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Francavilla, Italy: It Takes A Village To Raise a Child

Antonio Fiumara 1939

Antonio Fiumara, 1939

On February 18, 1935, just one month short of his 20th birthday, my father left his hometown in Francavilla, Italy.  He hopped on a train to Naples.  From there he boarded a ship called the Rex.  His final destination was the United States of America.  He had one suitcase of clothes, the equivalent of forty dollars in cash and a small prayer card in his pocket.

As a child, he would watch the boats transporting travelers in the distant Mediterranean Sea.  The day of his journey, it was sunny and mild in Francavilla, located in Angitola, Calabria, in the southern part of Italy.  Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, his journey was cold and choppy, and he was seasick most of the time.

When he arrived at Pier 84 in New York, he was scared and homesick.  He did not speak English.  Someone on the streets of New York was giving out free samples of what appeared to be tiny chocolate bars.  In reality, it was a well-known chocolate flavored laxative.  Needless to say, accepting this tiny sample was not a positive experience.

His early days in New York were disappointing.  Distraught, he visited the Italian consul with the hope of returning to his native country.  A very compassionate stranger there told him, “Do not be foolish.  My son, wait.  You will get to love it here.”  And he did.

But he never forgot his hometown, which he often spoke about with tremendous affection.  His mother raised him.  But there were many people in his hometown that contributed to his upbringing and values.  He never forgot them.

He spoke about the parish priests who mentored him and helped to shape his values.  Early on, he learned the value of meditation and prayer.  Throughout his life, he claimed a sacred space to pray, reflect and offer thanks.  His faith carried him through the most difficult times in his 93 years of life.  Evidence of his deep faith was the prayer card he carried in his pocket across the Atlantic. He kept it with him until the day he died.

Then there were the aunts, uncles and friends in his hometown.  They kept their strong ties with family and friends.  If you needed them, they came.  You didn’t have to ask for help.  If a baby was born, they celebrated with you.  If someone died, they grieved with you.  If there was a wedding celebration, all living generations would share in the joyous event.

During his childhood, some accompanied him to a place he called “il giardino.”  This was a community garden where he learned to plant and nurture tiny seeds and watch how they slowly grow into fragile and beautiful living things, — very much like a child in a village.

The priests, aunts, uncles, friends and random people in the village filled a void in a child, and taught him how to pay it forward.  Years later, when my father was married and owned his own home, he sponsored some of his friends and family to come to America.  Often, the breadwinner in the family would arrive first to establish himself and then send for his family.

I remember many cold winter days in the 1950s that my father’s family came by boat, arriving in New York with our home as their first stop.  Sometimes, they would live with us until they were established.  Often, my father would recommend them for work at the factory where he worked.  They were always welcome at our dinner table.  I can only imagine how frightening it must be not speaking a word of English and not knowing anyone else on this side of the Atlantic. When he could, my father also generously remembered his church.  Maybe a small child in his hometown will benefit in some way.

As the old African proverb states, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”  How lucky my father was to grow up in Francavilla.  Antonio Fiumara would have been 100 years old in 2015.  Perhaps this story is more about 100 years of gratitude.  I have never been to Italy, but if there is one thing I want to do before I die, it is to visit my father’s hometown where it all began.

Pay it forward.  Rest in peace, papa.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2015. All Rights Reserved.


This morning, I was peering out my window with a cup of hazelnut decaf while watching a snow plow drive up and down the hilly roads in my complex, clearing the roads for the residents. While deciding to retire from my teaching job took quite a bit of contemplation, I smiled knowing I didn’t have to trek up to the college and deal with yet more winding, hilly and icy roads in its bucolic setting.

For many of us, there is a tug-of-war issue when it comes to retirement. Retire completely? Keep one foot in the door? I guess the issue is whether or not you truly love what you do. While I do miss teaching, writing, which is something I have done for quite some time, is an equal passion that keeps me satiated.

But there are many dimensions to retirement, and here are some reasons I am glad I am retired from a full-time job and the drudgery of commuting:

