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Mom & Dad in Cimarelli's bar, Detroit | by Joey Harrison
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Mom & Dad in Cimarelli's bar, Detroit

[Comments by my mother]

Within the first couple of years of our marriage, Jerry wanted to introduce me to his many aunts, uncles, and cousins in Detroit. I wasn't eager, from what I knew of his family. His mother, my landlady prior to marriage, had zero domestic skills. Nor did she make up for it with charm! I never saw her chatting with friends on the telephone or on the porch over a glass of chianti. She was quare and solid; the word "peasant" immediately comes to mind. Although she had been in this country since early in the century and raised a family of five Americans, "Ma" never learned to speak English. Jerry’s father, Sam, who was mercurial and dashing (I learned later), wasn't on speaking terms with his son, so I hadn't met him. I learned later he was regarded as "the black sheep of the family."


At any rate, this reluctant but dutiful wife got in our new little 1948 two-toned beige and brown Nash 400 (reputed to get 400 miles to the gallon of gas) coupe and, on an appointed weekend, we headed to the Big City.


Astonishment! These Italians lived lives on a par with my own Dutch family. The aunts and uncles occupied solid and immaculate two-story brick houses in Detroit proper, most with a front porch and garage in back. Floors were dark-stained wood on the main floor, partially covered with Axminster or Wilton patterned wool rugs. There were dark horsehair sofas, lace curtains, heavy crucifixes. Lace tablecloths covered large dark dining room tables. Meals were sit-down at regular hours, all family members in attendance! Women tended to hover in the kitchen or at the table ready to spring into action should dad or brother need something from the kitchen. (In my own family no-one lifted a fork until Mother was seated and lifted hers, so I did think this behavior slightly Dark Ages.) Daughters cleaned the house meticulously every week, sons were polite and respectful toward parents. The aunts were slightly austere, reserved, and feared! If the married daughters used contraceptives, they surely didn't tell their mothers! (The Pill didn't arrive until the early 60s, but 1950s women could be fitted for an unreliable diaphragm.) The uncles worked in auto factories. They were dons in their own homes, telling stories from the head of the table in a mixture of Italian and English. To this day, the sound of Italian voices causes a rush of warmth in my heart. These folk had all come from Sicily early in the 20th century, bringing their sweethearts from Trapani, Palermo or elsewhere with them, or choosing one of their ilk after arrival. There was not a Mafia member among them. Despite the respect and obedience of the cousins at home, they were attractive, bright, and quick and could be devilish and fun. They were beginning to break away, marry, and move slightly farther out. Their homes were tidy and small at that time, but their work ethic and inventive minds would propel them.


In this 1950 photo we were at a bar owned by Jerry's cousin Al Cimarelli and his wife, Jenny. See the "modern" shape of the bar and the chrome barstools. The seats were surely upholstered in dark red vinyl!


Attending a PSA (Photographic Society of America) convention in Detroit the following year with photographer friends from Grand Rapids, we heard a lecture by Olga Irish, a Brooklyn portrait photographer. She chose me from the audience to come on stage and be used to demonstrate her lighting techniques – fully dressed of course. The next day the Detroit Free Press carried an article about the convention with a large photo of me posing, and all hell broke loose. One of the cousins was appointed to phone Jerry to enquire about my being in Detroit without him, staying in a hotel, not phoning them, etc., etc., all a bad thing in the eyes of these very decent, family-oriented relatives. Jerry wasn't exercising control. I lost favor fast.


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Taken on June 26, 2005