At Christmastime, it has been an annual tradition for me to bring a big poinsettia plant from Ron’s Gardens to my Aunt Dottie Berenato.
Technically, she wasn’t my aunt. She was my mother’s first cousin. Aunt Dottie’s grandfather, Joseph Falciani, had three daughters and a son. The youngest of those siblings, Gilda, had married her father, M. L. Ruberton. The oldest of those siblings, Ida, had married Frank “Chateau” Bilazzo. They had a daughter, Angela, who is my mother.
Aunt Dottie and my Uncle Andy Berenato were my godparents.
You could not have asked for better ones.
One time, during my senior year at Boston University (BU), they traveled up to New England to see me at an event for BU held at Faneuil Hall, a colonial Boston landmark located at Boston’s Quincy Market. I remember how proud she and Andy were that night, along with my parents. It was an honor to have them there.
It wasn’t out of character for them, though—particularly Aunt Dottie, who always seemed to remember every birthday or special event with a card written out in perfect handwriting. There were always gifts—usually a shirt or sweater. The gifts went on so long that I still have the last one in my closet, in excellent condition. I’m 48.
In Hammonton the relationship between godparents and godchildren is deep and abiding. Maybe for people of Italian descent, there is that sense that the godparents are genuinely like a second set of parents, with you from baptism and throughout the life of the child.
I never questioned whether Aunt Dottie and Uncle Andy took their roles seriously. They were both deeply committed to their own children and grandchildren.
As I grew up I realized that my godparents had achieved in various roles in Hammonton. Andy was a prominent businessman and a member of town council. Dottie served as chairman of the board of Kessler Memorial Hospital and president of the Ancora Hospital Board of Trustees as well as leadership roles in other local organizations and causes. She won the “Nice Going” Award in 1996 from the Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce. It’s one of the highest awards given to any Hammontonian.
And yet, she always seemed to have time to talk if I called her or stopped by the house. She always said she enjoyed “catching up” on what was going on in town each Christmastime I stopped by with the poinsettia, and after she poured me a Coke with ice and put out some snacks, we chatted at her kitchen table.
Now that she’s passed, I think back on those times together and I’m glad we had them.
I’m sorry there won’t be any more of them.
We were a lot alike, which sometimes meant we’d butt heads, in that way family members can do on occasion. I laughed aloud and nodded when I read this line in her obituary last week:
“A forthright and moral woman, you never had to guess what Dottie thought of you: she was quite happy to tell you.”
I was on the business end of that kind of moment more than a few times: Her arched eyebrow over a penetrating gaze with a stern voice telling me exactly how wrong I was. I always pushed back, but guess what? Aunt Dot was usually right.
I think she’s doing fine, now, up there telling Uncle Andy what he should be doing.
How do I know she’s OK? I received a phone call from a friend of mine last Friday—March 11, the day of Aunt Dottie’s funeral—and he said he had something for me. I called him back the next day, March 12, and stopped by to pick it up from him. He said he knew of my love of old Hammonton things. Imagine my surprise when he handed me a gold pin I had never seen before in my life modeled to look like the “new” entrance to Kessler Memorial Hospital, name and all. I looked up and I thought: I guess you’re doing fine, Aunt Dottie.
Maybe it was a coincidence. But how do you explain the fact that, a few hours later in the day on March 12, when I was standing in my customary spot in Annata Wine Bar on Bellevue Avenue awaiting some takeout for dinner, a woman sent by my niece’s mother Jeanene brought my 5-year-old niece Ella by to see me because “she wanted to say hello to her uncle.”
You see, Ella’s my goddaughter.
It’s my turn now.
Aunt Dottie always had a way of making her points stick.
Gabriel J. Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.