The Cammaratas were coming over, and we were nervous. We wanted them to feel at home. After all, our new home in South Philadelphia had been theirs for nearly 70 years.
I’d mentioned their mother, Antonette, in a column I wrote about the house, back when my wife and dog and I moved in last May. The old-time neighbors still talked about Antonette’s homemade ravioli. And how the house was always filled with visitors.
Antonette died at 94 in 2015. The house was emptied and sold, and remodeled and sold to us. The remodeler was wise enough to keep some of the old character. Like the marble windowsills in an upstairs bedroom with a cigarette burn, a long-ago vestige of some rebellious teenager’s surreptitious smoke. Reminders of a whole family history that had played out in the house we just bought.
The Cammarata children called after the column ran. We all promised to get together. Life, of course, got in the way. Last weekend, we finally made it happen.
They knew to knock at the door Sunday afternoon – the doorbell has been broken since long before we moved in. John and Arlene and Gloria, in their 60s and 70s now. Michael Jr. was home with a bug. We piled into the kitchen. The dog was so excited she peed on the rug. We broke the first awkward silence with hugs.
And the stories took care of the rest.
They told us about Antonette, who grew up with 11 siblings in a crowded apartment on Carpenter Street. Every summer, her father, who sold broccoli on Ninth Street, would cart the family to a farm in Jersey, where they picked vegetables and slept in a chicken coop. “Well, they took the chickens out,” Antonette would say, nonchalantly.
Antonette met Michael when they were working another summer job, selling door-to-door. They had both left school to work by then. Michael had found her crying on a step after a customer had mouthed off to her. He sat down.
The kids showed us their parents’ wedding photo, on the steps of St. Paul Church in the Italian Market. They could have been movie stars.
Michael went to war in France in 1942 with the Army Corps of Engineers. When he came home, he went to work for the Simonds Abrasive Co. in Bridesburg. You can still see the faded sign on the old factory from I-95. He balanced grinding wheels, the kind of a job description that doesn’t sound real anymore, lifting 100-pound wheels used to grind railroad ties and truck frames. He got a nickel a wheel.
They bought the three-bedroom rowhouse on Mifflin in 1947 for $7,000, paying it off with those nickels in four years. A job that doesn’t exist anymore providing a security that doesn’t, either.
And the life that followed there was beautiful in its ordinariness.
Grand Central Station, the kids remembered the house, always filled with extended family, throughout the neighborhood.
Antonette at the stove making the famous ravioli with a spoon – her “cucchiaio” – so well used it wore down at the edge. She made curtains at a Singer sewing machine in the basement and placed a statue of the Blessed Mother on a table with flowers by the living-room steps and sang along with the crooner Perry Como on the family’s nine-inch TV, the first on Mifflin.
Warm nights, Michael Sr. would sit like a statue in his shirtsleeves on the stoop, as the kids played into the dark on Mifflin.
“No one took any snot from him,” John said.
There were the dramas of the block: The dark day the Manchester Laundry factory closed across the street, whose fire escapes, platforms, and soap barrels the kids had used as a de facto playground. The heart-stopping excitement when a big beautiful car pulled up and Mario Lanza stepped out. His cousin lived next door.
And the mornings when the cops would be surrounding some Cadillac, warning everyone not to look in. Another mob hit. Antonette and her sister Josephine would respectfully head to the funeral. Their photo made the papers twice: Angelo Bruno’s and Philip Testa’s funerals.
“They’re gonna think you’re the ones knocking ’em off,” the kids chided.
On Sunday, we toured the house, through their old bedrooms (everyone blamed the cigarette burn on Michael Jr., who wasn’t there to defend himself). To the backyard, where they once crammed a swing set and basketball hoop, and where after the kids had grown, and Michael Sr. had died of a stroke in 1977, Antonette would sit with her sisters for hours with their coffee and cookies. And to the basement, where the Cammaratas let out a cry at the sight of an old Singer sewing machine I had bought at a flea market years ago, sitting in the exact place where Antonette kept hers. A sign, maybe.
“She watched over all of us,” Arlene said. “And she will make sure you have a good life here, too.”
Upstairs, back in our kitchen, Antonette’s kitchen, the old-time neighbors, the ones who still know the stories firsthand, gathered again. When they left, the old life of the house, the old voices that once called out there, felt just out of earshot. It felt like home.