Our dad was a man of few words but when spoken, you were quite certain about his intent. He was unintentionally very funny. He butchered the English language with malaprops galore…not unlike Yogi Berra and with as much flair. Oil was “earl,” toilet was “tirlet,” sandwich was “sangwich” and so on. He was a devoted family guy…a great dad and husband who was equally committed as a son to his parents whom he visited almost daily. Likewise, he was a loyal sibling to his five brothers and four sisters. I never heard him say a bad word about any one of the blood Marinos…lots about their spouses and kids, but no one who was blood.
He is credited with many little ‘wisdoms’ that can only come from experience. Example… “money…it makes good people betta and bad people woiser”. Or… “eventually, everybody knows everything about everybody.” Or…when Jimmy and I did something really dumb (which happened regularly), he might say… “trees I shoulda had instead of sons… at least in the summer I’d o’ had shade.” He had a great sense of humor and loved to chide his boys. Dad loved boxing and he occasionally took us to the fights at the Alhambra in So. Philly. He also liked the Phillies and the As, ‘the schvitz,’ music, shooting pool (he once beat the famed Willie Mosconi in a set as the story goes), shooting craps and hot sausage and pork sandwiches from Pat’s. But most of all, he loved his family.
Pop really admired and respected educated people. Those who were professionals such as doctors, lawyers and teachers were held in great esteem. You had his respect if he said…” he talks good.” As an undergraduate at Temple University, I was living at home off and on. While taking my first anatomy class I was staying at my parents’ house and was permitted by the lab instructor to bring my ‘lab cat’ home. I would take it out of a large plastic bag, which smelled brutally from formaldehyde, set it on a workbench in our garage, and begin dissection. My father loved to observe and was fascinated with the process. He’d watch and ask all kinds of questions and could not get over the fact that “they had the same stuff as us.” Amazing! His standard comment to that which he did not understand was an emphatic, “this cannot be” while rhythmically tapping his index finger with his thumb extended on a table very much in the style of Vito Corleone before we knew Vito Corleone.
He was very proud of my education. So much so that upon his last days, an attending physician at the hospital where dad was being treated tried to determine the extent to which he had suffered a mild stroke amongst a myriad of other health issues. The doctor leaned in while dad was in the bed and asked a series of simple questions like, “what’s your name; where are you; where do you live?” Then came the kicker when the doc asked pop to spell the word “cat” to which there was no response and all of us knew why. He was basically a functional illiterate. Pop could read a little but couldn’t write a lick and his response to this request was classic. He reached up from the bed, grabbed the doc by his tie and pulled him to the bed where they were pressed almost nose to nose and said… “I don’t spell so good, but I got a kid who’s a university professor” then pushed the doctor away. This is the stuff of movies.
Our dad was in love with our mother. They were married for 49 years until his passing. She could not pass him by without being affectionately groped. They both loved it. It was pop’s way of saying ‘I love you’ and mom’s acceptance of that affection. She would complain with a smile, “that little man never leaves me alone.” And if he did, somehow the world just wouldn’t be right. Our father passed on the best a dad could do for his two sons…he loved and respected our mother.
…truly a piece of work! The best way to describe our mom is to say she was Dr. Ruth before Dr. Ruth. Mother was a diminutive lady who was a beauty as young woman and the baby in a family of eight children. Mom was as Jewish as our dad was Italian. Like dad, she too was a first generation American. My grandparents (whom I never knew) were Russian Jews who left the Ukraine like so many others in the early part of the 20th century. They settled in a section of South Philly that was very much a cultural enclave comprised primarily of eastern European Jews…a ‘shtetl’ of sorts. Mom was considered well educated for that time and place. She graduated from the 8th grade and that concluded her formal education which was considered sufficient by the standard of that day. Minnie, as she was known by family was warm, bright, gracious, wise, funny and engaged. She was well read and conversant in a wide range of topics including but not limited to sports, finance, politics, food, entertainment and pop culture. Conversing with mom was like reading the Sunday edition of the NY Times.
As one might guess, the courtship and eventual marriage of my parents was no easy matter. Both families were opposed to mom and dad dating and each family’s feelings on the matter was quite clear as a four year courtship was inevitably going to result in a marriage. In their day, this was considered a ‘mixed marriage.’ While both of our parents came from very close families where children did what parents and older siblings told them to do, this event was destined to evolve into something bigger than both of them and they knew it. Mom and dad were intrepid by ignoring conventions of the day (no surprise there) and they were married in 1936 against the wishes of all who loved them. The most vocal objection to this impending ‘doomed marriage’ emanated from one of our Jewish aunts. Aunt Jean was ten years (or so) mom’s senior and at the same time had recently married a Jewish guy named Fred Bloch, who had a reputation of being a ‘dandy’ and not paying his debts. The dandy thing was sort of OK, but not paying debts to guys from whom you should not borrow money can be a dicey business in that neighborhood. This set the stage for just how our household would be managed for the rest of our collective lives.
