It was a good time to be a girl,
a good time to love a boy
who drove two hours to see me
cut his lights three times under my window
so I could sneak out to smooch in his old Ford.
We would meet at the Crystal Beach ferry
to ride across the river and dream,
drink loganberry, eat sugar waffles
dance under the moon
while the band played Tommy Dorsey songs.
It was a good time to be a girl,
to work building radios,
to ride the street car to Main St
with my good white gloves and a pocketful of dimes.
We met in the back of the Lafayette Theater,
planned our escape to Arizona
and a Justice of the Peace
enough money for candy bars along the way.
It was a good time to choose your man,
the marriage certificate proof
we couldn’t be undone.
It was a good time to start a life
though Depression raged, war threatened.
I had a sweetheart who promised to love me forever
and he did, oh he did.
On what was undoubtedly a cold and snowy morning in late January 1939 my grandmother rose early, donned two skirts, two blouses, grabbed some extra jewelry, and left the house in the dark.
Her job at Colonial Radio, an assembly plant, was a quick bus ride away. However, she never made it to work that day. Instead, my grandfather picked her up in a borrowed car and they headed south from Buffalo driving non-stop until they reached…Erie PA. Ninety miles.
After applying for a marriage license, they headed back into New York state to Westfield, a small rural farming community where my grandfather, and his large extended family, lived and worked. For three days they waited (separate bedrooms, of course, in my great aunt’s rambling farmhouse) thrilled to escape.
For eight years, the two had courted, and for eight years they schemed, planned, and did what they could to evade her domineering father, Anthony, who forbade the two to see one another because of my grandfather’s height. He was short; shorter than she by a good eight inches. According to her father, this was no good!
The first time Phil June laid eyes on Marion Foresta was from up above. He was picking cherries as she drove up to the farm, and he liked to joke that he almost fell off the ladder when he saw her. “I knew right away I wanted to marry her!” he would exclaim, with that bright twinkle in his eye.
It was never quite clear if the discrepancy in height was the only issue that bothered my great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant from Calabria who ruled his house with an iron fist, and had clear ideas of who was a suitable suitor for his only daughter. Was there a worry of TB in my grandfather’s family? A concern that some other Foresta was due to be married into the June family? A sense that he, a shoemaker living in the big city, was somehow better than a farming family from Westfield?
I never did seem to get the exact story from my grandmother. She loved to tell the story of how she eloped, and shared it as often as she could. How my grandfather would travel the 80 miles by car just to flash the headlights in my grandmother’s front window on the off chance she would see it and escape, conjuring a false excuse to visit a friend, or make a trip to the store for some needed supply. How my great-grandmother feigned displeasure because her husband disapproved, but really she liked my grandfather just fine. How on the day of their wedding in Erie, they quickly drove back to Buffalo, went to the parish priest, pleaded for a church wedding, and proclaimed their vows before him and God, with the housekeeper and gardener as their witnesses.
And finally, the climax of the story: returning home a married woman, proffering the marriage license when her father demanded it, and listening slack-jawed when he did not kick them out, but instead offered to fix the soles on my grandfather’s shoes, while my great-grandmother fled into the kitchen to make some food.
My grandmother always loved to share a good story. “I’ve got to tell you this…” she would begin, drawing you in like any good story teller does. But her stories were definitely biased, filtered through a prism of a desire to connect, the joy of being center stage, and a worry of shaming someone in the family, no matter how terrible that person was.
An example: for years, she told her daughters, my mother and aunt, that her own father returned to Italy when she was young to fight in the war, leaving his wife with four young children and little money to care for them. It wasn’t until she was an adult that my mother heard form an uncle that Anthony had returned to see a mistress, and perhaps had gotten caught up in the war. “Well, what was I supposed to say?” she told my mom when confronted with this. “After all, he was my father.”
Once my grandparents returned to my grandmother’s house on their wedding day, they never left that house, living there for the next forty years. They took up residence on the main floor of the classic two-family Buffalo home in the Riverside neighborhood, and my great-grandparents moved upstairs. My grandfather put in countless hours of sweat equity repairing and renovating, and from the wages he earned at Bell Aerospace, they were able to pay off the mortgage.
