October 16, 2021 would have marked your 100th birthday. When I think back on what has transpired since the year you passed in 2005, there are so many things that would have delighted you. A few things would have appalled you, but I choose to think of the happier things.
In 2008, we elected a president with biracial heritage for two terms. Barack Obama was, and is, a bright youngish man reminiscent of John F. Kennedy. You’d have loved him. He would have been like the son you never had.
The town is pretty much as it was, and if anything, it’s improved. I went to Italy and to your mother’s ancestral village, Gesso, in 2019, right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down and confined many of us to our homes in an 18-month quarantine. Gesso was really interesting. One of my worst regrets is not getting you on a plane to Sicily for a visit. You would have loved Mario and Salvatore, the two historians at the museum. Even better, you could have translated for us.
Mostly things are the same, I’d say. A few people really surprised me, not in a good way, but I guess that’s just part of this trip called “life.” One thing that would have rocked your world is seeing your Aunt Jenny’s great-granddaughter Jill Jacobs Biden become the first lady of the USA. Every time I think of that, all I can do is shake my head and say to myself, “That’s a long, long way from that sugar bowl.”
I remember that sugar bowl story because you told it so many times.
It was during the Great Depression. Times were tough for a day laborer in the best of days, but the Depression threatened to pull everyone under. Workers who were already on the margins really suffered.
The way I heard the story, Aunt Jenny would visit grandmom, your mother. She was your mother’s aunt, Great-Grandpa Giovanni’s sister. Giovanni listed himself on the immigration papers as a “street sweeper.” According to the records, he was illiterate when he first arrived, but somehow, some way, he learned English after a time in the States. How he accomplished that is a mystery to me… working hard labor in hot sun in the day, and going to school at night, to learn a new language? I’m in awe of this man. I’m also in awe of his sister Jenny, Jill’s great-grandmother.
Evidently Aunt Jenny’s family was a little better off than ours, even if just moderately. But she would never offer money directly to Grandmom. Grandmom would have staunchly refused it anyway. But Jenny knew how bad times were, so on her visits to Second Street, they’d have a cup of coffee. When Grandmom had her back turned, Jenny would take a five dollar bill that she’d folded up in a tiny square, and slip it under the sugar bowl. Grandma wouldn’t find it until her aunt was already out the door and down the street. Too late to argue.
Years later, Aunt Jenny’s great-granddaughter would become First Lady of the United States of America. You would have been over the moon proud of her.
When President Joe Biden came in, the Sicilians got very interested in Jill’s lineage. They knew her line reaches back to Gesso. They were the ones who contacted me and said, “Did you know you’re related to Jill Biden?” They traced our family tree all the way back to the 1700s, something that internet databases were unable to do. But they have access to the original church and city records in Sicily, and they hired a professional genealogist to do the family tree.
The thing I miss the most is talking with you and getting your perspective on all sorts of things. That’s the hardest part of missing someone. I realized that the only thing that helps to heal a broken heart is to try to live in a way that you would be proud of. I don’t always hit the mark on that, but I try to keep the idea in mind. I miss you, Dad.
Put in a good word for me with the Lord.
Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph High School in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.