his vigil with his grief-stricken brother and sister-in-law in their second-floor parlor. Even the children were quiet.
It was as if Rosie had wrapped up her family’s voices in a package to take with her on a long and lonely journey.
I went back again on Tuesday and Wednesday evening after work. Each night, supper was casual, people going as they liked into the cucina, the home’s heart (now broken), where they found pots of pasta and sauce on the stove, plates of salad and cheese and fruit and cookies on the table, a percolator of Italian caffè popping and shushing constantly except when it was being refilled. I also saw a wine bottle or two. And a Limoncello cake, “my” Mrs. Marino’s specialty and a favorite of little Rosetta’s. Once Rosie had said to me in a loud stage whisper, giggling behind her cupped hand, that she liked it even better than her mother’s panna cotta.
Mostly, I just sat with Olympia in the downstairs parlor and watched family members coming and going, grabbing a bite to eat, heading upstairs again, saying very little. I never went up to the circle of sadness on the second floor.
On Thursday evening after work, I arrived to find what looked like a white candy box in the middle of the parlor. I froze, facing the shock of a cushion-sized death, a life that was cut short not only in time but in space. Rosie . . . a lovely bud that would never flower. This box just looked all wrong, like half a carton of broken eggs. Half a dozen eggs, half a dozen years. How could someone so tiny have been swallowed by something so immense? By infinity? By mystery? By darkness? But inside that wooden candy box, my eyes rested briefly on pure, sad sweetness before I looked away.
The evening before, Olympia had explained that the funeral director had come for Rosie’s little body early Monday morning and brought it back that morning for the wake, which lasted all day Thursday and went into the night. I never did ask what went on at the funeral parlor, but I guessed they kept the body there to keep it from turning purple, or whatever happened to bodies, until it was time to bring it back for the viewing. It was common in those days to have wakes in family sitting rooms. My mother had been laid out in our parlor when I was nine and my sister was less than two years old. I remember Marie trying to climb into the casket, not understanding why her mother wasn’t holding her or talking to her. Death and babies make terrible companions.
Mr. Marino—my Mr. Marino—ushered me over to a floral-patterned couch in front of the white box, its gold handles glinting in the lamplight, reminding me of those little shoes Rosie wore the first day I’d visited the Marino home. This couch was provided as a place of highest honor, the place where Olympia’s friend would sit. “You will be comfortable, Cecilia, while you are with the Marino family, during our grief. You will sit and be with us, with Rosie, who love you. She always call you ‘teacher,’” he said, his voice husky and cracking. “And you teach us what true friend is all about. Olympia bring everything for you.”
And sit I did. For three or four hours. This was the hardest thing I think I ever had to do. But I understood what an honor it was to be included in the mourning, and if I could help—well, I just would. I remembered a photo in one of Daddy’s National Geographics where some African-looking tribe had lost a member. They stood in a circle around a pile of stones arranged in some pattern I couldn’t recall, holding hands, crying, looking down, but standing tall together. I wasn’t in this family circle, but I was in their midst just the same and sat with my poor, sad Olympia. Then they all came to sit with us for a while, especially the other kids. Finally, when it began to get dark, I said I had to go home. Mr. Marino was upset, afraid for me, more than he’d ever been before. He asked Nicky, who was almost my age, to walk me home. In the end, he couldn’t protect his niece. But he could still look out for me. Especially in the dark.
At work the next day, I thought of the final route that little white coffin would take to the cemetery. Rosie wasn’t my family member, so I couldn’t get the day off. But I was with the Marinos in spirit. When eleven o’clock came, I knew they were at mass, the beautiful white box open to reveal the sweetheart within. As I had seen the night before, Rosetta had been clothed in her pretty white First Holy Communion dress, the dress she’d never gotten to wear until yesterday, looking like a porcelain doll—lifelike, yet fashioned for eternity. Rosie’s mother had insisted on a reminder of her vibrant Rosetta and gave the funeral director her favorite red ribbon, which he tied artfully in the dark-brown curls, matching the touch of rouge on her little lips and cheeks to the ruby of the ribbon.
Red. The color of blood, of life. Or at least a color that honored a life. The little prayer book in osie’s folded hands was covered in green silk wrapped with a white rosary. All the colors of the Italian flag were represented in the white candy box.
