Back in June of 2017, I attended the NonfictioNow conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, and on the second day attended a panel on a subject about which I now can remember little, except that one of the panelists, essayist Mary Cappello, read a few selections from the emails of her mother, the poet Rosemary Cappello. 

What I heard were stunning emails written the way nineteenth- and early twentieth-century correspondents wrote letters—those long-ago impassioned, intelligent and witty missives that once served as a kind of private, serial art form. Rosemary Cappello has simply changed the transmission method from stamp and envelope to electronic ding. 

Did I mention the private nature of letters? Yet here Ninth Letter presents a selection of inspired letters that weren’t sent to you. That’s right, we happily offer you the guilty pleasure of reading someone else’s mail. Even under ordinary circumstances, it’s difficult to resist the temptation of eavesdropping. How much more difficult to resist reading the kind of letters that, even if you didn’t realize it before, you secretly wished all your life that you’d received.

—Philip Graham, Editor-at-Large




When was the last time you wrote a letter or, better, received one? For much of my adult life, my mother, Rosemary Cappello, has written me—and scores of other people—letters. Never one to bemoan all that is lost to the digital age, she continues this passionate practice in the form of e-mails.

It is safe to say the breadth and depth of the archives of my mother’s correspondence is large enough and vast enough to constitute a tome the size of Montaigne’s Essais, and then some. Philip Graham and I have only chosen to identify the merest sampler of the past few years that could convey to a reader the distinctiveness of the letters’ characteristic range of tone and subject and literariness. We have titled and curated these much as one might a collection of prose poems, fragments that achieve a wholeness without acceding to it, missives unified by their inimitable voice and mutating tones, from meditative to laugh-out-loud funny.

During the years of my childhood, in a period when my mother suffered from agoraphobia, she used letter writing literally as a means of leaving the house. Years before, when she was, herself, a teenager, she wrote letters to two of her eldest sisters who had entered a semi-cloistered Catholic convent together. My grandfather was devastated by their absence, but my grandmother refused to let him send the letters he wrote to them—they were too sad. Now my mother took up the pen, soon to learn in an odd combination of prohibition and release, refusal and receipt, that the mother superior would read all letters before the sisters saw them and black out lines where she saw fit. Enchanted by my mother’s teenage accounts of the latest family news, the mother superior read her letters to the entire convent community while secretly preparing a place for her among them when she came of age. My mother never became the convent scribe or church’s muse—she became a hippy who at one time wrote feminist sermons for a progressive parish priest. Eventually, my mother left the church, as well as the unhappy marriage to the wrong man to which it yoked her. But that was long ago, while what endured is this: the translation of life always into letters, life in all its variegation, vibration, and intensity.

—Mary Cappello



A Note on the Text

In some cases, if people were not intimate or if it seemed privacy might be invaded, actual names are replaced with non-identifying initials. Some letters appear here in their entirety, others only in part. For the curious reader, a Dramatis Personae is provided at the end of this feature.

For clarification’s sake, my mother’s contemporary health issues include Macular Degeneration; Wegener’s Granulomatosis, and attendant Vasculitis, to say nothing of other health issues that are nobody’s business but that most people I know would not be able to live with for as much as a day.



Dearest Mary


why am I still living?


