And what of any artistry in the Brignola family? If it were there, and I believe that it was, it lay in music.
My grandfather was a tuba player, and it's said he was recruited to play that instrument by the famous bandleader John Philip Sousa. He'd march with his tuba in the Italian community band, and at home, he'd play the mandolin.
My Uncle Chris played the banjo.
And Briggy, the guitar, even though he was involved with college and medical-school studies. On the saddest of occasions, he'd play. I remember wishing that Briggy, who died in 1990, had been there at the gathering after my father's funeral in 1992. At my mother's, in 1984, he had strapped his guitar across his compact frame and slowly strummed the song that was 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 the instrument.
Briggy was the oldest of the nine; my mother, Mary, the second oldest (and eldest daughter). They'd been integral to each other's lives since they were children, the only ones to have known a household in which only Italian was spoken. They alone would suffer the consequences (and appreciate the rewards) of my grandfather's overarching ambition: that his eldest son become a medical doctor. If Briggy "made good," he thought, they all would.
That meant that Mary would need to leave school after 8th grade to work as a collar stitcher in the Cluett shirt factory. Her financial contribution would be necessary if the goal were to be achieved; the two mortgages on the house wouldn't be enough. It meant that, aside from her paid work, Mary would live at home with her parents and help with the housework and the care of the younger children. She had wanted to become a nurse, but that was denied.
In a Memoir written in January 1931, 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" and vows to make it up to her. "Maybe I can earn enough so that the family can get along without her," he wrote, or ". . .introduce her to someone she might take a liking to."
That turned out to be my father, whom she had met instead after a dance, he told me on the night she died. She was seated in the front seat of a car that was about to pull away, and he had run up to the window. "It wasn't love at first sight," he said.
But by the spring of 1935 pictures of her began appearing in the album. He gave her a radio, because he knew she liked listening to the radio, and he had kept it because, he'd say, it was "worth something."
He also began becoming part of Mary's family, a given for anyone who came courting. By the 1920s, Briggy's high school sweetheart, Margaret Rubino, had already wedged her way into the tight tie between Briggy and Mary. They were married in the summer of 1935, just as Ed was making it a foursome.
In a photo that surfaced from the attic, Briggy and Margaret, and Mary and Ed, are out on the town at a local nightclub: Briggy, with his trim mustache and taut frame, looking a bit like Cesar Romero; Margaret aglow in a silk jacket; Mary and Ed seated contentedly between them.
By the 1940s, Briggy was becoming overwhelmed by a burgeoning medical practice that included many of Troy's Italians. He and Margaret and their young son, Nicky, began taking extended winter vacations in Florida, and Mary and Ed would join them for part of the time. As the years went on, they worried that Nicky would miss too much school, and started leaving him in Troy to live with Mary and Ed for the winter.
My father bought Nicky a BB gun and taught him how to shoot. Nicky chose his Uncle Ed as his sponsor in Confirmation. By the time I was born, there was no question but that Briggy and Margaret would be my godparents.
Throughout the years, Briggy and Mary, as the oldest, functioned as a second set of parents to the younger brothers and sisters, not so much to Chris and Jim, who were born in 1910 and 1914, respectively, but to those born in the late teens and 1920s: Care, Jo, John, Rose, and Dom.
A brief nine years after her birth in '24, Rose died from a brain tumor. The others aligned and entangled with each other as they came of age during the years of World War II.
John and Dom enlisted; John served as an Army medic and Dom in the Navy. They'd get college degrees on the G.I. Bill. As veterans, if not as college graduates, they were aligned with Jim, who had worked as a cutter in the same factory as Mary before joining the Air Force.
As teachers (of social studies and physical education, respectively), John and Dom were aligned with Jo, who, with Mary's advocating for her, had gotten a degree at a local college and taught math at Troy High School.
That left Chris, who was the odd one out. As was Care, albeit yin to Chris's yang. On the night of Care's graduation 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 assitance, medical school, and then on to the prestigious fellowships at the great pediatric teaching hospitals in Philadelphia and Boston. She'd touch a world that even Briggy wouldn't know.
Chris, on the other hand, as Briggy's inverse, had never been groomed for an education. He likely left school after 8th grade, maybe even before, as many young people did in those days. There's no record of his entering high school. Unlike his younger brothers, he was too old to enlist when the War broke out.
"Making trouble," his brothers and sisters would say about him, demanding as he did the downpayment for his home from Briggy. In a fight with Chris, Jim lost the hearing in one ear. Seeking refuge from Chris's blows, his young son would rush down the street to his grandparents's house until, finally, Briggy intervened.
But Chris was intelligent, and as restless as he was reckless. He learned the trades: plumbing, how to wire a house. He agitated until he was named union boss at a plant for which he later worked. Later still, he bought and rented out flats in slum properties throughout downtown Troy.