  1. Rediscover that sacred space called home. The other day, I woke up on a bone-chilling day and decided it was a day I wanted to make Tuscan White Bean and Spinach Soup. While my olfactory receptors took in the scent of sautéed fresh garlic mingling with carrots, carmelized onions, baby spinach and baby portabella mushrooms, I listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as the wicks of scented candles danced nearby.
  2. “Let’s Get Together Soon.” How many times do we say these words, but never get a chance to really meet friends and family? Life is short.  Somehow, the word gets out when you retire, and you really do get a chance to do lunch.  I never felt so popular as I do in retirement!  Let the fun begin.
  3. No Lines- When I was working, one of the things I dreaded most was stopping by the supermarket after work and waiting on a long “express” line just to get a quart of milk.  One of the greatest things about retirement is choosing what you do and when you do it.  I love going into a store and seeing the best of a cheery salesperson in the morning before all the grouchy customers change his or her mood.
  4. Senior Day Discounts-  On Wednesday it’s Mrs. Greens.  Sometimes stores such as Kohl’s, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts have senior specials, and you really have the time to experience them and use all the coupons you clipped.
  5. Morning Drudery-  I can take my time in the shower in the morning, I don’t have to worry about laying out clothes that look professional.  Although I like to look nice, if I feel like wearing gym clothes and just moisturizer, I can.  That’s liberating.
  6. V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N- As the old Connie Francis song goes, we all look forward to getting away and having fun.  No more asking your boss for time off!  This is the time of life as the Mamas and the Papas song goes to go where you want to go, do what you want to do!  Woohoo!
  7. Doctor Appointments- Let’s be honest.  As one friend put it, at this age we are “on maintenance.”  We NEED to pay closer attention to our health, and that is a good thing.  Sometimes we make the mistake when we are working of putting our health last.  Not good.
  8. Doing what you love- Visits to the library?  Joining a knitting club? Nature walks? Learning to swim? Photography?  Your time is yours, and the world is your playground.
  9. Discovering your inner child- Why do we take the world so seriously sometimes?  Who says we can’t still color in or outside the lines?  Fingerprint? Play hopscotch?  Ride a scooter?  Play catch?  Double dutch anyone?
  10. Grandchildren- See number nine.  My grandson gives me faith and hope in a weary world.  Getting on the floor and playing with him makes me remember there is still a lot of “girl” left in me.  Once you forget how to participate in childlike wonderment, that is when you grow old.  While I realize the need to grow, I refuse to grow old.  I see my grandson as a lifeline and pulse of what is to come.  That gives me faith in this weary world.

                          To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: …

                           Ecclesiastes 3:1-King James Version

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Let There Be Peace And Unity In America This Christmas, And Let It Begin With Me

The beauty of America is our diverse population.  We are lucky to share freedoms that allow us to express ourselves openly.  It would be a sad day in our existence if these freedoms were compromised.

However, we have developed this style of shouting each other down.  Nobody is listening to each other anymore, and there is this “either or mentality.”  Can’t we respect divergent viewpoints and respect our differences?  Can’t we value all human lives?

For instance, many Americans have become such staunch supporters of their political party it has become more about being a Democrat or Republican than first being an American.  Many newscasters who proclaim to be objective in reality have an agenda to promote a conservative or liberal stance.  Some distort the facts and even cause divisiveness in America by claiming their tainted and slanted views are facts.  This is a party war, and it has been aggravated by some less-than-ethical media coverage.  Equally, some politicians that represent us are far from an example of an open-ended communication style.  What message does this give our youth?  Shout each other down?  Disrespect, disregard and closing down are okay?

Then there is the argument this time of year about whether someone should say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.  While it is true that our forefathers were largely Christian, we must assume there are others who do not share the Christian religion.  Things change, and this is my America, your America and anyone who pledges allegiance to our Country.

I think it is important to understand though that when someone who is Christian says Merry Christmas, they are hopefully wishing the person merriment in a season that is joyful and celebrated with no offense intended to those who do not celebrate Christmas.  On the other hand, if you know someone isn’t of the Christian faith, shouldn’t you honor his/her faith with a generic greeting or one specific to his/her belief system?  If you insist in saying Merry Christmas to all, in my humble opinion you are guilty of imposing your faith on others and guilty of this “either or mentality.”

Last but not least, in recent months too many people have died innocently leaving their grieving and devastated families behind.  There will be no peace or joy for those families during this holiday season.  They will never see their loved ones again.  Their lives are changed forever.

There are good cops and bad cops.  There are good people and bad people of every color.  Yes, there are inequities in our society.  As a disabled woman, I have seen some of this firsthand.  Misunderstandings.  Miscommunications.  Assumptions.  A life should not be lost over a petty crime or because you wear a badge.  All lives matter.

Collectively, we are a people who believe in liberty and justice for all.  We must build up America, not tear it down.  Listen, not shout each other down.  Open our hearts and live by what is moral, ethical and just.

Our sense of unity and our ability to heal is what kept us going after 9/11.  Cops, firemen, black and white, young and old, conservative and liberal, –one nation under God and atheists.  Let’s embrace that.  Let there be unity and healing in the United States of America.