…Oh, what a tale I have to tell about election day! First of all, every morning the paper delivery person slams the door in the hallway, which wakes me up (6 a.m.). I get the paper and go back to sleep. But Tuesday morning, I was awakened a second time by the telephone. I tried to jump out of bed to answer it, and got a leg cramp. I couldn’t stand on my leg, it was so bad. When I was finally able to get the message, guess what it was? One of those reminders to go vote! Well, I got up and did a lot of correspondence regarding the upcoming poetry reading and the new issue, then went to the gym. Later, around 3:00, I decided to go to the community room and vote. I was surprised to find it packed. There was a long line of people: some standing, some sitting, and some in wheelchairs. Every one of them took forever in the voting booth! It was awful! I wanted to get a haircut next, but was afraid the barbershop would be closed by the time I got there! I started talking with the woman in front of me, who was walking with a walker. She told me she’s 98 years old. “Why am I still living?” she asked. I told her about my Aunt Anna who used to say she thought “the good Lord” had a reason for keeping her alive. But this woman, Clara, said, “I want to die.” Then she told me the sad tale of her daughter who died at 71 years old. “Why did my daughter die?” she asked. “I should have died.” She added that this would be the last time she voted, for she was sure she’d be dead by the next election. I said, “Don’t you want to reach your 100th birthday and have lunch with Mayor Nutter?” I guess that’s not reason enough for living; she still wanted to die. In the meantime, my friend Elsie who’s in a wheelchair was in the booth, and I was starting to think it was really a confessional and everyone was telling tons of sins, it was taking so long for them to do what they had to do and get out of there. At one point I said to Clara, “Why don’t they just press the vote button and get out? Who cares who they’re voting for at this point!” Finally we made it to the front of the line. A large man wearing an orange shirt, and in a wheel chair, had come in after me. The judge of elections told him he was next. Clara and I both screamed, and I mean screamed, “No! We’re next!” I said to Clara, “That poor guy. If he had actually gone into the booth, we’d have beaten him up.” And so we voted. I hope it wasn’t Clara’s last time. Her last election should at least be an important presidential one. By then, she will be 100 and will have had her lunch with Mayor Nutter, if indeed he gets reelected.


too cold for Romeo to alight on my balcony au present


Dearest Mary,

Moving on to other things, last night, John and I had a lovely dinner at L’Aquila. I had grilled octopus and he had eggplant parmigiana. Usually when served octopus, it’s just the tendrils, but this was the whole little octopus. I’d never eaten the “head” part before and wasn’t sure if it were edible, but ate it. It tasted a bit fatty, and was mostly skin—not as tasty as the tendrils, but interesting. We had gelato for dessert, and it was great. I chose the flavors of banana and Nutella, but on the way out, the gelato server asked if we wanted to sample more flavors, and I didn’t know they had torrone, and a special Italian cherry flavor, both extremely divine! I could have stood there, sampling gelato forever! The texture of theirs is a little different from Capogiro’s—more firm, not as soft and creamy. Since their gelato maker comes from Abruzzo, it’s got to be authentic. There was a large group at the table next to us, all so obviously Italians from Italy. I think this place is going to be the watering hole for Italians here, not to mention out-of-towners, for I was reading where Philadelphia has been named by whoever makes these surveys as third on the list of the best places to travel to in the U.S. We really are in a booming period right now. Stores are staying open longer. I remember years ago a comedian saying that here, the pavements were pulled in early in the evening. No more. I’m finding it rather amazing.

Oh, I just thought of that wonderful torrone gelato again! I can’t wait to go back!

It was a nice respite from the annoyance I had earlier in the day, because of someone who chose to be the intermediary between herself and me for a poet she recommended. The poet sent me poetry and photos, which I had to reject, but it took me a while to consider it, so meanwhile the go-between placed posts on FB demanding to know my decision. Well, I responded by e-mail saying my communication with poets who submit to me is between them and me, and not to be made public with a third party in a place such as FB. We exchanged several e-mails, and it ruined my morning. I ended up telling her that people are often dismayed when I don’t accept their recommendation, but my reaction to submissions has to be at my own discretion, and is not influenced by anyone having made a recommendation. It ended with her reprimanding me for taking so long to respond, and I could have given a dozen reasons why that was so, but instead humbly intoned “mea culpa.” Now, the poet might submit again in June, and I hope this third party won’t again be acting as go-between, because if so, I’ll have to tell her I won’t deal with that. The problem is, the poet is in Italy and probably doesn’t speak English well. 

Another aggravating thing was, I received a past due notice from my homeowner’s policy company, saying my insurance was going to be terminated if I didn’t pay by a certain date. Evidently my monthly payment had crossed in the mail with their notice. However, seeing that word terminated unnerved me, for here, management is very strict about us having coverage, and specific coverage at that, and if we don’t keep our premiums up to date we are subject to eviction. So needless to say I called my agent immediately. He got back to me this morning and supposedly all is well, and it had better be.

