July 5th would have been my godmother Angie’s 98th birthday. She passed peacefully in January, in her own home, in her own bed, after feeling vaguely unwell and lying down for a nap. It was the “happy death” she’d prayed for, in the way of the old-style Italian Catholics: no prolonged illness or unbearable pain, no uncomfortable tests, no hospital stay, and none of the attendant stresses, fears, indignities. Her once-a-week helper, who’d become her friend, had just made her tea and toast.
I’m late writing about Angie because this was HARD…one false start after another, writer’s block to the nth degree, a formatting bump that twice wiped out hours of editing. But a voice (my inner Annie Lamott?) kept urging me to try again, write better, to memorialize Angie as she deserved.
Angie was my mother’s niece and maid of honor at my parents’ wedding. In the Italian tradition, the maid of honor and best man are godparents to the couple’s firstborn. She met Johnny after a pal gave him a heads up: a “really cute girl” was working at the train station newsstand. If ever there were a perfect match, it was theirs, as evident in the decades of loving Valentine, birthday, and anniversary cards I uncovered among her things. They never had children, but they filled the void with nieces, nephews, cousins, and the kids on the block. Johnny, who was naturally curious and inventive, started an astronomy club for youngsters longing to try his fancy telescope and freely shared his elaborate model train setup with them. Throughout their married life, they shared a passion for their faith, politics, polka, and a nightly beer. Ironically, they also shared a holiday birthday—Johnny’s July 4th and hers July 5th.
On the younger end of nine siblings, Angie’s childhood and adolescence were not without hardship or sorrows—after all. she was born in 1923, post the Spanish flu and pre the Depression and World War II, and she outlived all of her siblings. Still, her memories and stories of growing up in humble Steelton, Pennsylvania, an immigrant mill town, were rich with laughter and an appreciation for simple good times. She loved her brothers and sisters deeply, despite the inevitable tiffs and disappointments that she forgave or explained away but probably, in the long run, never forgot. She was smarter than most people gave her credit for and her instincts were solid—she could spot bull-a-shit-ta a mile away.
Angie and Johnny lived with Johnny’s parents in a tiny rowhouse by the river for the first nine years of their married life. She recalled that time with great affection and often said that she and her in-laws had never exchanged a cross word. She worked for years, first in retail, later landing a job at the DMV. Though she was happy to retire, she was also grateful for the friends she’d made on the job and remembered them with Christmas and get-well cards and periodic phones calls.
When Johnny passed, I worried that Angie would go to pieces, but she didn’t. She managed the house and socialized with her family, her neighbors, her friends from church. She stayed current and maintained very clear opinions on the daily madnesses that plague 21st Century life. As age took its inevitable toll, she rarely complained about its challenges, even though she was legally blind and nearly deaf without her hearing aids. Even when she could no longer see well enough to pay her bills, she could calculate just about everything in her head, knew where every penny went, and made all her own decisions, financial and otherwise. Until just the last year, she was able to get her own simple meals. When she told me, matter-of-factly, that it was time to stop using the stove, we made arrangements for some extra help. She enjoyed her helpers as much for their companionship as for the assurance of microwave-ready food in the freezer, fresh sheets on the bed, and the Alexa that, much to my surprise, she took to like a duck to water: “Alexa, play Pavarotti singing the beautiful ‘O Sole Mio’.”
Angie’s faith was rock solid. As she became more insular, she spent much of her day watching Mass and saying the rosary, remembering everyone she’d lost and everyone she cared about in her prayers. She was always ready to give good counsel to any friend or relative who needed it.
Although Angie kept up a brave demeanor, the repeated losses of the last two decades took their toll: Johnny, her siblings, dear friends from her childhood, the girlfriends of her working years, the woman who’d done her taxes for decades. She missed them all, but she also missed the little pleasures we all take for granted: shopping, dinner after church with her best pal, a family gathering. She never wished—or prayed—for anything more than good health for herself and those she loved. She had few regrets—mostly worrying too much and being afraid to travel, especially because she knew that more adventurous Johnny would have liked to.
When the staggering, isolating confinement of COVID hit, I think it was simply too much. At Christmas, she said, absent any emotional display, “I think this will be my last.” I replied that she’d been telling me that for the last ten years. She laughed heartily. But she was right.
The number of people who remember even a middle-aged Angie is dwindling. As I sorted through hundreds of photos, as I had for another relative in 2020, I found so many wonderful images of a vibrant, fun-loving young woman who grew into her life with a smile and an ever-present twinkle in her eye. She was the Angie I really wanted to share:a first-generation Italian-American girl, who’d grown up in the shadow of a steel mill, married a nice boy, and lived to a ripe old age in their modest little red brick house.
Some would say that there’s nothing remarkable or exceptional about Angie’s quiet, happy life. Dear readers, I beg to differ.
Cover photo: Angie, radiant at the 90th birthday celebration her niece arranged for her.