Twelve o’clock came. I remained at my desk during the lunch break, sitting still and quiet, imagining the route the family took to the cemetery. At the moment I supposed they lowered the last visible signs of that child into the ground, I felt my stomach turn over. I hadn’t yet taken the stranger’s handkerchief home to be washed and found it in my pocketbook. Good thing. Next to it, I found my rosary. With eyes closed and no one to see me, I fingered the beads and said a prayer for the newest angel in heaven, a pure-white vision with touches of red, like rose petals. I wanted to believe the Holy Virgin would scoop her up and carry her to her First Holy Communion, the real one, her communion with God. Maybe the Nice Lady would give her a flavored wafer. Cherry.
Finally, it was Saturday, and I could go to the house in the morning to be with my friend. All the grownups had gone to the cemetery to pray with the little girl one last time as Olympia and I stayed at the house with the cousins. After a while, we heard a knock on the door. Olympia opened it to find some relatives from out of town who had come in two cars, too late for the funeral, but maybe in time for the private family prayer circle. They spoke only in Italian, but Olympia asked me whether I could tell them how to get to the cemetery. That “oh-mother-of-God” nervous feeling jumped around in my stomach because I didn’t drive or know the names of the streets. But I had a sense of where the cemetery was and asked Nicky to stay with the other two girls as Olympia got into one car and I got into the other—the lead car.
How I hoped I could guide these people who talked in sputtered vowels (and might even be saying I was a dummy or something—I wouldn’t have known the difference) to the right place. Then I realized I was being ridiculous and thought it was nice of them to trust me—another honor for “Teacher.” This thought gave me confidence. I had to be strong for Rosie. A few minutes later, we arrived at the cemetery. I was as proud as I was relieved.
Amid the weeping and wailing, I received my reward. I found a moment to steal away from the grieving group to say a quiet goodbye to Rosetta Maria Marino, hardly six years old, and to tell her that Teacher would see her again one day in heaven. Then I heard someone say, “Now, che mangiamo. We eat!”
Once again, I thought, one could always count on being saved by food with the Marinos.
A few months later, a joyous event helped ease the devastation of Rosie’s loss: Olympia became the first Marino to graduate from an American high school. Only an Italian wedding could produce more gaity, song, chianti, pasta, and gifts than this proud Italian-American dinner celebration. If the graduation party had a “maid of honor,” I guess that would have been my role—I was the “American-born friend of honor” and the only purely English-speaking person present at the great occasion. Olympia may have “made the grade” in a United States institution, but my name was the only word spoken in American English at this boisterously happy gathering. Realizing this gave me a tinge of sadness, realizing that other “American borns” were missing so much dolce vita.
Having had my own graduation the year before, which Olympia had not attended because of Mr. Marino’s usual social caution, I was free to enjoy the pleasure and accomplishment of my friend. I arrived at the Marino house on the Friday evening after the graduation ceremony held that afternoon. Family and friends from the Italian-American club had begun gathering about four o’clock. The men smoked and played bocce in the narrow alley behind the row house, having spread a mixture of white clay and crushed oyster shells for a makeshift court on which to roll multicolored ceramic balls. The women did what came most naturally to all Italian ladies of that era: they gathered in the kitchen and cooked and gossiped and, I’m pretty sure, had a wonderful time, even better than the men.
Olympia’s sister, Anna, met me at the door. Now age fourteen, Anna would herself be starting high school in the fall. I hadn’t spent much time with Anna, but when she led me into the kitchen that day, where Olympia was chattering with her female relatives and their women friends, she looked adoringly and hopefully at her older sister. My guess is she was picturing herself in a few years wearing a white dress with flowers in her hair—one of four times in a young Italian girl’s life when she would be so attired: her christening, her first communion, her graduation, and, of course, her wedding. A shadow passed across my mind, though, when I thought of one female member of the Marino family that had worn white only twice, the second time when she lay resting in the parlor in a small white box full of great mystery.
As usual, the cooking smells brought me back to present happiness. The only thing more heavenly than Olympia’s beaming face was the aroma in the kitchen that day. I’d been treated to Marino cuisine a number of times before, but this—this was a jolly assault on all the senses. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier being in a crowd of people who didn’t speak English, because I got to hang back and just watch the marvel taking place in the cucina that day.
