A sense of place…my Grandmother’s house on Lake Street

A day at Grandmas
My family in my Grandmother’s back yard, the wall with plants is the viaduct, the train, including the Phoebe Snow, ran above it.

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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:







My Child, You are the devil’s stool!!

You get old and you realize there are no answers, only stories.  Garrison Keillor

St Patrick's 21st Century, adobe water color, source below
St Patrick’s 21st Century, adobe water color, source below

 Link to St. Patrick’s picture, source Wikipedia commons.

This is St. Patrick’s Grammar School, the one my grandfather, Harry J. Lagonegro, an Elmira businessman and co-founder in 1912 of the Arctic League*, attended with Hal Roach, the famous Elmiran who produced the The Little Rascals comedy series.  According to my Mother, they became life-long friends because they were  outsiders, my grandfather was Italian and persona non grata in an Irish Catholic milue and Hal Roach was protestant.

At this same grammar school, my Mother, years later, with some real Irish blood in her, attended grammar school during World War II.  I later attended religious education here. It is now, residential apartments.

This is the story…

sitting at my Mother’s kitchen table Saturday, I mentioned I might like to write a book about my public school teaching experience: the high school I taught at recently closed.

“Well,” boomed my Mother, “you will have to start with my getting hit with a yardstick in grammar school!”

“What?” I replied.

“Yes, one day Sister took me out into the hall, whacked me on the arm with a yardstick and screamed, ‘You are the Devil’s stool, You are the Devil’s stool.’

My mother started to laugh…”That is what I heard, but, of course, what she really said was  ‘You are the Devil’s tool, you are the Devil’s tool.’ “

My mother was born in 1931  and three of her five brothers were soldiers in World War II.  She went on to tell my husband and I that when she was having a bad day, she’d start sniveling a bit, and say, “We got a letter from my brother yesterday.”  I surmise this kept some of the yardsticks away.

Recalling a different incident and not specifying whether it was before, or after, her whacking, my Mother said,

“I was so naïve, one day Sister asked the class if anyone had any old yardsticks they could bring in for her.”

 My Mother continued, “I enthusiastically raised my hand and brought one in for her.”

My Mother raised her eyes to heaven as it to say, can you imagine.  Yes, I can, women always at the ready to be helpful, and teachers that abused authority so badly the logical counterbalance was to take their authority away.

*Arctic League-The Arctic League began in 1912 as a group of baseball fans who met regularly at Harry J. Lagonegro’s cigar store at 157 Lake Street. 


Aunt Claire was born November 13, 1923

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Imagine the world she came into… barely any plastic, no televisions or computers.   My Aunt was born in Elmira NY, to an Italian immigrant family, ninety years ago today!

My grandfather, Joseph, was eleven when he came to this country.  He  worked in the coal mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania as a young person.  My Grandmother, Rose Tress, changed from the Italian  Teresi, lived in Elmira, NY.

Aunt Claire was the second child and second daughter.  Madeline was one year older.  The picture of my aunts was in an old newspaper. I unearthed it from  clippings my aunt accumulated over the years.

I hope to write  about each photograph, but for now I will focus on two:  the one of Aunt Claire and Aunt Melia in Atlantic City and the one of Aunt Claire and I in matching Easter Coats.  My Great Aunt Carmella (Melia) Tress (see blog Not Just An Old Lady in an Apron) and Aunt Claire went to many outings like the one pictured. They were well-dressed women, always making sure the purse, shoes, and jewelry matched. I recall they both checked their lipstick  before they left the house and that they dabbed a little Avon Cotillion behind their ear lobes.

Aunt Claire and I were photographed in matching coats in the 1960s. I was thrilled to be her twin in that coat. As a child, she took me downtown every Saturday to shop. She bought me many outfits and I looked quite chic in many childhood pictures. Our Saturdays, sometimes with Aunt Melia and Aunt Madeline, usually ended with a piece of pie or a  turkey club at the Newberry’s counter or the Iszards Tea Room.

While shopping, we often saw people Aunt Claire knew. They stopped and chatted, there was no buzz from the cellphone to interrupt, just a calm conversation that always ended with Aunt Claire saying: “If you are out and about, stop over to 801 and have a cup of coffee with us.”

I found it sweet when talking to the head nurse about Aunt Claire last week, she relayed a recent conversation:

“So what would you like for your 90th birthday Claire?” asked Kelly.

