CLEARWATER — Carmeline Russo looked out the passenger window and described the Clearwater she remembered.
That fast food and gas station combo used to be orange groves, she told a nephew on the way to the doctor's office. McMullen-Booth Road once had two lanes and most of the other roads didn't exist.
Her parents, Carmel and Rosa Ceraolo, arrived in Clearwater from Messina in Sicily in 1909 and are believed to be the first Italian settlers in what was then a western extension of Hillsborough County. Mrs. Russo, one of their 12 children, called herself a Clearwater Cracker and never left.
She watched the area grow.
The Depression hit her family's produce market but it survived. Mrs. Russo took a year out of Clearwater High School to help before graduating in 1937.
She held firm to certain standards of grooming and behavior, down to her pink nail polish and perfect hair.
"She would just speak her mind," said Renee Leandri, her niece. "Everybody knew where they stood with her."
She married Jerry Russo in 1953. Mrs. Russo worked at the 3 Oaks Market, a produce store owned by her brother, Vincent. Another brother, Carmel Ceraolo, developed some of the properties associated with Clearwater's growth, including Tri-City Plaza.
Though Mrs. Russo never had children, she looked after her nieces and nephews and was particularly close to Frances Leandri, a sister nine years her junior and Renee's mother.
Her husband died in 1988. Mrs. Russo grew avocados and mangos, attended St. Cecelia Catholic Church and enjoyed card games and dancing at the Italian American Club of Greater Clearwater.
Frances Leandri died in 2009, the result of a stroke. Her three children stepped forward to care for their aunt, as she had done for them.
Mrs. Russo had been living at HarbourWood Health & Rehab Center, where staffers dubbed her "the firecracker."
"She called it her home," said Leandri, an administrator for Suncoast Hospice. "She had made friends here. They became like family to her. She was comfortable here."
On Sunday, Mrs. Russo called her niece to say she had run out of blush and lipstick. She died the next day, Aug. 13, of a stroke.
"I never got to buy those things for her," her niece said.
Mrs. Russo was 91.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.