Remembering My Grandmother

A poem I wrote recently about my travels through Italy in spring 2019 after losing my grandmother unexpectedly just a week before her 95th birthday. She’s on my mind lately as the snow is melting and days are growing warmer. She died on Easter, which is fitting as she was the center of our family Easter traditions, baker of Easter casadella cakes and pizza gain. Rest in Peace Grandma Betty.


I fly away from you,

away from the wooden box

that holds your ashes.

Once I land,

swallows are everywhere

like the Scirocco

sweeping up from the south,

dancing like patterns on the robes

of the Senegalese women who sell wooden beads at the market,

black shapes cutting into blue sky.

They appear in Siracusa

where the old men sit lined up in the square,

brown hands folded in rest

and again in Sienna

spilling from the clouds like seed,

pouring over the city’s stone walls,

flowing out over rooftops.

In Venice they flutter above gargoyles like confetti

as if trying to escape tourists

who trail in pink plastic ponchos and rain boots

like a carnival parade

in and out of alleyways,

across ancient bridges.

They follow me to San Michelle,

the stone city of the dead,

mosaics and iron crosses,

mourning doves roosting like

stone angels above children’s graves.

There a chapel sits empty,

a row of wooden chairs waits

beside a candle lit by some unseen hand.

Finally silence.

My own angels resting.

The end of a migration.

©Kristin D’Agostino

Lipstick and Steel-toed Boots

Click to access peggystory-1.pdf

A Real Life Winnie the Welder Recalls Her WWII Adventures

The melancholy cry of gulls; the crackle of sparks; the click clack of work boots on a ship’s deck. These sounds play like a familiar song in the mind of 99-year-old Peggy Citarella when she recalls her days as a welder in the Charlestown Navy Yard in the 1940s.

On a recent visit to her home in Burlington, Vermont, Citarella beams from beneath perfectly coifed white curls as she shares photos from her welding days. A closer look reveals that seven decades haven’t dimmed the radiant smile of the twenty-one-year-old girl in coveralls, her dark hair curled into a pageboy, a welding gun clutched in her gloved hand. The story is one she’s told many times throughout the years.

One day, while working at a candy factory near her home in Somerville, Massachusetts, Citarella, then just twenty years old, restlessly scanned the ‘Help Wanted’ ads for a better paying job. “I kept seeing the word welder in the men’s section,” she recalls. “I looked it up the dictionary, and it sounded interesting.”

Hopping a bus for Boston, Citarella searched for a welding class at one of the area technical schools. She chuckles when she recalls these visits. “Nobody would let me enroll for a class,” she says. “One time I heard a man say ‘Tell her to go and buy a cookbook!’”

Finally, one afternoon she found herself at a drugstore counter where she asked the clerk for directions to the Newton Trade School. Ironically, the school’s welding instructor Tony Arno was having lunch a couple seats away. The clerk introduced them, and Arno offered her a ride to school. “When we got inside, he told me the cooking class was down the hall,” she says. Upon learning that she wanted to study welding, Arno replied, “Welding is a man’s job … dirty, repetitive, and dangerous. Nice, ordinary girls don’t learn how to weld.”

Citarella tartly replied that she was nice, but she certainly was not ordinary. A week later she’d won herself a spot among the men in Arno’s small, but lively evening class.

Citarella soon discovered she had a knack for welding. She relished working with her hands and the feeling of joining two pieces of metal into one. Soon, Arno began complimenting her work and asking her to assist other students. Within five months, Citarella was asked to teach her own class. When she stepped in, enrollment soared.

“The scuttlebutt was there was a young girl teaching, so all the men wanted to see who she was,” Citarella says with a smile. “The first class I gave a lecture and said I didn’t want any funny stuff and wasn’t available for dates.”

Though Citarella enjoyed teaching night classes, she grew restless during the day. She decided to apply for a job at the Charlestown Navy Yard, which employed 50,000 workers at that time. When she arrived at the yard, the secretary told her they weren’t hiring office help. So Citarella told her she was looking for a welding job.

“We don’t have any women in the welding yard,” the secretary replied.

