• Joseph F. Berenato

On grandmothers, genealogy, and gaming gone awry


Gazette Columnist Joesph F. Berenato and his mother dancing. (Courtesy Photo)

This past Saturday would have been my mother’s 75th birthday.


Man. 75. With Mom being gone so long, that’s hard to imagine, you know?


What would she have been like at that age?


Mom had long said that, when she got older, she wanted to be an “old Italian grandmother,” somewhere between Morgana King as Carmella Corleone in The Godfather and Julie Bovasso as Steve Martin’s mother in My Blue Heaven.


She had it all figured out. She wanted to wear black dresses with black bandanas, walk with a cane—more for effect than necessity, as did my Aunt Grace—make wise faces and ward off the malocchio while cursing in Italian.


She would have been great at it.


Mom was a terrific grandmother to my oldest, but she never got the opportunity to meet the rest of her grandchildren. I can only imagine the looks on the faces of my nephews and the rest of my kids when their straight-out-of-a-stereotype grandmom came to visit or attend a school function.


They have no idea what they’re missing out on. It would have been glorious.


I think Mom would have enjoyed life today. She would have loved watching her grandchildren grow up, and she would have loved meeting Piper and Jethro—though she may have bristled at the idea of being a great-grandmother, just on general principles.


It’s a shame that most of them didn’t get a chance to meet her.


One of the things I learned from Mom is that it’s important to learn and to tell stories about those who have gone before us so that they can be remembered by those who come after us. It’s important to me that my children, my grandchildren and my nephews know about her, so that she’s not just a picture on a wall, handwriting in a book or a name on a stone but a living, breathing person, who brought joy and wisdom and full bellies wherever she went.


Mom could bake like nobody’s business, and her cooking skills were legendary in our neighborhood and with all of our friends, to the point where it wasn’t unusual for at least one of my friends to have dinner at our place even if I wasn’t there.


Mom loved games of all kinds, especially card games (and oh, what I wouldn’t give for one more game of canasta), board games—she and I were an unstoppable duo at Trivial Pursuit—and even video games.


True story: one time I had rented a Super Nintendo game, The 7th Saga, from Illusive Images downtown. Mom started playing it, and got so far in the game that she went out, bought a new one, returned the new one to the store and kept the rented one so she wouldn’t lose her progress.


Mom was also an avid genealogist; she and her cousins, Bea and Candy, spent thousands of hours putting together a complete history of the Pepper family—my grandmother’s line—that has served as an invaluable tool and guide in my own family research.


When Mom was looking into the family history, the internet was still young. She only had the primitive-now-but-advanced-for-its-time software, Family Tree Maker, information compiled by the Latter Day Saints and oral history with which to work. Had she lived long enough to be able to use Ancestry.com, I don’t know if she would have ever left her computer.


I also wish that she would have lived to meet my wife, Robyn—who taught me everything I know about genealogical research.


Wait; scratch that. The two of them probably would have gotten an apartment together in Trenton to be close to the state archives, then hung their shingle in a joint genealogy research firm.


I’d never see either one of them again, except for when they came to my cemetery for research—and I’m sure that, if she were here, Mom would think that the work we’ve done at Oak Grove Cemetery is just the bee’s knees.


Mom was 58 when she died—an age that now, at 43, I am beginning to realize was still tragically young—but they were 58 good years, packed with learning and family and enjoyment and more random trivia than I could ever hope to amass, and they were enough years to help mold me into who I am today.


Happy 75th birthday, Mom. We had 26 good years together, and a lifetime of stories to tell because of it.


I love you.


Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at jberenato@hammontongazette.com or find him on social media at @JFBerenato and at www.jfberenato.com.