March 2023: A Family Story and the Easter Promise

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Dear Friends,

Everybody has a family story to tell. The story of my grandparents – my father’s parents – has probably shaped my life the most.

It began in the hills of central Italy in a rural hill town where my grandmother was born. When she was about twenty-years-old, she came to the United States around 1906, amidst the wave of the great immigration of Europeans to America. I believe that my grandfather may have arrived before her, and I don’t believe that they knew one another. I recall being told by my father that they were introduced to each other by mutual family acquaintances after they settled in the United States – a most typical match-making custom in those days.

They married in 1910, settling in Wilmington, Delaware. My father was born in 1911. His oldest sister arrived a year later, and then another and another and another and another sister and two more boys – you know how large and how fast families grew back then! In total, my grandparents had eight children – three boys and five girls, not including children that did not survive pregnancies. In addition, they cared for a niece and nephew, who were her brother’s children, as he lost his wife during childbirth, and her brother never really managed well through his grief.

From 1910 to 1926, my grandparents lived in a small row house on the East Side of Wilmington, where they raised their children. In 1926, my grandfather suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack. He was fifty-years-old. His wife was forty-years-old, and the children ranged in age from fifteen to one. His death was a devastating blow to this young family, who were under the charge of a matriarch who never worked outside of the home, spoke little English, and had no obvious means to support her large family. Her husband was buried in a grave borrowed from her brother, who also emigrated to the United States and lived in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania. He and his wife did what they could to help their sister, but they could not provide all that she would need for her growing family. There was no pension, no insurance or social security, so, social workers from the State stepped in and wanted to place the children in various foster homes. The idea was completely extrinsic to my grandmother; “family” was all she ever knew. What happened next would not likely be repeated today.

My father, being the eldest son at fifteen, followed by his five sisters, ages fourteen to eight, all left school and worked full-time at the nearby mills on the Brandywine River. In addition, my father assumed a patriarchal role, along with his mother, who also started working as a laundry woman. Their row home in the city was near the repair shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Workers from the railroad shops would drop their soiled work clothes at my grandmother’s house, where she would wash, dry, and iron them. This was not a very profitable business, but it added to the family purse. As my father got older, he advanced to better jobs as a mechanic, first at a car dealership and then at the repair shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad – a job he held until he died.

Though my grandmother was poor and not formally educated, she was intuitive, smart, and had a winning personality. During the Great Depression, she had the idea of starting a neighborhood grocery store. The store was attached to the house, and the children were able to work in the store; though by the mid-1930s, the older daughters were getting married and starting their own families. Even though my father and mother married in 1938, my parents continued to live with my grandmother for the next nineteen years. That arrangement was testimony to how much my grandmother relied on my father and how much my mother loved and respected her husband and mother-in-law. Three of my grandparents’ children never married, and continued to live in the multi-generational household with my parents and my three brothers. My father’s youngest sister married, but they did not have any children, so she worked in the family store, as well.

By the time I was born, our family had given up the business and moved to the suburbs, living in three identical houses that they had built all in a row. There were my parents, brothers, and I in the middle house flanked by my aunt (Dad’s youngest sister) and uncle on one side, and my grandmother, unmarried aunt, and two unmarried uncles on the other. Needless to say, I was raised in a close-knit family environment!

I always knew that I was loved, but I don’t recall the word, “love,” often spoken. It was conveyed in so many ways of providing everyday needs, of celebrating family traditions, of being considerate and thoughtful, of sacrificing for one another. Love was the genuine motivation to be present and attentive to one another. As Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Love endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Why am I inclined to share this family story as part of my Easter reflection? Two answers come to mind.

First, in the Spring issue of Independent School magazine, Donna Orem, NAIS President, reflects on communities within independent schools. She references the work of McMillan and Chavis in understanding the elements that create a “sense of community.” (“Sense of Community: Definition and Theory,” Journal of Community Psychology, David W. McMillian and David. W. Chavis). Quoting Orem’s article, she writes that building a sense of community is reduced “to three attributes: a feeling that members have of belonging; a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group; and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.” (p.8, Independent School, Spring, 2023). As I read this, I checked off all three boxes in recounting my family story, and much like my family experience, I feel the same about my Archmere story. 

I joined the Archmere community when I was fourteen. Just four months after my father passed away, I began my ninth grade year, anxious about doing well academically and fitting in socially, sorting through feelings of “being that kid who doesn’t have a father.” Money was tight and I was very aware of it. My mother was fragile emotionally but stoic and strong in many other ways that encouraged me to do the same. My brothers and their families were supportive and nearby. Not saying the transition to Archmere was not without its moments of challenge, but the Norbertine priests I met, as well as the lay faculty and staff, helped me tremendously to become a part of the school community and expand my family safety net. They, in addition to friends I made along the way, provided a supportive environment for me to grow, and Archmere became more than just a place I attended to earn my high school diploma.

Second, our parish choir sang at Mass on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, “And the Mother Did Weep,” a piece from the larger work, “Stabat Mater,” by Karl Jenkins. The piece is haunting in its repetitiveness of the words: “And the Mother did weep,” and in the metronomic tempo of the piece, which is accentuated by the constant beat of the bass, like a heartbeat. As I was accompanying the choir as they sang it, I thought about the tremendous pain of losing someone you love, let alone watching your only son be tortured and put to death. What an unthinkable burden that the Blessed Mother was asked to bear, one that I would imagine would have a dramatic and permanent effect on a person! I thought of all the present-day mothers in Ukraine and other parts of the world where they are caught in the crossfire of war and violence, protecting their children as much as possible from physical and psychological harm and death.

After I finished playing the musical piece, my thoughts moved to my grandmother, the sudden loss of her husband, her hardships, and then to my mother, who lost her husband – my father – when he was sixty-years-old from a heart attack, like his father. Mom was fifty-three. These events changed the lives of my aunts and uncles, my mother, brothers, and me. And yes, we heal and move on from our tragedies, but their impact is lasting and we are changed.

What was the lasting effect of Jesus’ death on his mother? Mary’s pain and sorrow must have been extraordinary, but did she find peace and consolation in the moment, or was it her faith that carried her through emotionally until she witnessed his Resurrection? And after he left this earth until her death, she knew the love and support of the disciples who became her family. I believe that the love Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and later, the apostles, shared allowed her to “endure all things.”

The love of family, the love of a faith-filled community like Archmere, and the consoling promise of the Resurrection, contribute to my joyful gratitude for all of you as we celebrate Easter. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:8)

Wishing you a Blessed Holy Week and a Joyous and Happy Easter Season,

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Head of School
Archmere Academy is a private, Catholic, college preparatory co-educational academy,
grades 9-12 founded in 1932 by the Norbertine Fathers.