Caught in Transition

Fred Tomasello, Jr.
Guest Contributor

My favorite story about Mom occurred on a Holland America cruise line coming back to Florida from Italy several years ago. My wife Kathy decided to make a family album with pictures and short stories about how Mom and Dad met, information about their parents, the families they came from, what they did after they were married, when children arrived, interesting events, retirement, etc., facts essential to preserving our “roots” so we know where we came from and how we got to where we are today.

My mother, her mother and my sister who fatally overdosed early in life, were all named Angelina. According to Internet sources the word originated from Greece and means “messenger from God” or “Angel.”

Since “naming” occurred long before the World Wide Web, I wonder if this definition is accurate or just another example of information we accept as historical fact because we “found it on the Internet.”

My mother’s Mom, my grandmother, whom we called Nanna Angelina, was born in Sicily in a small town named Santo Stefano Quisquina. Today, the town has its own Facebook page where people post stories about how their ancestors came to America. Since the island of Sicily is strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, it was overrun and occupied by many nations ( I’m sure our family DNA will show a diverse mixture of national origins. I’ve often thought of submitting my sample to Ancestor dot com to see what “scientific” results indicate about my heritage but right now. I’d prefer not to shake the family tree, fearful of what may fall or how my DNA may be used.

Neither of my mother’s parents could read or write English (or Italian or Sicilian, I presume) so living at 2609 St. Conrad St. in West Tampa, FL 33607, in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s must have been quite a challenge. Fortunately, nearly everyone in our community were immigrants from various parts of the world, some from the same home town in Sicily, so they naturally stuck together. 

Mom’s dad worked on merchant ships so he was away from home for long periods of time. Nanna Angelina ran the household. She must have been a strict disciplinarian because my mother’s sister, Aunt Mary, ran away from home at an early age to become a “Fan Dancer” in Miami. Mom told us stories how Nanna Angelina would barge into movie theaters yelling for Angelina to come home instead of wasting time inside these dark places that filled one’s head with evil thoughts and lazy ways of living.

The original home on St. Conrad Street was an uninsulated wooden building with a tin roof referred to today as a “shotgun house” because one could fire a gun from the front door to the back door and not hit anything. Living room, bedrooms and kitchen were built on each side of the hallway. Since there was an outhouse, there was no bathroom or plumbing inside the house. When Mom’s brothers finally built one inside the the house, Nanna Angelina was horrified that human beings would urinate and defecate in the same area where they ate and slept. 

Nanna Angelina always had a rooster or two, several egg-laying chickens and guinea hens plus a goat in her backyard. She also tended a garden where she grew and harvested fresh vegetables, tomatoes, squash, eggplant and water melon. She also planted and grew trees where mangos, oranges, grapefruit, papaya and guava grew in abundance. Cool, clean well water was pulled up by a long-handled pump that had to be primed.   

I’m quite sure Mom felt embarrassed knowing most of her friends already had indoor plumbing and jobs that made money so they could purchase their food from grocery stores instead of a garden. I find it ironic that many Americans today are looking to plant gardens once again, fearful of the future. 

Looking closely at her face in this pic confirms to me that something was troubling Mom as she held me in her arms, me wearing my little leather shoes, hand-made and maintained by West Tampa shoemakers.

At a USO Club ( in Downtown Tampa, Mom went to dances after her shift working as a waitress. There, she met my Dad, Onofrio who had changed his name to Fred when he joined the Army. His parents also came from Sicily, a small town near Palermo called Casteldaccia. 

The Army stationed Dad at Drew Field, adjacent to today’s Tampa International Airport, teaching him to use radar before shipping him to Iwo Jima in the Pacific. Before he left for his overseas duty, he married Mom by visiting the home on St. Conrad and asking Nanna Angelina if he could marry her, impressing Nanna he was a good Sicilian boy by drinking a full glass of fresh, warm goat milk.

“What the hell are you doing here!” my shocked mother said when she got home from work and saw Dad sitting with Nanna.

“I want to marry you before I leave,” Dad said. And they did.

When I was born on September 2, 1944, my father was away at war. When Dad returned, he had self taught himself to cut hair so he became a barber. He later transitioned to a beautician, worked at the plush Maas Brothers beauty salon for many years before opening Madison Hair Stylists, his own beauty salon in Downtown Tampa.

As far as formal schooling, Mom made just past the 7th grade and Dad to the 8th, later earning his GED. Dad worked six days a week and often taught hair dressing classes at night to make extra money. 

I was the first Tomasello to attend college in our family. Since I was so disruptive in high school, my GPA was a high “D” so the University of South Florida accepted me on “Academic Warning” meaning if I didn’t maintain a “C” average I would be thrown out. So, to provide me the best possible chance of succeeding in a household where Mom was raising five active siblings, Dad and Mom paid for me to live full-time in the USF dormitory (Beta Hall, Room 337) for that first year to see if I could make it. I did and commuted the remaining four years, working my way through using USF’s Work-Study program where I alternated trimesters of working and learning.

Since then, my sister Norma graduated from college, received her Master’s Degree and retired as a professor of Psychology. Norma’s Daughter, Ciara received a PhD. The golden door to higher education and the American way of life was transitioned for us thanks to the hard work of Mom and Dad.

Back on board the Holland America cruise ship, my wife Kathy and I are “interviewing” Mom and Dad about our history. Suddenly, my mom’s face looks like this pic and she begins to cry, tears streaming down both her cheeks.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” I ask.

“We couldn’t help you and Norma with your homework. We didn’t go as far in school as you. We were both too dumb. I feel so ashamed. Don’t put this in the album,” she insisted.

“OK, Mom, we won’t,” I answered. And we didn’t.

That’s my favorite story about our Mom.

Unless we look back, we’ll never realize how far we’ve come.

1 thought on “Caught in Transition”

  1. Kelly Richard (Dick) Aldridge.

    I thank you so very much for this posting. Why, because it joggles my own youthful experiences of a Mom and Dad unable to contribute to assistance with my education for lack of skills. Secondly the admission of a lack of college preparation which was so similar to myself, and that dedication to overcome those errors committed in youth to attain final sound footing in education. And lastly you have given me insight as to why you chose the study of English as your major in college. I am always exciting to read your words because I know they are heartfelt, well constructed, and truthful in your eyes. leaving the reader with a sense of warm and fuzzy southern comfort.

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