When I close my eyes and imagine the sights, sounds, and especially the smells and tastes that went into Olympia’s dinner celebration that day, I can still remember enough to make my mouth water and my stomach rumble. Yes, it’s true. I might not have been much of an eater, but something about the Marino magic transformed food into nourishment for the soul. If I could make three wishes, one of them would be to go back to the Marino kitchen and relive that day, now only a “video” I replay in my mind as I scan the amboria-laden table:
Antipasto with mortadella, capocollo, bresaola, prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings, melon chunks, marinated olives, roasted red peppers, onions, a couple of different breads, and a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice with herbs and seasonings—particularly garlic and oregano, of course (and some basil).
Tortellini stuffed with fontina, asiago, Parmesan, and Romano cheese in a white wine garlic butter sauce with fresh oregano.
Fried eggplant in marinara sauce with mozzarella and fresh basil.
Fried calimari with sweet-spicy tomato relish.
Pasta e fagioli and minnestrone soups.
Zuppe di mare (fish soup; I ate soft-shell crabs at the shore, but I wasn’t sure about this).
Mushroom rissotto with seared scallops and peas.
Gnocchi in creamy Parmesan sauce.
Spaghetti alle vongole—Mrs. Marino’s spaghetti with clam sauce (bless her soul).
Veal shanks with tomatoes and white wine.
Roast lamb with rosemary.
Carrots roasted in garlic and fennel.
Zucchini and onions in a Roma tomato-garlic sauce.
Biscotti in several flavors (chocolate iced ones were my favorite) and Italian cookies.
My Mrs. Marino’s Limoncello cake.
Chocolate roll with slivered almonds and rum.
Pine nut tart with marscapone.
Gelato (again, chocolate was my favorite, but they also had vanille, rum-raisin, and lemon).
I haven’t mentioned wine, but it’s not because it wasn’t there—I saw lots of bottles cradled in baskets and lots of glasses filled with golden and berry-colored liquids. But this was for the adults. Olympia and I—high school graduates or not—were still children to be protected in the Marino house. But all this food was nothing—nothing at all—compared with the feast that is an Italian wedding. Mama mia!
Life went on as usual, and it seemed that all of a sudden it was 1946. The war was over, and life started to seem tame and repetitious to everyone. But I myself didn’t mind this. In fact, I thrived on routine, especially at work. And I had been working—a lot—at Bell Telephone for five years, putting in many extra hours early in the morning, late in the evening, and even on some Saturdays. Olympia had been working as a receptionist in her uncle’s electrical contracting office ever since she graduated from high school in 1942. From what I could tell, Olympia also embraced predictability—it was a comforting kind of security knowing when you woke up in the morning that life would continue as you’d grown to love it. At least that’s what I thought. I figured Olympia and I would go on as “soul twins” like that for years to come.
Sometimes, we would take walks in Hunting Park or go shopping (of the “window” variety) on Germantown Avenue on the Saturdays I wasn’t working—and still only after Olympia did her chores. We were both expected to give our salaries to our parents, who would give us pocket money to spend. (They must have thought we had very small pockets.) A couple of times during the summers, when my family went to Stone Harbor and hers went to Wildwood, Daddy would take me to see Olympia at their Jersey shore place. I still felt happy around the Marinos. But ever since high school, Olympia and I seemed to have less to talk about, and I no longer felt like one of the family the way I did when I was in Olympia’s life every day. The magic of social need that had bound my friend and me together in our earlier years seemed to have loosened our bond. I guess no longer being “Teacher” diminished my importance a little.
One Saturday when we were sitting at the beach in our canvas chairs, Olympia was particularly quiet—she said four words instead of her usual six. But these four words packed a punch: “I am getting married.”
I stared at her. “What did you say?”
“I am getting married, Cecilia. You will understand . . . this is my ‘retirement plan.’” Olympia looked down and then out to sea, as if she thought she might betray me by looking into my eyes, let alone by getting on with her life. She then said softly, “My papa thinks it is my calling to give him grandchildren. And someday it will be Anna’s job as well. Continuing all our traditions is the highest responsibility we have as daughters in an Italian family.” She shrugged. “That’s the way it is. I wanted to talk to you about this before, but I know you don’t go out with boys or want to get married—you’re an independent woman! But I’ve always known this would be my life. I’m sorry I kept it to myself all these years. You are my friend, and I should have told you.”
