I’ve been told that in a family of tough women, she was the sweetest.
You can see it in the 3x5s that carry her memory. Whether it was my mother as a little girl, or my siblings several decades later, she always seemed to be doting on someone.
Johanna “Nana” Guaricino died in 1989, about one year until I came into the world. Her daughter, Anna “Bun” Mancini was my grandmother, and for much of my youth my closest companion. Bun’s daughter, my mother, was an only child, and after her mother’s death in 2009, the last one standing of a family of strong Italian women who called 998 East Third Street home. We don’t talk about my mom’s family that much, we should talk about them more — which made our discovery late one June night in 2018 all the more interesting.
Before I get to that, a little bit of history.
My family has roots in Brooklyn, New York, but we have not lived there since the late 1980s. In the last thirty or so years, New York, and the cultural intricacies that come with growing up in that area have followed us wherever we went. Two decades in Monmouth County, New Jersey, followed by time in Northern Virginia has not brought my parents any closer to shedding the New York in them. The accents may be gone, but the memories remain. If I were a betting man (and I often am) I’d bet that my father was more likely to remember the cross streets his favorite childhood deli were on, than what he ate for breakfast today. My mother is the same, though her memories of youth are tinged with a little more sadness. Like I’ve already written, she is the last of the Mancini/Guaricino women. Her grandparents bought the house she grew up in, and over the next 45 years, her parents, grandparents, two aunts and one uncle would all live there. As the years went on and people died, the house grew quieter, and finally, my grandmother sold it in 1992.
We don’t talk about the house much, or the memories that lay within its walls…not until recently at least. Not until we discovered 80s.NYC.
80s.NYC is a website created by Brandon Liu and Jeremy Lechtzin, two digital saints who have brought to life thousands of photos taken by the New York City Municipal Archives’ Department of Finance Collection in the 1980s. “During the mid-1980s, the City of New York photographed every property in the five boroughs. The project had a bureaucratic origin: the photos were used by the Department of Finance to estimate real property values for taxation purposes,” 80s.NYC explains. “Buildings as well as vacant lots were photographed because both are taxed. Because it was difficult to distinguish while shooting between taxable and tax-exempt buildings, like religious institutions or government offices, the photographers just shot everything. The result is a remarkable body of imagery — over 800,000 color 35mm photos in both negative and print formats.”
Though the content on 80s.NYC is available elsewhere, Liu and Lechtzin have created an interactive map, not dissimilar from something like Google Earth that allows the viewer to guide themselves through a New York of old. It makes what could be an archaic digital sight-seeing tour user-friendly, and in this case, family friendly.
In June 2018 I was staying with my parents while recovering from a wisdom teeth extraction. I am by nature, a giant baby over such things, and appreciated the extra TLC my parents still provide. If your parents are getting old, spend as much time with them as you can, it is worth it — -but that’s a thought for another day.
My father had gone to bed by the time that I stumbled upon 80s.NYC while half asleep. I had enough knowledge of where the grew up that I could navigate their old neighborhood and imagine what my parents must have been like when they were young. With the help of some relatives who were awake and Facebook chat, I was able to get closer to the part of Flatbush where Jo Anne Mancini and Keith Barclay met and started a family.
I explained to my mother what I was doing and asked if she remembered the address where she grew up.
“998 East Third Street,” she replied, without missing a beat.
I brought my laptop closer to her and we waited for the site to load.
She needed to put her glasses on to get a better look at what had come across the screen.
“Is this where you lived?” I asked.
She ignored the question.
“Oh my God. How did they? Is that Nana?!”
The photo of 998 East Third was grainy, but the woman I had only known from photographs was in clear view. There at the bottom left of the screen was Nana. Her dark-rimmed glasses, pale white hair, and patented brand of house-frock were indistinguishable. Tears started to well in my mother’s eyes as we stared at the photo. There she was, brought back to life by a piece of technology she could never have known about.
When my father woke up the next morning, he had his chance to look at the photo.
“Wild,” he repeated to himself.
“That’s really wild.”
He would later point out that just a few feet away from Nana in the photo was a statue of St. Francis. The statue was purchased along with the house in 1945, and had stood watch over the garden ever since.
Dolores Monet of HubPages.com described the importance of a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in 2017.
“Saint Francis was a great believer in leading a simple life. He taught that a love of God’s creation (nature) could lead us down a spiritual path of peace and love for the plants, animals, and people. The inclusion of a St. Francis statue indicates that a garden is a place of peace and spirituality.”
The next morning, we were still obsessing over the photo.
“That was my bedroom window,” my mom told my niece, pointing to the green and white shutters on the side of the house.
My 14-year-old niece, the spitting image of the women on my mom’s side of the family had joined in the fun.
“And thats the ally where I would park my car when I picked up your mother,” Dad added.
My parents continued to study the photo and wondered aloud why Nana would have been at the door until they discovered one key clue.
“Your mother never kept the window open in her bedroom did she?” my father asked.
I mentioned how sharp my dad’s memory is about this kind of stuff. He’s the only person on the planet who would remember 35+ years after the fact that his deceased mother-in-law rarely opened her bedroom window during the day.
“She must have seen someone taking photos outside the house. They wouldn’t have liked that,” mom replied.
For the next few days, we poked around on the website trying to find something as spooky as Nana at the doorway. We found my parent’s starter home where they were living in the early 1980s and told stories about neighbors long forgotten.
A few weeks later I rummaged through some old boxes of photographs for inclusion into this piece. As I was putting things away, my father suggested I take a peak in the corner of the basement.
The statue of St. Francis of Assisi, purchased in 1945, was looking back at me.