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Few have seen the Lower East Side change more than 94-year-old Carmella.
Affectionately nicknamed Millie by her family and friends, she’s spent the last 70 years in a small apartment between First and Second Avenue. Back then, the Lower East Side still stretched north to 14th Street. Through the sun-dappled windows, Millie can see the city buzzing around her and longs to explore the streets she once knew like the back of her hand.
Sadly, Millie is too frail to navigate the stairs of her fourth floor walk-up. She now relies on Citymeals for food.
Born on Mott Street, Millie’s first years were spent in a cold-water flat. With the tub in the kitchen, Millie — along with her sisters Yolanda and Tessie — competed for who would wash first, before the water got cold.
Still, Millie describes a contented childhood, with many of her earliest memories involving food: Sugar-dusted cannoli in the window of Veniero’s… the scent of horseradish and bay from the Russian market wafting through the family’s apartment windows… sipping sweet, tangy lemonade on the fire escape during the dog days of summer.
We didn’t know what it was to have veal cutlets!
Along with food, music also played an important role in Millie’s childhood. As a child, she was a talented singer. Her sweet melodies caught the attention of passerby, and at only 7 years old, Millie was singing in front of a talent scout and received an invitation to go to Hollywood.
Although Millie’s mother wouldn’t hear of her daughter travelling alone to Hollywood, she did encourage her Millie to train with a local Italian vaudeville singer. Millie enjoyed singing, and every family gathering would find relatives coaxing her to sing in her Soprano voice.
Millie’s love of singing never turned into a career, and her childhood was humble. Her family couldn’t afford the finer things, so they ate polenta most nights. On special occasions, the local butcher would sell Millie’s mother some cheap ground beef for meatballs.
“We didn’t know what it was to have veal cutlets!” Millie laughs.
Despite their meager living, Millie cherished her family and the tight-knit community around her. On summer days, the girls played jacks for hours on their front stoop, joined by any neighborhood children who came by. In those days, everyone felt like family.
Today, Millie confides, she doesn’t know any of her neighbors.
On that familiar stoop, Millie met her future husband Frank. She laughs, describing their stereotypical Catholic wedding. Every relative in New York came to congratulate the happy couple, and the dancing lasted all night.
One of Millie’s few possessions is a heavy leather-bound photo album from that dazzling day. Inside reveals Millie at her dressing table in a white satin dress, her mother standing proudly by. In another photo, we see Frank, boyish and slender, exchanging vows with Millie at the altar.
Aside from Frank’s service during the Korean War, the loving couple was rarely apart.
When Frank wasn’t laboring on tugboats, he would take Millie to South Ferry for a moonlight sail. Together, they loved watching the city begin to glimmer as the sun set.
Although Millie and Frank never had children of their own, Frank liked to joke that Millie had hundreds of children – the numerous stray dogs and cats that she cared for. Millie would gather the strays from alleyways, and take most to the local shelter. Those animals missing tails or eyes, she raised herself. “Animals feel just the way we do,” Millie explains.
Sadly, while Millie had plenty of four-legged companions, growing old with Frank was not in her future. In 1987, Frank suffered a heart attack and died suddenly. It’s a time Millie barely recalls — the sadness is still too overwhelming.
After Frank passed, Millie’s bond with her sisters only grew stronger. Like her, Yolanda and Tessie never left the neighborhood. Before Covid-19, Yolanda — 91, herself — stopped by regularly to visit, bringing newspapers for Millie to read. “I’ve got good sisters, thank heavens.”
Despite living mere blocks from one another, the sisters now fear going outside and have resigned themselves to phone calls. With her hearing nearly gone, Millie struggles to keep track of the conversation. She has no television either and feels totally cut off from the world.
The only face Millie sees regularly is her Citymeals deliverer, Warren. Using a walker to steady herself, Millie comes to the door and finds her meal hanging on the door. From a safe distance, Warren stands back and asks how she’s doing.
Even with a mask, she sees he’s smiling.
Millie holds on to every poem included in her meal box, and sometimes feels inspired to write herself. She shares one of her favorites: “a sister is a friend you grow up with and never outgrow.”