New Jersey Loses a Favorite Son: Ray Liotta

Today I saw a post that I thought at first was a hoax:

Ray Liotta Passes Away

Sadly, it was not a hoax. New Jersey has lost one of its favorite sons. It was announced Ray Liotta died in his sleep in the Dominican Republic while filming his next movie.

Born in Newark, Raymond Allen Liotta was abandoned at an orphanage after he was born. At six months, he was adopted. It was never hidden from him he was adopted and he actually brought his adoption papers in for “show and tell” in elementary school. He also had a sister growing up that was also adopted. He learned about 20 years ago he had one biological sister, one biological half-brother, and five biological half-sisters.

Liotta grew up in Union and graduated from Union High School in 1973. He attended Miami University and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1978. He then returned to his familiar surroundings, this time New York City, to begin his career.

Two Jersey boys; Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta
(source: GQ.com)

Of all Liotta’s roles, he will be forever remembered for his portrayal of Henry Hill in Goodfellas; what I regard as the top of heap when you consider all that makes up the mafia movie genre. I mean, there’s The Godfather, there’s Goodfellas, and then there’s everything else in my opinion. If you want to read an amazing interview about the movie, I highly recommend the 2010 GQ article about Goodfellas.

But no matter how famous he became, those of us from Jersey still claim him as one of our own. And tonight our hearts are broken that he was taken from us far too soon.

Rest easy Raymond. And thank you.

2022 New Jersey Goals

As the calendar turns and we move ahead to 2022, most people make resolutions for the new year. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of resolutions. They are usually all the same; lose weight, spend more time with the family, blah, blah, blah. While it may sound like semantics, I prefer to make goals.

According to Merriam-Webster, a goal is defined as, “the end toward which effort is directed.” A resolution (the third definition) is, “something that is resolved.” A goal is much more specific. A resolution is hardly exact.

Anyway…

My goal list here is specific to New Jersey. This is all about the effort I will direct to my own beloved state.

Search for Fossils

You may not realize it, but New Jersey offers a variety of opportunities to find fossils. Creatures that range from tiny cephalopods to huge wooly mammoths called New Jersey home. I have never found a fossil, but I will say I never really looked. My goal is to find one this year.

Hike the AT

No, I don’t expect to hide the entire Appalachian Trail, better known as the “AT.” I want to hike just the New Jersey portion of the Trail. The entire length of the AT traverses 14 states from Maine’s Mount Katahdin to Georgia’s Springer Mountain.

The New Jersey stretch of the Appalachian Trail is 74 miles long and begins at Abram S. Hewitt State Forest in the northern most point and runs west and south through Wawayanda State Park, High Point State Park, Stokes State Forest, ending at Worthington State Forest. Now, I do not expect, nor do I plan, to traverse the entire 74 miles in one clip. I will, however, develop a plan to break it down into several short single-day hikes. A great resource to help get started on this goal is the New York New Jersey Trail Conference. This special organization is powered by a great group of volunteers that build, maintain, and protect public trails.

Fish a New Stream for the Heritage Brook Trout

Long before I knew the brook trout was the state fish, it was always my favorite species. The colors are amazing and they put up a wonderful fight. I absolutely love to fly fish in a stream and listen to the water rush downstream as I stand in the river.

The downside, sadly, is the most popular rivers in New Jersey are very well known and generally over-fished. An added frustration for me is that I see plenty of anglers fishing aggressively without a proper license. I regularly encourage those anglers to purchase their license. I explain those license dollars are put right back into the resource. Unfortunately, those anglers usually walk away laughing. It is personally frustrating.

So I want to find a new stream for fishing. But not just any old stream. I want to find a stream that gives me the opportunity to fish for the Heritage Brook Trout. According a study on brook trout genetics, wild populations of brook trout have unique genetic identities. Some Garden State brook trout populations are descendants from the original brook trout colonizers present after the last glacial ice sheet receded more than 10,000 years ago. The existence of these ancestral populations, dubbed heritage brook trout, is important for conservation efforts of this native species (learn more about brook trout genetics by reviewing the original 2008 article).