I know my eyes were squinting and my mouth was contorted, but I couldn’t help it. “But when did you start going out with a fella?” Up to that time, I had seen Olympia with other friends only at her graduation—and they were all from the Italian-American Club. “Who are you marrying?”
“But who’s Vito?”
“Vito is the son of my father’s friends Antonio and Rosaria—Anthony and Rose—from the Italian-American Club. My father and mother took me there about six months ago because Vito’s younger brother, Frank, was singing. He has a job with the Metropolitan Opera in New York—he is very good.”
Opera again. So this would be what would take Olympia’s life in a direction away from mine. I wasn’t used to change, and I felt a brief sense of panic. Momentarily befuddled, I said, “You’re marrying an opera singer?”
“No, no—Vito’s brother is the opera singer. Vito works for a printing company. He sets type. His parents are from Sicily.”
I remembered that day Mr. Marino had told me about his friends and their son Frank, the opera singer. And now he would be Olympia’s brother-in-law! “But how did it happen?” I asked, unceremoniously.
“Well, after Frank sang that night, his and Vito’s parents and my parents sat together at the Club. That family was so proud of Frank—especially Vito! I was more impressed with Vito than with Frank because Vito seemed . . . unselfish. I wasn’t so sure about an opera singer with a big career. I figured Frank’s profession might lead him to think he was . . . um, better? . . . or maybe just different . . . than the rest of us regular working people. So even though Frank was my age and Vito was six years older, I . . . well, I liked Vito.”
“You mean after you heard this opera singer you decided Vito was your retirement plan?” I was trying to take all this in. I had never had an experience like this myself, so I didn’t understand it. “And your father approved of this—already? He was always so protective—he even interviewed me for an hour before he would let you share my locker! And now one opera song and a proud brother and he’s letting you share your life with a man? Just like that?”
Maybe for the third time since I’d known her, Olympia laughed—just a little. “Yes, they knew they wanted me to marry and have a family, so they thought of the Gardella brothers—actually, Frank at first. They know their parents well, and family is what matters. You, Cecilia . . . well, excuse me, you were my friend, but not my family. So they had to build trust when we were in high school.”
“But if they wanted Frank for you, how did they accept Vito so fast?”
“Well, we went out together a few times, mostly with the families, but sometimes by ourselves—only once in a while on Saturday nights. And three months later, Vito went on bended knee and asked for my hand in marriage. When I told Papa, he did interview him for an hour before he gave his formal consent. But he saw that Vito was older and ready to settle down with a wife and family and that Frank would be in New York and traveling around the world for his singing career. So I guess he didn’t need a lot of convincing, and that’s how it happened. Papa and Vito put my retirement plan in place for me.”
“When, Olympia?” I think my face had lost all its squint by this point. I was starting to see a future without my friend.
“In two years. Papa may approve, but you know him—he doesn’t believe in rushing things. You will come, my only American-born friend, you will come?”
Later when I got home, it occurred to me that I’d never asked Olympia whether she was happy about all this. I tried to be, but I looked down the road in my mind and saw a life without any of the Marinos, especially Olympia. For the first time since Rosie died, I cried—just a little.
I saw Olympia rarely over the next two years. Then the day came—September 25, 1948. The church was tiny, hardly big enough to have earned the very large tricolored ribbon tied in a bow and draped over the open doors to symbolize the coming union. Smaller ribbons in Italian-flag colors were festooned at the end of each small pew. I sat in the back of the church, figuring I’d be as inconspicuous as possible, difficult as it was to hide in such a little place.