“A sausage sandwich with onions and peppers.”

We celebrated Aunt Claire’s 90 years last Saturday with a pretty cake.  When my siblings, their partners, my Mom, and my nephew walked into the lovely day room at the nursing facility, Aunt Claire’s eyes welled up with tears.  She told me today she never expected that but it was so nice to see everyone.  Aunt Claire also said she really enjoyed the sausage sandwich, it had been a while since she had one.


Matching Easter Coats photograph 1965
Matching Easter Coats
Aunt Claire and Aunt Melia 1948
Aunt Claire and Aunt Melia 1948

Billy Hilfiger, I wish I’d known ya! a picture and a song say a thousand words



Every now and then, some random story moves me as this did today.  My cousin posted this YouTube video as a tribute to Billy Hilfiger.  After watching the video, I wished I had known him.  The Hilfigers, yes all related to Tommy, are a large clan.  I’ve known a few of them.  Technically they lived down the street from me growing up, about 3 miles away, in Elmira NY, 1970s.
 What I like about the video is that with one lovely song and many good pictures, I feel I’ve learned something about a life, though probably unconventional and short, that was very well lived.  A picture, and a song paint a thousand words.  Rock on Mr. Billy Hilfiger, Rock on.


Aunt Carmella Tress…not just an old lady in an apron

Aunt Carmella Tress, not just an old lady in an apron

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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.

Continue reading Aunt Carmella Tress…not just an old lady in an apron

Revised: The Phoebe Snow ran through my Grandmother’s yard

lantern from the Phoebe Snow, circa 1960s

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 Gift of Today…

This has been a difficult month, not bad, not good; but full of both and on an intense level.






It isn’t just that my cat Tazz passed away on Wednesday but that I held him 2 nights in a row before that for a long, sweet goodbye as we slept and listened to the summer night sounds.  It isn’t just that we moved my aunt out of her space after 87 years, but that she broke her hip soon after that.  The good stuff, it isn’t just that our gardens, thanks to my husband, are absolutely gorgeous this year, but that  intense heat and intense watering make them so…everything bloomin’ at once.  It isn’t that I turned down a job before I was even offered it, but that I weighed heavily what do I want the next 5 years of my life to look like and what am I doing about it.

Feeling, I hope not naively, that things are, in their own 21st century way, calming down, I woke up in the middle of the night and thought of this story.  Years ago I went to church every week and at that time I heard Father David Gramkey give wonderful sermons.  The kind that you feel right through your body to your spirit.

We were at St. Peter and Paul’s Church, my friend and I, in Elmira, NY.  In his loud, gentle voice, this man who stood about 6 feet, spoke to all of us.  Most of the congregation over 60, I was in my late 20s/early 30s.  It went something like this:

“As I thought this week, about all the people I see suffering with so many problems:  illness, separations, divorce, death, money, etc., I thought about how lucky we are.  It is not that those problems are not real and sometimes such a struggle emotionally and physically or that they do not count, they do. ”

he continued…

“But, what is wondrous is that we have the gift of today to be alive and coping with those problems and hopefully finding some joy and love through it all.  I ask you, when you are down, to think of those who have passed and how much they may have enjoyed THE GIFT OF TODAY.  Enjoy your gift.”

and remember what beauty may lie behind the next turn.

copyright: claireaperez@gmail.com

Rubin’s Paper Store

picture of Rubin's paper store
Rubin’s actual paper store

Rubin’s Paper Store


Everyday from 8 to 3

You inside the store

of information pressed on pages.


Its musty, dark and crowded,

the racks entice

with scenes of Mexico

and lovely furnishings.


Slowly and peacefully,

one by one, they come

to escape into your world


Selections to locate

on who, what & where

they might be.

Security in the dinginess,

stale coffee smell all around

and your talk of the

gossip floating in town.



It’s a moment in time

frozen in minds,

hearts, and novels.


It is the same scene

moment to moment

day to day

year to year…


And then on a Saturday,

the end of the week,

the end of the day,

It vanishes.


With your last breath

you close the door

in Rubin’s Paper Store!

© claireaperez

Aunt Margaret

For Aunt Margaret, who would have been over 100 years old today July 14. 