Advocate for my State’s Open Spaces

Mount Hope Park, Morris County, New Jersey
Mount Hope Park, Morris County

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I am an advocate for the ecology and preservation of the Garden State’s open spaces. Places like the water that the heritage brook trout have liked for thousands of years are threatened on a daily basis due to pollution, encroachment, and other modern-day challenges. From protecting the red knot to attending Environmental Commission meetings on the local level, we all have a responsibility to make sure our natural resources are protected. I plan to continue to advocate and take a more active role to protect those special spots.

Attend Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart

In all my life, I am sad to say I have only attended mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, better known as Newark Cathedral, only once. If you have never been, it is a true piece of art built by the immigrants of Newark; many from the First Ward, the original Italian section of the city. Construction began in January 1898. While the Cathedral began holding mass in 1928, that labor of love was not completed until October 19, 1954. In 1974, the Cathedral was added to the New Jersey Historical Society. Two years later, it gained national recognition when it was listed as a National Historic Site.

On Wednesday, October 4, 1995, Pope John Paul II visited the United States. During the visit, Pope John Paul II conferred the title of Minor Basilica to Sacred Heart Cathedral, giving it its current name, Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart. I attended mass at the Cathedral the following Sunday.

This year I will attend mass at least once and sit in prayer and reflection, knowing the history and exceptional effort and craftsmanship that built that wonderfully artistic home of faith.

Head Back Down the Shore

The S. S. Atlantus, also known as the “concrete ship,” at Sunset Beach, Cape May

If you are from Jersey, you know that trek down the Garden State Parkway is known as “going down the shore.” It has been two years since my husband and I smelled the sea air or walked on a beach. It renews my soul and clears my mind. One of my favorite spots is Sunset Beach in Cape May. I love digging for Cape May diamonds and walking on the shoreline turning horseshoe crabs upright. After the last two years, I say it is important to head down the shore to replenish my soul.

Visit the Pine Barrens

The New Jersey Pine Barrens, also known as the Pinelands, is the largest remaining example of the Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecosystem. It stretches across seven counties and is over 1.1 million acres. In 1978, Congress created the Pinelands National Reserve (PNR) through the passage of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978. The Pinelands National Reserve is the first National Reserve in the United States. It is also home to the elusive Jersey Devil.

I am ashamed to admit, but this is another part of the state I have yet to experience in a meaningful way. I would like to plan a hike in the Pine Barrens and maybe get some fly fishing in as well!

Shoot More Film

A large majority of my hobbies are quite analog. I fly fish and tie flies. I crochet, spin yarn, felt, and weave. I really enjoy Geocaching. I also enjoy film photography. I regularly listen to a podcast called the Film Photography Project hosted by two guys from Jersey. Their entire gang of regular guests and commentators offer great advice for photographers at every level. Over the last two years, I have developed a terrible case of GAS (otherwise known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and am now the proud owner of a variety of film cameras. I plan to get out more and use them. With all my planned outings, I should have some wonderful opportunities to shoot more film!

Be Happy

Most importantly, I want to be happy. The last two years have been hard on all of us. For the most part we have been stuck in our homes. Maybe you lost your job, or worse, even lost a loved one. I shared the story of someone very dear to my husband and me, Dr. Michael Giuliano, who lost his life to the Coronavirus early in the pandemic when he continued to treat patients despite the risks.

It is time for all of us to get outside and enjoy the fresh air and see our loved ones. New Jersey is a wonderful state and we are lucky to have so many different ways to enjoy it. So, get out and take a hike, go grab a ripper at Rutt’s Hut, or take a ride down the shore. Get back to living and be happy.

St. Lucy’s Loses a Giant

In the past I have written about a long-time giant at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark, NJ, Monsignor Joseph Granato. He served the parishioners of St. Lucy’s for 54 years; his entire time of service. I am sad to report the Monsignor went home to the Lord a few days ago.

Monsignor Joseph J. Granato

Born in New York, then Joseph Granato, moved with his family to Newark in his infancy. He attended Sacred Heart Cathedral Grammar School in Newark and graduated in 1943. He then attended Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, also in Newark, and graduated in 1947. When he entered the seminary, he once again stayed local, attending Seton Hall University and Immaculate Conception Seminary.