After sharing that she had teaching experience, Citarella landed an interview with a supervisor who set her up with the challenge of welding different sized metal pieces together into a small box with a set of stairs inside. Citarella thought out the problem carefully and worked her way through. In the end, the supervisor remarked that she “had made a stairway fit for Buckingham Palace and a box fit for her majesty’s jewels.” Needless to say, she got the job and soon found herself the only female employee at the Navy Yard.

Labor of Love

A recruitment poster from 1944 depicts a beautiful women in a suit clutching a handful of letters. “Longing won’t bring him back sooner. Get a War Job!” it declares. Soon, Citarella became one of the scores of women who stepped into the shoes of men who were overseas. She balanced her night teaching job with a new day job helping to build battleships.

As Citarella recalls, there was a rivalry between the female riveters and welders of the era. “You always heard people talk about Rosie the Riveter, but never heard anyone talk about a welder,” Citarella points out. “I made sure I’d tell people, I’m not Rosie the Riveter. I’m Winnie the Welder.”

Despite her coveralls, work boots, and helmet, Citarella always took pride in her appearance. “My nails were always polished, my hair combed, my lipstick on,” she says. “The men would joke they weren’t used to seeing anyone with lipstick on under their helmet.”

Overall, she says, the men treated her well, though she received her fair share of cat calls, mostly from admiring sailors. After a week on the job, she noticed management had installed a new ladies’ bathroom just for her. New female-friendly rules forbade spitting, rude gestures, and foul language. Soon, Citarella saw other women workers take their place among the men in the yard.

The work was difficult, but she enjoyed it. Once, she worked for thirteen straight weeks without a day off. “I was young and strong,” she says. “When you’re doing what you love it’s never a burden.” Each day had a new challenge. One day she’d weld pipes or work on a ship’s exit ramp, the next day patch a fracture in the metal walls. As a female welder, she was constantly being tried and tested. She rose to the challenge and worked her way up to being trusted to work on submarines, which required greater skill. “They gave me jobs they thought I’d refuse to do,” she says. “I never gave them the satisfaction of saying I didn’t want to do it.”

Citarella soon learned the dangers of welding firsthand. One cold winter day while working high on a ship’s mast, she took a tumble down through a manhole and onto a sharp piece of steel. The injury paralyzed her for a week. Luckily, she’d been wearing long johns beneath her coveralls, which helped to shield her body. “When I came back, the job I got hurt on nobody had wanted to do, so I finished it,” she says.

Welding also had its payoffs. Over the two years she worked at the Navy Yard, she worked her way up through three levels to become a first class welder, where she made more money and was trusted with more complex tasks. She says she felt like “one of the boys,” unlike many women who were happy staying in the lower, safer ranks. One day after welding some large sheets of metal together, she took off her helmet to find five men standing behind watching her. “I heard one guy say, ‘Whaddya think?’ and the other guy say, “She’s gonna put us all out of business!”

End of an Era

When the soldiers came home in 1944, Citarella’s working life changed overnight. She and her fellow female workers were let go as the men reclaimed their former posts. Citarella realized she would likely never weld again. “I walked out of the Navy Yard gate and got a little teary,” she recalls. “It was the end of an important era.”

Realizing she wouldn’t be happy in a typical office job, Citarella decided to take one of the sewing classes she’d once avoided. She went on to take a job in Boston’s garment district for several years before meeting her husband in 1948 and going on to have a family of her own.

Though Citarella never picked up a welding gun again, her memories of the Navy Yard remain close to her heart. Not long ago, while waiting in the car in a store parking lot, Citarella glanced over and noticed the rear doors on a nearby truck had been welded. Getting out of the car, she stooped over to examine them. The driver came up behind her.

“What are you looking at?” he asked.

“I’m just checking out the welding,” she answered.

“Do you know anything about welding?” he responded.

“Yeah, a little bit,” she answered.

“I did that,” he told her. “Whaddya think?”

Sparks flicker in Citarella’s brown eyes when she recalls her answer. “I told him, I says, you could never work for me!”