And so it goes 

the life running through our bones and our space and our blood
we create a structure full of ivory china laced with gold
and little pretty pots of flowers lining the shelf
real or fake, does not matter  

our days go by, slowly some, swiftly others
the sun gleams into the living room, early morning
brisk, fresh air, we bake the cookies in late October to
be stored for the gift in late December  

the spring comes with its sweet bird song
we visit Aurora to see the geese, so many geese
and Thursdays not spent there, spent somewhere
a luncheon, a shop, it goes on and on  

and the structure we have made
Church on Saturday or Sunday
the neighbors, oh that Jody Rhode, what is he up to now?
no family to speak of, some connections down there in Binghamton  

and slowly, we start to  

fall away
until one day, we wake, and we pack for the hospital
no need to look back, we know that our journey’s end is here
and we know that the structure we leave behind
really never stood anywhere except in our mind.  

The story behind this poem…  

Aunt Margaret was our adopted aunt and she spent holidays and Saturday evenings with us throughout my childhood and into my thirties, when she died of old age.  She treated us like family and we did the same.  Aunt Margaret taught me many things over the course of my journey with her but most important, she showed me how important it is to be intentional.  

Intentional in that what we do, say, write, and how we do it, counts, everything.  I need to remind myself of her example. We need to think of the consequences of our actions and the feelings of others.  

Every year at Christmastime, she asked me to go out to dinner or lunch with her one evening and help pick out gifts for her to give my younger siblings.  I usually researched ahead of time and then brought a list with me.  One specific year always comes back to me at Christmas.  

It is cold out and dark, only the Christmas lights and lanterns shine in the town streets. Blustery, the snow kicks up into swirls on the road and sidewalks as we trudge from store to store, looking for the gifts.  The gifts, one each for all five of us, will arrive on Christmas day, wrapped in paper and ribbons and little candies, each in different papers and each designed specifically for the recipient.   

We walk down an alley way toward what was the Gorton Coy building and department store.  To the right, we enter a charming little restaurant, I have no idea what the name of it is now and I do know it is gone, washed away like a lot of things during the Flood of 1972.  We sit down to a prime rib dinner and there are little pieces of evergreen under a lighted candle in front of us.  We chat   about many things,  stories told over and over, etched in my mind now.  

Aunt Margaret adored her father, a German immigrant who made a lot of money in the stock market during the 1920s.  You can see from the picture below that she was well taken care of, the fur around the beautiful little girl illustrates this point.  She never mentioned that I recall, loosing so much during the Stock Market Crash of 1929, but it became obvious to me as I learned more about her.  Aunt Margaret became for the times a big woman and a very devout Catholic, she never married.  Her schooling must have ended at high school as she worked her entire life in a furniture store as a clerk.  Just not the life I see for the little girl in the fur.  Despite this, she never appeared bitter, just grateful for everything people did for her and for each day on the earth.  Intentional in all her activities.  

At the end of our dinner, she told me the story about why you must always come when your parents call you.  

“I was playing with my friends and I heard my Father calling and calling me.  I did not respond.  He told me several times in the past this was not a good behavior and that he expected me to come when he called.  I am about 12 when this happens and it is in the summer.  ‘Margaret, Margaret, come home.’  I continued to ignore him.”  

“Later that day, I arrived back to the house.  Father looked at me and said, ‘You know that pony you wanted, well, it’s been here and gone.  I told you young lady, to come when you are called.’ I felt bad but Father was correct.”  

A little harsh in my mind given what we know about a 12 year olds natural proclivity to rebel against  parents.  All the same, it showed the consequences, not getting the horse, to the intentional behavior of not responding to her father’s request that she come home.  

At the end of our meal, Aunt Margaret said to me, “This Christmas, I am going to give you a gift that you can keep forever and someday, you will hopefully, look back and say that my old aunt gave me this and you will remember me.”  

We walked to the car and I said I was excited to get the gift.  I waited patiently for it to arrive on Christmas day and as a girl, felt like I was growing up, when I opened it to find a beautiful engraved stone box for keepsakes.  I think it is the only gift I have still from the Christmases of my childhood.  I use it and I’ll never throw it out, I will just have to find someone to pass it to, along with the story of Aunt Margaret.   Perhaps that was her intent.  

Aunt Margaret 1900s


from Aunt Margaret, etched jewel box, 1970s
from Aunt Margaret, etched jewel box, 1970s


©Claire A. Perez