My dad was an avid amateur photographer, and there were two things you could count on whenever he would entertain my relatives with a slide show.
One was that if a slide depicting the terrible condition of the street outside our house came up, someone would yell out, “Send that to Mayor Morrison!”
Mayor deLesseps “Chep” Morrison was one of the constants of my young life. He always had been mayor as long as I’d been alive, the same way Pius XII always had been pope and the New York Yankees always were in the World Series.
I don’t think, though, that a picture of the potholes on St. Ann Street would have moved him to dispatch a work crew out there. The photo probably would have been about as effective as the “fix my streets — I pay my taxes” signs you see around New Orleans today.
The other thing you could count on was that if a slide of my mother from her younger days showed up on the screen, someone inevitably would shout, “Anna Magnani!” However, in my family’s pronunciation, it came out closer to a rhyming “Anna Manyanna,” with the second word sounding a lot like the Spanish word for “tomorrow.”
It wasn’t until years later when I finally saw photos of the young Magnani that I was able to note the resemblance to the pictures of my mother from her younger days.
Though it’s common for a boy to think his mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, I can’t say that was true in my case. My mother was the oldest of a group of six girls, so I had a lot of aunts around to compare her to, ranging from carefree teenagers to young adults not yet showing the strains of marriage or motherhood. On the other hand, I got to see my mother at her worst, like when she was overwhelmed with housework or irritated by her kids — her other kids, that is, not me.
But later, when I saw those young pictures of her again, I was amazed. There was a youthful, Italianate allure that smoldered through the silver halide (and later through the pixels). She appeared quite different from the woman who cooked, cleaned, got me off to school and cared for me when I was sick.
Then another typical male feeling kicked in: I began to wonder how in the world my dad — my plain, practical-minded, always-fixing-something dad — was able to latch onto a woman like that.
I’ve been looking at a lot of those old pictures lately, especially ones of big, chaotic family gatherings at the holidays. There are photos of our living room strewn with boxes and giftwrap as my family and my aunts and uncles and their families ripped through the Christmas presents we were giving one another.
There was the huge tree that my Uncle Angelo, who lived with us, would pick out and take charge of decorating. Each year, it would be laden with more and more tinsel — the real stuff, made out of foil, which short-circuited the Lionel Train set whenever a piece fell across the track.
There’s one picture that shows me — in bow tie and suspenders, no less — anxiously trying to hand off one present to my mother so I could rejoin the feeding frenzy and open another.
I guess that at that early age, the “real meaning of Christmas” was lost on me. But in the years since, the joys and the memories, aided by my dad’s old photos, have stayed with me.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.