This Labor Day, I celebrate a woman who began working when she was still in grade school, scrubbing steps along her alley street near Patterson Park for a dime and giving the money to her mother. Her name was Amelia Kouneski Adornato, and all my life I knew her as "Aunt Meely," the wife of my father's first cousin on the Italian side. Big-hearted, selfless and funny, she was known to bust out her rendition of "God Bless America" after a few rounds of Pink Squirrels. (Kate Smith had nothing on Meely.)
After battling an array of persistent maladies, Meely died this past July in the transplanted Highlandtown of Harford County where so many of my relatives ended up. She was 82 years old, and for a good 50 of them she worked jobs many men would be happy to have today.
As we honor the contributions of American labor (organized or unfortunately not, unskilled or skilled, white collar, blue or bare-chested in the field), consider the life of a woman synonymous with an economically robust Baltimore, a factory town that fades each time another Meely leaves the room.
Born in the teeth of the Depression, Amelia Catherine Kouneski was delivered not into poverty but simple work that kept poverty from the door at 205 South Chapel Street, a cracker box with an outhouse. One of six kids, she remembered her childhood as "the good ol' days, two to a bed, no heat and an oil stove in our tiny dining room."
Meely said her mother — the former Kathryn Cerko, widowed at 29, later marrying the brother of her deceased husband — took in ironing and "stretched curtains" (a term for starching lace on a wooden frame) "just to make a penny."
"I remember when Mom got a job at an ice cream plant somewhere on Pratt Street," said Meely, when I took down her story a few years ago over a bowl of her homemade minestrone. "She'd come home to give us lunch with an apron full of melted Popsicles for us."
In her own career of pinching pennies and saving nickels, Meely dropped out of school (later earning her GED) to work payroll at the Lord Baltimore Uniform company, still in business on the east side near Hebrew Friendship Cemetery.
She then worked the line at Western Electric on the Breezy Point end of Broening Highway. "I soldered nuts and bolts," she said.
A trip to the Baltimore Museum of Industry reveals the world of neighborhoods and shopping in Baltimore 60 or so years ago. Curators there have dipped into the institution's archives to create an exhibition mixes the traditions of city neighborhood markets, vanished department stores and revered retailers.
After Karen, the first of her three children, was born in 1957, Meely went on night shift at a Western Electric annex on Haven Street, working with hot molds.
During this time, post-war prosperity and union wages allowed more Americans to leap into the middle-class than ever before. Meely and her brewery worker husband Ernest — my father's cousin, known in the family as "Juidy," an Italian-American mangling of "Junior" — decided they could live on one paycheck so she could stay home with their daughter.
"A good Friday night when we were first married was making pizzas from scratch and drinking homemade wine," said Juidy, a quiet man who finds himself a widower after 62 years of marriage.
As the family grew (sons Gary and Steven arrived in the early 1960s), Meely went back to work for the "extras" (modest vacations and Catholic education for the kids) that strengthen kin and community. This time, she got together with a sister-in-law and two other female relatives (all residing, as my grandparents did, along the alley separating the 600 block of South Macon Street from the 600 block of South Newkirk near City Hospitals) at the Seagram's distillery in Dundalk.
Social Security (delivered to a hurting nation when Meely was eight-months-old), the Seagram's pension Meely received when she retired at 56, her husband's brewery retirement — whatever money the frugal couple saved over the years and the devotion of their children allowed the Adornatos to leave behind a life of hard work for the simple comfort of a small condo some 30 miles and a world away from the rowhouses where they were born.
After Aunt Meely's Mass of Christian Burial, my cousin Gary (a compatriot in the writing game) told a story I won't soon forget.
"I remember that my mother sometimes wouldn't eat dinner, she said she wasn't hungry," said Gary. "But she'd cut up the last piece of meat and put it on our plates. It wasn't until I got older that I realized what she was doing."
Growing up, you never really know how other families live, even relatives as close as the Adornatos with whom we went to Ocean City every summer.
The funeral reception was held at a suburban Italian restaurant where — trust a paisan on this — whatever they call pasta fagiole is nothing like the traditional peasant "fah-zool" that Meely served. After the buffet, four generations of my extended family gathered for a group portrait.
As the flash dimmed on a half-dozen cell phones, we instinctively laid into "God Bless America" with all the gusto that our dead ancestors from Eastern Europe to the boot of Italy and the Iberian Peninsula — laborers obsessed with work and assimilation and learning English — had given us.