Mary is 99 years young. In just a few months, she'll be celebrating her 100th birthday. A life-long New Yorker, and the daughter of immigrants -- she also happens to be the Great Aunt of my husband Joseph.
Mary was born in May of 1918 and has seen more in her life than most people ever will. My grandparents have all passed away, and I have endless regret that I didn't sit down with them to ask more questions. I have always felt it is important to document the stories of our elders, not just as my family's genealogist -- but as a citizen of the world. We have so much to learn from women like Mary.
When I first had the idea to interview and photograph Mary, my father-in-law graciously gave her a call, explained my project, and she was happy to participate. She told me I'm "Today's Woman" which made me really happy. You'll notice this particular post deviates from our regular formula due to the personal nature of the subject, she's family after all!
So on a cloudy Monday in February, we all traveled out to Flushing, Queens with microphones, cameras, backdrops, a box of Dunkin Donuts, and a lifetime of questions.
I could not have conducted this interview without the help of my husband and my in-laws, a million thank yous to them and Aunt Mary. I've listed everyone here for your reference.
- Joe - Mary's Nephew, Michelle's Father-in-Law
- Joseph - Mary's Grand Nephew, Michelle's Husband
- Jaclyn - Mary's Grand Niece, Michelle's Sister-in-Law
- Gayle - Joe's wife, Michelle's Mother-In-Law
Jaclyn : Michelle takes a great photo and she’ll make you look great! She took my photo. Can she take your photo later?
Mary : Oh my gosh! I don’t look good.
Everyone : You’re beautiful!
Mary : Sometimes I look in the mirror and I say "that’s not me!" I think that has to be my neighbor friend or something like that. Because I always had my dark hair and I miss it. Well sure, we can take pictures. Anyway, like I said the circle is almost closed. But I’ve got more to do, I’m not finished!
Michelle : Alright Aunt Mary, here we go! In what year were you born?
Mary : I was born 1918. My husband was born in 1919. We stayed in New York City until I was eight years old and then we moved to Jersey and we stayed there a short time. From there we moved back to New York, to Astoria. We were there for 13 years or so and then we moved here, out east. We had this small house, always reminded me of that song “A Little Gray Shack.” **She laughs** And our house was like that! There was no electricity and no water and we had to go to the corner for water and pump the water.
Michelle : And so you lived in Manhattan until you were 8?
Mary : Yes until I was 8.
Joseph : When was your grandmother born?
Mary : Oh now that would have been a good question!
Joseph : Was your father born in America?
Mary : No, both of my parents came here from Italy. From Palermo, Italy which is at the bottom of the shoe. And my mother came over with her mother and her family. My grandmother, I don't know if they all came at once but they all wound up here in the United States. I think they landed in Massachusetts. And they lived happily ever after.
Michelle : Did your Mom and Dad meet in America or did they meet in Italy?
Mary : Well I think they were friends, yes friends from Italy. He used to have to deliver bread. And probably one of the customers was my mother and my mother’s family. My father was always a baker, and eventually he had a store, we lived like normal people. We lived on 2nd Avenue and 104th Street.
Michelle : How many brothers and sisters did you have?
Mary : We were 9 in my parents’ family. And I have them all written down, if want to copy them. Will you hand me that black book?
Michelle : Did you work when you were young?
Mary : Well I started to work about 18 because I had gone to school and then I left and went to sewing school. I wanted to learn tailoring and be more than just at an operational level of putting pieces together.
**Mary's aid comes over with the black book, She starts looking through it**
Mary : You know you start out a telephone book with just names and addresses of just who's around you. And then you wind up having children. So those children are in the book. And they have children and then you put those in the book.
Jaclyn : Can you tell us more about this picture here?
Mary : This was taken in Vermont. Yeah and this was supposed to be our honeymoon in Vermont.
Jaclyn : Did you elope? Was this your wedding day?
Mary : My wedding day was in September the 14th. But we did elope.
Michelle : Where did you get married?
Mary : Oh, we were married in Connecticut. I forget the name. I know if I heard it I’d remember.
Joseph : Why did you decide to elope?
Mary : Why? Why? Because you weren’t allowed to get married before you “married.” And I waited for him to come home on a furlough. He came home. It was September the 14th, 1941. He was what they called “drafted.” He turned 22 and he was drafted and then didn't get out until four or five years after that. Where I had my honeymoon, it was over a funeral parlor. It was a big house. And they had funerals on one side and a hotel on the other side. Who would ever think of that? I'll never forget — and I keep laughing that it was over a funeral parlor.
Michelle : How did how did you meet your husband?
Mary : We were in school together. It was junior high school. I was only 14. I met him in the seventh grade and then we became friends. My father had a bakery store that he had to get a list of all the kind of breads that he wanted and it was quite a walk. And in the meantime, it was getting to be September and it was getting dark. And I just didn't want to go the distance in the dark at night, so I called him to walk me down there. And that’s where it started.
Michelle : Do you remember when your husband asked you to marry him?
Mary : What? Do you think you get a big proposal in these times?
Michelle : I don't know!
Mary : When you're in the service you don't get a proposal with a big diamond ring. I'm wearing this!
*Mary gestures to a ring on her finger.*
Mary : We went to see my sister in New Mexico and got this there. My husband wore this on pinky all the time, until it broke. I decided I would wear it from then on, and make it into a memory. When I go, make sure it comes with me. That’s all. Okay? The Egyptians, didn't they take things with them? They did right?
Michelle : Yes, everything!
How long were you and your husband married?