These are the things we have to deal with on Monday mornings! Eeek! That’s the Monday morning scream, especially as John has left on his return trek to Bryn Mawr. 

When we came back from L’Aquila last night, we watched a movie on TV, “The Last Hurrah.” I saw it years ago, but all I remembered was the kind of disinterested playboy son the main character has. The film is filled with great actors—Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, James Gleason, even Basil Rathbone and John Carradine—and is so well done. Tracy was truly superlative. In the film, which perhaps you’ve seen and recall, he has a good relationship with a nephew who idolizes him and abets his cause as mayor of the city, who, as the story begins, is running for reelection. His son, on the other hand, is perhaps too young and has been too coddled to bear any responsibility. I was struck, when I saw the film before, by the difference in the two young men’s relationships to Tracy, the nephew being more in the role of son than the actual son. But it mainly shows the Irish influence and control in the politics of a city. The city is never identified, but it seems to be Boston. At one point, Groundhog Day is mentioned, so I thought it could be Philadelphia. But it did seem more like a New England place. And the fact that no women are involved in the political scenes stands out hugely. John Ford directed it. The year was 1958.

I was curious about Jeffrey Hunter, the actor who played the part of the nephew, for he was quite good, so believable, charismatic, and handsome. So I looked him up, and he died at the tender age of 42! He was in the first pilot as the captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek, but when more filming was to be done, declined, as he was more interested in his film career than one in a TV series. Seems he had a long history of illness, not to mention injuries on sets, and died after suffering two strokes. He did manage to fit three marriages into his brief life.

The other day, I wrote to the seven other poets who’ll be reading at our Ethnic voices reading on March 8th, and in the course of the letter thought I got a little silly but sent the letter anyway. As it turned out, two responded that the part I thought was silly was a poem! This is it: 

“Meanwhile, the New Year moves right along, sometimes freezing us, sometimes blowing us away in premature March winds, sometimes snowing on us and in the background the threatening voice of the weather person with her constant warning: Ice! Slippery roads and pavements! Beware chill factors of below zero! As an icicle glides down my balcony door and I reminisce about outdoor tete-a-tetes when the weather was clement. Alas. Too cold for Romeo to alight on my balcony au present.”

I mentioned to you the Saturday broadcast from the Met of “Aida.” It was so beautiful! I recalled how, no matter how Verdi is often dismissed by the snobs as being inferior to Wagner, it’s been known for many years that when the Met is in financial trouble, it puts on “Aida,” generally, but probably any Verdi opera would do. He sure knew how to do it. He had the formula for being a prolific composer of unforgettable melodies that besides being beautiful music appealed to the average person. I recalled a story about Toscanini, that when he was a young man, he played the cello in an orchestra, and in this case, the conductor was Verdi himself, and I believe it was for the premiere of “Aida.” As they rehearsed, there was one tricky part that the orchestra couldn’t seem to get right, but finally Verdi let it go. However, Toscanini continued to play it a particular way. Verdi told him to play it differently, but Toscanini exclaimed that he was playing it as directed in the score. Verdi sadly commented, “You’re right, but everyone else insists on playing it wrong, so you might as well do so, too.” It may be one of those untrue stories, but points to Toscanini’s genius at reading scores and Verdi’s acceptance of human frailties. He was a congenial and humane soul. At any rate, “Aida” never fails to amaze me. I see it as the perfect work of art, starting immediately, after a short but effective prelude, with the action. The standout singer was Violeta Urmana as Amneris, who is in love with Rhadames (the tenor who sings Celeste Aida) who is in love with Aida. So the shunned Amneris is the villainess who leans on the tomb that they are sealed in at the end. Urmana was great as her voice soared with the necessary passion. As for Aida, played by soprano Tamara Wilson, she had a lovely, clear, technically correct voice, but in the Third Act in which she sings so very much she seemed to tire, and her voice did lack the passion of Amneris. She is an American singer, and perhaps should be sent to Italy for a while. Marcello Giordani, the tenor, did well as Rhadames. Toscanini was not at the helm and the music didn’t swell as it should have, but Verdi is Verdi and the music is sublime. It had been a long time since I listened to the Met broadcast. Anthony and I stayed in for lunch, and perhaps that was what gave me the opportunity.