Upon Ordination Father Granato was assigned as an assistant to Rev. Gaetano Ruggiero, Pastor of St. Lucy’s Church, Newark in June of 1955. Upon Father Ruggiero’s death, Father Granato was named Administrator to St. Lucy’s in 1971 and was named Pastor in 1977. In 1979, Pope John Paul II bestowed the sacred honor of being named Monsignor. Instead of taking credit for this great honor, he gave credit to the people of St. Lucy’s.

Monsignor Granato remained Pastor of St. Lucy’s until his retirement in 2009.

As I have said in the past, the Monsignor bordered on rock star status at St. Lucy’s. He was a kind man who kept his flock always in the forefront of his mind. But he was far more than a simple parish priest. He was a civic leader and advocate for the First Ward his entire life. He fought back when the First Ward was labeled a “slum” and attempted, sadly to no avail, to prevent the bulldozing of almost the entire original First Ward and replace it with low-income housing, displacing tens of thousands of Italian immigrants. This project of the city resulted in Italian immigrants leaving Newark and turning the area into a level of urban blight, the likes had never been seen before. Suddenly going to St. Lucy’s was a dangerous gamble. Still, Monsignor Granato persevered.

In 1994, the housing projects were imploded. Monsignor Granato led the charge to acquire the land across from St. Lucy’s in order to develop an Italianate Plaza. Additionally, he supported the construction of Villa Victoria Senior Citizens Residence and the subsidized low-rise family housing across from the rectory.

Monsignor Granato championed the continued century old devotion of the Italian immigrant population to St. Gerard, Patron of Motherhood, with the declaration of St. Gerard’s Chapel a National Shrine in 1977.

Thank you Monsignor Granato for your unwavering dedication to St. Lucy’s, her parishioners, the First Ward, and the tens of thousands of Italian immigrants, and their families, your have counseled over the decades. God has certainly gained a loyal servant.

Paterson’s and Newark’s West Side

When you’re a Jet, You’re a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette, To your last dyin’ day.

My favorite Broadway show, hands down, is West Side Story. The show that put Stephen Sondheim on the map has transcended time. I remember watching the movie for the first time in middle school during general music class. The music has been ingrained in my head ever since. My husband and I had the song “One Hand, One Heart” sung during the candle lighting ceremony as part of our wedding mass.

A few years ago Steven Spielberg decided to take on the monumental task of remaking West Side Story. It is set for mass release this upcoming weekend. Obviously I haven’t seen it yet, so I am reserving judgement, but needless to say the bar is quite high.

Paterson as late 1950s NYC (Credit: Aristide Economopoulos, nj.com)

What I am excited about is the movie’s filming locations. Nope, it wasn’t filmed on the “West Side.” It was filmed in Paterson and Newark, New Jersey. Yes, Spielberg decided to film his remake of this monumental piece of art in The Garden State.

Spielberg’s team transformed several blocks of downtown Paterson into late-1950s New York City. From half-torn-down buildings to altered storefronts, the team was meticulous.

Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise directed original film adaptation of the Broadway show, which was released in 1961 and went on to win 10 Oscars, including best picture.

Production then moved on to Newark at 744 Broad Street, which was made to look like Bamberger’s. I regularly heard about shopping trips to that store from family members. Sadly, the real Bamberger’s closed in 1986. The department store chain’s flagship store opened on Market Street in Newark in 1912 and eventually spanned an entire block.

The topper to all these Jersey connections is Rachel Zegler. This Clifton native is playing the role of Maria. I’ve seen a few of the short videos that have been released so far online and her voice is absolutely spectacular. I am sure she will make Jersey proud!

Like I said, I’m reserving judgement on the entire production until I see it. I hope Spielberg did not stray too far from the original show. I am sure, however, that Jersey will be positively represented.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: St. Lucy’s Church

If someone asked me what is the most important location associated with Italian heritage in New Jersey, I would say without hesitation St. Lucy’s Church.

Since its cornerstone was placed in 1891, St. Lucy’s Church in Newark has been a source of pride and devotion for the millions of Italian immigrants and the generations that followed. In 1998, St. Lucy’s Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The parish namesake, Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia), martyred in Sicily in third-century is the patroness of those afflicted with diseases of the eyes.

