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 down as it did to 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 the tuba in the Italian community band. He’d march proudly with his tuba, and was even said to have been recruited by the famous bandleader John Philip Sousa. That could have been a foreshadowing of what would transpire on the professional level two generations later.
But in those days my grandfather’s penchant for at-home musical entertainment spilled over into members of his family: Chris played the banjo; little Dom, the youngest of the nine, the clarinet, although never quite mastering the instrument.
Even Briggy, the oldest, played, which was remarkable because he’d been the first to go to college, followed that with medical school, and later, was immersed in a thriving general practice in downtown Troy. His instrument was the guitar. He’d play on the saddest occasions. I remember wishing he’d been there at the gathering after my father’s funeral in ’92 (he had died two years earlier), which was held at the home of his widow, my Aunt Margaret. At my mother’s, in 1984, Briggy had strapped his guitar across his compact frame and slowly strummed a song that was his favorite for looking on the bright side. “If you are among the very. . .” and then, definitively, “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 were the oldest of the nine, and as such functioned as a second set of parents to the younger ones, not so much Chris and Jim, who were born next, in 1910 and 1914, but to those born in the late teens and ‘20s: Care, Jo, John, Rose, and Dom.
As the oldest, Briggy and Mary had been each other’s confidant and source of support from the earliest days. They’d been born, in the first decade of the 20th century, into a household in which only Italian was spoken, which wasn’t the case when the younger ones came along. They alone bore the full brunt of my grandfather’s overarching ambition: that his oldest son would become a medical doctor. If Briggy “made good,” my grandfather reasoned, they all would.
But this meant that my mother, Mary, would need to leave school after 8th grade and work at the Cluett Peabody factory, where she rose to the ellite 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 ‘20s and ‘30s, and besides her paid work, she would help with the housework and the care of the younger ones.
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 wrote, or ". . .introduce her to someone she might take a liking to."
Turns out it was my father to whom she took a liking, and whom she’d met 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’d run 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 of a radio to her is an old family story, because he’d never let go of it. It was “worth something,” he’d often say.
His arrival, as well as that of Briggy’s high-school sweetheart and then wife, Margaret, (they’d marry in ’35) would bring to the tight bond of brother and sister two more people who would offer lifelong support and care for each other. Their tie became a threesome with Margaret’s arrival in the ‘20s, and a foursome with my father’s a decade later.
In the album there’s a picture of the foursome 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 ‘40s, 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 them for as much vacation time as Ed could get. By later in the decade, they worried that Nicky was missing too much school and would leave him to stay with Mary and Ed in Troy for the winter.
My father bought his young 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 as they came of age during the War years of the ‘40s.
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 grads, 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, got her degree in math at a local college, and taught until her retirement at Troy High.
That left Chris and Care as the odd ones out, 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 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, by contrast, dropped out of school after—or possibly even before—8th grade, as many young people did in those days. There’s no record of his entering high school. Certainly no one was advocating for him to become a doctor, or providing the resources for that to happen. Unlike his younger brothers, he was too old to enlist when the World War II broke out.
It was as if he were Briggy’s inverse: “Making trouble,” his brothers and sister would say. 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, gravitated for a while to plumbing, knew how to wire a house. He then went to work at plant, and rose to become boss of the union local. Later, he rented out flats in properties throughout downtown Troy.