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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Last Innocent Age. Characters and Heritage...

I grew up in the Northeast. Right in the heart of the melting pot. I was born in Philadelphia and grew up about 15 miles south, in Wilmington Delaware. My street was populated by the wonderfully colorful characters that area is known to produce. If you were to ride up and down the block I grew up on, you'd find a last name for virtually every ethnicity that came through Ellis Island. Great Old-World sounding names like Ferraro, and Weintgartner and Riccio. Rubelmann and Savage and Jamison. Pennypacker and Lowman and DelVecchio. They came from various areas. The Ferraro's came to the area from the coal country of Pennsylvania, as did the Jamison's and The Wilkins'. The Pennypacker's were from Canada. Mrs. Riccio's father lived with them. His name was Frank Dobrowolski, but we all called him "Pops" or as his grandson Tommy called him..."The Old Crabber". My own grandparents on both sides were immigrants. I never met my father's parents but my mother's dad was born on the boat on the way here from the Ukraine. All my neighbors held onto their old world traditions with both hands. Mrs. Ric made kishka and Pizzelles for the holidays. Florence Rubelmann (who was Italian, married to a german) made homemade wine out of frozen Welch's Grape Juice. Mrs. Messick, (whose maiden name was Cataldi and who was pure Sicilian) made the best Italian food on the block. They all ascribed to the immigrants code of hard work. Mr. Riccio held two full time jobs. Mr. Ferraro was a wonderful craftsman who took advantage of every opportunity at the chemical plant where he worked, increased his education and became a plant supervisor. Kevin Messick and I worked at that plant briefly when we were both in our early twenties.
Mr. Wilkins was an ex Marine who worked for the power company. Mr. Messick was a union carpenter. They were our baseball coaches and volunteer firefighters. We didn't need a "Community Watch" program because we all knew each others families and if any one of us was doing something stupid and getting in trouble they'd just pick up the phone and call our moms. We didn't need a Community Watch program because we knew everyone, and anyone walking down our street who didn't live there, had 32 sets of eyes boring holes in them making sure they didn't stop where they didn't belong.
We were at each others houses all the time for the Holidays or birthdays or graduations. It was really like a family. They told us stories of the struggles they went through growing up and the struggles their parents went through just getting here.
If your family had a tragedy or an illness or a new baby, there would be a parade of food and well wishes for a week or more. Nobody visited empty handed. It was expected that you'd show up at every summer cookout. You were never formally invited...the invitation was extended when you moved in and lasted until you are gone from this earth.
Eventually my mother and step father decided to move to another neighborhood. They quickly found out how special that old block was. Nobody in the new place spoke to each other. Nobody cooked for a sick family or knew each others kids' names. They just came home, held cookouts for invited guests  behind their stockade fences and lived as strangers.
I don't know if neighborhoods like mine exist anymore, but I wish they did. I'd move to one if I could. It was a wonderful place to grow up. I had friends I made for life. I had about 10 different families I could almost claim as my own. It was an innocent age and I wish my own daughter could grow up in such a place. But I think it is a time long gone...and that is sad.

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