St. Lucy’s Church is the home of the National Shrine of St. Gerard. Every October, tens of thousands of the faithful flock to pay homage to St. Gerard. St. Gerard Maiella of Avellino was born on April 6, 1726. He was the only son of Benedetta and Comenico Maiella. Because of his frail health he was not immediately accepted into the Order but, due to his insistence and persistence he was finally accepted in May of 1749 and became a lay brother of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. St. Gerard passed away on October 16, 1755. In 1977, St. Gerard’s chapel in St. Lucy’s Church was dedicated as a national shrine. While it was never made official, he is considered by many to be the Patron Saint of Mothers.

The third pastor, Msgr. Joseph Granato, served the parish with dedication and faith in God’s providence for 54 years, until June 2009. For those of us who have met Msgr. Granato, he borders on rock star status. His dedication to St. Lucy’s and the community has earned him a spot on many prayer lists of families of the parish.

At its height, over 30,000 Italian immigrants lived in the one square mile around the church, known as the First Ward. For over 80 years, that neighborhood thrived and supported their beloved church. Sadly, the neighborhood came to its end in the post-World War II period. The main factor causing the disintegration of the neighborhood came in 1953 thanks to developers and the city government. They forced people give up their homes and move against their will, bulldozing in days what took over eight decades to build. City officials often referred to the First Ward as a “slum.” The Newark Housing Authority claimed its rebuilding efforts would slow or reverse the population shift to the suburbs, however, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Approximately 15 percent of First Ward residents left the city for good (including my family) the moment they were displaced. More than half the businesses in the clearance zone ceased to exist. Those homes were replaced with large buildings providing low-income housing. As the years continued, they were a great source of crime and an example of all that was wrong with Newark. Unfortunately, the damage was done at the point. The First Ward was destroyed and one of the most vibrant Italian communities in the country was history. All in the name of progress.

People with a connection to the area, and St. Lucy’s specifically, still return regularly for church. I am the fourth generation of my family that returns to St. Lucy’s every October for the Feast of St. Gerard. It is one of only two churches in the entire state where I feel truly at peace and able to prayerfully reflect and enjoy the silence.

I tell everyone I know, if you have never visited St. Lucy’s, take the time to visit this amazing church full of beautiful art and history, as well as a strong connection to the Italian community of New Jersey.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Joseph Rotunda

Many of us have passed by Rotunda Pool in Newark on our way to St. Lucy’s Church or coming out of Branch Brook Park and have not given it a second thought. It is, however, an important location in the community and New Jersey Italian heritage.

The Rotunda Pool plaque
Source: Newark Historical Society

Rotunda Pool is named after Private Joseph Ralph Rotunda Jr., the first soldier from Newark’s Italian-American community to die in World War II. The dedication of this pool stands a testament to his sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices of the countless Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian decent that fought on behalf of their new homeland. The official renaming from Clifton Pool to Rotunda Pool took place in 1966.

By the early twentieth-century, approximately 21,000 Italian immigrants made Newark the fifth largest Italian-American community in the country.

Private Rotunda was killed by a land mine while serving with Cannon Company, 168th Infantry, in Tunisia, Northern Africa, as part of the first invasion forces. He had only been overseas for three months. A letter to the family from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, dated June 9, 1943, informed the family that their son was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

On June 16, 1943, the Newark Evening News reported on an announcement from the War Department which listed the death of Private Joseph R. Rotunda, Jr. as one of four soldiers from New Jersey to lose their lives in combat. In total 229 U.S. soldiers were reported killed in action in North Africa and 630 more wounded, 11 of whom were from New Jersey.

In February 1944, after seeking permission from Joseph Rotunda, Sr., officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) designated the Pvt. Joseph R. Rotunda Jr. Post (No. 848) in honor of the “first soldier from the First Ward to be killed in action in this war.” This post became the ninth V.F.W. unit in Newark.

So next time you ride past Rotunda pool, maybe take a moment and bow your head or tip your cap to the memory of Private Rotunda.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Connie Francis

When I thought about who I should highlight first this year during Italian Heritage Month, I wanted to go with a local hero. Yes, she is a favorite daughter of New Jersey, but she is also a favorite daughter of my hometown, Belleville.