Then I picked up the wedding program and saw “Frank Guarrera, Baritone with the Metropolitan Opera” listed. He probably had one of those boom-boom voices that would cover me like a blanket. But I couldn’t get any farther toward the street than the last pew, so I figured I’d grin and bear it. A couple of minutes later, I saw a dark-haired Italian fella come through a door at the front of the church and stand on the right side in front of the organ. His chest looked puffed out. He opened his mouth. Then out came sounds such as none I’d ever heard. He did have a booming voice, but such a beatiful one! The chills running up and down my neck, arms, spine, and the rest of me made me feel like I was frozen in place and time, somewhere so much like heaven I thought I saw a halo around every head in those packed pews. As I sat transfixed listening to “Ave Maria,” I almost felt that I was getting married myself. In that moment, I felt so close to my friend and her family, so connected by love and by awe. Then in my mind I saw Rosie’s face, felt her little hand, and almost heard her whisper “I am here, Teacher.” Toward the end of that divine music, I felt my mouth start to twitch, and then my face twisted up as the tears fell, washing it clean of any bad feelings I ever had about opera.
Then Frank took his place beside Vito as the wedding march started. And there was my friend Olympia, covered in white satin below and white lace and flowers above, her diffident smile gone, a beaming one taking its place on uncharacteristically red lips. She carried a small nosegay of red and white roses with just enough green to remind everyone of the flag colors and that this was a union of two proud and happy Italian families. Anna, the maid of honor, wore a pretty deep-red dress and a garland of white rosebuds in her hair. She carried a small bouquet of white carnations, again with just enough greenery to be beautiful and symbolic. My impending loss seemed to be in the distant future as I beheld this entirely lovely scene, and I could almost feel one of those tricolored bows connecting my heart to Olympia’s.
As they exited the church at the end of the sposalizio, the priest having pronounced them man and wife, everyone threw candy-covered almonds tied in mesh bags and wanda, twists of fried dough powdered with sugar, symbolic foods for fertility and good luck. I waited for proud papa Marino, who had given his daughter away with joy, to shout Che mangiamo! But I guess he didn’t have to. That was maybe the most cherished part of the celebration—the food.
Because I lived only a few blocks away, I decided to go home while they were taking pictures. No one would miss the American old maid. As I walked, I thought of my visit to the Marino house the previous week, when Olympia had invited me over to see her family’s version of a bridal “shower.” Because they were just getting started in life together, and because Mr. Marino was Papa Marino, Olympia and Vito would be living at the Marino house for a while. So the female relatives—all the ladies from that long-ago graduation party—gathered to adorn Olympia’s bedroom with the wine-colored curtains, white doilies, mahogany night tables and dresser, floral lamps and vases, more little stone statues (Mr. Marino must have made these), and various other personal accoutrements of a married couple’s boudoir. They even made Olympia what she called a peignoir, all see-through and lacy, which was lying on the handmade double-bed quilt, a lavish floral brocade of dark reds mixed with greens that seemed to make the color in our cheeks deepen. The thing even had gold tassels. It might have been eye catching, but it wasn’t something I could truly appreciate.
About an hour or so later, I set out on foot to the newly opened Italian-American Club in the neighborhood, still thinking about the “shower gift.” At least I didn’t have to go all the way to South Philly. I arrived at the bottom of a stairway of about eight or ten steps leading up to an unmarked door. The only reason I knew I was at the right place was that all the cars parked on the street had red, green, and white ribbons, and the first car had a sign that read “Appena sposato” on one side and “Just married” on the other. Strange that the “club” had no sign, Italian or otherwise. So, up I went and knocked on the bare door. A large man with black hair and eyes to match opened it, and I heard accordion music and lots of loud vowel-y voices and clinking of glasses, wafts of smoke passing by my nose, making it itch. This must be the place. . . .
“Chi sei? Who you are?”
“I’m Cecilia Braddock. I’m Olympia’s friend.”
“Sicilian Haddock? Sei un pesce Italiano? You Italian fish? He laughed in Italian. “Ah ah!”
“Pardon me?!” I was indignant.
“Dove è il tuo invito?”
“Pardon me?!” I was indignant and mystified.
“Dove è il tuo invito?!” He reached an arm inside the room, grabbed something, then held it up a few inches from my face. My invitation! Lost in thought about “the bedroom,” I’d completely forgotten it—actually, I didn’t even realize I needed it. But this was not like the weddings I was used to.
“Oh! I didn’t bring it with me!”
“Nessun invito, nessun partito!” “No invite, no party!”
