After singer-songwriter John Prine died on April 7, 2020 from coronavirus complications, local radio stations and media outlets created playlists of his “essential songs”. Listening to WFUV-FM, I heard When I Get to Heaven for the first time. The song, from Tree of Forgiveness, his 18th and last studio album in 2018, begins humorously, but then turns serious. Some of Prine’s lyrics really struck home for me:
“I wanna see all my mama’s sisters because that’s where all the love starts.
I miss ‘em all like crazy, bless their little hearts.”
My mother had three sisters and four brothers who, like her, lived within a few blocks of my grandmother’s apartment on 18th Street and 6th Avenue in Brooklyn. I was the first of 18 grandchildren and the center of attention and affection for my aunts for about 14 months – until my cousins began showing up. These three women loved and nourished me my entire life. They were there with kindness and presents from my Baptism to my marriage. I think of them as individuals, and also as a foursome with my mother.
The first “serious” photograph I took – one that made me think that I might be able to do something worthwhile with a camera – was of the four of them in 1971 outside the home of their brother Charlie who had died. Dressed in black they were on a short lunch break before returning to his wake at a nearby funeral parlor.
Our families lived close to each other and visited often. My younger cousins and I spent lots of time together, not just on holidays. Although I had just one sibling, I’ve always felt that I grew up in a large family.
As time passed our family gatherings took place less frequently. This is the last photo I took of my mother and her three sisters together.
Based on the hundreds of mostly black and white photographs saved by my relatives, I have to say that my mother, her sisters and their friends were quite attractive. In the shoeboxes and kitchen drawers I’ve looked through, I’ve found mostly candid amateur photos, and very few negatives. But there is a very special group of photos in my unofficial family archive: the 1940’s studio wedding portraits of my aunts and uncles. These toned 8 x10 inch contact prints are luminous.
My maternal grandparents, Italian immigrants from small towns outside of Naples, named their Brooklyn-born daughters after Catholic Saints. As a boy I knew them only by their “Americanized” names: Kitty (Concetta) b.1915, Millie (Carmella) b. 1922, Ann (Anna) b.1925 and Angie (Angelina) b.1932.
My Aunt Kitty was one of the warmest and kindest people I’ve ever known. A real beauty, she holds an incredible bouquet of calla lilies in her wedding photo.
She worked in a machine shop during World War II.
I photographed her frequently over the years: sometimes on the street, sometimes in her apartment when I “dropped in” for a cup of coffee. She never lost her sense of style and was always a willing subject.
In 1979 I used a photograph of her and her brother Nick on the invitation to one of my earliest photography exhibits.
When I was offered a solo exhibit at the Garibaldi- Meucci Museum on Staten Island in 2009, I began looking more closely through the photographs I had of Kitty and her husband Lucky (Augustine) Mele. I realized that I had been photographing them - together and separately – for over 38 years! I had enough images for an entire exhibit: KITTY and LUCKY: Photographs of my Aunt Concetta and Uncle Augustine.
Kitty died in 1992 and was buried at Calverton National Cemetery. I photographed her coffin and her sisters in the area where the family has a last chance to say goodbye. No one is permitted at the actual burial site.
My Aunt Anna was also quite lovely. She and her husband Chuck (Charles) were my godparents, and their son Joe my best friend. Our families never lived more than two blocks apart and we shared a bungalow in Rockland County every summer. (A story I hope to tell in the future.)
Chuck was a great guy who photographed and filmed family events. Some of his 8mm home movies were transferred to compact disks, and I watch them from time to time. I’ve used some of his photos in past blogs, and think that he influenced my love of photography. He had a huge but weak heart and died while I was in high school. My Aunt Anna taught me about the power of photography. Soon after Chuck’s death, she tore the candid photographs out of her large wedding album, but stopped just short of destroying her wedding portrait.
I also photographed Anna throughout my career. She was not quite as willing a subject as her sisters but never actually refused my request.
But she did often ask why I used black and white film so often.
Anna died in 1999. I photographed her coffin in the small chapel at Holy Cross Cemetery.
My Aunt Angie was the “baby” of the family. She and her husband Dom, a Korean War vet, bought a small wood-frame house on 18th Street around the corner from her mother’s apartment.
Angie was a devout Catholic and active member of her local Church, St. John the Evangelist on 21st Street. She raised four sons, loved company, hosted many family parties and dinners, and always had a hug and a cup of coffee for me.
Our families celebrated all the Catholic holidays and events together.
My mother and her sisters died in their birth order – Angie the last in 2012.
Floral wreaths flanked her coffin and two of my photographs of her family were displayed at her wake.
On a sunny spring day, Angie’s family and friends said their good-byes at Green-Wood cemetery.
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