I found somewhere in my archives that at 16 I wanted to be a photojournalist. I was discovering the New York Times then and I was thinking action, adventure, and travel. That was good until I discovered in college, I really did not like flying, and until I discovered later in life, that I am a bit of a home body. Creature comforts trump adventure for me. So, as I am always telling my friend Myra, one must bloom where they are planted. Ironically, I am in the middle of a lot of vegetation and life with a gardener. So, here is a collection of some of the pictures, many of which have appeared here before.
The toast is warm and my Aunt Melia invites me to sit down in the little breakfast nook she set up for us. It overlooks my grandmother’s garden: roses, poppies, and plants along the viaduct. We wait for the water that will fill the orange ceramic kettle. Aunt Melia fusses over girly things like the fragrant orchid corsages she buys for Easter Sunday. One day I went with my grandmother and Aunt Melia to the podiatrist. Before the cab arrived, she nestled her hat into her hair with bobby pins and splashed sweet perfume on her wrists as she yelled down the apartment steps to my grandmother, “Coming Rose.”
A frail woman, sick from heart disease in her last years, placing the parsley strategically on the serving plate, she began to fade as my childhood waned. In 1971, when I was ten, Aunt Melia collapsed on her living room floor. Grandma surmised she came to a quick end as she reached to turn off the Late Night Show with Johnny Carson.
40 years later, I look at my Aunt Claire’s old newspaper clippings and photographs, and I see evidence of the artistic life Melia lived.
Aunt Melia or Carmella Tress (Teresi) was my paternal grandmother’s younger sister and our lives crossed paths for ten years. My aunt was born in 1895. Aunt Claire, her niece, filled me in on most of Carmella’s life and the ephemera makes it real. According to Aunt Claire, my grandmother, Rose, insisted Carmella get voice training. They were cousins of the famous soprano, Nina Morgana, Enrico Caruso’s student. Nina Morgana sang roles at the Metropolitan Opera where Carmella was invited to sing; her father, Anthony Teresi would not let her go.
Aunt Claire told me that Carmella went to Elmira College. There is a note on a newspaper photograph in the accompanying slide show that states Carmella Teresi studied with Mrs. Ray Herrick. The librarian at Elmira College, Mark Woodhouse, answered an inquiry about Carmella and said they had no records of her enrollment. However, Clara Herrick taught at Elmira College then.
The newspaper clipping entitled Local Singer in Florida includes a note that says my Aunt possessed a coloratura soprano voice. There are other clippings about this, citing that 10,000 people attended this Easter Sunrise service in Miami.
In addition to being a songstress, I know Aunt Melia worked at Artistic Greetings in Elmira NY. At Artistic Greetings she hand painted cards. She lived above my Grandfather Castellino’s store and visited her brother, Joseph Tress, in Florida. I do not know if she worked at Artistic when the 1940 US Census (available on the Internet) listed her as a worker.
One of my last memories of Aunt Melia was driving along NY Route 54 between Hammondsport and Penn Yan, my mother was at the wheel and it was a warm, rain drenched day. The greenery was popping out against the backdrop of monochromatic grey.
“Katherine,” said Aunt Melia to my mom, “this is one of the most beautiful places in the country, and it is right here.”
I thought Aunt Melia never made it beyond New York and Florida, however, there are pictures and postcards that show Carmella took many trips including one to California. Many were with my adopted Aunt, Margaret Riebel. In addition I do know that Aunt Melia and Aunt Margaret were members of the Catholic Daughters of America, often gathering things to send abroad to missions.
Back in 1970s, children went to calling hours and funerals, even though we were ten and younger. My first meeting with death and the Catholic rituals around it, the solemn waking hours, the prayer before the corpse, and the last car ride to the cemetery. One night soon after, my four siblings and I gathered in my grandmother’s kitchen, and I thought, in my ten-year old brain, “Aunt Melia really didn’t die, she is just in the other room, and that is why Grandma called us in here.” My denial met with a small sum of money, “a little remembrance” said Grandma.
One day in the fall of September 2005, I was talking to my parents about the trains. It had been over twenty years since my grandmother had moved from her home on Lake Street in Elmira. My grandmother’s house abutted a viaduct and when I stayed there as child in the 1960s, the rumble of the train reverberated through the home. The Erie Lackawanna Railroad ran above my grandparents’ front and back yard on its trips between New York City and Buffalo.
