No Guts, No Glory

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My late husband used to wear his heart on his sleeve but kept his colors, green, white and orange, close to his heart. Sure he was an Irishman through and through and although he did celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as a young man, as he grew older and wiser he took a more sober approach.

Nothing pleased him more than a good party among friends and family. And the best loved, best attended party on the West Side was at the McNamara’s. Year in and year out, in a little house that seemed to have elastic walls, the Macs played host to hundreds of people of all ages including some of Cleveland’s finest first responders.

In 2015 Jimmy couldn’t attend the party personally but he called in to the house and they played the bag pipes for him over the phone. It really lifted his spirits.

At every party children would scamper between the adults, the old Irish immigrants would sing rebel songs, those who knew how to step dance would do a jig or a reel. And even those who didn’t  made an attempt. Steaming trays of corned beef and cabbage rolled out of the kitchen in abundance. Strangers were made welcome as is the Irish custom and old friends caught up.

Needless to say the beer flowed like a fountain. And the drink of choice was always Pabst Blue Ribbon. Sorry Great Lakes. For the designated drivers there was Barry’s or Lyon’s tea and scones. The term falling down drunk would never apply here because there were so many people standing shoulder to shoulder there was no opportunity to sit down let alone fall down.

Everyone drank his fill and then some. And soon the night wore into day and breakfast was served. The house was put in order and reset for a second round of festivities the next day. Yes, that’s right a second party – they called the Guts Party. As the Macs like to say, if you have the guts to show up again and pick up where you left off – then you’re welcome!

Here’s Céad Míle Fáilte to friend and to rover
That’s a greeting that’s Irish as Irish can be
It means you are welcome
A thousand times over
Wherever you come from.
Whosever you be.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all the Macs, to Eamon Moran, my favorite Irishman after Jimmy and all of the Westside Irish. Up Mayo!


The Sixth Sense

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Depending on your perspective, I have been blessed or cursed with the ability to sense things. Déjà vu, vibes, dreams are all a part of my daily existence. It’s not always easy to feel these things but I’ve gotten used to it.

Actually I believe we all have the ability to sense things. Animals have a great sixth sense, you see them reacting to events like natural disasters hours before we humans are even aware of what’s happening. I see also I see it in children. Imaginary friends? They may be imaginary to you.

Just because you can’t see things with your eyes doesn’t make them any less real. I often think of what Hamlet said to his friend Horatio. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And that is how I recently explained a recent experience I had to my granddaughter, Bridget, who is a nurse. And as a nurse, she is highly scientific in her analysis of physical phenomena. However she knows that even in medicine there are lots of things that lack an explanation.

And as a woman of great faith she knows that miracles happen every day. And so my communing with the spirits on a regular basis is more normal than paranormal to her.

Recently we took a drive back to the old neighborhood for a little visit. As we walked around the streets, it was nice to relive some old memories with her. I showed her where I grew up and where her grandfather used to live. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were still there.

What had changed though were all of the shops that lined Detroit Avenue between West 69th and West 65th. The storefronts looked so different to me now; I was only able to identify a handful of places. And that made me a little sad.

And so in an effort to cheer me up, Bridget brought me into an ice cream shop called Sweet Moses. It was a charming place that harkened back to the days of real soda shops where ice cream was prepared and served by soda jerks. Yes that’s a real term!

Sitting there I was overcome with a sense of nostalgia. How many soda counters had I sat at during my youth? But that wasn’t all. Sitting there I felt a warm sensation surround me. I asked Bridget if the heat was perhaps too high. But she felt no such thing.

And then it hit me, as I looked around the shop, I recognized it. It came zooming at me like a blast from the past. This wasn’t really a soda shop; it was my Aunt Justina’s tailor shop and dry cleaner. And that’s when I realized that warm feeling surrounding me felt just like a hug. A hug, that my aunt would have given me whenever I would visit her shop. Holy Moses!

All Hands on Deck!

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Our part-time father had a full time job as a construction supervisor during our teenage years. When we’d see his truck roll down West 69th street, we’d laugh amongst ourselves and say, “Here comes the money truck.”

While we were happy that my mother would have some extra financial support, we were unsure about his daily presence in our lives. He tried to make up for lost time by buying each of the boys a car.