He started to close the door, and I started to get upset. Then I saw a wondrous sight: Mr. Marino’s smiling face. “Cecilia! Let her come in, idiota. She is Cecilia! Olympia’s best American friend! Come in, Cecilia, come in!”
And in I went. To the last party I would ever attend with my friend Olympia Marino Gardella.
As usual, whenever I entered a place where the Marinos gathered, I would instantly be enveloped in sounds and smells. The music consisted of the accordion, a phonograph player and records, and, of course, Frank. Then I remembered “Ave Maria” and accepted him for being an opera singer—even though he was the opera singer who indirectly took my friend into a future I wouldn’t be part of just because his older brother was proud of him. Again, I was the only American friend at an Italian celebration. The Marino-Gardellas were closing ranks. My heart fluttered a little and then sank. “Teacher” was now just a guest.
So, there I was, listening to Dean Martin singing “All of Me” and “Santa Lucia,” feeling blue. But then there was the food, which I eyeballed with great interest. If anything can cheer a fainting soul, it’s an Italian feast. As with Olympia’s graduation party, no caterers were welcomed—or needed. The Italian ladies worked for two weeks to prepare the food, the Neapolitan dishes from Olympia’s family and the Sicilian ones from Vito’s: appetizers, soups, antipastos, pasta dishes, tomato and cream sauces, rissottos, animal fare (veal, beef, chicken, pork, fish, shellfish), breads, butters, olive oils and dressings, biscotti, cookies, cakes, tarts, ices, gelatos, and espresso. I didn’t know what much of this food was called, but my nose told me it was all good.
Oh, and there was plenty of vino, vino, vino. But that wasn’t for me. Daddy drank beer at home, which I occasionally sipped, but never wine. But Mr. Marino had sat me down at a table with a few older folks I didn’t recognize who could have been from either the Neopolitan or Sicilian branches of the wedding party, insisting that I have something alcoholic to celebrate his daughter’s nuptials. So I asked for a whiskey and soda. It was brought—three ounces of soda and about six of whiskey. Uh-oh. I mixed the splash of soda with the whiskey, drank it, and set the glasses aside, grateful that I could get the drink down quickly without dropping a glass or drooling onto my dress.
I looked around the room, in which were packed a hundred or so people, all laughing, singing, dancing, waving hands, and having a wonderful time in Italian. There was Olympia with her new husband, carrying her borsa, a satin bag for accepting money envelopes. I had to admit that she did look happy (especially as her bag filled up with envelopes—her retirement money). Then I turned back to my table.
There they were. Back again. The glasses had magically reappeared, full. I didn’t want to insult anyone, especially Mr. Marino, so I repeated the mixing and drinking and not dropping or drooling routine. But this time, after emptying both glasses, I cagily pushed them away, indicating that I was in no uncertain terms finished drinking alcoholic beverages for the night.
The clapping, accordion music, sing-hooting, and general merriment drew my eyes toward the bride and groom once again. I heard something shatter as a big “whoop” went up into the general atmosphere. Olympia and Vito broke a glass—Olympia throwing it down, Vito stomping on it. Later I found out that the number of pieces of glass shards are an omen of how many years the couple would have together. I couldn’t see the broken pieces, but I hoped the glass was in smithereens, for Olympia’s sake. She wasn’t prepared for the world of the working girl. I understood that now.
Turning back to my table, I saw that those damned glasses were back again! Full! I harrumphed at myself, sighing deeply, rolling my eyes heavenward. Would I never learn? Who was doing this? I found myself slapping the palm of my hand on the table, drawing attention to my heretofore quiet self. I was determined to beat this game, so I repeated the mixing and drinking and not dropping but now slightly drooling routine. By that point, I wasn’t sure whether I’d won or lost the game. All I knew was that if another set of glasses showed up with liquid in them, they could just sit there, untouched.
I tried to identify some of the songs coming from the phonograph to give my fuzzy brain something to focus on and sniffled a bit as I heart Frankie Laine singing “Rosetta.” Poor little Rosie. My mind drifted back to that day in the parlor, where I sat with the Marinos as their honored guest, even in grief. And then I started remembering everything about my experience with the Marinos, from that first “interview” to what I now believed was a bittersweet ending of my friendship with Olympia. At that moment I realized the “friendship” had been with the Marino family, not just with the daughter being celebrated today. As my eyes filled with tears, I made myself feel happy, not just for Olympia setting out on her future and toward a retirement plan so different from mine, but for the family that was sending her on her way with such joy. They had let me be a part of all of it.
