RIP JFK: A Half-Century Later, Johnny, We Hardly New You


The soft autumn dusk draped the city. Blocks from the Duomo in Tuscany's capital, I drank tea with a friend in Florence's Torricelli Café. Suddenly, the third member of our Junior Year Abroad trio bounded into the tearoom, breathless and teary. Leaning on our table to steady herself she blurted out, "The President's dead!"

That is how I learned that John F. Kennedy, prince of the Camelot America longed for, had been taken away by an assassin's bullet that instantly sent him into history.

On November 22, 1963, American students in Italy (for a year designed to shape our lives) stammered, wept, and held tight to each other, trying to stay grounded. A cocktail of emotions sped to our heads and our hearts, blurring the lines where grief began and shock ended; where fear started and overwhelming loss took control.

In those days before instant news, cell phones and internet connections, we made our way to Florence's main train station in Piazza Santa Maria Novella, hoping to find the Herald Tribune and details on our nightmare. Florentine pedestrians approached us to express condolences, as if we were Kennedy intimates. Many wept with us.

Florence then, as now, is a sophisticated capital of art and elegance. Its residents have been politically discrete and emotionally controlled for centuries. Tuscans are proud and reluctant to invade the emotional space of outsiders. Yet, on that cool fall night when Oswald's shot reverberated around the world, Americans clung to the comfort Florence offered-- its natives, like us, devastated by the loss of a young president who had personified hope for the future.

We were paralyzed in a dark and terrifying political void, missing the comfort of Kennedy's steadying presence-- a paralysis many of us still feel, a half-century later.



Highland Beach Memories : When Life was Beautiful

Warwick’s Highland Beach epitomized the wholesome side of 1950’s America. Stay-at-home Moms devoted themselves to their families in airy homes with all the latest gadgets and comforts. Their husbands provided enough income for almost every want to be met and we children suspected even then that we were experiencing close-to-perfect childhoods.
Highland Beach came alive each summer on the bay front just north of Rocky Point. Our house on Burnett Road had a lawn about 30 feet deep that ended at a sea wall with steps bringing swimmers directly into the bay. A year-round garrison it had a sweeping porch facing Barrington’s Rumstick Point across the water. Similar homes stretched along the beach toward Longmeadow to our north, most occupied by families eager to enjoy a summer retreat. There were few year-rounders.
The mainly Italian-American residents had names like Pari, Zinno, Radoccia, Isacco, D’Arezzo, and Palmisciano forming one huge summer clan.  On beach days, children knew that if their own mothers were home cleaning or baking, the mothers with us were our overseers. We understood that we answered to and could be scolded by all and any of them. This insured against sassiness and, conversely, only added to our sense of well-being as we stared adulthood in the eye.
Our fathers returned each evening, weary from the hour-long drive from the hot city before Rt. 95. After a quick swim, they dined on the porch with the family. My mother often served pasta with littlenecks: she was a champion quahauger able to harvest dozens from the murky bay bottom in minutes. As summer waned, the sweetest corn from Morris Farms hit the table. For dessert there were sliced peaches in red wine. There was no rush to watch Fox news: better, there was no Fox news.
Offspring of hard-working immigrants, we were living the American dream and we knew it. Yet the traditions of our roots lived on.  Mothers swam on the feast of St. Ann (July 26) when that saint-- the mother of Mary and patron of mothers, grandmothers, homemakers and housewives-- traditionally bestowed blessings on the bather. I don’t remember any openly feminist women in the Highland Beach of my childhood, though I feel certain some there must have been planting those seeds, however subtly.
Newborns were baptized at St. Benedict’s Church in Conimicut where the dead were also remembered, and after-Mass feasts always included the traditional pastas, roasts and cakes our grandmothers had served. Even “hot dog roasts” relied heavily on Italian sausages lovingly brought to the beach house from the city’s Charles Street, Federal Hill or Silver Lake neighborhood shops by our commuting Dads. Fried zucchini flowers spilled off heaping platters, and homemade wine always materialized.
For us children it was paradise, with guardian angels around every corner. When I fell out of a tree at Carol Radoccia’s tenth birthday party, a host of Moms were at my side in seconds spewing ice cubes and comfort. On torrid days when none of us wanted to come out of the water, someone’s Mom would appear beachside with sandwiches and watermelon slices for whoever needed them. Elders who didn’t want us to understand what they were saying, would slip into the Neapolitan dialects of their parents. Drug problems and infidelities were never discussed in any language: In Washington, Senators McCarthy and Kefauver were busy taking care of anything that might be wrong with America.
Highland Beach was the place where most of us experienced our first cigarette, our first kiss and our first death. When, at sixteen, one beloved son died of Mediterranean anemia-- an affliction most of our parents had never heard of—he was waked, buried, mourned and remembered in the traditional ways which insured that, even now—a half-century later—his name still echoes in our hearts.
Highland Beach was the hothouse for the ethic which still lives in all who spent summers there.  In the stillness of late summer mornings, from my bed,  miles and a lifetime away from my room on Burnett Road, I sometimes still strain to hear the quahaugers’ voices being carried ashore on gentle low-tide waves.  And sometimes, I think I still hear my Mom downstairs in the kitchen baking a mulberry crostata with fruit from her neighbor’s bayside garden.
Having returned many times to my father’s and grandfathers’ beloved island of Ischia in Italy’s Mediterranean, I appreciate why my Dad loved Highland Beach so much, and can still hear him whispering-- as he often did, relishing HIS Highland Beach-- “Che meraviglia!”  (“What a marvel!”)
And that it was.               