Dad bought Tony a Packard which he promptly took apart and then reassembled. Tony’s interest stopped there as he was too laid back to drive. He’d rather be driven. Tony preferred lounging of the back seat of Carmen’s new convertible. As Carmen loved to drive, it was a perfect match.

As for me, I drove whatever car was in the driveway.

In exchange for the “wheels” and to pay for gas and insurance my father put the boys to work with him on various construction sites.

Whereas Carmen was an up for anything, Tony was the opposite.
Repeating the same thing every day on the job site didn’t do much for the boy who liked to see how things worked. Or perhaps it was just his rebellious nature after all; there was always a bit of friction between Tony and my father. It made no sense to Tony that my father could be so lax about his family and so exacting about a job. You can’t have it both ways he once told me.

Convincing Tony to join Carmen and my dad became my mother’s daily obsession. And no matter how much she begged, pleaded, threatened or cajoled – Tony would just roll over and go back to sleep. She was the ultimate peacekeeper. But the best she could manage was an uneasy détente.

“You’re father’s going to be mad at you, Tony,” she would cry.

On one of the mornings Tony decided to sleep in my father told him, “If you’re not on the job today, you better not be here when I get back.”

In a rare moment of obedience or rebellion, who can say, Tony took my father at his word, and that afternoon went out and enlisted in the Navy. At the time my mother was angry at both her husband and her son. Later she grew to see the wisdom in such a move.

As for Tony, I think he liked the freedom of being away from home. In fact, he started a trend in the neighborhood. It wasn’t long after that that Carmen joined the Air Force, Jimmy joined the Army, and slowly but surely all the boys joined the “service.”

After Tony finished basic training I received a post card from California.

Dear Louisa,

The Navy is not bad. The food is not as good as home. And I’m now a machinist first mate which means I get to take a lot of things apart and reassemble them. The good news for the Navy is that there are no extra pieces left over when I put things back together — which means I must be doing something right. The bad news for me is I have to get up early every morning!


PS Hope you’re enjoying the Packard.


Sometimes You Just Have to Show Up

My son, Guido, recently shared a story with me that reflected the atmosphere and the laid back character of our neighborhood.


I’m not sure if this relaxed ambiance reflects the easy going nature of the people who lived there or the fact that we’re Italian. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

My mother’s favorite saying was, “And this too shall pass.” And of course she was right.
My best friend Palma would shrug her shoulders and say, “Whattya gonna do?” Ah those collective words of wisdom.

Perhaps it’s genetic. Two of my seven children inherited the “laid back gene” while the other five are as high strung as their Irish father. Whattya gonna do?

But back to Guido’s story. He did everything last minute, at the eleventh hour and/or just in the nick of time. Homework was completed on the bus; he’d be buttoning up his cassock and straightening his surplus as he dashed onto the altar to serve Mass. And finally, he nearly delayed my daughter’s wedding because he was laying off a few bets at the racetrack with his brothers just before the Mass.

His friends were a lot like him. They always took things as they came. Take for example his friend Spike who woke up one morning and decided that he would get his asbestos removal certification. And as the course was due to start the following day in Youngstown, there was no time to plan.

Lack of a plan combined with lack of a car meant that poor Spike would miss his opportunity. Unless he could find someone with a car who also had no plans so as to drive Spike to the Avalon Hotel in Youngstown.

So finding a willing driver with no plans amongst my son’s friends wasn’t difficult. What was difficult was inducing one of them to make the one and a half hour drive to Youngstown.

There was always the worry something better might come up. This was FOMO without the urban dictionary definition.

Number one on the list of drivers was Spike’s cousin Bengie. Benge had a car but no desire to visit Youngstown unless there was a valid reason.

It turns out the valid reason was within the pages of Bengie’s coupon book. Bengie always loved a good deal. And there was a deal to be had in Youngstown. Buy one dozen donuts and get the second dozen free. Spike was nearly there. Now all he had to do was to find Bengie a co-pilot. That co-pilot turned out to be Guido.

Guido was Bengie’s long time co-pilot as they just recently returned home from a spontaneous trip to the Kentucky Derby just two weeks before, each with a spontaneous tattoo.

