By Tom Cardella
I grew up caught in the middle of two conflicting family traditions on New Year’s Day. My father’s family has deep roots in mummery. My father and some of his brothers marched in the parade years before I was born. It was enough to refer to it as “the parade.” There were other parades around the nation on New Year’s Day, but there is just one parade that matters to Philadelphians.
Meantime, the DeFeo men in my mother’s family had a different tradition. They watched the bowl games that day. They had a studied indifference to the parade. Like attending church, the parade to DeFeo men was for the women in the family. Women were prohibited from marching in the parade back then, but that didn’t stop the DeFeo women from being among the parade’s biggest fans. I should note here that on my mother’s side of the family, my Uncle Georgie Blair, who was married to my Aunt Jennie, marched in the parade alongside my father. But Uncle Georgie was considered an outlier back then. He was also the only Irishman in an Italian family, and a Democrat to boot. It’s difficult to say which was more unforgivable.
My father regaled me with stories about his marching days in the parade. His stories left me unmoved. Even seeing another uncle — Anthony — marching on TV with the comics failed to motivate my interest. One year, he won a prize when he dressed as the “Cisco Kid.” Uncle Anthony was known to his relatives and friends as “Boot” because he lost a couple of toes fighting in World War II and had to wear a special shoe the rest of his life. The special shoe didn’t seem to inhibit Uncle Boot’s ability to do the Mummers strut. Uncle Boot was dashing with his long sideburns and pearl handled “pistols.” Me — I chose to watch TV with my DeFeo uncles and cousins at Aunt Betty’s house. In place of being outside in freezing temperatures on Broad Street and eating hot dogs from a vendor, I chose the cozy warmth of Aunt Betty’s living room and her incredible sausage bread.
Through the years, I grew up a snob about the parade, even as my Cardella cousins carried on the tradition of marching on New Year’s Day. Every string band song sounded to me like “Alabama Jubilee.” But somewhere along the line, things changed.
The change didn’t happen all at once. It didn’t mean that I suddenly donned face paint and gold sparkled shoes. And to this day, I can’t do a decent Mummers strut. I think my appreciation of the parade came about, not because of the parade’s pageantry and tradition, but because of something else. It wasn’t even because I married a South Philly girl, who like most South Philly girls, loves the parade. Perhaps it was the too-early loss of some of our dearest friends that taught me about the meaning of the parade in South Philly on New Year’s Day.
In our apartment on Iseminger Street in the early years of our marriage, we could hear the string bands practicing in the nearby schoolyard on New Year’s morning. I began accompanying my wife each Jan. 1 to the parade site in front of the Methodist Hospital. We would gather with some of our friends to see the string bands. On the way, we would meet and greet other friends and relatives. As a young boy, my son marched in the parade to our delight. We got a kick out of his insistence that my wife spray paint his sneakers gold. The tradition was alive.
A big part of that tradition was my mother-in-law Rose holding open house on parade day. We would gather there eating her roast pork sandwiches and homemade potato salad, while the parade images flickered on the TV in the background. We’d compare notes on the string bands. Mention the people we’d met. I soon found that each year I was spending less time watching football on TV and more time at the parade. And then, as the years wore on, familiar faces at the parade began to disappear. As though someone blew out the fragile flames on candles, the lives of our loved ones were snuffed out each year. Like most fools, I needed their loss to remind me of what is most precious about the parade.
I find that my love for Philadelphia grows deeper each year. And the parade is uniquely Philadelphia. Many of our friends and relatives are now gone. Aunt Betty’s sausage bread. Rose’s roast pork sandwiches. Warm memories of a moment in time. Moments that define our life. And in a way, the parade too has disappeared, gone from our neighborhoods. Victim to the changing times. Our streets forlorn and empty have become strangely sad on New Year’s Day. Baffling indifference shown by the powers-to-be who’ve taken the parade from down here where it all began.
In the community around what has always been called “Two Street,” the heart of the parade still beats strongly. It’s easy to believe that all remains the same. My sister-in-law serves the roast pork these days. At least one Cardella will march on New Year’s Day.
And if you look carefully on New Year’s Day, you’ll see the ghosts of parades past. Still strutting. Trailing gold sparkles in their wake.