Verdi’s operas are rich in father/child motifs. He himself lost two children, and this unending grief seems to have made him extra sensitive to parental feelings. There is special music in most of his operas reserved for father to child. In this case, the parent is Aida’s father, Amanasro. He has a bass voice, which Dr. Levers [our childhood dentist] used to sing in amateur opera. His favorite role was that of Amanasro. The music he sings in Aida is reminiscent of Alfredo’s father Germont in La Traviata, notably the aria “Di provenza il mare.” And of course the father, Rigoletto himself in the opera of that name, of Gilda has tender arias regarding his daughter, such as “Veglia questa fiore,” in which he tells Gilda’s maid to “guard this precious flower.”

Anyway, all this about opera because I think I have been remiss in failing to communicate my feelings and knowledge of opera with you. 

John doesn’t like opera—“corny stories” and all that. Dad pretended to like opera when we first met, and we actually went to a filmed version of Aida that starred Sophia Loren, one of her very early roles. Of course, she didn’t sing. John didn’t say he didn’t like opera until we knew each other well. I guess my love of opera is so apparent that men have to pretend they like it to win me! Of course, Sid liked it and sang in opera, and with his voice he could have been Amanasro. I love the strong names. In Rigoletto, there’s Sparafucile. Love that name. Such seem to be reserved for the basses.

Well, guess what, it’s afternoon! Ye gads! Gotta get a move on, and ease on down the road of this rainy, rainy, rain all day Monday.

Love & hugs & kisses,


“Ivan the Terrible”


Dearest Mary,

 I loved reading your e-mail, even though the first paragraph was devoted to the trauma inflicted on us by the current administration. Is it possible to reach into the lexicon and find words to accurately describe what is happening? Maybe in histories of past tyrants we can find a word. I’m thinking “Ivan the Terrible,” but Ivan was probably more terrible than terrible, but there was no word for the extreme terror he inflicted, and thus terrible had to suffice. Certainly that man who looks like a dodo but acts like a vulture is more horrible than horrible. I’ve noticed how his looks changed over the years; he looked almost normal when he was young, but he has aged into a, well, into an inhuman dodo. I know I’ve said it before, but I will say it again: in the immortal words of Elaine May who wrote the script of “Luv,” Who is he? What is he? But all the perfumes of Arabia, as in all the words I can conjure to cuss him out with, won’t change the fact that he is there, which is to say he is here and my head is numb, numbed by his daily vile doings. Right now, the ladies on “View” are all talking at the same time, as they are wont to do. I hate the program, but it happened to come on after I was watching a cooking program. I guess Whoopi Goldberg forgot that she’s an Oscar-winning actress. She is now presiding over this mess. God forbid that the current administration will make more of us forget who we are.

There has never been a period of history in this country within my 82 years when citizens were so universally disturbed by the actions of he who dwells in the White House. He is a nothing and yet he disturbs us constantly with the power he wields. We want him out, and his whole regime with him, but it’s not being done. Talk of impeachment comes up now and then. I am constantly wondering why no one in the upper echelons of power are doing anything to rid us of this menace. Is there a reason why they are not doing anything? I can only figure there must be a reason, and it had better be a good one, why higher-ups who voiced discontent with him before the election are being quiet, now, as he lingers.

And so the women of the View are bleating away like the lambs that they are, bleating in unison, and everybody who watches The View loves it and bleats along. While Zero remains where he is.

Well, I know who and what we need! Not Zero, but Zorro! The other night, a Zorro movie was on, the original one with Ty Power and Linda Darnell, and it was worthy of four stars then and now. Coincidentally, the newer version with Antonio Banderas was on another film channel, and I couldn’t watch more than a couple beginning scenes. I always thought Banderas was handsome, but somehow his mask obscured his looks; such didn’t happen with Power. And even without the mask, Banderas is not as dashing. This must be Power’s best role. Banderas seems to play it for laughs. Not so with Power. This was serious business, overcoming tyrants and giving freedom back to the people. Not that it didn’t have its humorous moments, and Ty Power plays it all to the hilt.

