South Philadelphia, July, 1935. My father is the little baby in everyone’s arms, and at that point less than a month old
Chester County is home to many cool artists, writers, filmmakers, and so on. One of my favorite contemporary authors is Lisa Scottoline. She calls Malvern home base.
I was drawn to Lisa’s books initially for the Philadelphia-area settings. But my affinity grew with the characters in her books who lived in the little neighborhoods in South Philadelphia like the one where my great aunts, Millie and Josie lived once upon a time. A lot of Lisa’s books had characters based in a way on her life experience and once she became a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, some of what she wrote was also based on her mother, Mary Scottoline.
I do not know Lisa Scottoline. I have met her at book signings over the years, including ones set up by my mother way back when she started to write. But her little nuggets of what can only be described as “growing-up Italian” have made me laugh, made me smile, and sometimes just shake my head over the years. Probably because I am half-Italian.
Lisa Scottoline fans learned via her author Facebook page that her mother, (known to readers as “Mother Mary”) passed away on April 13th, or Palm Sunday. I hate to say that is so Italian, but it’s so Italian. And I don’t mean that disrespectfully, it just to me, IS.
Here is an excerpt of Lisa Scottoline’s recent column:
Chick Wit: Mother Mary, down but never out By Lisa Scottoline, Inquirer Columnist POSTED: April 14, 2014
I am very sorry to have to tell you that Mother Mary’s health has taken a dramatic and unexpected turn for the worse, so this won’t be a funny column.
Except for the fact that she is at her funniest when times are darkest.
She’s been newly diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, has moved up north with me, and has entered hospice care at my house. Mercifully, Brother Frank, Daughter Francesca, and family and friends are all around her, and she is resting comfortably. So comfortably, in fact, that the hospice nurses, who are saints on wheels, cannot believe it. One nurse asked Mother Mary if she was having any pain – and she pointed to me……Please don’t think my tone herein is inappropriate. This has always been a column about family, the ups and downs, the laughter and the tears, and I think it’s appropriate to have both here, maybe even in the same sentence.
I would guess if you’re a fan of this column, and especially of Mother Mary, that you have a great sense of humor, and the Flying Scottolines have always handled disaster with humor. In fact, catastrophe is our middle name.
That’s why you pronounce the final E, to make it Italian.
I also know that many of you have gone through this heartbreaking journey yourselves. If you have, you already know that hospice plunges you into a world different from any other, filled with irony and incongruities.
I laughed and I cried when I read this column. It made me think once again of my great aunts who lived at 11th and Ritner. It also made me think of my father whom we saw through hospice at home too. It is a very intense time when a family member goes on hospice, but it isn’t all sad. It gives you some final and very lucky times with those you love.
Please read the entire column….especially if you come from peasant stock like me.
Today my friend Bonnie Cook wrote the obituary article on Mary Scottoline and here is an excerpt:
Mary Scottoline, 90, ‘Mother Mary’ to author Lisa Scottoline BONNIE L. COOK, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER POSTED: Tuesday, April 15, 2014, 1:08 AM
Mary Scottoline, 90, formerly of Bala Cynwyd, the hilarious, sometimes profane, larger-than-life maternal figure known to readers as “Mother Mary,” died Sunday, April 13, of lung cancer at the home of her daughter, Lisa, the author and Inquirer columnist.
“We are heartbroken to report that Mother Mary passed away at home this morning, though she was at peace and in the embrace of our love. We choose to remember her as here, making us laugh,” Lisa Scottoline said Monday on her Facebook page.
Mrs. Scottoline dealt with her final two weeks the way she did everything; she was cheerful, unfazed and funny.
Near the end, when she couldn’t speak, she communicated with family and caregivers by means of a whiteboard. How are you, they wanted to know.
“Aside from this crap, I’m doing fine,” her son Frank said she wrote.
The youngest of 19 children, Mrs. Scottoline grew up in a strict family in South Philadelphia. More or less ignored, she had to fight for attention….When daughter Lisa and Serritella wrote about the rough air between mothers and daughters in their Inquirer column, “Chick Wit,” and books including Meet Me at Emotional Baggage Claim, they found that Mrs. Scottoline’s persona flowed seamlessly onto the pages.
“She loved being in the book,” said Lisa Scottoline. “Her personality and spirit was big enough for any room twice over. She stood for a good, strong, funny woman.”
