Like many Italian families of immigrant parents, we were a big family, four boys and three girls, and devoted to one another during the Great Depression.
My sister Anna, the eldest, was loving and witty, bordering on eccentric, and capable of facing life's pitfalls with an almost bizarre sense of humor.
One time, during my preteen years, our dear mother was bedridden with problems beyond my understanding and was unable to provide the care the younger children needed. Anna, 12 years my senior, became my substitute mother. As a child with a selfish need for attention, I became demanding at times and drove my dear sister to distraction. Once, in a fit of utter frustration, she threw her handbag at me. It bounced off my head. That was an excellent opportunity to dramatize the situation with wails and fake tears, despite negligible pain. As I hoped, Anna came immediately to my aid, smothering me with hugs and kisses and promised to always be a loving sister. And she was.
Over the many years, Anna and I remained close. During one of her frequent visits, Anna walked through the front door, followed by her traditional warm greetings and embraces, and immediately asked for the broom. Without a word and with broom in hand, Anna went out the front door and, like a cleanup crew after a bomb went off, proceeded to sweep a 200-square-foot area outside the entryway.
We could only stand there and watch because there was no stopping Anna. When she was finished, we asked why she found it necessary to sweep the outside, to which she replied that "dirt contains harmful bacteria and creepy, crawly things." One accepted the idea without question.
Anna's visits always included culinary sessions regarding Old World recipes from the historical village of Alberobello, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, our mother's birthplace.
Our visits suddenly took an unexpected detour. Anna was diagnosed with breast cancer, followed by a total mastectomy. We were devastated with sadness. Like the trouper she was, Anna came through her ordeal, only to receive the same news a second time 10 years later. Again she did well, yet it seemed that her misfortune mimicked a brother who died of lung cancer and our mother, who battled leukemia.
Anna, like many children of Old World parents, was heavily into sewing projects, either working on a machine or by hand. Even as an adult, I was always fascinated by the thimble on her finger. I can still see her sitting quietly in a comfortable chair, sewing a skirt, the folded hem held in place with straight pins. With delicate precision she stitched an inch or so, removed the straight pin and, with a grandiose gesture, shoved it into her handmade cloth breast prosthesis, using it as a handy pincushion. This seemed both shocking and hilarious as she coyly looked up from her hemming with a smile on her face like the impish little devil she was.
Ever the optimist, Anna refused to see or accept the dark side of life. As a lay nun, she seemed blessed with a strong conviction that life on Earth is a temporary stay.
Anna lived to be 84.
John M. Angelini, 87, is a painter and writer living in Hudson.