“Yep,” my Dad said, “on the other side of the viaduct was a train stop, in the middle of the night, on many nights, the Phoebe Snow, a popular passenger train, stopped and Grandma opened the store up for the passengers.”
In my mind’s eye, I saw my 4 foot 10 inch Grandma throw on her navy blue coat and walk out the side door with her unique gait, landing heavier on her right foot. Down the red brick drive to the front of their building, turning the key to Grandpa’s store and the glass cases lined with Mallow Cups and cigarettes in their Lucky Strike and Winston-Salem wrappers.
I wondered how the passengers transversed the viaduct, apparently there existed a set of stairs that climbed up and down to the other side. “What if they needed other things…things not at the store?”
“Oh, your grandmother, she’d help them out,” my Dad said.
I liked this story, it was comforting somehow, like the trains. The trains which I still find calming, the repetitious rumble, powerful moving ahead while standing still. I later asked my Aunt about Grandma opening up the store for people on the passenger train.
“Oh, yes,” she always did that. “In fact, on the last night the Phoebe Snow went through, the conductor gave her this lamp: ‘Here you go, something so you will never forget the Phoebe Snow.’ ”
My Aunt went into her garage and pulled out the lantern in the above picture. “We saved it after the Flood of 1972 but I need to clean it up, maybe a project for this winter.” she said and walked it back into the garage.
My Dad passed away soon after that and my Aunt never got around to the lantern. It is passed on for another time when it may bring people together and light the way.
Link to YouTube video about the Phoebe Snow: http://youtu.be/P6yjxjtVcuY
The Chemung County History site posted this picture of the Phoebe Snow which ran through my Grandmother’s backyard. I wrote a blog post about it in 2012 with a picture of the PhoebeSnow’s lantern.
From the time I was born until I turned 14, the center of my universe was Lake Street in Elmira, New York.
My Grandmother’s house sat alone on the other side of a train viaduct. This house had once been part of a much larger, bustling, nice neighborhood. My great Uncle Joe had lived across the street in a beautiful house. A painting of it endures and from it I sense the warmth of the neighborhood.
My Grandmother’s house was actually a row house with two large units she inherited from her father. My Grandfather had a Mom and Pop shop in front and after our weekly Sunday dinners, we, my younger siblings and I, would go with one of my Aunts to run the store.
I can remember the smell of tobacco mingled with candy bars when you walked in and the bell clanged against the door frame. For fun there, we climbed up on Grandpa’s office chair, a beautiful wooden piece with a slated back, and swiveled each other around as fast as we could go. Grandpa sauntered in after his meal and asked us what kind of candy we wanted to take with us. I remember being a big fan of mallow cups. They were lined up in boxes behind a glass case as I recall.
Often, I would stay at my Grandparent’s house for the whole weekend day. Those days were slow, as only childhood days can be…there were no computers to entertain us, only 3 major TV stations and so my Aunts took us outside.
At times we hung out in the front yard where we watched the people and cars go by. There was an antique doll and carriage I played with, rolling it up and down the brick driveway.
Many times on hot Sunday afternoons, my Aunt Melia or Aunt Claire, would walk us down the street, under the viaduct, through the dust kicked up by the traffic, to the Dairy Queen for an ice cream. That was a real treat on a hot day in the 60s, along with the sprinkler. The Aunts often pulled the sprinkler out for a mid-afternoon dip when the heat was oppressive and we needed entertaining.
Two years ago, I saw one of my Aunt’s younger contemporaries from the neighborhood. “Oh,” he said, “I just loved your Grandparent’s place, there it was, this beautiful oasis of gardens and green in the city. It looked so out-of-place but it was so lovely, if you find a picture please send it to me. I’d love to see it again.”
He felt that sense of place and for one minute, I actually went back there, back in time to this house along the tracks. There wasn’t much to it, I see now in old pictures. But to me, it was a castle, a beautiful spot. A place of meat with egg, mashed potatoes, after-dinner drinks of crème de menthe, picnics with thick plastic plates and matching plastic glasses; a grape arbor, oodles of plants, and the smell of freshly mowed grass, Chianti wine, and an old stereo stocked with my Aunt’s 45s: how much is that doggy in the window, one of her favorites.
