It’s a little after noon now, and I’m still glowing after last night’s book party for A Rainbow Of Memories: My Family’s Journey From Piacenza to the United States.
Held at restaurant Pinstripes, the evening was filled with food, family and festivity.
Agnes of course was there, looking terrific, oozing satisfaction at having completed the project and grateful to still be around and vital at age 92.
A major portion of her family was there, too, including heavy doses of the New Jersey and New York relatives about whom I had heard so much during the six years we had worked on the story of Agnes’s family history.
Her daughter Lori, who had been the engine of the project, read a letter she had found that a relative had written to Agnes on her 80th birthday urging her to record and share all that she remembered.
Agnes, Lori and I met for the first time in the summer of 2004. Agnes explained to me during our initial meeting that she had been telling some family stories after the funeral in January 2004 for Mary, who had been her last remaining sibling.
“Aunt Agnes, you remember so much about the family, you should write a book,” a niece said.
So she did.
Fortunately for me, I was hired to help make that happen.
Lori asked me when I thought we could finish the project.
I answered that it would definitely be done by Christmas.
Now, I will be honest and say that I thought we were talking Christmas 2004, not Christmas 2010.
Just to give a little bit of context, at the time we started the project the Boston Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918, the year of Agnes’ birth.
Barack Obama had gained national attention during a speech during the Democratic National Convention in which he called himself a “skinny kid with a funny name.”
And a young grandson by the name of Marius Joseph Anthony Lucchetti was preparing to start first grade.
In those days, I was working for a small weekly community newspaper on Chicago’s South Side. I’d finish my articles for the paper Thursday night, and then, every Friday, would drive out to Arlington Heights to meet with Agnes and Lori and hear the family stories.
Three things became immediately apparent to me.
First, Agnes is a fantastic storyteller. This led us to shift quickly from our initial plan of her telling me stories and my writing the family history from a third-person perspective to the book being in her voice.
Second, Agnes is a tremendously warm and generous person to whom family has meant everything.
And, third, she has an absolutely incredible memory.
In our conversations after the sessions, Lori and I would continually marvel at the volume and detail of the stories Agnes would recount. I mean, we are talking about Agnes remembering events to the day that happened when she was 2 years old, which at this point is a full 90 years ago. We would check, too!
Through the stories I had the privilege to get to know her family and to learn about their classically American journey from Piacenza and Ponte dell’Olio, Italy to America. I got to know Agnes’ parents, Louis and Clara Losi, who set off for a new world, met, became engaged on their first date and built a loving home for their family. I got to picture Uncle Leo jumping off the Hellgate Bridge and Aunt Mary’s elegance, to learn about the devoted love John and Gloria shared, to hear how Louisa became Eloise the Fifth Avenue designer, to take pleasure in Aunt Claire’s earning her college degree, and to imagine Agnes and Joe’s courtship.
The family members became alive to me and a part of me.
Obviously, a lot has happened since we started.
The Red Sox have won two World Series.
Barack Obama is now completing the second year of his presidency.
And Marius recently began middle school.
A lot has happened in the family.
Bob has had and recovered from a heart attack.
Bob and Lori have torn down their house and built a new one where Agnes now lives.
Sadly, Aunt Claire has passed. I know she would have loved to be here, and somehow feel that she knows about today’s celebration, is smiling and is willing to share her opinions.
Something else has happened, too.
Thanks to the collaboration between Agnes, Lori and my friend and colleague Christine Wachter, A Rainbow of Memories is a beautifully designed work full of stories and maps and letters and timelines and photographs, many of which you here sent to be included.
The book captures the full range of human emotions, from elation and tender connection to devastating sadness and loss.
Above all, it is based in Agnes’ love for family and her desire to give to everyone in it.
In the book’s Epilogue, Agnes writes, I learned what was important in life from my parents. My mother and father worked hard, did not complain and appreciated what they earned. My mother would be in the kitchen every afternoon getting dinner ready for 6 p.m., when my father would come home from working as a tile setter. Our dinners were always full of tasty food, laughter and pleasure in being with each other.
My parents weren’t wealthy, but they shared what they had with the family and they lived rich. My mother always had a nice cloth on the table and my father took great care in the wine he made and in his garden. My parents believed in taking pride in what you had.
She goes on to say:
I tried to live in the same way with my husband Joe and with Lori. I felt so blessed that I had her after all these years. My life was wrapped around the two of them, and I was the old-fashioned motherly type.
I had learned that from my mother, too.
I guess I would sum it up as there’s nothing like family.
Agnes, it has been an absolute treasure to work with and learn from you. I am so honored to have been a part of this project and so thrilled that my father and our dear friend Ava are here with Dunreith and Aidan to join everyone here in wishing you a Happy 92nd Birthday, in congratulating you on your achievement, and in thanking you for your memory, your stories and your gift to all of us.
We thank you and we love you.
Please join me in raising our glasses to Agnes.”
We toasted Agnes, we sang Happy Birthday to her and we drank the champagne Pinstripes had provided for us.
While we were doing so, we also drank in the special pleasure that comes from having worked hard on a major project of uncertain outcome, of not having given up and having emerged on the other side with a result in which we can all take pride.
Sitting there with my wife and father and son and dear friend, celebrating with friends and the family I had gotten to know, the six years all felt worthwhile, and, for a moment, all felt right in my world.