The stories resonated with readers, who found elements of Mrs. Scottoline in their own mothers.
Fifteen years ago, Mrs. Scottoline (pronounced Scott-a-LEE-nee) went south to Miami Beach to live with her son, Frank. She was very well-liked, he said. She enjoyed cooking Italian meals and pampering her pets.
She always said exactly what she felt. “Thank you for today,” she once told her son.
I took a large excerpt, I know, but this is a very cool piece about a woman I wish I had known, but at the same time over the years I felt I knew on some level because I had a couple of these no nonsense yet completely amazing little old Italian ladies in my life, my great aunts.
Mary Scottoline, like my great aunts was a force of nature. She leapt off the pages written by her daughter and granddaughter. And every single time I smiled and thought of my great aunts.
My great aunts were also very opinionated and matter of fact. My Aunt Josie had been the working girl while her sister, my Aunt Millie kept house. Josie was the most direct of the two. She was the strong one, and my Aunt Millie was the softer of the two, more ladylike. Aunt Millie always had one small bottle of Coca Cola at 4p.m. every day unless she was watching her figure, and at those times she would skip it.
The aunts never married and as was the tradition, the unmarried siblings lived in the house they were born in. The other character in their life play on Ritner Street (who also never married but had a girlfriend) was PJ, my Uncle Pat (Pasquale). PJ was a gruff and lovable guy who sometimes terrified me as a little kid. He did not have a mean bone in his body, but he liked to tease his little great nieces in his big gruff voice. He also did cool stuff like make wine in the basement. PJ died when I was pretty little. I think it would have been neat to know him as I got older.
The great aunts would say things like “you kids”. As I got older I realized that meant everyone under about 60 years old.
When we stayed with them as little girls we went to early mass. As in it was still dark outside. Hence the famous family joke “it’s holier when it’s earlier.”
Millie and Josie taught me to make pasta. By feel, basically. A little of this, a little of that, and rolled out by hand on the huge ceramic topped kitchen table. (I often wonder if that table is still in my father’s sister’s garage. It was such a big table that no one has had a kitchen big enough to hold it as far as I know.) Millie and Josie’s kitchen always smelled of a combination of tomato sauce and coffee. I loved that table and all it’s drawers.
Oh and speaking of that kitchen table? Did any of you out there love the movie “Moonstruck“? Remember the scenes when they hustled everyone into the kitchen to talk at the kitchen table over coffee? I am sorry but those kitchen table scenes to me are hysterical because as a kid I remember all the grown-ups sitting around the kitchen table solving weighty world issues….over coffee. You could never have enough coffee no matter what time of day or night. And Lordy, it was all high octane strong coffee. No decaf there.
They also had a canning kitchen in the basement and I remember my aunts putting up tomatoes and pickling hot peppers and cucumbers and things when I was little. The produce came from my Aunt Rose and Uncle Carl’s garden in Collegeville. Collegeville was referred to as “the country” in those days. No developments back then, and they originally backed up to a farm with horses. (Of course today Collegeville is like one big development, but it didn’t use to be.) Aunt Rose was one of their two sisters who married. The other sister was my grandmother, Beatrice.
When we were really little girls, my sister and I often spent New Year’s Eve with our great aunts and their other little old Italian lady friends. I remember one’s name was Tomasina. We got to stay up with them as they watched Dick Clark and whomever on the little black and white television in the kitchen. They would all be clustered around the kitchen table. I think they played cards sometimes. And they gave us watered down anisette at midnight to toast the New Year with them. And did I remember to say the kids weren’t allowed to touch the television sets? We weren’t.
In the summers, the great aunts would sit on the front stoop with folding lawn chairs, and all the other ladies and their families up and down the block would come out as well to escape the heat of the large, but not air-conditioned at the time South Philadelphia row houses. The street was alive with the music of voices in Italian and English, a cacophony of sound.
All of these Italian ladies were opinionated. They said it as they felt it, and it just was. But they were also the most compassionate, smart, and loving women.
They don’t make ladies like this anymore. I am very lucky I had a few in my life, even for a while.
So Mother Mary Scottoline, I did not know you in the traditional sense, but did know you in another sense through my own personal experiences with my great aunts and their friends. If I had any anisette in the house, I would raise a toast to you, as reading about you over the years has helped me keep my memories of my great aunts alive.
To my readers, thanks for stopping by on this rainy day. Always remember what you are from, it is a part of who you are.