We first met in the summer of 2004 in the cafe of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Her daughter Lori Lucchetti explained that Agnes had been telling some family stories at the January funeral for her sister Mary, her last remaining sibling.
“Aunt Agnes, you remember so much, you should write a book,” a niece had told her.
That was the task in hand.
At the time, I was working for South Shore Community News, a fledgling weekly newspaper on the city’s South Side. While the position provided plenty of work and even more passion, it did not come with full-time pay.
Beyond the money, though, the job intrigued me because of my love of family history.
Agnes started talking during our initial interview, and I was instantly struck by the clarity of her memories.
I just didn’t realize the volume of them.
I wrote up a proposal for the project, Lori accepted and we started to work.
I thought the project would be done by Christmas.
I was right about the date, but very, very wrong about the year.
We did indeed finish by Christmas … in 2010, not in 2004 as I had expected.
I’m so glad for my error.
Because the project took so long, I got to make many drives from my home in Evanston to Agnes’ apartment in Arlington Heights.
We’d meet on Friday mornings.
The timing was perfect.
When I was at South Shore Community News, I’d finish off the week’s stories on Thursday evening.
Agnes and Lori would always be there, ready and waiting with some water, a snack and warm cheer.
We’d spend some time catching up about the joys of parenting, of married life and of family before getting down to the work of hearing Agnes’ latest stories.
There were hundreds of them.
Agnes had an astonishing memory that went back to when she was 2 years old.
That was in 1920.
She’d start talking about her mother Clara, who left Italy for the United States because, in Agnes’ words, she had visions of being a princess or something.
She’d share about her sister Louisa, who lost her mother very young, but met Clara on the boat from Italy to the United States and bonded with the woman who had returned after a decade to see her parents for what turned out to be the last time in her life.
When Agnes’ father Louis met Louisa at the dock, the first time he had seen her in years, he told the girl about his girlfriend, a blond who would be her new mother.
“I don’t want her,” Louisa said. “I want Clara.”
Louis and Clara went on a date. They were engaged by the end of it, and married soon after. The union produced four additional children, of which Agnes was the third.
In her simple and straightforward language, Agnes wove a whole world and evoked a time and a classically American journey of an immigrant family who leaves home with nothing, settles in an ethnic port-of-entry neighborhood, and who, by dint of hard work, ends up making a life for themselves and moving to the suburbs after World War II.
After telling stories about them, Agnes said her relatives would sometimes visit her in her sleep. Telling them, she said, brought them alive and made her more proud of what her family had done than before because she realized all that they had accomplished together.
I got to know them, too.
All of them.
Our initial plan for the project was that Agnes would tell me the family history and I would write it up in the third person.
In what was probably my best decision for the book, I suggested that we let Agnes’ voice be the driver.
Agnes and Lori agreed, and, as a result, readers of A Rainbow of Memories are treated t0 more than 200 pages of her stories, pictures and family mementoes.
An awful lot happened in the world and in our families from the time the project began to when we held the book party the day Agnes turned 92 in October 2010.
Lori and her husband Bob tore down their house and built a new one.
Their son Marius grew from a tiny first grader to a strapping young man in middle school.
Bob weathered a heart attack.
On our side, Aidan made his way through middle school and into his senior year of high school.
We lost Dunreith’s father Marty and my stepmother Diane.
Dunreith had a serious car accident.
Beyond these events, though, a loving friendship grew between our families.
Agnes was the source.
She taught us all so much through her steady, quiet manner, her always asking about family first, her unwavering commitment to live and give, and her impish sense of humor.
The book party was one of the most joyous evenings of my life.
Thanks to Lori, Agnes and designer Christine Wachter’s hard work, it looked fabulous.
Dunreith, Dad and Ava were all there, as were Agnes’ relatives from New Jersey, among other places.
Agnes was there, too, of course, looking terrific and glowing at the knowledge that she had realized her dream of providing a gift to her family for generations to come.
We all celebrated and toasted Agnes and her marvelous accomplishment, deeply aware of how fortunate we were to have made it and all been there together.
Agnes didn’t stop there, though.
We had another fantastic party last October to celebrate her turning 93-she and Lori figured you might as well celebrate every one-and, in January, we met and recorded her one last time.
The purpose was to give Marius, a budding teenager, some life wisdom.
Agnes’ voice was not as strong as it had been and her language was impacted by the stroke she had suffered.
But the light that came in her eyes when I asked about Marius burned as strongly as ever.
“I love him,” she declared without hesitation about the young man to whom she dedicated her book. “He’s my prince.”
Marius knew about Agnes’ love because she showed it to him every day.
I consider myself deeply fortunate to have known, learned from, and loved Agnes, too.
I will miss her a lot and I’ll always be grateful to her for the lessons she taught by how she lived her life and the wonderfully meaningful experiences we shared.