Lipstick and Steel-toed Boots: A Real Life Winnie the Welder Recalls Her WWII Adventures, appeared in Italian America Magazine, Winter 2019

Excommunicated from his church, pastor draws praise and condemnation from pagans and Christians

Pastor Phil Wyman would be the first to agree that he’s a black sheep among clergy. An expert on Wicca, a well practiced interpreter of dreams, Wyman has been an avid participant in the city’s annual Halloween celebration, supporting a holiday many Christians believe to be a symbol of darkness and the occult.

A little over a year ago Wyman was excommunicated from his church, accused of getting too amicable with the city’s Wiccan community because of controversial missionary tactics that included operating a pagan-Christian discussion forum, offering Web site links to pagan sites and fostering personal friendships with witches.

Today the church continues to operate, although it no longer has a parent church, and has about 45 members.

Wyman’s mission is to break stereotypes about Christians and Wiccans. He says many Christians don’t realize Wicca is a nature-based religion.

“Christians have a National Enquirer view of pagans,” he says. “They think they must be worshipping Satan or sacrificing babies … or they view the pagan community as a well organized machine that’s after the church. That’s a sad picture. In turn, because a few Christians have taken advantage of that to make money in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the pagans have a bad view of the Christians. We want to break that.”

Wyman, 49, is an amber-bearded man, with longish hair and a friendly face who looks like he could be a member of a Grateful Dead tribute band. He is matter-of-fact when talking about his excommunication from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal Christian church whose congregation has 4.5 million members worldwide and is known to speaks in tongues while worshipping. (Calls made to Foursquare leaders have not been returned.)

Since October 2006, when Wyman was cut off from his church, not much has changed. He hasn’t lost any members of his congregation and, if anything, his newfound freedom has allowed him to offer more experimental programs at his Essex Street church, The Gathering — things like Lectio Divina, a type of ancient meditation using the Bible, meant to build two-way communication between the reader and God.

And Wyman is still running the same program he began when he moved to Salem from California with his wife and son eight years ago, an e-mail discussion group between pagans and Christians called Circle and Cross Talk. He’s continued to grow his church’s array of controversial street theater events, offered during the month of October, things like dream interpretation; psalm readings, where a costumed monk confesses the ancient sins of the church; and the Brimstone Chronicles, where participants “travel” through Dante’s heaven and hell and are forced to face their own mortality.

Spreading the word

In his ministry Wyman insists he is not out to convert anyone, but to act as an educator for pagans and Christians alike. In fact, the California native flinches at the word “convert,” though he admits he sees himself as a missionary. “That is one of my philosophical differences with a number of Pentecostal and evangelical people,” he says. “I don’t look at conversion as something I’m trying to make happen, I think it just happens in life … when someone says ‘I like what you’re doing and I want to be a part of it.’”

He continues, “… If I get a call on my home phone and I say I’m not interested and the guy goes on … and I feel rude because I have to hang up on him. That has become the model of evangelism. American Christianity has taken on the cultural perspective of intense capitalism. We think we have to sell what we have.”

Some Christians see being a missionary as a street campaign with brochures, Bibles and the plenty of opportunities to speak of heaven and hell. Each Halloween for decades, Christians of different stripes have been coming to Salem in hopes of converting the pagan community.

Michael Marcavage, 28, is the founder of Repent America, a Philadelphia-based organization of missionaries that spent five days in Salem this October spreading their beliefs via brochures and amplified talks on the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall. This, Marcavage believes, is the proper way to go about spreading the gospel.

“Jesus began his ministry by saying repent or perish,” he says, admitting that Wyman has spoken to him in the past to criticize his gloom-and-doom approach. “Jesus preached in the open air and declared truth. That does in fact call for people to either accept or reject it.”

Marcavage accuses Wyman of affirming the pagans’ beliefs. “Is he reaching out to them?” he asks. “He has no division from them … They’re so comfortable with what he’s doing they haven’t taken issue … The word of God invites confrontation.”

Instead of preaching about heaven and hell, Wyman chooses to explore wider topics and compare the spiritual basis of Wicca and Christianity.

“Why should we as Christians be limited to talking about heaven and hell?” he asks. “Jesus didn’t say ‘follow me or go to hell,’ he had many other things to say. It’s not that it’s not a part of what we say, it’s just not everything.”

