THE PARENTS: Rebecca Wall, 33, and Jerry Karalis, 31, of South Philadelphia
THE KIDS: Julianna (Jules) Belle, 13, adopted (by Jerry) Sept. 27, 2019; Luciana Avery, 5; Matteo Dimitrios-Thomas, 2
THOSE NAMES: Rebecca and Jerry are Disney fans, so each child has a name connected with a Disney film: Belle from Beauty and the Beast; Lulu (Luciana’s nickname) for a firefly in The Princess and the Frog; Matteo for a character in Elena of Avalor.
It was the word Jerry didn’t say that mattered.
Early in their courtship, when the two spent time with Rebecca’s daughter, Jules, then 3½, Jerry would say, “Give this to Mom,” not “Give this to your mom.”
“That made it seem like we were a family,” Rebecca recalls.
She’d been wary about introducing Jules to Jerry, the man she met when both worked in the same South Philadelphia shopping plaza — she at the Hair Cuttery, he at his family’s pizza parlor, Mr. Wings.
Jules’ father was Rebecca’s high school sweetheart; they’d planned on marrying, but a week before the baby shower, the relationship crashed. “I was very reserved and guarded when her biological father left,” Rebecca says. “I had to learn how to trust again, how to love again.”
At first — despite a psychic who predicted, “You’re going to marry someone who’s Mediterranean” — Rebecca rebuffed Jerry’s advances. But after their first date, he drove her home and waited in the car until she was safely inside.
“That was the first time anyone had ever done that. I thought: ‘Wow, he has manners.’ ”
Rebecca told Jerry about Jules even before that date; within a few months, they were spending time as a threesome. One day, while getting photographs taken at a shopping mall, the photographer instructed Jules, “Go stand next to your dad.” Shortly afterward, Jerry suggested they go look at engagement rings.
In the fall of 2011, a little more than a year after they began dating, the two were watching television — a program about Kim Kardashian’s divorce — when Jerry said, “Let’s do this the right way,” and proposed. They married on Father’s Day 2013 — a boisterous wedding that brought together Jerry’s Greek family with Rebecca’s Italian-Irish clan.
Jules carried a cluster of pale pink roses. Everyone danced — when they weren’t gaping at the ice sculpture in the shape of a chicken (for Mr. Wings) holding a blow dryer (for her work at the hair salon).
“We figured we were going to have children together; we just didn’t know when,” Rebecca says. It was after a mother-daughter trip to Disney World that Rebecca realized why she’d been ravenously hungry at the theme park. She was pregnant.
This birth would be different. With Jules, Rebecca’s parents — nurses as well as her best friends at the time — were there. This time, she would head to Pennsylvania Hospital with her husband.
“It was 3 o’clock in the morning and I woke up out of a dead sleep and thought: ‘This is it,’ ” Rebecca says. She remembers watching Saved by the Bell while in early labor. She remembers Jerry exulting, “It’s a girl! It’s a girl!”
Even though Jerry’s work hours are relentless — six days a week, twelve hours a day — Rebecca found new parenthood easier than she expected, in part because of Jules’ help. Then Luciana was diagnosed with autism at 27 months.
“I had left my job to stay home with her. I wasn’t ready to even think about having another child,” Rebecca says. But Luciana responded well to early interventions, and Rebecca found herself gradually opening to the idea of a third.
“Matteo was not planned, but not unwanted,” she says. It was a fraught time; Rebecca’s mother had just been diagnosed with cancer, and “I didn’t want to bring a child into this world if my mother wasn’t here.” They waited until Easter to tell family, breaking the news with eggs decorated like tiny jack-o'-lanterns and cards reading, “Did I scare you? Baby K is due at Halloween.”
This pregnancy was different from the previous two — not only because of their worry about having another child with autism, but because Rebecca developed gestational diabetes and needed to plan an induction. But like her previous births, this one was fast: Pitocin at 6:30 a.m., an epidural an hour later, a baby delivered by 9.
Life with three children was “insane,” Rebecca says — especially after Matteo, too, was diagnosed with autism. He receives speech therapy, occupational therapy, and other interventions, while Luciana has started kindergarten and Jules is on the cusp of adolescence.
“The hardest thing for Jerry and myself is giving each child the attention they need at the time. You can’t parent the same way for each child.” There are chaotic stretches — that early evening tumult with Matteo up from his nap, the girls home from school, the dog racing around, Rebecca hustling to prepare dinner. And there are sweet oases, like Jerry’s one day off, when the family might gather pumpkins or make cupcakes.
Last Father’s Day, Rebecca handed Jerry a framed photo of the kids, along with an envelope; inside were some official-looking documents. “Am I getting divorced?” Jerry joked. Then he looked closer. They were adoption papers; Jules’ biological father had relinquished his parental rights. All Jerry needed to do was sign.
They had begun thinking of the adoption — about legacy and caregiving and the passage of time — after Rebecca’s mother died last January. She asked Jules if she wanted Jerry to adopt her. “Absolutely!” was the answer.
Once Jerry figured out what the papers meant, all he could do was stand and wrap Jules in a long embrace. Three months later, a judge made their bond official, and Jules took the last name Karalis.
The next day, Rebecca and Jerry surprised her with a cooking class; the day after that, they saw Hamilton. And then it was a new week: Jules had surgery for scoliosis, the younger ones had therapy or school, and Jerry worked his crazy-long days at Mr. Wings — hating to say goodbye to the kids, happy to come home at night, even for an ordinary evening of watching TV or playing Uno.
“Parenting is hard,” Jerry says. “You give up a lot of things for the kids. But seeing them grow up … those little moments. It’s worth it.”