The artistry in the Roman family was multi-faceted, visual as well as literary, to say nothing of musical, but in the end, rather simple, coming together as it did in a single person, my father.
In the Brignola family, the reverse was true: a lot of players, if you will, but a single outlet. This was the playing of musical instruments, mostly for the family and community, but ultimately, as it would turn out, the world at large.
It began with my grandfather, who played the mandolin at home and would march proudly with his tuba in the Italian community band. He was even said to have been recruited for the tuba by the famous bandleader, John Philip Sousa, a foreshadowing perhaps of what would transpire on the professional level two generations later (more to come.)
My grandfather’s penchant for at-home musical entertainment took hold in some of his children: Chris played the banjo; Dom, the youngest, the clarinet.
Even Briggy, the oldest, played—in his case, the guitar—despite the pressures of college and medical school, and later, a thriving general practice in downtown Troy. On the saddest of occasions, he'd play. I remember wishing that Briggy, who died in 1990, were there at the family gathering (held at the home of his widow, Margaret) after my father's funeral in '92. At my mother's, in '84, Briggy had strapped his guitar across his compact frame and slowly strummed a song that was his go-to for evoking the bright side. “If you are among the very. . .” and then, emphatically, “Young. At. Heart.”
Until even he lost heart. We hadn’t been able to sing along. The song hadn’t quite come to an end when he quietly put down the instrument.
Briggy and my mother, Mary, as the oldest of the nine, functioned as a second set of parents to the younger ones, not so much to Chris and Jim, who were next, but to those born in the late teens and ‘20s: Care, Jo, John, Rose, and Dom.
They'd been each other’s confidant and source of support from the earliest days, born as they were in the first decade of the 20th century, and into a household in which only Italian was spoken, which wasn’t the case when the younger ones came along. They alone bore the brunt of my grandfather’s overarching ambition: that his eldest son would become a medical doctor. If Briggy “made good,” my grandfather thought, they all would.
This meant Mary would need to leave school after 8th grade and work at the Cluett Peabody shirt factory, where she rose to the top rank of collar stitcher. It meant her dream of becoming a nurse would never be realized. Even the two mortgages my grandfather took on the house wouldn’t be enough to put Briggy through school. It meant, as well, that Mary would live at home in the 1920s and ‘30s, and besides her paid job, attend to the housework and the care of the younger children.
In an insightful memoir written during his third year of medical school, Briggy speaks with appreciation—and a measure of guilt—about Mary’s “sacrifice for the family and me.” He vows to make it up to her. “Maybe I can earn enough so that the family can get along without her," he writes, or ". . .introduce her to someone she might take a liking to."
Turns out it was my father to whom she took a liking, and that she met him on her own. It happened after a dance, my father told me on the day she died. She'd been seated in the front seat of a car, it was pulling away from the curb, and he ran up to the window. “It wasn’t love at first sight,” he said.
But it was love eventually. Pictures of her began appearing in the album by the spring of ’35 (they’d marry in ’38.) His gift to her of a radio became a family story, because he'd never let go of that radio. It was “worth something,” he’d often say.
Ed's arrival into the Brignola family, along with that of Briggy’s high-school sweetheart, Margaret (whom he'd marry in ’35), brought to the tight bond between brother and sister two more people who would offer lifelong support and care for each other. With Margaret's arrival in the '20s, the tie became a threesome, and with Ed's a decade later, a foursome.
In the album, there’s a picture of the couples from the late ‘30s or ‘40s. They’re out on the town, at a popular nightclub, seated at a table, and obviously enjoying each other’s company: Briggy with his trim mustache and taut frame looking a bit like Cesar Romero, Margaret aglow in a silk jacket, Mary and Ed nestled contentedly between them.
By the 1940s, when Briggy’s practice became overwhelming, and he and Margaret, and their young son, Nicky (born in ’36), began taking extended winter vacations in Florida, Mary and Ed would join for as much vacation time as Ed could get. Later in the decade, when Briggy and Margaret worried that Nicky was missing too much school, they'd leave him to stay with Mary and Ed in Troy for the winter.
My father bought his nephew a BB gun and taught him how to shoot. When Nicky was confirmed, he chose his Uncle Ed to be his sponsor. When I came along and was to be baptized, there was no question but that Briggy and Margaret would be my godparents.
Among the younger Brignola siblings, similar ties formed. In ’33, Rose died tragically from a brain tumor. But the others aligned and entangled with each other as they came of age during the years of World War II in the early 1940s.
Both John and Dom enlisted, John as an Army medic, Dom as a naval recruit. They’d get college degrees on the G.I. bill, and go into, respectively, junior-high and high-school teaching. As Veterans, if not as college graduates, they’d align with Jim, who’d been a cutter in the Cluett factory before joining the Air Force and flying planes over England.
As teachers (social studies and physical education, respectively), John and Dom would align with Jo, who, with Mary’s encouragement, went to a local college for a degree in math and taught at Troy High.
That left Chris and Care as the odd ones out, albeit Care the yang to her older brother’s yin. On the occasion of her graduation in ’36 from high school—as Valedictorian—my father wrote a poem for her that he entitled “Hope.”
“You ride upon the clouds of destiny. . .” it began, and she had at least set off on such a ride: Cornell, and with Briggy’s financial assistance, medical school, and then on to the prestigious pediatric fellowships at the great teaching hospitals in Philadelphia and Boston. She’d touch a world that even Briggy wouldn’t know.
Chris, on the other hand, dropped out of school after—or possibly before —8th grade, as many young people did in those days. There’s no record of his entering high school. Certainly no one was grooming him for medicine, let alone providing the resources for that to happen. Unlike his younger brothers, he was too old to enlist when the War broke out.
It was as if he were Briggy’s inverse: “Making trouble,” his brothers and sister would say, because he’d agitate relentlessly for what he wanted, such as cash from Briggy to buy a house. And fight when necessary, or even when it wasn’t. In a brawl with Chris, Jim lost his hearing in one ear. Chris’s young son would flee to his grandparents’ brownstone down the street to avoid his father’s blows until, finally, Briggy intervened.
But Chris was intelligent. And restless. He learned the trades from his uncles, knew how to wire a house, gravitated for a while to plumbing. Subsequently, he took a job at a plant in the area, and became boss of the union's local chapter. Later, he rented out flats in properties throughout downtown Troy.