Which man has been more successful in his ministry? Marcavage says his people talked to thousands on Halloween day and made a meaningful connection with at least 10 people who signed up to start an e-mail dialogue. Wyman says he’s attracted only a few pagans to his congregation since he moved to Salem nine years ago. He seems unconcerned about this, saying he sees Christianity as a viral thing that is passed on and “caught instead of taught.”

Two sides of the coin

Despite his blasé approach, or maybe because of it, he’s gained the respect of one of the leading members of the Wiccan community, Christian Day, 38, a witch and psychic who says he is able to communicate with the dead.

“If ever there was a person that could make me want to become a churchgoing Christian it would be Phil,” Day says. “Not because he’s tried to convince me that witchcraft was evil, or hell is fire and brimstone, but because he leads a life of honesty. He’s one of the most honest people I know … and I’m a psychic. I look at people and I see their dishonesty.”

The two men have been friends since Wyman contacted Day back in 1997 when he was considering moving to Salem to minister to the pagan community. Though he’s never been to a church service, Day often stops by The Gathering to say hi to Pastor Phil and says he’s attended several church events.

“I go to church to break bread with them,” he says, admitting he often enjoys the company of Christians more than his own community, which he considers “full of gossip and innuendo.”

It is easy to see why Day and Wyman get along so well. In addition to sharing a theatrical flare and offering the community psychic services (Wyman dream interpretation, Day psychic readings), both men have in the past two years had experiences that resulted in them being ousted from their spiritual communities. With Day, the schism came last year when he was accused by a fellow witch of planting raccoon remains at downtown shops, a false rumor that rippled through the pagan and Wiccan community.

Because of these common experiences, perhaps, the two men have fostered a symbiotic relationship. Wyman donates dozens of church chairs to Day’s annual psychic fair on the Museum Place Mall. And Day offers the pastor free marketing advice for his church events.

“If I can sell Jesus, I can sell anything!” he says. Recently Day admits, he donated $200 to The Gathering.

“I don’t believe in Moses and the Red Sea,” says Day, “but I believe in doing good for the community. Maybe evangelicals will vote for things I don’t agree with but they do good things for humanity.”

“Excommunicated from his church, pastor draws praise and condemnation from pagans and Christians” originally appeared in the Salem Gazette newspaper, 2008

Shy Guy Gelato

“Shy Guy Gelato: A Taste of Italy in Burlington’s South End”  first appeared at

My love affair with gelato began almost two decades ago. I was 23, backpacking alone in Italy, and got lost trying to find my way back to my hotel in Venice. After an hour circling the labyrinthine streets, I spotted a sign for a gelateria at the end of an alleyway. Ducking out of the sun, I tasted my first-ever gelato — a creamy, fresh cantaloupe I can still recall years later.

Taking bites of the cold, replenishing treat, I continued to round one dizzying street corner after another, eventually finding my way back to my room. Sadly, when I tried to find the gelateria the next day, it had mysteriously disappeared among the bridges and canals. However, its name, Gelateria Nico, is forever memorialized on the inside cover of my Lonely Planet guidebook, scrawled next to the words “Buonissimo! Best gelato in Venezia.”

In Italy, gelato is not merely a dessert. It’s part of a cultural ritual, like going to Sunday Mass or eating fish on Christmas Eve. Going out for a gelato with family or friends provides an excuse to saunter around the piazza and enjoy the last moments of the day together.

Though I appreciate a maple creemee as much as the next gal, my Italian American taste buds often get restless for more. When this happens, I take a stroll through Burlington’s South End to Shy Guy Gelato, which sits at the bustling five-way intersection of Howard and St. Paul streets and South Winooski Avenue.

Housed in a bright-blue storefront, the shop is small and cheery, with one table inside and three on the patio out front. Owner Paul Sansone, 38, got his start as a cook at age 17 and worked for years in local restaurants, as well as out west. At 30, eager to explore his Italian roots, the Jericho native sold all his belongings and spent a year cooking in Italy, first in his great-grandfather’s region of Abruzzi and later in a restaurant in Parma.

Sansone still recalls his first bite of gelato in Rome.

“A light bulb went on,” he said. “It was hazelnut, and it was amazing. It’s still my favorite flavor.”

