When I arrived at the Waterfall Room in South Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon and saw the black-and-white film of my own house towering over me on the projector screen, I knew I was in the right place.
The Cammaratas, the family who grew up in the Mifflin Street rowhouse my wife and I bought two years ago, had invited me to their extended family reunion. It would be an honor, I said.
I’d met them for the first time not long after I moved in. Three of the four Cammarata children had piled into my kitchen for tomato pie — and the story of more than half a century in the house, and of Antonette, the matriarch, a first-generation Italian American who died in 2015.
We reminisced for hours. I wrote a column. It turned out to be my ticket to the big show: the reunion at the Waterfall Room.
Antonette was one of 10 children. And the 10 had 33 kids in turn. We’ll dispense with even trying to count the succeeding generation. The point is there are only so many places in South Philly that can hold a family that big — although, to hear everyone tell it, the Cammaratas certainly tried for 70 years on Mifflin Street. The house was a haven.
And so was the Waterfall Room on Sunday. It was full to bursting — with a few excused absences, said Nick “Sonny” Belfiore, the event organizer and the son of Antonette’s sister Jenny.
“The first one we did we had 185 [attendees]. This one is 150 — the Eagles game hurt us,” he said. Understandable.
There was a bountiful buffet with chicken cutlets and penne and arancini. A towering four-tier cake (made, of course, by cousin Mark Conte, a successful pastry chef in New Jersey) scripted with all the clan’s surnames. Sulpizio. Caffarella. Cammarata. Five generations of the family of Giuseppe and Maria Negro, who came to this country from southern Italy in the early 1900s.
Sinatra played. Everyone shared stories of the old block. Of the old fig tree in the backyard, where Antonette and her sisters sat long after the tree was gone. The smell of burnt orange peels, which Antonette charred on the stove, perfuming the house. How her husband, blue-eyed Michael, spoke Italian when his temper flared, and how his grandkids thought that if they got angry enough, the mother tongue would flow from their mouths, too. The dozens of kids who seemed to live on Mifflin Street alone, who ran the block like a playground, gleaning halfballs from the roofs, running errands for the backroom card players — 10 hoagies for $2.50.
Granddaughter Sharon Bertz came with a thick manuscript: “Everything My Grandmother Told Me,” an accounting of all her conversations with Antonette as a kid. Like the time Sharon saw the faded pink scars on her grandmother’s feet — the remnants, Antonette said, of childhood summers spent shoeless, picking produce in South Jersey so the family could scrape by. They were too poor to let the kids ruin their only shoes in the fields. Sharon cried. “I didn’t want to think of anything hurting her, ever,” she wrote.
“Don’t cry, honey,” Antonette told her. “Nothing hurts me now.”
The family boasted of the grandchildren’s accomplishments since the last reunion. And in whispers they told me of the great tragedy of their ancestral South Philadelphia streets: the parking.
They carry all that family history, and now I carry a bit of it, too. It’s a gift every new South Philadelphian should seek out: A glimpse into what was. And then a realization that it still is.
Yes, the neighborhood is changing. And in many ways, for the good. Some of the family stayed in South Philly — and like what they see. Like Robert Fraker, 29, who remembers plucking at the crystal teardrops on the gold chandelier in his great-aunt Antonette’s house. My house. He marveled at the home videos on the screen, to see relatives long gone, young and with their lives before them.
He still lives around the corner. There are things he misses that gentrification has wiped away — like the iconic King of Jeans sign on Passyunk. “That girl and guy were up there my entire life,” he said. “Now it’s apartments.” Now Center City yuppies sip wine on the corner where he bought his first suit, and Robert sups on gourmet dumplings in the building where he got his childhood haircuts. “I like to see it jumping, I really do,” he said.
His one complaint? It’s the family complaint. Parking. He wishes the newcomers would get with the program.
“Don’t pull in the middle of a spot," he said. “Pull up.”
The afternoon wore on. Cake was served. Sinatra transitioned seamlessly into Elvis. John Cammarata, Antonette’s youngest, got a little misty and offered a toast.
“This family has been here for 100 years,” he said. “There’s a lot of love in this room. I’m glad to be part of it.”
So am I.