                                                     Winter visit to Highland Beach, circa 1946 

This piece originally was published in the Providence Journal 8-4-2013


Most of life’s truths are best learned at the hearth. In my case, two women with limited education provided a masters’ level home school in practicality, determination and tolerance.
Lu helped my Mom, Lily, with the housework. A black woman from Providence’s Lippitt Hill ghetto before gentrification, Lu would wait on a corner near the famed Celebrity Club to ride with Lily to our home in Mt. Pleasant. A day of serious housecleaning awaited.
Lily wore a housedress: Lu would be turned out in high heels, nylons, freshly-pressed suit, handbag and, sometimes, a hat. Lily often observed, “If we get stopped by a cop, you’ll look like the lady of the house and I’ll look like the cleaning lady!” At our house, Lu would change into her cleaning clothes, returning to her more fashionable duds later for the ride home.
Midway through vacuum cleaners humming and flipped mattresses we’d stop for lunch. Later, while Lily washed dishes at the pantry sink Lu routinely placed her plate and silverware in a separate pile on the counter. Exasperated, Lily would add them dramatically to the dishpan containing our dishes exclaiming, “Lu, they all get washed together!”
I was in elementary school, far from appreciating the lesson in this exchange between two women bound by a mutual affection and respect. Lily never marched in Selma, but she understood-- and taught by example--  everything a kid needed to know about acceptance and equality.
My Mom left school as an adolescent to work in Brier’s jewelry factory in Providence. Lu, still separate and unequal in those days, cleaned homes to care for and educate her only daughter. I was receiving valuable lessons from two teachers who didn’t even know they were teaching!
Every summer, Lu would take the bus from the Outlet downtown to our beach house. Lily would wait at the Grove Fire Station in Warwick’s Longmeadow, and they’d drive home together-- same housedress, same white summer suit and high heels, same dishes in the dishpan, same affection, respect and life lessons.
Lu told stories about growing up black in pre-war Providence, “the Mobile of the North.” She had dreamed of being a gloved elevator operator in Gladdings but never reached that highest level of achievement for too many women like her. Bitterness in check and determination at full throttle, she worked hard, loved people and invested in her daughter’s dreams instead. She learned to rise above ignorance and told me to do the same and, mostly, to “…do what you gotta do!”
Lily, meanwhile, became my idol (though, like most daughters, I only fully appreciated her greatness later.) She survived a mid-life widowhood by returning to the only job she knew-- jewelry press work. She, too, was investing in her daughter and her determination matched Lu’s. I did my evening homework while Lily studied in the next room with a tutor she’d hired—to replace the teachers she’d never had.
I have often thought that Mao’s little book of quotes could be outclassed by a “Book of Lily.” When Jewish friends complained about parents discouraging dates with gentiles, I curiously asked her view on interfaith marriage.  “You can even marry a Turk…” she replied, “you’re the one who’ll live with him!” (Why she singled out Turks remains a mystery. I imagine it was because it would have been harder to find one in Providence in those days.) A query on the probability of “the one true religion” being marketed by my nuns at school prompted, “No one ever came back from the other side to say which church is the real one. Just be a good person!”
What amazingly clear perspective expressed in language no one could misunderstand!
Years later, Lu was in elder housing in Providence and would come shopping downtown in the facility’s van.  Her degreed daughter was now supporting her. One day, returning to my office on Westminster Mall, I spotted Lu, ran to her and squeezed her as hard as she squeezed me.  Tears flowed and she turned to her friend and said, “This is my little girl that you saw on the television. I brought her up!”
And in a very important way, she had.
I lost my Mom in 1978: I celebrate being her daughter every day. With Lily’s faithful nurturing and Lu’s loving pruning, I grew to survive and thrive in a male-dominated, sometimes-challenging world. Like the dishes in the dishpan—these two diverse influences kept me on one straight path, with clear markers that urged, “Stay strong!” “Be fair!” and “Just keep going!”
I’ve tried because I wanted to make them proud.