Sansone honed his gelato-making skills with help from his southern Italian coworkers, then returned to Burlington and took a cook position in a local Italian restaurant. But after several months, frustrated by meager wages, he decided it was time to branch out on his own. He teamed up with Tim Elliott, co-owner of Zabby & Elf’s Stone Soup, and the two began experimenting with gelato making, selling their creations out of Elliott’s St. Paul Street home.

After a year, Sansone says, the lines were out the door, so he and Elliott decided to take the plunge. They raised money through crowdsourcing, took out a loan and moved into the South End location in July 2016.

The neighborhood has been a good home for the gelateria. On a recent Saturday evening, the street corner was hopping. I stepped inside to be greeted by Sansone himself. He’d been up since 5 a.m., when he dropped off Shy Guy’s gelato cart on the Church Street Marketplace.

Sansone and assistant gelato maker Becca Pilgrim make six new flavors each day by hand. Over the past two years, they’ve invented more than 100, including lavender-Earl Grey, horchata, and Vietnamese coffee. When ordering gelato, there’s an art to choosing flavors that complement each other, and Italians often select three at a time.

Sansone advises mixing soft, creamy flavors with bright, fruity ones. Following this advice, I chose white malted milk ball and fuchsia-colored beet. Yes, beet. “I want to wear this, it’s so pretty,” I joked at the register.

I settled down at a patio table, donned a straw hat and pulled out a book. I took a bite of the beet. It was surprisingly rich, the earthiness of a summer garden balanced with just the right amount of sweetness. I followed it with the malted milk ball and drifted into paradiso. Dark chocolate slivers provided the perfect finishing crunch.

The door opened, and two pretty twentysomething women emerged: a brunette, dressed in green shorts and juggling a camera along with a cup of gelato; and a blonde wearing sunglasses, platform sandals and a short, form-fitting pink-and-white dress. The color in her dress echoed that of the gelato in her cone, making it a fashion accessory. As they passed, I leaned over and asked, “Did you order that because it matches your outfit?”

“Actually, yes,” she said with a smile. “My friend is a photographer, and she wants to take some photos.”

The women sauntered away down St. Paul Street, looking like they belonged on the streets of Rome.

Moments later, a family with four towheaded boys settled down at the table next to me. Soon I was chatting with the woman, who turned out to be a scientist and writer from Bangor, Maine. “We’re in town visiting, and we’ve come here two days in a row,” she confessed. “I’ve had gelato at the best gelateria in Rome, and this beats it. Really.”

Beside her sat one of her sons, about age 10, with long, shaggy bangs and freckles. A dollop of chocolate gelato clung to his bottom lip, and his shorts were streaked with brown stains from where he had wiped his fingers.

“My dad thought my shorts were dirty, but I told him it was just chocolate from yesterday,” the boy said. “I got chocolate again today because it’s my favorite flavor. It helps me stay up late at night.”

One of her younger sons swallowed a bite of lime gelato, pulled aside his lip and pointed to a space at the back of his mouth.

“A tooth is growing there,” he said, beaming. “It’s growing right now!”

“Do you think gelato is better than ice cream?” I asked him.

“What?” he answered, confused. “This is ice cream.”

I decided not to bother telling him the difference. Simply put, gelato has less air than ice cream because it’s churned, not whipped, which makes it much denser. It’s also served about 15 degrees warmer than ice cream, which helps to bring out the flavors. The fact that gelato is made with more milk than cream and without egg yolks makes it generally lower in calories than ice cream.

A motorcycle snarled past us, followed by a car with the windows rolled down. Inside, teenage girls were singing to Journey at the top of their lungs.

Sansone walked out, plopped into the seat beside me and surveyed the busy intersection.

“It would be nice,” I said, “if there were a big piazza here.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Or some grass. Last summer they closed off the street for a day and put orange cones out to slow down traffic. It was so nice.

“One day,” Sansone added, “I’d like to expand and sell food, too. In Italy, I worked with these great old ladies who made homemade pasta. I’d love to do that.”

A man walking down Howard Street came toward us.

“That’s a retired professor who comes in here every night to buy two pints of gelato,” Sansone explained. “The people in this neighborhood are so great. Before I had this place, I was kind of a hermit. Now I know everybody.”