Aunt Jean came to mom and dad’s newly wed apartment in a frantic state declaring that husband Fred went out for cigarettes hours ago and hadn’t returned. After several harrowing days of no information concerning Fred’s whereabouts, Aunt Jean asked mom if she could stay with mom and dad until this ‘missing person’ business was resolved. Mom responded to Aunt Jean with, “I’ll have to ask Dom.” In reality, she never really ASKED dad for a blessing on this request but rather TOLD dad that Aunt Jean was coming to stay for a few days and that settled the matter. As adults, Jimmy and I assumed that dad acquiesced to this ‘instruction’ thinking he would pick and choose his battles with mom and this was one he probably couldn’t win. The short of the story is they never found Fred Bloch. This means one of two things in that world: Either he split for greener pastures or he wound up in the Schuylkill River. That’s how the neighborhood mob guys disposed of delinquent debtors. And the kicker… Aunt Jean stayed with us for the next 28 years and I do not believe neither dad nor Aunt Jean ever exchanged a complete sentence in all of that time. And as far as I could tell, we were a very happy family of FIVE.
Mom was the proverbial Jewish mother. She and dad struck a deal prior to their marriage that the children would be raised Jewish, and we were. Our kitchen was ground zero where food (both Italian and Jewish) was king and all matters light and heavy were discussed. No subject was out of bounds and how one felt about an issue was never a guess. Mom was in charge of the house and family; pop was in charge of supplying the cash. Our home was a warm, wonderful, engaging and safe place where everyone met. It was loud with laughter, filled with people and overflowing with love. This was a definite matriarchal society with dad having some veto powers but rarely invoked. Mom influenced much of what we thought, said and almost all of what we did. Small in stature, but our mom was “large and in charge.”
As an early teenager, this created some conflict in that I perceived mom to be unyielding to my way of thinking and doing. I was constantly in the ‘Marino Dog House’…literally. It was an 8″ by 11″ novelty wall plaque with the entrance to a little dog house attached. Each member of the family had his/her name painted on a cut out wooden dog which hung by hooks on that plaque. As the family grew with spouses and kids, new dogs were added with each new name. Very Cute! I was ‘never not’ in that dog house. No kidding! I desperately wanted to be taken seriously and our house was clearly not the venue for such. Mom and I would go ‘round and ‘round about my activities and rarely did we arrive at an agreeable path, but I unwillingly complied most of the time. Unlike Jimmy, I would rather argue my point and lose where my big brother would just agree to whatever mom said then just do as he pleased…and he never got caught. I however, got caught at everything and nothing has changed even through ‘geezerville.’
“Minnie” was well liked by everyone who knew her. She was generous, witty and really smart with wonderful instincts, especially when it related to people. She could tell who was a good guy and who was not. Jimmy and I regularly brought friends home and our parents always knew with whom we associated and they would render judgment. Mom was right almost all of the time. Example: Jimmy brought a new kid home from Jr. High after a baseball game in which they played and mom said she just didn’t like that boy. When Jimmy asked why not, mom replied with a non specific answer which was unlike her. She then told Jim not to associate with him again. That kid was Ira Einhorn, the self proclaimed Philadelphia Guru of the sixties who murdered his girlfriend then dismantled her body which he kept in a trunk at his home. He fled to France where he lived freely for decades and was later extradited to the US and now serves a life sentence.
While our dad wanted his two boys to grow up with some “street smarts,” mom wanted her boys to be well educated. Both parents wished to see both elements, but each had their priorities. A line that best describes their favored outcome is: “Be comfortable in a locker room, a bar room and a board room.” Mom and dad moved us from So. Philly when I was six years old to West Oak Lane, a Jewish section of the city that proliferated after WWII. It was a great neighborhood comprised of row homes, great public schools and a million kids. What I didn’t realize until I became an adult was mom had a method to her madness in moving us to this particular area. It was within walking distance to Central High School (all boys at the time). CHS was a very special school catering to any student in the greater Philadelphia area who could qualify for admission. It was and still is an academically charged school with a rigorous college prep curriculum comparable to Bronx School of Science or Brooklyn Tech in NYC. It is the second oldest public high school in America established in 1836 (Boston Latin being the oldest) and I was in the 213th graduating class in January, 1960 (we graduated two classes per year for some years). Everyone went to college and most went on to receive graduate or other professional degrees. Many docs, lawyers, scientists, politicians, academicians and business leaders in the country are Central High grads. This was our mom’s doing.
