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Grandmom and The Fronds of Glory

Updated: Mar 24

PALM SUNDAY always takes me back to the memory of a tiny house on a impossibly-narrow one-way street in South Philadelphia where my grandmother, Millie Gizzie, spent the Lenten season crafting Easter Palms. The two-story house was so small that it didn’t even qualify as a “Trinity.” The Father and Son may have had a place to stay, but the Holy Ghost needed to find other accommodations.

Each year, around the time of Ash Wednesday, a truck would drop off a load of palm fronds wrapped in moist burlap sacks -- their long leaves greenish-yellow and supple. This special delivery from the swamps of Florida would sit in grandmom’s dank basement next to the coal bin for the duration of the “family project,” which, honestly, by the early ‘60s was met with some dread.

Everyone, except my grandmother, was kind of over the Palm Enterprise, especially my mom, who had been force-marched through the palm-making ritual since childhood, when it was conducted under the auspices of the neighborhood Catholic Church. Grandmom took over the “business” when the church gave it up. But selling hand-weaved cemetery palms for $2 or $3 each, considering it took literally hours of work to make just one, was hardly an attractive P&L. It didn’t matter. Everyone was expected to pitch-in.

My grandmother was lead dog. She’d start the process by stripping away the coarse edges along the sides of EVERY SINGLE PALM LEAF, and then go on to create the base for each decorative doodad that festooned the shaft. These adornments had names: bananas (curled braids), artichokes (pyramid-like towers), and plats (winged meshing that anchored the base).

Next, the palms were handed off for the rest of us to finish. Uncle Sal was an expert plat-maker. My mom was good at everything, of course. I was the banana girl because that was the easiest, and I was just a kid.

As you would imagine, after so many years, Millie’s Easter Palms were highly regarded. She usually had more orders than she could fill. But there was one particular Easter season when a special request came in that caused my grandmother to freak out.

It would forevermore be known in the family as “The Palm for Al Martino’s Mother.” We’ll call it TPFAMM.

IN THE EARLY '60s, the South Philly crooner Al Martino, (you also may know him as Johnny Fontane from “The Godfather”) was a very big deal in Bella Vista, the name Realtors later bestowed on the Italian section of Philly to make people think that buying two-thirds of a Trinity for $300K was tres chic, er, molto elegante.

So, the mere fact that Al Martino -- more a Perry Como-type than a pop idol like his bopping neighborhood compadres Bobby Rydell, Fabian Forte, and James Darren – had requested an Easter Palm for his mother’s grave was enough to send everyone into palm-making panic.

Let’s face it, TPFAMM couldn’t be just a regular old Easter Palm.


It had to have LOTS OF DOODADS!

Finally, it had to be GIGANTIC!

But the most insane thing everyone assumed about TPFAMM was that Al Martino would surely pick it up himself.

Why? Because it’s TPFAMM, people!

As I look back now, the entire episode was like a rerun of the movie “Big Night,” with Al Martino taking the place of Louie Prima as the much anticipated celebrity visitor for whom homage needed to be paid.

TPFAMM project started out as an elaborate but reasonable endeavor. Instead of the usual single-frond palm, this one had three decorative fronds secured to a large wire easel, with palm doodads stripped across the bottom (as seen here).

Not good enough! Grandmom declared. We needed to put a lot more crap on it. So, it just kept on going. More fronds. Tons of bananas. Many more artichokes. A giant plat to replace the doodads at the bottom.

In the end, TPFAMM was a Plenitude of Palm (as seen at the top of this post).

Grandmom declared it a masterpiece. The rest of us looked at it and thought, “Wow, that’s really over the top.”

But not a negative word was spoken. The only thing left to do was wait for Al Martino to knock on the door.

WELL I'M SURE you’ve guessed the ending by now. Just like in “Big Night,” the superstar never arrived. Instead, a “chauffeur” came to pick up the prized palm. Grandmom was terribly disappointed, but she was still honored to have made TPFAMM and she treasured the many pictures Uncle Sal took of our handiwork.

Well into her 90s, grandmom would continue to take out the dog-eared and yellowed envelope that contained the photos to show them with pride. When she passed away, we put a few of them in her casket to take along to Palm Paradise.

As a final note and a nod to my own curiosity, I looked up the resting place of Al Martino’s mother, Carmela Cini, on Find a Grave.

And BIG SURPRISE! Al Martino’s mother died in 1998. It was his father, Jasper Cini, who died in 1958. So, it turns out The Palm for Al Martino’s Mother was really The Palm for Al Martino’s Father! The order had been made so that the very alive Carmela Cini could place the palm on her deceased husband’s grave.

But It really doesn’t matter who got the Giant Easter Palm of 1960, because in the end blessed is he, or she, who comes in the name of the Lord bearing an abundance of bananas, artichokes, and plats on Fronds of Glory.

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