On my mother’s Italian side, music lay at the center of the personal, if not professional, lives of these relatives. My grandfather played the mandolin at home; in the Italian community band, he’d march in the parades with his tuba. My Uncle Briggy—my godfather—had been groomed by my grandfather because he was the oldest to become a doctor, and in doing so, lift the fortunes of the family. But Briggy played an instrument: the guitar. At the saddest of events, he’d play—I remember wishing he were there for my father’s funeral. At my mother’s, in 1984, he had strapped his guitar across his compact frame and strummed slowly, “If you are among the very young at heart.” We’d barely been able to sing, and even he realized that, as the song hadn’t come quite to an end when he quietly put down the instrument.
Even my Uncle Chris played, albeit rarely—I’m trying hard to remember when I last heard him do so, and I cannot. His instrument was the banjo.
There's irony, given what eventually happened to the song, in the shaky tie between the Brignola avocation and the artistry of the young man—my father—who was, in 1938, to marry the second oldest of the nine, my mother, Mary.
They met, my father told me on the night she died, at a dance, which must have been in the spring of 1935, because it is shortly thereafter that pictures of her begin appearing in the family album. She was leaving the dance in a car, he said, and he ran up to the window. “It wasn’t love at first sight,” he said. But he did take many pictures of her—some with his arm lovingly around her shoulder, which meant he’d have to set up his tripod. And he bought her a radio, because he knew she loved listening to the radio.
He was proud of that radio, which by the 1980s, he kept tightly wrapped in a box in the attic. He would stress that it was “worth something,” $800, $900. It was there when I cleaned up, a beautiful alabaster green. I took it out of its box and placed it on a table in my home, where it remains to this day.
Embracing Mary, though, meant embracing her family, an entangled web of brothers and sisters whose relationships with each other were similarly entangled. At the top of the heap were Briggy and Mary, the oldest boy and girl, born in the first decade of the century. Together they functioned as a second set of parents, not so much to Chris or Jim who came next, but to the five born in the late teens and early 1920s: Care, Jo, John, Rose, and Dom.
The youngest, aside from Rose who died from a brain tumor in 1933, aligned with each other as they came of age in the War-ridden 1940s. Dom and John, in particular, given that both enlisted, Dom in the Navy and John as an Army medic; they’d get college degrees on the GI Bill. As vets, if not as college grads, they’d find communion with Jim. A cutter in Troy's Cluett Peabody factory—renowned for its “Arrow” brand of men’s shirts—Jim had joined the Air Force. It was the high point of his life.
Dom and John became school teachers, of physical education and social studies, respectively, intersecting with Jo, whose degree in math from a local college made it possible for her to teach at the high school.
But the alignment of Briggy and Mary matters most in this story. My grandfather’s insistence that Briggy become a doctor meant that Mary would have to go to work at Cluett after eighth grade rather than enter high school. Even the three mortgages that my grandfather took on house wouldn’t be enough to put Briggy through college and medical school.
Mary’s life during the 1920s and early 1930s consisted of living at home “to help bring up the children and do the housework,” Briggy wrote in a perceptive memoir in January 1931, during his third year of medical school. Her interest in nursing had been nixed, and she wasn’t allowed to socialize. With a nod to the unfairness of his sister’s “sacrifice for the family and me” and a measure of what surely was guilt, Briggy vowed to make it up to her. “Maybe I can earn enough so the family can get along without her?” he wrote. “Maybe I can introduce her to someone she might take a liking to?”
All of which cemented an alliance forged in childhood. They’d grown up in the teens and the ‘20s when only Italian was spoken in the household, which wasn’t the case when the younger ones came along. They were close in a special way that continued when Briggy’s wife, Margaret, and my father entered the picture.
So that it became Briggy and Margaret, and Mary and Ed. In a smart-looking photo from the ‘30s or ‘40s, the couples are seated around a table at what I’d later learn was an upscale nightclub and theater restaurant—Dinty’s Terrace Garden—that featured live music by national acts: Briggy, with his taut frame and dark mustache looking a little like Cesar Romero; Margaret, aglow in her silk jacket; Mary and Ed, comfortable as part of the foursome; all of them having such fun.
By the mid-1940s, Briggy, stressed by a general medical practice that attracted a sizable chunk of Troy’s Italians, began taking extended winter vacations in Florida, six weeks to start, and eventually, two or three months. At first, he and Margaret would take their son Nicky—who was nine or 10 or 11 at the time—and my mother and father would go along. I smile when I see those pictures of them at the beach or visiting Washington, D.C., on their way home. “Nicky” was my favorite cousin: I knew him as that little kid who, my mother used to say, would eat nothing but the rolls at restaurants, when, in fact, the world would eventually know him as Nick Brignola, one of the finest of his generation on the baritone saxophone, a star in the sub-genre of modern jazz.
After those early years, when his parents no longer wanted to take Nicky out of school for the Florida trip, they would leave him in Troy to stay with my mother and father. My father bought him a BB gun and taught him how to shoot. And just as my Uncle Briggy and Aunt Margaret were my godparents in Baptism, my father—Nicky's Uncle Ed—served as his sponsor in Confirmation.
Chris, in many ways, was the odd man out; Care, too, albeit yin to Chris’s yang. On the occasion of Care’s high school graduation—as Valedictorian—in 1936, my father penned a poem called “Hope” for her. “You ride upon the clouds of destiny/” it began, and, indeed, she had at least set off on such a ride: Cornell; and with Briggy’s financial help, medical school; fellowships to the great pediatric teaching hospitals in Philadelphia and Boston. She touched a world that even Briggy would never know.
As for Chris, Briggy’s inverse and antagonist, this second son didn’t benefit from a father pushing for his education. My grandfather had nothing left for the others after paying for Briggy’s. In his thirties at the outbreak of World War II, Chris, unlike Dom and John and even Jim, was too old to enlist. He had left school, as did many young people in those days, but in his case possibly before finishing eighth grade. The records don’t show that he entered high school.
He began learning the trades from his uncles. He worked as a plumber and knew how to wire a house. But because he was intelligent and clever, he also set about making his living in ways that weren’t prosaic. I know that he had a job at a plant, was maybe even the union boss, but I cannot to this day say which one—the name American Locomotive lingers in my memory; later, he bought property and rented out flats.
“Making trouble,” the adults would say of him, if only because of the way he pushed and pulled for what he wanted—demanding from Briggy the down payment for the house he bought for his own family, to take one example. And also because of the way he lashed out. In a physical fight with Chris, Jim lost his hearing in one ear. Chris’s own young son would rush to his grandparent’s house down the street to avoid his father’s blows, which eventually prompted Briggy to step in.