Then I heard somebody say “Tarantella,” and the accordion started again along with the clapping and stomping, everybody making a big circle, holding hands around the newlyweds, who smiled and tried to join in. Olympia, of course, didn’t dance. But Vito got her to move around some so she looked like she might be trying to. Her beautiful dress distracted attention from her feet anyway, those shadowy-white satin folds swaying rhythmically to a beat I couldn’t quite feel.
All this was going on as I thought I’d better eat something, and I went up to the buffet table. It took me two more songs to decide what looked familiar enough to put in my mouth. So as Perry Como sang “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba” while everyone danced, and as a brief hush fell as Olympia and Vito swirled around to Guy Lombardo’s “Anniversary Song,” I hazily stared at the table trying to decide what to take. I was staring at that table a long time, feeling disconsolate because I saw no spaghetti with clam sauce. But maybe I could find something else just as good and could have some fun trying, even if my tongue was so thick and nothing much was recognizable. It certainly all looked marvelous, but my fondest food memories were still back at the graduation party six years earlier, and I decided I couldn’t eat a thing. That is, until they brought out the wedding cake.
Belissimo. That multilayered wedding cake—three tiers of tender and moist rum-soaked yellow cake separated by a layer of vanilla, a layer of chocolate, and a layer of almond cream mixed with ricotta cheese and chocolate bits. The frosting was something like whipped cream mixed with buttercream, and slivered almonds and cinnamon were sprinkled on top. It was the kind of thing that filled your mouth with reasons to keep on living. So after Olympia and Vito cut their first piece, placing it gingerly in each other’s mouths, I scarfed down both of my pieces after the rest of the cake was cut and passed around. (It was tradition to give a young single lady two slices of cake—one to eat, and one to take home and put under her pillow so she could dream of her future husband. No, thanks. I’ll have mine here, thank you.)
It was then that Olympia and Vito finally made their way to my table, where I was now full of whiskey and rum cake. Frank was in the middle of singing “Be My Love,” and Vito said, I’m not sure to whom, “That Mario Lanza, he might have been a tenor, but my baby brother Frank has it all over him on this song, even if he is a baritone. But anyway, here’s to Philadelphia’s Italian opera singers!” He raised a glass and kissed Olympia on the cheek. Oh, great. Everybody was happy but me, although I didn’t fully understand why I wasn’t.
Then Olympia turned to me and grabbed my shoulders. For the first—and last—time, she hugged me, gently but lingeringly, as if she was afraid she was losing part of herself. I slipped an envelope into her borsa (at least I’d remembered that), congratulated her and Vito, and fell back in my chair. Embarrassed? I am when I think about it now, but at the time I was just trying not to fall down in the spinning room. “Good luck, Olympia. Be happy, cara amica.” We hugged again and exchanged a few tears. I told myself they were happy ones.
Olympia had a worried look on her face and went to get her papa, who ran over and took my arm, asking whether I was all right. I smiled sloppily, I think I said I was fine, and then I nodded and looked at the midriffs in front of my eyes. “OK, Cecilia, I get Nicky to take you home. He have a car now, he’s a big boy, a good boy. Nicky? Niccolo? Come over here, please. Cecilia need you!”
“Thank you, Mr. Marino. You’re such a good papa.” I felt myself wanting to cry.
I’m not sure I actually heard this, but I thought I heard Nicky laugh and say “I’ll wheel ya, Cecilia.” Next thing I knew, I was in a car, and it seemed like seconds later that I was being escorted up my front steps, where Daddy’s watchful eye greeted my unfocused ones. Oh, hell. I was, after all, twenty-five years old.
Olympia and I stayed in touch by telephone after that, the calls dwindling (after her “honeymoon” at home) from twice a month to twice a year to every other year to never again. The life we’d shared when we were young locker-mates was long past. I pursued my life as an “independent woman” at Bell Telephone, albeit one who still lived with her parents until they both passed away, many years apart. Daddy died about ten years later, Mother more than twenty years after that when we lived elsewhere, away from my fondest memories of home and of young life.
