Memories of childhood episodes in Philly
“In the customary Italian household the mention of preparing gravy and meatballs for Sunday dinner carries a definite memory. I recall all the whiffs and aromas that surrounded many family dinners while growing up in South Philly. Helping Mom through the preparation insured and supported a happy gathering at the table. For Josephine B. Pasquarello, the 10th of 12 children, these memories mean much, much more.
“Love & Loyalty… An Immigrant Italian Mom Raising Her Family of Twelve in the Shadow of a Mafia Crime” is Pasquarello’s lively memoir about Italian family dinners, eggplant, tomato sauce, pizza and playing cards. On every page, in every chapter, she provides the living, loving imprint of her mother, Romania Rita Pasquarello, the matriarch, the hero, the “survivor…who taught me and my eleven siblings to never fold” (Publ: 2017, Dorrance Publishing Co., paperback, 301 pages, available online).
The book’s energetic cover perfectly reflects time and place: Philadelphia’s majestic City Hall and its steeple looking down on a a city street peopled with young boys playing ball and young girls jumping rope. The parked cars shout 1950s. A photo of a young immigrant Italian girl smiles over the scene. Blended with this folklore are the ingredients for the author’s unique encounters with loss, poverty, hardship, survival, strength, guardian angles, hitchhiking adventures and drugs. The air of mystery and secrets suggested in the book’s title hangs over her story. Alongside all of his life’s episodes and experiences, Pasquarello highlights the two key themes that shaped and influenced her life: the secret surrounding her father’s death and her mother’s untiring love and loyalty.
Endurance and survival start in 1955 “the day dad didn’t come home… when I was six, and my dad din’t come home for dinner.” Her father died within a few days, starting the “guarded secrets” of a mother “left alone with the task of caring for twelve children.” The produce store the father owned had to be sold since there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills. With grit and determination, the family existed on mom’s Social Security and the older children giving $10 and $20 from their paychecks.
Folded page corners, yellow Post-its, and underlined sentences mark many pages and chapters in my copy of Love & Loyalty…” – so engrossed did I become in the story. I confess to several favorite segments. The chapter “Queen for a Day” immediately set off my own childhood memories of watching that iconic tv show as soon as my sister and I came home from school. Pasquarello’s fantastic imagination in recreating and sharing this sequence of scenes, fondly accenting her mother’s character, style and personality – with the TV show as a backdrop – is superb.
“Dark Night, Deep Questions” reflects her mom’s quieter moments when she wasn’t cooking, washing or cleaning… “when she would do a lot of talking downstairs in the basement… her cave for releasing private thoughts and feelings… meditation time away from us kids…”
“Like a Flash” profiles the author’s brother, John, “the eighth child of my parents and the youngest boy…” We now meet the “daredevil,” the mischievous kid with whom she “had a special kinship.” They both had the father’s “wild, kinky, dark brown hair.” She shares how the cops always chased John as he climbed up downspouts to get on to the rooftops. Things get a bit frantic when a cop pulls a gun and runs into their house “with mom right behind him.” Neighbors yell at the cop for his behavior. He’s embarrassed and apologizes to Mom.
John serves in the Army (1965 – 1970), is a helicopter pilot and instructor in Vietnam, and receives the Air Medal with 22 oak leaf clusters. The bold, spirited 31-year-old John dies in 1978, the co-pilot in a Black Hawk Army utility transport, leaving a wife and two children.
“Epilogue: Long-Awaited Answers” fills in many of the blanks in “Love & Loyalty…” Ralph, Trudy, Grace, Christine, Patrick, Rosemarie, George, John, Carmella, Josephine, Antoinette, Anna may never know the full scope of their father’s association with the mafia. The author is working on a second book that may offer more light. Nevertheless, on this Mother’s Day, I offer my shout out to Romania Rita Pasquarello: Brava, Signora! Brava!
Edda R. Pitassi