Gone now, of course. In 1975 Tops Supermarket bought my Grandparents out. Change is a coming wrote Bob Dylan and it always comes. They tore the whole thing down. It later morphed into a Big Lots, which is what I think it still is today.
I went there once with my husband. We parked in the parking lot, I made my way to the stone wall of the train trellis, and as I got closer, I could feel the place. Actually feel it, I wanted to grab a plant, maybe it was one from my Grandmother’s lovely garden, probably not, I told myself.
I had a burst of tears…a bitter sweet burst. The joy of feeling just a touch of the place, the pain knowing it and all that it gave me, gone.
Related family history blogs:
A Christmas Blessing
---quoted from F & B and printed in Italy ---found at the Inspiration Gift Shop in Ithaca, NY
May all the days of all the years That God has still in store Be filled with every joy and grace To bless you more and more;
May hope of heart and peace of mind Beside you ever stay, And that's the golden wish I have for everyone this Christmas Day!
The old Christmas…
on the eve, clam chowder served piping hot
with other light goodies: was it pizza? I can’t remember
a gift exchange occurred…one only, usually from the sibling name picked
on to the WPIX Yule log, eggnog and midnight mass
solemn, quiet, the gentle candle light reflecting
the reds and greens and hopes for the season
next day: up! More gifts, always Dad put an orange in the bottom of
our stocking: always, and sometimes he set the train up from his childhood
the aunts arrived, and the grandparents
with the shrimp, the artichokes stuffed Italian style
more gifts, always one from Aunt Margaret wrapped with
the individual in mind
Aunt Madeline’s glistening packages with homemade bows
the whole thing followed with an after dinner drink and a
package of Aunt Margaret’s assorted Christmas cookies,
baked meticulously for months prior, set on individual plates
to eat until the New Year rang in.
lovely gifts, doggies grabbing bows…
an easel & paint very wanted and not requested: a bright light:-)
the outside lights twinkle Christmas eve to guide Santa and travelers home
visits made to family and friends
good food and lots of treats intertwined with latest news
beautiful cards from near and far
Lessons and Carols having already been sung
A list of gratitudes and prayers exchanged
Volume up on Christmas music to celebrate
Calls to make before the picture show
to soften the tugging of the
heart for Christmases gone by;
pray for Grace to touch the world today.
Often I’ll go outside and just place my hands on the soil, even if there’s no work to do on it. When I am filled with worries, I do that and I can feel the energy of the mountains and of the trees.”
― Andy Couturier, A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance
I have often thought about writing about the gardens we have here and so I may give it a whirl this winter. After all, it may inspire me, when confined, to think about why we tolerate the confinement. It is still fall and we are now in the middle of our second snowstorm.
The backstory on this garden: when I first moved here, I said, “New husband, I need a garden of my own.”
“Ok, how about that one.” He pointed to a row of flowers, three tiers of unorganized, tall flowers that abutted the clothesline. The clothesline stretched from this area to the barn and faithfully, Barbara (see December 7 post) put her laundry up to dry several days a week.
I plotted my garden out and I bought lots of plants…as I recall, one season it looked really good, but then…reality hit. Reality being work: the work I attended to every week, my job; the housework and grocery shopping on weekends; and the world of weeding. It felt too big and so, I believe eyeing its potential and my subsequent abandonment during a few summers, the new husband, who was not so new and had summers off, said: “I know it is a lot, if you don’t mind, I can take it over.”
In came the variation of plants, the bench, a little pond, yellow tulips, and a Japanese Maple, not all at once, of course. This picture is pretty close to how it looks today: fourteen years later. It is lovely. I can’t begin to name all the plants. But for me, it is where I learned how wonderful it is to dig in the dirt on a rainy misty day and see fushia colored flowers and my beloved peonies bloom.
Sadly, Barbara died shortly after this garden was finished. The garden then looked more like a template of things to come. The last place I saw Barbara was on the bench pictured above. She then went in to watch the US Open. That night, a short two days before she died, she called a friend and expressed a tremendous sense of peace sitting with my husband and I that day.
As if everyone she loved was right there with her.
This is the central garden and I will probably revisit it in these posts..
photograph & content: firstname.lastname@example.org
quote under photograph from Goodreads