I refuse to be part of this “either or mentality” that doesn’t respect all humanity.  Let there be peace and unity in America, and let it begin with me.


Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Thanksgiving Italian Style: Early Lessons In Diversity and Sharing in West New Rochelle, NY


Near the Third Avenue Bridge in Harlem – Mary Grace Whalen


“Lasagna?” replied my daughter’s second-grade teacher.  This was in response to hearing her answer to the question, “What do we eat on Thanksgiving Day?”  Well, this is partly true, at least in my family.  We ate lasagna AND turkey.  But lasagna was always the superstar of the day.  As it might first appear, food is a huge part of Thanksgiving for all of us.  But it has taken me decades to decipher and realize what the day was really about and the lessons my parents taught us.

The day before Thanksgiving, my father would journey out from our home in West New Rochelle, NY to go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to hand pick huge tins brimming with fresh ricotta cheese, mozzarella, soppressata, anchovies, pecorino cheese, kalamata olives, stuffed green olives, chestnuts, figs, hazelnuts, filberts, loaves of warm Italian bread and other delectable yummies for the upcoming festivities.

It was the 1950s, and Santa Claus would arrive via helicopter shortly before Thanksgiving, landing in the parking lot of Arnold Constable, a local department store in my hometown.  The night before Thanksgiving, our mothers would take a break from their baking, ditch their aprons, and prepare to stand out in the freezing cold in their house dresses bundled up with their families to watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Children would be lifted above their parents’ shoulders to watch the marching bands and floats.  Finally, the man in the red suit himself would ride his “sleigh” on a float down Main Street, past the Mayflower Dress Shop, F.W. Woolworth’s, Bloomingdale’s and the thriving downtown amid waving and cheering children.

Thanksgiving morning, the aroma of all my mother’s baked goods would permeate the house.  The dining room table would display her labor of love, –mincemeat, pumpkin and apple pies, Italian ricotta cheesecake, strufoli (honey balls) and Italian cookies.  The local football game between New Rochelle High School and Iona Prep would be televised in the living room, family members switching channels intermittently to catch a bit of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Miracle on 34th Street.

For this was the official beginning of the Christmas season in my family.  My mother would pull out her poinsettia or “Christmas Bells” tablecloth.  Candy dishes would be filled with ribbon candy, candy canes, and foil-wrapped red and green chocolates.  What I didn’t get until years later was that it wasn’t about the food at all.

My mother was orphaned at 12 years old.  My father was raised by a single parent in Francavilla, Italy.  They understood about bringing everyone to their table, celebrating life every chance they could and sharing.  Often we would have so many people at our table, my mother would need to extend the table by rolling the kitchen table into the dining room to accommodate everyone.  We were a family of seven children, but there was always room for more neighbors, friends, and family.

Otto, a jovial German-born man with a Humpty-Dumpty frame and a penchant for astrology and numerology would often celebrate with us.  He was a co-worker of my father’s.  My father’s boss, Ernie, a Hungarian Jew, and his wife were often invited.  In the 1950s we had many Italian relatives who arrived from Italy knowing few people.  They were often guests at our table.  My father knew a few German phrases he learned from his long-time friendship with Otto.  He also knew a little Yiddish learned from working with Ernie.  It was interesting to hear the dialogue being exchanged in four languages in simple phrases or a native tongue across the table on Thanksgiving.

We always knew when the festivities were about to begin.  We would hear our mother say, “Scram! Everyone out of my kitchen now!”  Amid pots bubbling with vegetables preserved from my father’s garden, stuffing perfectly timed, a lasagna to die for, a turkey so huge it would put your back out for a week to lift and every inch of the oven occupied, you had better clear the pathway from the oven to the table because my mother meant business when she was ready to serve.  She would trek back and forth on the maroon and gray paisley linoleum from the oven to the table proudly displaying each of her own personal creations.

As we gathered, the simple unadorned chandelier would be lit.  My father uncorked a bottle of his homemade wine.  My mother’s “good” china with etchings of colonial women in long dresses promenading with men in powdered wigs was set.  We had glasses and silverware from S&H Green Stamps.  The feast was about to begin.  I thought we were rich. Maybe we were.

Plates would be filled, and if a guest cleaned their plate without asking for seconds, my father would ask, “What, you gave up?”  Before the guest could even respond, my mother would be scooping more food on their plate.  That’s Italian!  If my sisters and brothers or I left anything on our plates, my father would quickly remind us that there is someone in the world who was starving.  My sister Lucille always wanted the wishbone and loved to challenge someone to split it.  She always seemed to know how to win the challenge.