Mary : I was married up until he passed away. 73 years. 73 years. Another lifetime, another lifetime. So, in the meantime I had three children. They're all not too close in age. The first two or three years apart and the third is seven years apart. I love my children all so much, but I also really wanted to get back to work! I always wanted to work. When I had not yet finished with school, I didn’t have any extra money. And it bothered me that I didn't have money then. I like money! It gives me such a nice security because now I could buy a gift if I wanted to. When I had my third child, my daughter, I stayed at home with her until she was 6 years old, and then I took my wings and I flew because it felt free! And I worked, for almost 30 years.
Joseph : Where did you go back to work?
Mary : I worked as a seamstress and I found this job that was right down here near where I live still, right over the library off Main.
Jaclyn : What did your husband do? What was his job?
Mary : My husband, he was like FedEx, you know United Parcel delivery service. He had a nice job in the shipping department where he worked in the city because it was a big manufacturing company he worked for. I forget the name but it was a popular name, and he was a driver. Delivery driver.
Michelle : When he was driving during the war, where was he stationed?
Mary : When went overseas he was stationed in France.
Michelle : I wanted to ask you a little bit about World War II. Do you remember where you were when you learned about Pearl Harbor?
Mary : Oh yeah, well Pearl Harbor I remember. All the papers saying, “Pearl Harbor Bombed!” It felt far away. I mean you do pay attention but there's nothing you can do about it. I was younger at the time when Pearl Harbor happened.
Joe : That was December 1941, You got married in September 1941. So you were married just three months before.
Mary : Oh yes.
Joseph : Do you remember the first time you voted?
Mary : Voted? Yeah I haven't voted.
Joseph : You've never voted?
Mary : No.
Joseph : Not once?
Mary : Well I didn't have to! Who knows about voting? I didn't learn about it in school. I mean they never showed me how. To have learned how to work the board. You know I hear so much about the boards and the button. I never voted, but my husband did.
Joe : You never wanted to go vote with him?
Mary : No it didn't bother me that I didn't vote. Everything was going fine! I didn't feel that my vote was going to do anything. I think I tried to vote and I went into the machine, I remember when I was in the school. I looked at the board and I said "What do I do here?" I only know about sewing, you know? A stitch here and there. I left it to the ones who are smarter. You know, I mean, not everybody goes into politics.
Michelle : You know, Joseph and I just got married a couple of years ago. Do you have any advice to stay married for as long as you did?
Mary : *She laughs* No! The secret is that the man shouldn't roam from home. He made a home and that's where he belongs. You raise your children, like your parents did. No muss no fuss.
Michelle : If you could think of the happiest day of your life, what would it be?
Mary : Everything about my life. Every day. Everything I did and everything I said, yes I had a happy life.
Michelle : How do you want your children and your grandchildren to remember you?
Mary : Through everything I said. Because everything is the truth. I didn't hide anything.That's the story of my life. I tell my children I should have written a book. I used to like to write poetry. While I sleep I still dream of poetry. I like to write. Little things, my thoughts. You know they say some people who write songs and stories they do, they say it just comes natural to them. I can understand how they write songs. You know years ago they used to write a lot of love songs.
Michelle: What's your favorite song, Mary? Do you have a favorite song?
Mary : Oh. My favorite song. "Always" *She sings* "I'll be loving you always..." I sing that to myself.
Joseph : Who sang that song?
Mary : Frank Sinatra. My husband used to love to listen to Frank Sinatra. He could sing a song that almost etches your heart. It hits a note. It hits a spot, right? Doesn't it? And he says it just like you would want to say it to somebody. He really really was good.
Gayle : Did you ever get to see Frank Sinatra sing while he was alive?
Mary : No. just heard him on the radio and records. But I did used to like to go to the city -- to Bryant Park. Bryant Park. It's so picturesque! Those trees have always come together, and if you walk through you can feel the trees. Bryant Park was just beautiful.
Joe : Can you tell us about what you did you do when the war ended the war. Did you go to the parades and celebrations?
Mary : Oh no. No. It was crazy to go to the parades. I didn't do anything special. No, you stay home and raise your kids. But I’m not complaining about my life. There are beautiful memories. I’ll never forget the trips I took. You know I went to Hawaii! I went to Italy because my children gave me the trip to Italy for my anniversary as a gift.
Michelle : Did you get to see where your parents were from?
Mary : No, no. I just went to Rome and Naples. Really they gave us a very, very nice tour.
Joe : Do you remember when there was trollies on the street in Manhattan?
Mary : Oh yeah. Oh yeah! I lived at 104th Street at that time. I was 5 years old at that time. Yeah yeah. Crowded busy streets, you had to get out of the way!
Joseph : And the ice man?
Mary : The ice man! Oh my gosh the ice man! What do you know about the ice man??
Mary : What else do you want to know?
Joseph : The moon landing. Do you remember the moon landing?
Mary : Oh yeah!
Joe : Did you watch it on television?
Mary : Oh yeah! Gorgeous. Wasn't it a miracle how they did that? Oh my gosh! So far, so far. I happened to be out at my mothers at that time and we were watching it. What a wonderful thing to get to the moon! I mean, why some people didn't think it happened? Why do some people think it didn't happen? You know the way that some people don't want to believe the Jews were crucified? You get those people, they're stupid. Right? So truthful, they had so much proof! How can they do that?
Joe : Final question- did you ever drive?
Mary : No! That's another story. I think I drove one day and I forgot to put the brake on. No I never drove. I wish. I wouldn't have made a good driver. You wouldn't want me on the road.
But since I'm like this, in this chair. I mean I'm stuck here. I feel like I'm a bird in a cage. I'm so used to getting up to do what I want to do. I’ve felt so cooped up. Makes you realize how great freedom to move around is, right? Don’t take it for granted. It’s a gift.
All images © Michelle Kinney Photography (Minnie Kinney LLC) unless credited otherwise.
Edited by Bligh Voth