I won’t rest or be happy until I see a “Z” carved into every building Dodo dwells in, every car he drives. Then I will know: SOMEONE IS DOING SOMETHING. Oh, excuse me, I must go out and buy a mask and a sword and a horse. Yes, he could drive the pacifism out of anyone.

Maybe I should just shut up and join “Grannies for Peace.” I actually do belong, but outside of one demonstration when I thought I’d die out in the sun of Rittenhouse Square some years back, I’ve not been up to joining them in their efforts. And so I sigh.

It will really take a long time, and the longer he’s there, the longer it will take, to undo the wrongs he has done. And so I write away, but have no answers.

Christmas is coming! Today’s the 7th of December. Um, I still haven’t gotten the apartment in shape. Somehow, the days go by.

I can see that though today is your last day of teaching for the semester, you still will have a lot to do. And as for being somewhat disappointed in your students’ portfolios, I know that your feelings are tempered by the times we’re living in—you just want your students to be able to face what’s happening in the world with knowledge and intelligence so that they won’t end up like those bleating lambs.

I’d better go—it’s past noon and I’m still pajama-a-go-go.

Sending lots of love, hugs, & kisses,

Madre, with apologies for a crazy letter.


my mother escaped into combing my hair


Dearest Mary,

Just want you to know that I read your essay on “Escapism” last night. It offered me much food for thought, and I found myself thinking mightily on the subject. I love the beginning with you in the back seat of the car, on long rides doing the maze puzzles, a form of escape from the monotony of driving. It’s interesting that you end the essay speaking of another type of puzzle, the jigsaw puzzle you put together recently when company was with you in Maine. Doing puzzles as escapism. It made me think of the verbal puzzles people ask each other, to which I’ve always had an aversion. Never was a puzzle person, and yet escapism is my middle name. I did enjoy crossword puzzles, but they are something else, like, a way to increase your vocabulary while playing a game. I also liked the cryptogram, which was kind of like translating another language. So my favorite puzzles had to do with words, not surprising, since my father introduced me to the puzzles, and he was intent on increasing his English vocabulary. So, puzzles had a dual purpose for me; fun, as well as learning. Perhaps learning was an escape for me.

I was born in the era of escapism as the Depression took place just six years prior to my birth, and its effects were felt for quite some time. My mother escaped into combing my hair as if I were a princess and my father escaped by going to his club and meeting with his paisani where they talked about Campania. Once a reality, Campania became their fantasy; the memory of it, their escape.

And so all that you wrote is very evocative for me. It is a piece that invites the reader to share their escapist experiences. I don’t view painting as an escape, for it is work, requiring thought as well as physical action. That’s the difference between a hobby, which might be escapism, and a life’s work. Aunt Josephine making production-line rosary beads for the missions, so that they could escape into a religion not theirs. Her escape led to theirs.

But sometimes escapes trap. I thought of a wild animal trying to escape from a harmful trap. Often, it is traps we want to escape from. How well I remember the early feminist days when women spoke of being trapped. 

Well, there’s real escape and then there’s fantasy escape. Real escape is much harder than fantasy. Imagine the prisoners who worked so hard to scrape their way out of Alcatraz or other ironclad fortresses. They may have had a scant moment of freedom before the whistle blew, and they were back in confinement, and worse.

Perhaps I digress and have strayed from the meaning of escapism. I’ve often told you I view my movie viewing as escapist, but then it’s not really. Here again one must pursue again the meaning of the word escapist. A film is always a learning experience, and now I’m back to learning as escapism, although it provides other advantages besides escape.

I believe I will now say goodnight and go eat dessert of a fresh peach.

Have a beautiful night! and thanks for sending your excellent essay.

Love & hugs,



“Did I miss something or did you not show us “Nude Descending a Staircase”?