So, you might ask, how about an attitude of gratitude and giving thanks?  Our faith was the core of our values.  Sure, we gave cans of food at Thanksgiving.  We went to church and prayed.  We offered thanks for all we had, but my parents always had a soft spot for someone alone or who may have fallen on hard times ANY day of the year.

I remember in grade school, an African-American family that lived around the corner from us lost everything in a house fire.  The children in the family were approximately the same ages as my siblings and I.  When my mother heard of the fire, she woke us up early and instructed us to look through our clothes and give her anything that didn’t fit us anymore.  The clothes were quickly placed in boxes for the family.  So she got a message to the family, and they quickly accepted the offer.  My mother grew up during the depression era.  She often spoke of not owning a winter coat in her adolescent years.  I remember seeing one of the children that were a victim of the house fire on the playground wearing a gray and turquoise tweed dress coat that had been mine.  It never hit me until years later how that act of kindness must have impacted that family.

So when my father retired from his factory job, after 35 years and their children were grown and out of the house, my parents would go to the supermarket once a week and shop for groceries.  They would do one round of shopping for themselves and another round of dry and canned goods for a local soup kitchen.

This is what I remember about Thanksgiving, and I am grateful for these early lessons.  Happy Thanksgiving to you as you gather with your circle of family and friends who are family.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.


One of the greatest experiences of my life has been to be given the opportunity to teach college-level courses to young adults and returning adult learners.

I went to college late in life, at the age of 48 after working as a secretary for almost 30 years. Facing the blackboard for the first time in three decades was both scary and thrilling. It was scary because it had been a long time since I was in a classroom setting. I was returning to school with an FM system in hand due to a progressive hearing loss. It was thrilling because going to college was one of the greatest opportunities experienced in my lifetime. It helped me to view life through a wider lens. It also gave me the courage to believe I was up for the challenge as my world slowly became more silent.

After completing my M.S., I now had my back to the blackboard, facing a large classroom full of eager students. Never in my earlier life did I ever think I would be teaching.

For the last twelve years, I have taught students about James Joyce, Maya Angelou, Henry David Thoreau and many other great writers. Patiently, I have helped them navigate their way through MLA research methods. I have also had the honor of helping adult learners compile their portfolio for credit for life experience, understand learning theories and apply them through practice.

These students from adolescence to retirement age have seen me scout around the classroom with an FM system in hand pointing the microphone in the direction of the student speaking. I always told them on the first day of class to just think of me as a talk-show host. It was inspiring and heartwarming to see how supportive these young people and adult learners were of my hearing loss.

Over the years, many students in crisis reached out to me, and I was honored they entrusted their confidence in my judgment to direct them to resources that could assist them. I was also honored that years after being in my classroom many students continue to contact me just to say hello, or “Happy Thanksgiving” or “thanks for everything.”

We are so attuned to being conscious of the student in the classroom who may have special needs, but sometimes it is the instructor. But, I learned a lot from my students. One of the most profound moments for me was my experience with a young man who openly discussed his autism with the class. On the last day of class he waited until everyone left the classroom and he asked me, “What does it feel like to be deaf?” I was touched by his sensitivity.

My teaching experience has always been a very positive one. So, when I started to lose more of my hearing this past spring, it was a difficult question to ponder. Should I continue on in the classroom? Don’t get me wrong. Over the last 30 years, I have done headstands to assert my place in the workplace. But life changes.

One day, across the room I read the lips of a young man who without any intended malice lamented to a student next to him, “She can’t hear.” At that moment, I knew I had crossed a threshold, and my sense of integrity forced me to ask myself if it would be a disservice to the students to continue on if I was struggling to communicate with them.

Then there was the day we were discussing wellness in one of my classes. I thought a student said something about how wheat affects us. I went through this whole rant about gluten and how the students could research how wheat has been modified over the years. The student gently told me she wasn’t commenting on wheat, she was speaking about weed. Well so, there is a lighter side to these things sometimes. We all shared a laugh about that.

It is always hard to say goodbye to a good thing. But I’m glad I recognize when it is time to go. I have many warm and wonderful memories. In the classroom, I always tried to treat students the way I would want someone to treat my own children. Let them know you believe in them. Let them know it’s okay if they don’t understand something. None of us are perfect.

I think the kids thought I was cool because I was open about my hearing loss, and it was okay to be something less than perfect. Maybe too, they will remember me as someone who had her own struggles and made it to the finish line in her education and life goals. If that inspires them to continue on with their own roadblocks, something good has come out of my own personal loss. So the positive side of the coin is that I will have more time for another passion, writing. But I will surely miss them. MGW

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.