Connie Francis, 1961; Credit: ABC Television, under Creative Commons License

Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, known professionally as Connie Francis, was born into an Italian-American family in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. She attended Arts High in Newark for two years before attending Belleville High School, where she graduated as salutatorian from BHS Class of 1955. The high school auditorium is now named in her honor. Additionally, “Connie Francis Way” can be found at the corner of Greylock Parkway and Forest Street in Belleville, near the house in which she grew up.

Students sitting in that auditorium today may not know the importance of Concetta Franconero to our “Beautiful Village,” but those of us of a certain age certainly do. Early in her career, Arthur Godfrey made two recommendations to her. First that she drop the use of her accordion in her act. Second, that she change her name from Concetta Franconero changed her name to Connie Francis “for the sake of easier pronunciation.” So she officially became Connie Francis to the world.

Her life has been full of triumph and tragedy. She’s had many top songs we all know and love. I am particularly fond of Where the Boys Are and her rendition of Mama. She also acted in several movies during her young career. In the late 1960s, Francis went to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Through the years, she has performed charity work for organizations such as UNICEF, the USO and CARE.

Deep sadness struck her life several times, unfortunately. The first time was in Westbury, New York, following a performance at the Westbury Music Fair. Francis was the victim of a brutal rape and robbery after an intruder broke into her hotel room and held her at knifepoint. She nearly suffocated under the weight of a heavy mattress the culprit had thrown upon her. Her attacker was never caught.

In 1977, Francis underwent nasal surgery and completely lost her voice. She went through three more operations to regain her singing voice, but it took four more years to regain that lovely voice of hers.

In 1981, further tragedy struck Francis when her brother, George Franconero, Jr., with whom she was very close, was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Franconero, who had twice given law enforcement officials information concerning alleged organized-crime activities, was fatally shot outside his home in North Caldwell.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appointed her as head of his task force on violent crime. She has also been the spokeswoman for Mental Health America’s trauma campaign. She worked hard to turn her personal tragedy into a story of triumph and inspiration for others.

In 1984, Francis published her autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now?, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Francis continued to perform and record and prove what Belleville and Jersey tough means. That’s why I felt she deserved to be the first person I honored during this year’s Italian Heritage Month.

October is Italian Heritage Month

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I am a proud New Jerseyan. I am also very proud of my Italian heritage. October in Italian Heritage Month and as I do each year, I plan on writing about New Jerseyans of Italian heritage that have made a significant impact on our state or our country.

Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have a unique history all our own. More than 1.45 million residents of New Jersey reported having Italian heritage according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The town of Fairfield is home to the most residents with Italian heritage in the United States. Seven of the top 20 towns in the United States with the most residents of Italian ancestry are right here in the Garden State.

The great migration from Italy took place between 1880 and 1914; a total of 13 million Italians came to America and made it home.

At its height, Seventh Avenue in Newark was one of the largest Little Italies in the United States with a population of over 30,000 within one square mile. The center of that neighborhood was St. Lucy’s Church, built by Italian immigrants in 1891. St. Lucy’s holds the National Shrine to St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers.

That’s where the story of my family begins. The First Ward of Newark.

Like the countless other Italians that came to America, they came to build a better life for their family and future generations. They worked hard, many changed their names to sound American, they learned English, and became citizens. My Uncles joined the military along with the 1.5 million other Italian Americans during World War II, making up 10% of the total fighting force, eager to prove their loyalty to their new home country. While they were off fighting against their homeland, however, tens of thousands of Italian immigrants in America were subject to curfews, forced from their homes, and lived in military camps without trials. They were considered Enemy Aliens.

These Italian immigrants came to America looking for a new home and were ready to prove themselves as good Americans and work. Unfortunately, they weren’t always able to find it. “Italians need not apply” was a common theme. We were looked down upon, no matter where we went in the country.

The lynching of eleven Sicilians in New Orleans in 1891 was the largest and most outrageous mass lynching in United States history. The lynchings took place on March 14, 1891. New Orleans Police Superintendent, David Hennessy was gunned down in October 1890. As he gasped his last breath, he supposedly uttered, “The dagos did it.” Officials quickly arrested numerous area Italian immigrants and attributed the slaying to “Mafia activity.” After a public meeting where people called the Italians “not quite white,” a mob gathered shouting “Hang the dagos!!” To avenge the murder of a popular police superintendent, unrestrained mobs went into the city jail and beat, clubbed, and fatally shot eleven Italian prisoners.

