I Grew Up Poor But Lived a Rich Life

My Journey to Appreciation — A Holiday Message

I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s in the inner-city of Rochester, New York in a big Italian-American Catholic family. Both of my parents each had ten brothers and sisters and, as a result, every day was a party.

Sort of.

My father never made a lot of money, but we didn’t have a lot of bills. For a good portion of my childhood, we lived rent-free in the homestead of my mother’s family. It was a red-brick double house with a solid foundation of love. I lived on one side with my parents, Herbie and Frances Pilato, and my older sister Pam. Next door was my Aunt Elva Turri Easton, sister to my mom, her husband Carl Easton, and their daughter, my cousin Evie.

Numerous extended family members, neighbors, and friends were frequent visitors to “the house.”

Yep — our house was “the house,” the center of the family; the place where it all happened; where every we knew wanted to be.

It was a good life, even though my immediate family really had nothing of what this world calls secure. We were clean, and the house was spotless, but attaining, retaining, and saving money was always an issue.

Still, we ate well and loved God.

We attended church every Sunday morning and sat down to pasta dinner every Sunday afternoon. We also enjoyed pasta every Tuesday and Thursday at 4:30 PM and on Mondays and Wednesdays, it was either fried chicken or my Mom’s awesome chicken or lentil soup.

On Friday nights we went out to dinner.

Come Saturday night, various extended family members and friends would visit over the years, and we would gather around the TV to watch shows starring Lawrence Welk, or Jackie Gleason, while The Hollywood Palace, Petticoat Junction, Mission: Impossible, among others, were other favorites.

In one very short time period, circa 1973–1974, television on both Friday and Saturday nights were heaven:

The ideal line-up for Friday evening: The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love, American Style.

The next night: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.

Seriously…what more could anyone want from free evening entertainment in your own living room? And whatever we watched at night was usually discussed the next day, when my mom’s sisters would come over for morning coffee.

Television wasn’t the only topic of conversation, of course, and it wasn’t always pleasant, the TV shows or the conversation, but the gatherings of good people were consistently plenty. And before every last drop of coffee was shared and enjoyed along with a daily danish or a dose of coogan everyone always kissed and made-up.

There were many arguments between the laughter and the joy, but not a whole lot of divorces. Disagreements were in full discourse. But the yelling and screaming were only and soon followed by large portions of immediate forgiveness, with everyone moving on to the next adventure in life and emotion.

And those were just the daily activities.

With every season our family gatherings would expand in math and geography.

Each spring, the numerous family picnics would begin, while we summered throughout Upstate, New York, in places like Waterport and Honeoye Lake, where both my dad and mom had siblings who owned summer homes. We also vacationed in Canandaigua, and Lake George, while one year, I believe during my school spring break of 1968, we went as far Miami, Florida.

That was a good year.

My dad’s brother Mac lived in Miami, and we stayed one week at the Gold Dust Motel, and the second week at Uncle Mac’s house.

I was only allowed one week’s vacation from school, but somehow my parents worked it out with school officials that I could have an extra 7 days in Miami.

So, as I said, 1968 was a good year.

While the world, then unbeknownst to me, was falling apart with race riots, the Vietnam War, and various political assassinations, I began to fully embrace the love of pet animals and life.

I always had dogs and cats, several at one time, in fact. But it was during my vacation in Miami that I seemed to form an even more special bond with the little critters and living.

My Uncle Mac and his wife Anne had two happy, healthy dogs, with brown and black fur coats that shone so bright and clean. And I remember how Aunt Ann used to say, “I L.O.V.E. you” to both those adorable canines, who responded with full-embrace to those words of affection.

From that moment on in Florida and beyond, I learned to love and be more fully aware of what I would later label the simple treasures of life, with which, in retrospect, I had always been enormously blessed.

Once back in Rochester in 1968, and every year and second forward, I began to realize just how crazy “rich in love” I was if lacking in economic status.

But the lack of funds never stopped my family, immediate or otherwise, from enjoying life. There were countless weddings, banquets, and birthdays, the latter at least once a week, with some cousin or aunt or uncle celebrating their co-existence with ours.

We always laughed and made sure to thank each other for everything…each happy night before we went to sleep.

That’s what it was like all the time.

We had “structure” at my house. It was a good, sound “foundational structure,” in the geographic, physical sense, and in every other emotional and psychological way — even on the challenging days which, as I matured, were more frequent than I realized because I felt so loved.

Herbie J Pilato writes about pop-culture, stays positive, and hosts THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, a TV talk show on Amazon Prime and Amazon Prime UK.

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