So the boys were off to Youngstown and Spike was now that much closer to his certification. Upon arriving at the hotel, they discovered that both the hotel and the course were full and there was no space available.

Youngstown has been a hard luck town for years. So the hotel clerk, knowing a thing or two about what it means to have a job, offered Spike a cot in the ballroom, provided he got up and ready before the attendees arrived. He also squeezed Spike onto the enrollment list. It was as easy as that.

I commented to Guido that Spike was very lucky indeed to have made it to Youngstown and into the program.

Guido agreed and said that sometimes luck is only half of it. The other half of it is showing up. How many people don’t show up and then curse their luck?

When I asked Guido how Spike made it back home, after he and Bengie left, he said he didn’t know. Spike had no plans for the return trip. Maybe he took the bus or maybe he got a lift back with another student.

Guido commented that Spike did what everybody in the neighborhood did and still do, “you go with the flow.” And that is the next generation’s contribution to the collective wisdom of the neighborhood.



The Elements of Style

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I come from a long line of creative and resourceful women who could make something out of nothing at a moment’s notice.

My mother was a milliner back in the day when everyone wore hats and gloves. I’m so sorry to have seen that element of style be replaced by today’s more casual dress.

I remember attending a wedding in the 1960s and I wanted a new hat. My mother grabbed an empty Clorox bottle and cut out the bottom to create a form that fit perfectly on my head. She then wrapped a black tulle fabric around it fixing it in place with glue and fishing line. Once she had her base, she proceeded to glue little black and white feathers all around the crown. Soon she had a pillbox hat à la Jackie Kennedy. I made quite a statement when I paired it with my little black dress.

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And speaking of dresses…my Aunt Rosie was a super seamstress when it came to poodle skirts for sock hops – especially on a moment’s notice – which was just about all the time I gave her to pull one off. After a while, she wised up to “Last Minute Louisa” and kept fabric remnants, buttons, ribbons and appliques, for her potential creations in her kitchen.

To create the necessary poof of a poodle dress, sometimes she used starched sheers (curtains) from her windows and overlaid them with a piece of cotton material, perhaps a tablecloth that she kept in her pantry.

As she would pin the pieces in place, literally sewing them on me, she’d always tell me a story. She and her five sisters were always impeccably dressed even as children. They may have not had much back in the day (1920s) as times were tough for this immigrant family. But they were always well turned out.

My grandmother always made sure that their clothes were clean and mended, and their shoes were polished. It was important to make a good impression. The Italians call it, La Bella Figura.

I marveled at her creativity and I asked her if she had learned to be creative or if she was born that way. She laughed and said that it was a little bit of both. Often time’s necessity is the mother of invention or the father of fashion she would say.

She recalled the first time she had to (literally) think on her feet one morning before going to school. She was in the fifth grade. She was putting on a pair of socks that had been darned one too many times. The sock literally fell apart in her hands and she had no alternatives as she was already late for school.

So she grabbed a pair of scissors and snipped off the top of each sock, throwing the damaged bits away. She pulled the tops up to her mid-calf and slipped her feet into her high top button shoes. The (cut) socks poked out of the top of the shoes as usual. Perfect. No one would be the wiser.

Or so she thought…Everything was fine until the teacher announced that the class would have to go to the nurse’s office for their annual physical. They would be weighed (without shoes!) and measured.

After a good laugh all around,  Aunt Rosie who never took herself seriously said that this was her first step in a long career of stylish creativity.


Don’t Tell Your Father…

My husband had a few house rules when our children were young. No piercings, (other than earrings for the girls), no tattoos and no foreign steel parked in his driveway. You bought American or nothing. Those rules were in effect until you were 18 years old and able to support yourself.

And by and large our children respected those rules. But our eldest son Guido cut it a bit close one year just three months before his 18th birthday. He and a buddy took a road trip to the Kentucky Derby which is always held the first Saturday in May. His birthday is in August.

In a moment of what I can only conclude was temporary insanity, he decided to get a tattoo. It is a beautiful three- masted schooner tattoowith a scroll beneath it that reads: Homeward Bound. Guido, a homebody never lived more than a block away from us his entire life. So it made sense that those words became his personal motto. But it was more than that. I suspect he felt a deep connection to the Simon & Garfunkel song of the same title,  Homeward Bound.”