Dago. WOP. Guinea. Ginzo. Goombah. Just a handful of the names Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have been called over the years. Each of which gets a giant eyeroll from me. They are meant to hurt. They only hurt if you let them. I remember hearing a story from my Aunt who said when they moved into a new neighborhood, a neighbor approached her mother (my Grandmother) and asked if they would be going to “our church,” to remind them they were outsiders. Without missing a beat, my Grandfather said “I though it was God’s church.”

From name calling, to lynchings, to being considered enemies of the state, to the stereotype that all Americans of Italian descent are “connected,” I say… whatever.

Let me tell you what it means to me.

Being an American of Italian descent is never forgetting where you came from and honoring it every day. It is about faith and family. It is recognizing our ethnicity is that last one it is “allowed” to be made fun of and not letting it bother us. Ours is a history of food, culture, art, and music that should be celebrated.

I am a New Jerseyan. I am an American. I am of Italian heritage. I hope you go on this historical journey on me for the next month.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Rose Fieramosca

You’ve probably never heard of today’s New Jerseyan of Italian heritage. She wasn’t famous, or rich, or any of the other things most would people consider noteworthy. She was a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, an aunt, a great cook, and a devout Catholic. She was my Grandmother – Rosina Fucetola Fieramosca.

Like many of my friends growing up, I grew up in a multi-generational household. I had no idea if this was unusual or special; it’s just the way it was. My immediate family was downstairs. Upstairs was my “extended family,” although I never knew such a word existed growing up. It was just “family.” Upstairs were my Grandparents and my Uncle Sonny. Sadly, my Grandpa passed away when I was very young, so it was always my Grandma and my Uncle – her eldest son. There were there for every day of my life, until the moment each of them passed away at home.

Rose Fucetola was born in Newark, New Jersey on October 21, 1905, the daughter of Lucia and Gabriel. She married her one and only love, Pasquale Fieramosca, on November 8, 1922. Over her lifetime, she had five children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Me with my Grandma (left) and my Aunt Anna (right) at my wedding in 1994.

I don’t know if I really ever thought about it at the time, but it was an incredibly special way to live. Sunday dinners with the family upstairs. Dinner downstairs during the week, including Grandma and Uncle Sonny. If you were sick, she would make you pastina. If you were hungry, she would heat up leftover meatballs from Sunday. After spilling wine on a white top once, she was the only one who could make it look like it was brand new. Dying house plant? Bring it to Grandma. It would magically come back to life. When I made my Confirmation, I took the name “Rose” for her and my Sponsor – my cousin Rosanne.

In the late 90s, the book Newark’s Little Italy: The Vanished First Ward by Michael Immerso was published. If you ever wondered what it was to grow up in an Italian household in New Jersey, this book provides the perfect description. I took her to the Barnes and Noble on Rt. 46 in Little Falls for a lecture by the author. We arrived early so she could sit up front and make sure she heard everything. After his talk, people had the opportunity to ask questions. Whenever he didn’t know something, she would whisper the answer to him. He finally laughed and said “I’m being coached.” She had a memory that didn’t quit. At the end of the evening the line for attendees to speak with my Grandma was longer than the line to meet the author. It was a wonderful evening.

She was not just a woman proud of her heritage; she was a proud American. In my entire lifetime, I can only think of a handful of times I heard her speak Italian, even though she was completely fluent. When I was a child I would bring Italian books home from the library and beg her to read them to me and teach me. Her answer was always the same, “you are an American and you speak English.” She believed in the great American experiment. I remember her telling me of stories of singing patriotic songs during WWII and flying American flags.

Finally, she was a woman of faith and made sure we were all instilled with that same faith. When she wasn’t able to go to mass any longer, I became a Eucharistic Minister so I could bring her communion.

Today is her 115th birthday. And while it is ridiculous to believe so, I wish she was still here with her family that loves her. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her.

This probably sounds like a typical life of someone who is far from noteworthy. However, I promise you, noteworthy is exactly what she was.. and still is.