Today marks the centennial of the birth of the late Gilda Di Marcello: the youngest child of Vincenzo Di Marcello and Maria Censoni—and their longest living child; a sister to Frank, Anna, and Sophie; the wife of Frank Di Memmo; mother of seven children: Mary, Rudy, Caesar, Joseph, Frank, Pasquale, and Jean; grandmother to twenty-two grandchildren; great-grandmother to at least forty-seven grandchildren; and a great-great grandmother to at least eleven great-great grandchildren when she died in October 2001.
She was also a beloved aunt to all her nephews and nieces; not only bestowing her love upon them but also to their children and grandchildren.
She was an amazing woman; a window to a world which now seems ancient and mysterious to the computerized techno-gadgetry of today’s Facebook world. She lived in simpler, sterner, more stoical times. She lived in an era which (at least in her eyes) must have possessed a greater clarity than the era we live in today where the truth seems ephemeral; right and wrong becomes mercurial and inter-changeable; and reality dissolves more easily into unreality.
She was a living witness to a tsunami of changes which boggle the imagination. She survived two World Wars and several lesser wars. She saw Lindbergh fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon; she also saw the atomic bomb blow up and the Twin Towers fall down. She saw women’s skirts and necklines go up and down; she saw people’s hair grow longer and shorter; she heard music get jazzier, funkier, louder and more outrageous. She saw TV in black and white; then color; and then in cable.
Through all this she remained herself always: soft-spoken, loving, loyal, eternal, doting, and quietly smiling.
My earliest memory of Gilda came when I was roughly six or seven years old. My parents took me and my brothers to visit her and her husband at their home in Ridley Park, PA. I believe my father was helping pour a slab of concrete in their backyard. I was left inside the house alone with Aunt Gilda. (When I was a little child, I was bewildered by her name. It sounded so weird to me. I remember my six year old brain would say to itself, ‘what’s an Aunt Gilda???’)
I remember in the parlor of the house Aunt Gilda had an organ. I remember being fascinated with that organ because when I used to attend SDA church at Laurel Springs I remember being fascinated with the organ that was used during the services. I always wanted to play with the keyboards but was never allowed to do so. Imagine my joy when Aunt Gilda, seeing my fascination with her organ, allowed me to sit in the chair and play with the keyboards?!?!
And so there I was a giggly, antsy kid goofing about on the keyboard, making Frankenstein and other horror movie noises and laughing hysterically at my own mischief; and all throughout my childish doodling I would look back at her and see her sitting there in a corner easy chair smiling silently and indulgently at me; a most loving and doting smile—as if to suggest that I was neither the first nor the last little child to goof about on her organ?
Gilda was a shy woman—by her own admission in letters she wrote to me while I was doing genealogical research on the Di Marcello, DiBiase, D’Ambrosio, and Di Memmo clans. But there was a spark there; a flame kindled from what George Washington called that inner celestial fire called conscience. She lacked a full-fledged education but she had a native intelligence and an artistic spirit which expressed itself in subtle and wonderful ways. One cannot help but wonder what she would have become if she were growing up in today’s world where young women have greater intellectual and professional opportunities than Gilda did back in the 1920s.
(In my first genealogical book there is a 1927 photograph of Gilda at age 17 posing with her brother Frank and her parents. She was wearing what a young teenage girl was supposed to wear during that era. In 1996 one of her grand-daughters would tell me that particular photo in my book was her favorite one. She told me, shrieking with laughter, “My grandmother the flapper!”)
She married young. She was only eighteen years old when she married Frank Di Memmo. She would devote the rest of her life to matrimony; motherhood; grandmotherhood; great-grandmotherhood; and great-great grandmotherhood—not a simple task.
(Gilda laughingly told me in a letter in the 1990s that it was hard for her to keep track of all the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren she had). Her progeny seems biblical in its scope. (That’s why in the dedication of my second genealogical book I quote Genesis 15:50 as a tribute to Aunt Gilda).
My relationship with her grew during the 1990s because my genealogical work. I still have her letters and I still savor the memory of the periodic phone calls I made to her during those years.
She was always encouraging, loving, positive, and uplifting. There was never a time when I saw her or spoke to her when she failed to make me feel better about myself. I assume she did that with everyone.
I remember in one letter I sent her I showed her a song I wrote called "I Can’t Find Myself (For Myself)". The song was a typical Matthew DiBiase lyric: introspective, self-deprecating, and a little bit crazy. In her response she sent me one of her lyrics and she gently admonished me that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself in my lyrics—saying, “Remember we are all God’s children and if God is King then that makes you a prince.”
Even as I’m writing this I still chuckle at the sentiment but guess what? It worked. It had the desired effect of making me feel better. That was Gilda. She was always making you feel good; feel more alive; spreading love and watching it flow. When I visited her and we would sit together, she would always reach out and squeeze my hand, showing love and affection.
I remember one family reunion in April 1996. She had come to Central PA from Michigan and everyone came to see her. Aunt Gilda was sitting in the living room and her granddaughter Malissa Richardson was showing Gilda her brand new baby son Travis. While Travis remained cradled in her lap, Gilda kept patting his head and smiling at her newest great-grandchild.
Gilda in her final years struggled with deafness—though one of her grandchildren told me it was a selective deafness. When I saw her during those final years it always amused me that when the conversation bored her she would sit silent and unhearing but when the conversation interested her (or else when someone she loved or cared for or respected dearly was speaking) then she would cup her hand to ear and strain to catch every word that person was saying. I ought to know. She always did that when I was speaking during family conversations. It touched me. It made me feel good that a least one person was listening to what I had to say.
When she died in 2001, I mourned. Not only was our collective looking-glass to the ancient past taken away from us (as well as the last link to our Italian heritage) a dear, dear friend was lost to me; a wonderful transcendent human-being was no more; a loving presence and persona in a world which has now become increasingly ugly, brutal, savage, and cruel was taken from us—and the world was a less beautiful place because of it.
I went to her funeral (there was no way I was going to miss it. I owed it to her). I took off from work to do this. She was buried on a glorious autumnal day alongside her husband. Her memorial service was a glorious requiem to her memory. Whoever choreographed the service and planned it deserves a medal. Her funeral was everything a memorial service should be: her entire family was allowed a chance to make their contributions; all the generations of her descendants left their mark on the service. Gilda died with dignity and was laid to rest with the love, tears, and memories that she richly deserved. As funerals go this one was a fitting end to a magnificent woman.
I would like to end this tribute with a story of my own. In the days between her death and her funeral I wrote a poem in honor of her memory. The words fell into place rather quickly and I had a typescript ready to go when I arrived at the funeral hall. It was my intent to read it if there was an appropriate time to do so.
As it turned out there was ample opportunity for me to read the poem. People were allowed to come up and say their piece about Aunt Gilda. Many did so. I waited. When it seemed like the last person had said their piece and it felt like it was my turn, I fingered my typescript which was folded neatly in the inner pocket of my suit. I grasped it when I heard a little voice inside my head say quite clearly and distinctly, “Leave it be. Everything that needed to be said has been said.”
I didn’t move. I held my piece because the voice was right. Everything good that needed to be said about Gilda DiMemmo had been said. The poem remained in my suit pocket. To this day I do not regret not reading the poem. My inner voice was correct, my words would have been unnecessary.
The life of Gilda Di Memmo lives on in the memories of her descendants. That is as it should be. She was an amazing woman who gave life and light to so many.
May God rest her Soul.