When he returned home from the Derby, good Catholic guilt kicked in and he confessed his transgression to me and his grandmother and the siblings. So we formed a small conspiracy to protect his secret until he graduated in June and celebrated his 18th birthday in August. It also helped he was an apprentice cement finisher and had a steady income  soon meeting Jimmy’s two requirements, i.e. legal age and an income.

Unfortunately for Guido it was a very hot summer that year.. And so he was often seen around the house long sleeved flannel work shirts. He’d exit the shower with two towels, one around his waist and the other around his shoulders like a shawl. He tried to not cross paths with my husband by either working late or leaving the house early. He paid his younger siblings two dollars as look outs alerting him to the arrival or departure of his father.

Meanwhile my husband blissfully went about his day watching the comings and goings of his brood. When he wasn’t working, he spent time with the family, played catch in the driveway, read the newspaper, attended wakes, and watched TV.

After a long hot summer the big day finally arrived. We celebrated Guido’s birthday with the traditional banana nut sheet cake from Lawson’s. We used the same single red taper candle for all birthdays. We sang, Guido blew out the candle and wished to tell his father something.

He announced to his father that he had gotten tattoo for his birthday. Right on cue, his siblings feigned surprise. The little ones especially had been practicing their “surprise expression” for days. We all held our breath.

My husband nodded and finished eating his cake.

Guido was surprised. “You mean you’re not upset?”

“Initially I was upset but watching you sweat all summer trying to hide it more than made up for the deception. And you didn’t get it for your birthday. So go to confession for that lie!”

“How did you know?” Guido asked.

“Easy,” his father replied. “You broke the first rule of secret keeping.”

“And that is?”

“You tell one person, you tell the world.” And he pointed to everyone in the kitchen.

Suddenly the kitchen emptied – the children ran out like rats deserting a sinking ship (or in this case a three-masted schooner).


The Art of Shopping

The old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is true.  Just look at shopping.

It wasn’t that long ago those groceries were delivered directly to you.  Fresh milk and eggs were delivered to your door or milk chute each day.

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The fruit and vegetable sellers rolled their wagons down the street in the summer hawking fresh produce.  Even “junk food” like pretzels and chips were delivered in large refillable tins to your door.

And with seven children I shudder to think where would I be without diaper service.  Good old West End Diapers picked up dirty diapers and returned with bundles of clean ones wrapped in blue paper every week.

It was Amazon without the delivery charges or having to pay an extra yearly fee.  Mind you, I guess the merchants built it into the cost of the products but if you didn’t see the cost you didn’t pay it.

We also had loyalty programs.  The king of loyalty program was the S&H Green Stamp program.  These green stamps were available from various retailers and coincided with the amount of your purchase at the store.  One book was equal to three dollars.  In those days three dollars went far. And I was always happy to fill a book or receive one as a gift from one of my aunts.

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I remember taking them to the store for redemption where the cashier carefully inspected each page to make sure they were completely full and no stamps were missing.  It was very exciting.

Whereas these days the accumulation of “points” for free merchandise has all of the excitement of internet banking. There’s no romance, no anticipation, no way to physically experience that high you get from reaching a goal.

Plus there are so many programs, you lose track of them. I have more plastic tags with bar codes on my key chain than I have keys.  Many of these are linked to credit cards and debit cards I don’t use.

It seems that cash is becoming a thing of the past. My children have been telling me about Bitcoin this new form of currency backed by – well nobody’s quite sure what is backing it up.  I personally think it’s just another form of digital dust.

Obtaining credit was also much easier when I was young.  You went to the local store and you put items on your account.  Your parents went to the store every Friday (payday) and paid off the account.  And so it went, week in and week out. And it was interest free.

Often when times were tough, the local store extended credit for an extra week.  Everyone was good for it.  That was back in the day when your reputation was priceless and paying your debts or keeping your word guaranteed that reputation.  A bad reputation was a thing to be avoided at all costs. Lately it seems to me, having seen so many of these “reality shows” that bad reputations have now become a badge of honor.

In fact, reputation is the one thing you can’t buy or acquire by points. You earn it.  And for my money, that’s the most satisfying acquisition of all.