Each unit in the house was a modest, two-bedroom affair, so my
mom and aunt shared a room for their entire lives until after my mom graduated from college and married my dad. There was a small attic room that was sometimes occupied by extended family. The basement, painted battleship gray (most likely with paint “borrowed” from Bell), was spotlessly clean, and was host to countless neighborhood parties, graduations, birthdays and baby showers over the years. The detached garage became my grandfather’s workshop (and no doubt a refuge from the girls), and the front porch his perch from which he took in all the action on dead-end Prairie Avenue.
Thiers was a modest, working-class, typical first generation immigrant existence in a booming industrial city in the first portion of the 20th century. Pa worked all day, but was home promptly for dinner at 6:00, always served with a can of Schlitz beer or Paisano wine. The girls attended public school, played in the neighborhood until the streetlights came on, and the family went to mass together faithfully each Sunday. Ma was a housewife and mother, as well as a caregiver for her aging parents who lived one floor up.
As the girls grew, she took up China painting. Delicate wisps of apple blossoms, pale white daisies, clumps of juicy-bright grapes, cherries and pears, and delicate leaves of sea-foam, evergreen, and chartreuse graced the edges of platters, tea sets, and eventually ceramic baby booties for me, my brother, and my cousin. As a child, I was incredulous. How could a human being capture, in such small scale and intricate detail, all of the finely wrought filigrees of the natural world? What kind of creative genius was able to harken these treasures into existence?
That they came from Ma only served to increase my fascination with this woman. Warm, funny, and affectionate, she would not hesitate to join us young boys for a game of hide-and-seek, or help us make paper hats and cardboard swords for a game of pirates and sailors. Her ever-present housecoat always contained an abundant supply of tissue, the better to wipe a snotty nose or dry a tear-stained cheek. Ma was most at home in the kitchen, and although many in the world around her were struggling to secure equal rights for women, she seemed content there.
Out of pots and pans sprang her famous tomato sauce, regularly bubbling on the stove, filling the house with aromas of warmth and LOVE. “Eat, eat! You look thin,” she would cajole. “What’s the matter? You don’t love me?” From casseroles sprang her famous bread pudding whenever you were sick. She liked to have family gathered for Sunday supper, which could “just” be an antipasto, but what a spread! Tray after tray of sliced and rolled deli meats, cubed and sliced cheeses, raw fennel and olives.
She taught me how to make eggplant appetizer and chicken soup. She told me anything could be frozen. She shared recipes of cookies and favorite dishes, and when I went away to college, whole meals showed up in the mail, packaged in tiny containers and bottles and cartons.
Ma was not always easy to deal with; she could be stern and demanding, and possessed a fortitude that helped her outlive all her siblings, most friends, and her husband. The care of her aging parents, expected of the only daughter in this traditional Italian family, took its toll, especially since it came as she was raising two young daughters of her own. Her mother was nearly crippled from arthritis, so Ma tended to her every need. After her mother’s death, the care of her aging father fell to her as well, and when he started to lose his mind, she was forced to commit him to a sanitarium. The stress led to her own nervous breakdown, and the toll that took on the family was exacting.
Like all families, beneath the surface of calm, working-class life roiled family competition, tensions, and tragedies. None of this managed to stop her, however. She was tougher than that. She lived to almost see her 97th birthday, and despite some physical impairment (her legs were never good), she remained sharp and engaged until almost the very end.
The last nine years of her life were spent in an adult care facility, where she finally gave up the housecoats in favor of new skirts, blouses and jewelry. She used her wit and charm to flatter and tease the facility staff and other guests, and became popular, someone to meet. Whenever we went to visit, she was always introducing us to someone. We called her a rock star.
The story of her marriage was one that she never tired of telling. Was it all true? What details did she leave out? Which did she embellish? What will we never know now that she is gone? Regardless, it was a damn good story, and we drank it up. It was family lore. In a time of arranged marriages, she resisted. As she watched aunts and cousins and probably even her own mother live loveless lives fraught with anger and resentment, she and my grandfather lived in many ways a fairytale existence.
While the other women in her family confided that a husband was sleeping around, or that another was cheap and physically abusive, or that another just shouldn’t be left alone with children, my grandmother found a man who was none of those things. By resisting parental pressure for eight years and defying expectation, she laid the groundwork for a life on her own terms.
She defined who she was by choosing the short guy.