Mom and I went down to South Philly to walk the path that Mary had walked. I wanted to place my hands on the bricks of her home—where she lived when she met Joseph in 1891, and her life turned upside down.
South Philly probably hasn’t changed much since the day the police found her struggling by the river, three crying children in tow. Mom’s sister Rita lives there with her husband, a few blocks from the Delaware. Amazing to think if the officer hadn’t intervened that night, Rita, Mom, me—we wouldn’t even exist. I marvel at the thought.
We walked around the neighborhood, what used to be called Southwark. It was November and cold—but sunny too—so the temperature was comfortable. Aunt Rita pointed out her favorite shops and restaurants and discussed the area’s cultural events and why she and Uncle Sal love living there.
I spotted this pretty journal—the one I’m writing in now—in her favorite paper goods shop tucked behind a few other items on a shelf, and I loved it immediately. I could picture writing in it, enjoying the soft paper, the smooth cover, the vibrant greens, yellows, and—my favorite—orange popping from the center of the floral print. The notebook was a little pricey and just out of my budget at the time. Mom noticed me place it back lovingly on the shelf. Perhaps I commented on passing. “Maybe next time,” I may have said.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon in my Aunt and Uncle’s cozy flat on South 2nd Street. What a pleasant visit where we enjoyed take-out and shared our recent creative accomplishments. Aunt Rita showed her artisanal ornaments, expertly crafted from the pages of antique books. Mom pointed out the city-scape painting she had gifted her sister, proudly displayed in the well-appointed, if tiny, front room. Reciting his poem in a clipped cadence, my uncle lamented the trials of our country’s political divide.
To contribute to the impromptu family art festival, I read the prologue of my manuscript. I’d never read it aloud before. I felt humming through my veins with each word—a soul awakening. This is my story, I realized. It’s not just Mary’s story, but mine, Mom’s, Aunt Rita’s, and Nana’s, and now is the time to bring the story into the light—to look at it, learn from our past, and protect our future.
I’ll always remember that cold and sunny November day with fondness. It had been a long time since I’d seen my extended family, and it felt good to belong to a larger group again.
The other day, months after that lovely visit, Mom popped over on her way to see a friend. Smiling and without a preamble, she handed me the coveted journal. There they were—the orange flowers jumping off the cover and the smooth pages inviting me in, waiting to be filled.
What a treasure.
I looked at her, eyebrows raised. After our visit, Mom had arranged for Aunt Rita to pick it up from her favorite paper goods shop in her South Philly neighborhood, blocks away from the river where my great-grandmother nearly drowned as a child—from where her mother, Mary, had lost her mind, her family, and her freedom all in one night.