Sunday, June 27, 2010


Since good things come in pairs, and you've already met Raymond in my last post, let me introduce his better half, Isabelle. My mother-in-law, "Belle", was born in 1914 in Brooklyn to Italian immigrants Francesco and Matilda Corsano. Bell had two sisters (Laura and Louise) and a brother (Matty) who grew up during the tough times of the Great Depression. I've written in earlier posts about how, when Francesco was hurt and out of work a local baker delivered bread to their home every day and never asked for a penny. The family struggled, sometimes making a meal of sugar sandwiches because there was nothing else to eat. This was in the days before the government became responsible for everybody, and neighbors tried to help one another.

From the pictures I've seen, Isabelle was a pretty, vivacious young woman who loved to dance and have a good time. I never cease to be amazed by the people who survived the Depression and the generally upbeat take they have on life. Belle was like that; maybe living through such hard times makes you want to laugh that much more when it's over. Before it was common for women to enter the workplace, many young girls learned to sew as a way to make a living. Belle was a skilled seamstress who made all her daughters' clothes because there simply was no money to buy them. You would never know from looking at them that they were not store-bought. Belle could take a set of old curtains and turn out a dress, two blouses, a couple of hats and the upholstery for a 1949 Dodge sedan.

She was a gifted cook as well. When it came to be her turn to host the Sunday afternoon dinners, as it did for most Italian-American wives back in the day, Belle stepped up to the plate (no pun intended). I never gave much thought to how much work this was until my wife and I began having these dinners in our home. I showed up every week with my appetite and never thought about how that delicious food got on the table. (I'm really sorry about that, Mom). Belle had her special dishes like Braccioles in a brown gravy, Easter Pie, and an escarole pie to die for. We recently saw on TV an episode of "Lydia's Italy" on which she was featuring dishes from around Naples. One of them was escarole pie. I know it was a warm moment for my wife Jasmine to see the dish so well prepared by her mother and grandmother being lauded by Lydia.

Isabelle, although poor growing up, always had an eye for art and culture. Her home was filled with art prints and antiques she had picked up with whatever money she could squeeze out of the household budget. She enjoyed travel and seeing places she had only read about. Ray, her husband, did not share her love of travel, and this greatly cramped her style. The boundaries of Ray's travel horizons stopped at the Poconos. Belle was able to browbeat him into a few excursions on Tauck Bus Tours to local destinations, but that was it. Exasperated, Belle teamed up with her sister Louise for a trip to Europe. We drove them to the airport and Ray worriedly waved goodbye, not so much because he was sorry to see his wife go, but because he didn't know if we would find a parking spot near the house when we returned.

Belle loved Broadway and in her younger days frequently traveled into Manhattan to the theater. Broadway plays ranked just below travel on Ray's list of things to do, so Belle went with Aunt Julia or Aunt Lou. She also had a flair for decorating, and would use her imagination and sweat-equity to create things for the house she couldn't afford to go out and buy. Once she decided to remodel some dining room chairs she didn't care for, and cut out the wood back supports with a hand saw and caned the chairs instead, because that was what she wanted. Did I mention she was also a talented artist who created some lovely watercolors that still hang in our homes today? She never had any art training; she just knew that painting was a cultured pastime and made herself good at it.

Isabelle was a very canny lady who had mastered the womanly art of letting her husband believe he was in charge. Ray would rant and wave his arms around, but in the end, did what his wife wanted. It's fashionable for comics to make mother-in-law jokes, but I was lucky to be blessed with in-laws who became my second parents. They were good hearted, hard working, family loving people who did so much to set the example for what parents and grandparents were supposed to be. My children are better for having been around them; I know their memories of Ray and Belle are happy ones that will not soon fade. Maybe the best thing they ever did for me was to bring their daughter Jasmine into the world. Of all the partners I might have chosen, none but she could look past my flaws and love me in spite of them. So thanks for everything Mom and Dad...we will do our best to pass forward your values.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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