My Mother's Sisters

Larry Racioppo

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.

Four women dressed in black, standing next to each other
My Mother and her sisters, 1971.
Left to Right: Angie, Kitty, My Mother Millie and Anna.

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.

Family photo of 6 smiling women with children, seated and standing
Family and Friends, Brooklyn, circa 1953.
Standing Left to Right: My Aunt Phyllis (Charlie’s wife) and Kitty. Sitting Left to Right: Joe Tenga (Phyllis’ son), my Mother, me, Angie, my Mother’s friend Rose, and my cousin Joe Ardito in his mom Anna’s lap. In the mirror – my paternal grandfather Angelo Racioppo.

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.

Family photo at a wedding reception. Smiling men and women seated near tables
My brother’s wedding reception, 9th Street, Brooklyn, 1984.
Left to right: Kitty’s husband Lucky, Kitty, Angie, my Mom, my Aunt Marie and my father Anthony.

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.

Wedding portrait of a woman with dark hair
Kitty’s Wedding Photo.

She worked in a machine shop during World War II.

Photo of a woman with dark hair dressed in black, smiling in a factory setting.
Kitty, working at a machine shop, during WWII.

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.

Smiling woman outside a shop window with a brown bag in her hand. Store window has a heart shaped valentine's day advertisement.
Outside Al’s grocery, 18th Street, 1971.


Three similar photos of a woman with a head covering and glasses, with slightly different poses, side by side in a kitchen
In Kitty’s kitchen, 6th Avenue, 1979.

In 1979 I used a photograph of her and her brother Nick on the invitation to one of my earliest photography exhibits.

Photo of an invitation to an art show, that features a man and woman seated and talking at a table.
Family in Art invitation. 

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.

Photo of an installation at an art show
Installation photo, Garibaldi-Meucci Museum, Staten Island, 2009.
Photo of a man and woman standing in a bedroom and looking out a window. The woman's hand is around the mans waist and there is a portrait of Jesus on the wall
Invitation photo: Looking out their window, 6th Avenue, 1980.

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.

Photo of a coffin covered in flowers and 4 chairs draped in black at a cemetery.
Kitty’s coffin, Calverton National Cemetery, Long Island, 1992.


Photo of 3 women outdoors dressed in black standing next to each other.
Three sisters, Calverton National Cemetery, Long Island, 1992.

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.)

Wedding portrait of woman with dark hair, dressed in black with large cascading bouquet
Anna’s Wedding Photo.


Photo of man and woman with dark hair smiling and embraced in front of Christmas tree. The woman is wearing a green dress, the man a white shirt and black tie.
Anna and Chuck at Christmas, date unknown.

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.

Ripped wedding portrait photograph. Dark haired man and woman. Man is in black tuxedo and standing, woman in white dress seated with bouquet.
Ripped Wedding photo, 1965.

I also photographed Anna throughout my career. She was not quite as willing a subject as her sisters but never actually refused my request.

Three side by side images of the same woman with different poses, woman is seated at a table and talking.
Anna talking, 40th Street, Brooklyn, 1971.
Woman taking a photograph of little girl in first communion attire and three little boys, in an alleyway between 2 houses.
Anna photographing, 76th Street, Brooklyn, 1985.
Older woman wearing glasses holding an infant. Portrait of Jesus Christ on wall behind.
Anna holding Michael, 18th Street, Brooklyn, 1985

But she did often ask why I used black and white film so often.

Photo of older woman with glasses and green blouse sitting on a colorful sofa
Anna in my parents’ living room, 18th Street, Brooklyn, 1985.

Anna died in 1999. I photographed her coffin in the small chapel at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Photo of men and women dressed in black around a coffin in a church

Anna’s coffin in the chapel at Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn, 1999.

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.

Wedding portrait of man and woman standing. Man is dressed in tuxedo woman is in white dress with bouquet.
Angie’s wedding photo (with her husband Dominic Piccolo).

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.

Older woman smiling with two young shirtless men, faces not visible behind her

Angie in the backyard with her sons Joseph and James, 18th Street Brooklyn, 1979.
Woman ironing on a dining room table. Her face is obscured by the item she is ironing.
Angie ironing in the dining room, 18th Street, Brooklyn, 1980.

Our families celebrated all the Catholic holidays and events together.

Photo of man and woman dancing at a wedding reception. Man is in tuxedo with boutonniere woman is in sleeveless dress. Two men in suits are behind them
Angie and Dom at their son Tom’s wedding, Brooklyn, 1982
Smiling family sitting and standing in a decorated room. One smiling baby is standing on a chair while a toddler looks on
Angie at Michael’s Baptism party, 22nd Street, Brooklyn, 1985.

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.

Photo of an open casket in a funeral parlor surrounded by large wreaths.
Angie in her coffin, Lockwood Funeral Home, 21st Street Brooklyn, 2012.

On a sunny spring day, Angie’s family and friends said their good-byes at Green-Wood cemetery.

Photo of people gathered at a burial service outdoors in a cemetery
Angie’s burial, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, 2012.

For more of Larry's work, please check out our digital collection, or visit his website.


This blog post reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Brooklyn Public Library.


Jo Rose

I wish there was some photos of the outside of the house, as I lived on 6th Ave between 17 & 18 Streets for a short period. I would love to see what the houses looked liked way back when.
Tue, Jun 16 2020 6:23 pm Permalink
Dana M.

Hey Larry, your pictures are wonderful. I’m Italian-American too (by way of Naples, Sicily, and Puglia) & my folks were born in Gravesend & Bensonhurst, respectively, and eventually their families migrated to the South Shore of LI. Your pictures remind me of my family - I love them! I’m excited to go check out the rest on your site. Lots of love to you and your family - hope you’re all well in these crazy, crazy times. And thanks for great content, BPL! I love you and miss visiting you in person terribly.
Wed, Jun 17 2020 3:31 am Permalink
Lisa Napoli

I grew up in Kensington and then Midwood, with grandparents in Park Slope (Irish side) and Marine Park. (the Italian side.) Seeing these pictures makes me wistful for childhood, and home. Thank you for this wonderful work.
Sat, Jun 20 2020 5:30 pm Permalink

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