(This piece was originally published in the Providence Journal 9-8-2013)


Billet Doux for Boston (Which Prefers That to a Hug)

Much has been written and said about the city of Boston in these stunning days since the marathon bombing— mostly by media strangers who know the city from a distance, if at all.

I not only lived in Boston for years, but I was the manager of the Emergency Room of the then “Peter Bent Brigham Hospital” (now Brigham and Women’s) then and always a great medical center tied to Harvard’s Medical School. So I remember the disaster drills as well as the real disasters that sometimes blasted through the ER doors: I remember particularly the first explosion victim I saw. In his case, most of his skin was blasted off exposing him to all the bleeding, pain and infection such a trauma would deliver. Once stabilized in the ER he was sent upstairs to the House, but all the great skills beneath the Brigham’s roof could not save this quiet and dignified victim.

I was a young woman then, yet the image of that sweet, hurting man is as clear in my grandmother memory as it was all those years ago. So Boston’s recent traumatic events are clear in my imagination as well, and the idea of so many trained and healthy bodies being ripped apart on Boylston Street in broad daylight is difficult to process.

In many ways, the Boylston/Copley area personifies Boston. It is elegant, reserved, in the center of the action, intellectual, proud of its roots, and, yes, not as much welcoming as it is tolerant of outsiders.

Boston is not hip. It is not the Big Apple and does not aspire to be. It is not a tough broad as much as it is a dignified matron still alert, savvy, professional, and only reservedly available to strangers. All of this means that an attack on the city at its core wounds deeply not only because of the obvious terror, destruction, death and maiming involved, but also because the privacy of this city which revels in its unique clannishness has been violated.

The boundaries of Boston society have been stretched over the centuries. Where once Boston Brahmans held unchallenged sway and racists like Louise Day Hicks warred to keep minorities in their place, an admirable integration and cooperation among its many groups of citizens is all but seamless today. The historic North End once the exclusive home of Boston’s Italian-American community now houses students and families from around the world. Where in my youth shops sold fresh mozzarella, and restaurants served exclusively Italian foods, delicacies from Eastern Europe, Asia and beyond are readily available. Even Southie, the last bastion of Irish-American isolationism has accepted and even embraced its newer neighbors with roots as far as hemispheres away from the Blarney Stone or Fenway Park.

This more recent blending of the color lines in the rainbow over Boston does not mean ethnic pride is dead, any more than it has disappeared from any of America’s great cities. But like New York after 9/11 or Oklahoma City after its dark inauguration of America’s terrorist era, those who attack us will see only an instant and unbreakable cohesion of all who pride themselves as Bostonians, wherever their roots.

The tens of thousands who run-- and 160 times before this bombing have run--  toward the finish line of the annual Patriots’ Day marathon are Boston. They have many faces and speak many languages. Their children may worship different gods, celebrate diverse feasts and embrace assorted political beliefs, but this is Boston-- where even differences are viewed with a kind of reserved dignity because privacy reigns.

Long after the TV satellite vans leave Copley Square for the next news story, Boston will still be coping—quietly, efficiently and admirably. In its very long historic memory, this devastating moment will be nurtured by Bostonians as they still nurture the plants in Boylston Street’s Victory Gardens to remind them of the wars and hard times they survived in the past. And the ultimate meting out of justice in this great matron of a city will probably not be brash or even bloody. But it will come.

When it does, it will typically showcase the contained satisfaction or a varied yet united population quietly celebrating the eventual day when those who violated their beloved capital city will be brought to their knees—not with a sword, but with the steely gaze Bostonians know how to give to those who simply do not belong in their dignified and justice-loving midst.

Until that day comes, Bostonians will just keep on loving and aiding their city and its newly wounded, each in his or her own private way.

Mary Ann Sorrentino

Mary Ann Sorrentino
Italy Series of articles runs Aug./Sept/Oct 2015

Hope for the Future: Uruguay 2007

Hope for the Future: Uruguay 2007
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Hillsboro Beach, FL/ Cranston, RI, United States

"JOACHIM" - Oct. '92-March '08

"JOACHIM"  - Oct. '92-March '08
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