A long life, in a lifelong home

On a quiet street tucked away in Burlington City is the place that has defined Mary Stefanoni's entire life.

She was born in her house in the Farnerville section of this historic river town. She married the boy next door on the unattached side of this circa 1900 twin, dreamed her dreams in it, brought her babies to it.

The roots she has planted here are so deep and strong that Stefanoni, 90, could not imagine living anywhere else.

"I love this house - I love all the memories that are stored here. It may not be big or fancy, but none of that matters to me," says the spry nonagenarian, whose blue eyes sparkle when she tells stories of the old days.

One of her favorites is how she came to marry the "older man" next door after he returned from military service in World War II. Because he was 10 years her senior, Augustine Stefanoni remembered a child but came home to a young woman.

"Every important thing in my life happened here," says Mary, an active part of Burlington City's life still. Her husband, who died in 2005, served seven terms as a city councilman.

The house itself, sturdy and simple, has some of its owner's charm.

What started out as a three-bedroom home with one bathroom remains virtually the same in its footprint, although a first-floor half-bath has been added.

The front porch, the living-room staircase to the second floor, the formal dining room, and the kitchen tucked away in the back of the house have all been maintained, without any drastic change.

Though that kitchen did yield to some improvements, it's basically what it was, with a few updates.

"I know every inch of this space, and I can't even imagine one of those great big kitchens where you get tired just walking around," she says.

Family holiday meals are still sometimes eaten in her dining room, where three sets of wedding photos adorn the most prominent wall: Mary as a bride; her late and much-loved daughter as a bride; and son Gary's beautiful Marie on her wedding day.

That dining room, like other rooms in the home, has an arched doorway, which adds grace to its overall look.

In the living room, traditional furniture, including armchairs that are the sort from which you hate to get up and a sofa that's all about comfort, define what "lived in" means in the best way.

But much of the home's heritage is actually in the basement. It is there that Mary's father crushed grapes for the wine he proudly made, and where she loved to watch him fill barrel after barrel.

Just a few steps from the house is the wine cellar, where barrels were kept cool underground.

A fig tree planted by Mary's father back in the early 1900s yielded branches that her son and daughter planted in their own yards, a way of achieving a lovely family connection.

Mary Stefanoni is a great believer in family, and through most of her life, and the lives of her children, immediate neighbors were also uncles, aunts, and cousins who lived within sight of one another.

Gary Stefanoni remembers that his home and those of his cousins were always filled with children, grandparents, and the generation in between.

Today, the neighborhood is friendly, but, Mary notes, it's not like a small Italian village the way it once was. The Stefanoni family roots are in a region an hour north of Rome that is famous for its wines.

"Life changes," she says philosophically. Yet one thing hasn't: Her kitchen, small and cozy, is still the heart of her home.

"I seldom make it past the kitchen," says Gary. "I come in the back door, and Mom is ready with her biscotti. My children and grandchildren know that something wonderful is always happening in this kitchen."

At her age, Mary has become somewhat philosophical. She's also proudly independent: She drives, does her own grocery shopping, always makes the family's Thanksgiving turkey. That's how she wants it to stay.

And the house in which she was born is vital to her in that scenario.

"I'm comfortable here. I love every room, every space, and there's nothing I need here that I don't have," she says, making sure to press a supply of biscotti into the hands of guests - as well as her fabled recipe.

"Life is good here," Mary beams. "Because this is home."

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