About all I can remember about Olympia after she got married is that she and Vito eventually did buy their own house in Lower Northeast Philly and had two daughters. I don’t remember their names and am not sure I ever knew them.
Whatever ache this might have caused me back then I just didn’t think about. I spent most of my time at work and became involved in a company-sponsored program tutoring disadvantaged children back in the late forties and early fifties. Around this time, my sisters both married, giving me lots of nieces and nephews—and now great nieces and nephews. The circumstances of life had separated Olympia and me, and the progress of life would help put the sense of lost youth and friendship in a charished memory box—perhaps one tied with tricolored ribbon.
This entire story about my friend Olympia re-emerged in my mind unprovoked a few years ago. My niece was visiting me at my house, the one where I’d lived with Mother until she died, and something we were talking about sparked memories of my friend and her family. My niece seemed very interested, so I told her all the details I could remember. She reminded me of the story again recently, and she said she’d like to write it up—or write it down or whatever direction writers do their work in. So I told her the story again, and more details came back to me. The more I talked, the more she seemed to like what she was hearing.
The gaps in my memory are such that what actually happened and what my niece “heard” about what happened have blended into a story that makes me smile and cry, and now I think most of the story is authentic. At my age, I don’t have the motivation to learn to use a computer. But my niece certainly knows how, and she found a lot of information on the Internet, doing what she called “geneological research.” I was amazed and happy at what she found, such as Frank’s obituary and stories about his life.
But I was also sad at what she didn’t find. And that would include my dear friend Olympia and the rest of the Marino family, who are long gone from my life. But they still live in my heart.
Serving as my aunt’s “memoirist” requred a delicate balance between what she told me, what I know of her, and what I conjured up in my imagination to supplement some of the basic information. The major events are true (memoir). Much of the dialogue—interior and exterior—is true in spirit (story). My goal was to capture what I heard as a charming tale from true life as it was lived in the World War II era in what I hope is a light- and warm-hearted manner that preserves and honors Cecilia and Olympia’s experience. My aunt speaks of the Marino family with much fondness, kindness, and respect. Any errors in interpretation, representation, or characterization are mine and are unintended.
Sadly, my online geneological research showed that Vincenzo Marino’s efforts at protecting his daughter did not prevent him from outliving her. He made it to almost age 90, dying in June 1989, three years after Olympia passed on May 6, 1986 at the age of only 62. Olympia also predeceased Vito, who died at age 70 in 1988. The cause of her death is unknown to us.
At the time I presented Cecilia with the complete story on June 3, 2013, we had not found a way to determine Olympia’s daughters’ names. However, a search for brother-in-law Frank, the opera singer, revealed that he died in 2007, ten days before his 84th birthday after a highly successful career as a well-respected baritone with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. A number of obituaries cited the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini as one of his admirers and also referred to and quoted his daughter, who is still living. We thought it would be a sweet twist if “that Italian opera fella” was the one that finally connected my aunt with her friend’s family.
But on that June 3 evening, as I was helping my aunt search for something she needed to work on her finances, we opened the top drawer of her desk and there found in bold letters on a tiny newspaper clipping Olympia’s last name. I stared in disbelief, then picked up the old death notice from May 6, 1986—Olympia’s obituary. There we found her and Vito’s daughters names, at long last.
Subsequent research seems to indicate that their older daughter, Joanne, also passed away at a very young age, although this has not been confirmed. Her sister, Rosanne, appears to still be residing in Pennsylvania. Cecilia is currently considering contacting her, the child of her dear friend Olympia, from whom she was separated so long ago.
 A 40-year-old Italian restaurant that served as Adrian’s in Rocky VI and where fare is served with a side of aria, Victor Cafe, 1303 Dickinson St., played a pivotal role in the artistic development of many South Philly opera singers—Mario Lanza, Enrico DiGiuseppe, and Frank Guarrera; a mural showcasing the many operatic roles of Frank Guarrera stands at Broad and Tasker streets: http://www.southphillyreview.com/news/73778702.html. I will remove this footnote after review because Olympia’s married name was also Guarrera; I would prefer to leave the info in otherwise.