Music was a big part of family life on my mother's side. My grandfather played the mandolin at home, and would march proudly with his tuba in the Italian community band. It's said that my grandfather was recruited to play the tuba by the esteemed band leader, John Philip Sousa. But for the Brignola clan, musical achievement at the professional level would need to wait until another generation.
These early 20th century immigrants instead took the tried-and-true path of formal education in their pursuit of upward mobility, specifically my grandfather's intent that his oldest son, my Uncle Briggy, become a medical doctor. If Briggy "made good," so went the thinking, they all would. But even Briggy played an instrument, in his case, the guitar. On the saddest of occasions, he’d play. I remember wishing he were there for my father’s funeral in 1992, but he had been gone two years by then.
At my mother’s funeral, in 1984, Briggy had strapped his guitar across his compact frame and slowly strummed the song that had always been his go-to for looking on the bright side: “. . .if you are among the very young at heart. . .” Until even he lost heart. We’d barely been able to sing along. The song hadn’t quite come to an end when he quietly put down his instrument.
My Uncle Chris played the banjo, albeit rarely. He didn’t play on cue as Briggy did at family gatherings.
Hence the irony, given what would happen with "Blue Moon," in my father's courting the oldest daughter (second oldest of the nine) in this family for whom music was largely an avocation.
They had met at a dance in the mid-1930s, likely 1935, because it’s shortly thereafter that pictures of Mary begin appearing in the album. She was in the front seat of a car, about to leave, and he had run up to the window, he told me on the day she died. “It wasn’t love at first sight,” he said.
But there were all of those pictures of her in the album, and the radio he bought for her, because he knew she liked listening to the radio. He still had that radio in the 1980s. He kept it tightly wrapped in a box in an attic, and said it was “worth something, $800, $900.”
In courting Mary, my father had no choice but to embrace her family, an entangled web of brothers and sisters with equally daunting entanglements with each other. As the oldest son and daughter, Briggy and Mary, born in the first decade of the century, functioned as a second set of parents, not so much to Chris and Jim who came next, but to the five born in the late ‘teens and ‘20s: Care, Jo, John, Rose, and Dom.
Other than Rose, who died as child from a brain tumor, the younger siblings aligned with each other as they came of age during the World War II years. Dom and John enlisted, Dom in the Navy, and John in the Army, as a medic. They’d get degrees on the G.I. Bill. As veterans, if not as college grads, they’d find commonality with Jim, who had worked as a cutter in Troy’s Cluett Peabody shirt manufacturer before joining the Air Force. It was the high point of Jim's life.
As teachers (of physical education and social studies, respectively), Dom and John were aligned with Jo, who had earned her degree from a local college, and taught math at Troy High School.
But it's the alignment of Briggy and Mary that matters most in this story. My grandfather’s grooming of his oldest son for a profession meant that the others would be denied. Three mortgages on the house weren't enough to put Briggy through college and medical school. It happened only because Mary would be expected to contribute as well, foregoing high school for a job as a collar stitcher in the Cluett factory.
Other than paid work, Mary’s life in the 1920s and 1930s consisted of housework and caring for the younger children in her parent's flat in that brownstone in downtown Troy. Her interest in nursing was nixed, and she wasn’t allowed to socialize. In a perceptive memoir written in January 1931 during his third year of medical school, Briggy acknowledges with a measure of guilt 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. “Maybe I can introduce her to someone she might take a liking to?”
The tie between Briggy and Mary was lifelong, forged as it was in childhood, and from the shared experience of having grown up in a household in which only Italian was spoken, which wasn’t the case when the younger ones came along. It continued when Briggy’s wife, my Aunt Margaret, and my father joined the family.
So that it became Briggy and Margaret, and Mary and Ed. In a photograph from the late 1930s or 1940s, they’re seated at a table in a local nightclub that featured national acts: Briggy with his trim mustache and taut frame looking like Cesar Romero; Margaret aglow in a silk jacket; the foursome enjoying their evening out. When I was baptized, there was no question but that Briggy and Margaret would be my godfather and godmother.
By the mid-1940s, Briggy’s general medical practice, serving a sizable segment of Troy’s Italians, had grown to the extent that he felt overwhelmed. He and Margaret began taking extended winter vacations in Florida with their son, Nicky, who was nine or 10 or 11 at the time. At first, my mother and father would join them. Later, Briggy and Margaret would leave Nicky in Troy, for up to six weeks, with my parents. My father bought him a BB gun and taught him how to shoot. “Uncle Ed” was Nicky’s sponsor in Confirmation.
This explains why I considered Nicky, who was 12 years my senior, my favorite cousin. Nicky knew me as a baby. I knew him, from the stories my mother would tell, as that little kid who would eat nothing but the rolls at restaurants, whereas the world would know him—eventually—as Nick Brignola, a star in the sub-genre of modern jazz and among the finest of his generation on the baritone saxophone.
Aside from the oldest and youngest cohorts of the Brignola siblings, there were Chris and Care. Chris was the odd one out; Care, too, albeit yin to Chris’s yang. On the occasion of Care’s high school graduation—as Valedictorian—my father wrote a poem for her that he entitled “Hope.” “You ride upon the clouds of destiny/. . .” the poem begins, and Care had, at least, set off on such a ride: Cornell, and with Briggy’s financial assistance, medical school; and then on to the great pediatric teaching hospitals in Philadelphia and Boston. She touched a world that even Briggy would never know.
As for Chris, who was Briggy's inverse in temperament as well as opportunity, this second son certainly wasn’t to be groomed for a profession. In his early 30s at the onset of the war, he was too old to enlist. He had left school, as many young people did in those days, but possibly before finishing eighth grade. There’s no record of his entering high school.
He learned the trades from his uncles. He did plumbing jobs, and knew how to wire a house. But he was clever—and intelligent—and, as I recall, worked at a plant where he had become the union boss. Later, he bought property throughout Troy and rented out flats.
“Making trouble,” the adults would say of Chris, because he would push and pull for what he wanted. He demanded from Briggy the down-payment for the house he wanted to buy for his family. And also because the physical fights were real. In a brawl with Chris, Jim lost his hearing in one ear. Until Briggy intervened and put an end to it, Chris’s young son would rush to his grandparent’s second-floor flat to avoid his father’s blows.