As an incoming freshman at Central High, I earned seven As and one B at the semester’s end while running track (low hurdles). I later learned that hurdlers are sprinters who can’t sprint…that would be me. Latin, Algebra, English, Science and History were all pretty easy for me with very little effort. I remembered everything I saw and read, and was able to connect the dots to make meaning of it all. That changed during the summer of ’56 when at 14, I had a bicycle accident which resulted in some minor cuts and bruises…no biggy. Thinking as a protective parent, mom overreacted and treated these ‘owies’ as though I might need new prosthetic limbs and my activities were limited for part of the summer. ‘The boys’ gave me a hard time about that incident. During that summer, my life changed for two very specific but dramatically different reasons. The first and most influential was…a neighborhood girl whom we all knew (and shall remain nameless), grew tits. They came from nowhere and they were mezmerizing. This event was life altering for me. Second, my station with ‘the boys’ was severely impacted due to mom’s insistence that I remain ‘inactive’ for a several weeks which resulted in being rendered something far less than a tough guy. I spent a good portion of my high school years rowing my way back with our ‘crew.’
Mom opened a retail millenary store in a difficult part of the city after Jimmy and I became adults. All of the business owners along Germantown Ave. knew and protected each other from the vagaries of the neighborhood. A thief came onto the premises, produced a gun and demanded cash to which our mother responded with, “you better shoot me now ‘cause you ain’t gettin’ shit.” After a heated exchange of words, the criminal exited without the cash and exclaimed, “You crazy lady,” whereupon Jimmy and I insisted she close down the store. She did so without argument…a first!
The last thing I’ll say about mom (at this time) best describes her acerbic sense of humor. We lost our father in 1983 when mom was in her seventies. After the funeral, we retired back to their apartment. Mom said she was a bit weary and was going to have a nap. Jimmy and I could now have that conversation about where mom will live. I said to Jim, “I’ll take mom back to CA with Nancy, Danielle and me and she’ll stay with us until she is able to adjust to a new environment. Eventually, I’ll get her a place of her own and look in on her daily”… as our dad did with his parents. Jimmy immediately responded with an emphatic “NO” and said, “I’ll take mom back to VA with me and my family.” After a few minutes of animated discussion with my big brother, mom reappeared in the room and said, “Boys, I couldn’t help overhear your conversation about what to do with mom”….which means she had a glass to the wall. “ I’m really flattered, but I have a confession to make: I never really liked either of you as children and like both of you even less as adults and wouldn’t live with either of you on a bet.” She then exited the room without waiting for comment. Jimmy and I howled with laughter…this was typical of our mother. There may have been a modicum of truth to what she declared since she remained in that apartment by herself, and by design, for the rest of her life. Our mother passed away in 1999 at age 87. It was a sad day.
Mom’s funeral service was held graveside at Har Nebo, an old Hebrew cemetery in Philly where most of her family are interned. Jim and I thought that our two immediate families would be the only ones attending since all of mom’s and dad’s families and friends passed away. The funeral director, a childhood friend of ours, made the arrangements since both Jimmy and I were ‘out of towners.’ Our friend Merrill said, “I received a call from one of our staff stating that the family of Marion Marino requested internment at Har Nebo.” After Jim and I spoke with him, we wondered how he knew it was our mom. His reply was really quite simple when he said, “how many people with the last name of Marino want to buried at an old Hebrew cemetery, schmendrick?”. I get called that a lot. Much to our surprise, one car after another drove into the cemetery and parked in a line alongside of the grave site. While we did not expect anyone, our friend Merrill put the announcement in the Jewish Exponent (a Philadelphia Jewish weekly paper), made several calls and many of our childhood friends, neighbors and cousins appeared to pay their respects to our family, but especially to our mother. Merrill also pre-arranged for a buffet and open bar at a local hotel since we had no idea that a crowd would come and we had no place to take them being ‘foreigners.’ It was an amazing day and we shared mom stories into the wee hours. I am grateful for my friend Merrill’s sensitivity and thoughtfulness in planning this goodbye for a woman who was respected and loved by many…especially her two boys.