Dearest Mary,

Here it is, Saturday morning, soon turning into afternoon, and I’m doing all those odds and ends things around the house. John was over yesterday and we went to the Art Museum again. This time, I took two tours—one was for modern art, and the particular docent who ran it was not too knowledgeable. It was very similar to the surreal tour I took another week, only that docent was more “up” on her facts. At the end of yesterday’s, I asked, “Did I miss something or did you not show us “Nude Descending a Staircase,” to which she replied, “That’s part of the tour, but we don’t have time for it.” I was very disappointed in the way she dismissed not just Duchamps, but Picasso! She repeatedly spoke of Picasso’s works as being “flat,” and of how he was in competition with her favorite artist, Matisse. So there you have it—too much of her personal feelings were brought into it, as she showed us a particularly bland Matisse and wanted us to cheer it while booing Picasso. She gave me a headache! Then, we moved on to a charming docent, who was more nicely dressed—the one I didn’t like was wearing an oversized orange overcoat atop black tights with a black beret, while the nice one was a portrait in tasteful black and white. This tour was for members only, and was to take us through “scandalous” art works. Well, I suppose “scandalous” was supposed to have drawing power, but none of it was very scandalous. Included in the tour were Pennsylvania Dutch ceramic plates, all very interesting, with sometimes “scandalous” sayings on them, mostly to do with unattractive women. Then there is the huge ceramic container created by a slave who signed the piece, “Dave.” He also added some interesting inscriptions. He was able to read and write, and besides being an expert potter, his inscriptions are wonderful. And then we were taken to Eakins’ “Agnew Clinic,” but I couldn’t hear a word the docent was saying, because—guess what? A poetry reading was going on in the same room…

 Well, Mary, something strange is happening to me. People are touching my skin and saying how beautiful it is, and that’s been going on for years, not always the touching, but the staring at it so avidly it’s like they’re touching it with their eyes. I remember telling this to Jack once, and not quite getting it. Skin is skin. What makes mine so fascinating to people is something I don’t understand. But now something new has been added. They want to touch my “curls.” So yesterday I said to someone who admiredly was touching my curls, “Yes, I’m like that little girl in Snoopy. I have naturally curly hair.” And of course there’s the inevitable, “You’re so lucky!” as I hobble about with my rollator, hardly seeing or hearing. Nice skin, a curl or two or three, these are the things that count! And of course there are my many other talents. I seem to be in a boastful mood today! Ha ha! Maybe because you treated me so royally last week! And always!

 Anyway, L is taking me to Casta Diva for dinner tonight. Remember that restaurant? You treated me there probably more than once. I stopped going, because they only do prix fixe and their meals are too large. But I shall take home leftovers.

 Anyway, the music at the museum last night was supplied by a band of European gypsies. The acoustics in the museum are pretty bad, but this sounded so good I would have loved to sit awhile and listen, especially since one piece they were playing sounded just like a piece my father used to play, that I never knew the name of. However, sitting there isn’t much fun, because waiters and waitresses are going back and forth with the terrible food they serve. I’ll have to look up this group and see if I can locate their music.

Friday nights are too crowded for me, at the museum, and people milling about for the live music, drinks in their hands, I don’t know, it’s just not conducive to what an art museum should be. This business of pleasing the crowd never quite reaches me.

 One week, we went into the section containing sketches, and I just loved this! Must go back!

As always, we did a lot of walking, and by the time we got home, it was 8:00 when we had dinner. John picked up these wonderful salads at one of the health food restaurants down the street. We also had these salads last week. Don’t picture a regular salad. Mine was made with organic wild rice, shredded kale, raw beets, bean sprouts, basil, roasted sesame tofu, warm Portobello mushrooms, spicy sunflower seeds, with miso sesame ginger dressing. So delicious! The mushrooms especially. Only, John asked for different dressing last night, and I much prefer the miso.

We had ice cream with Nutella for dessert, and John of course had his chocolate chip cookies.

In the morning, we had breakfast and John left for Blick’s to buy some art supplies. He stopped back here afterwards and we had a second cup of coffee.

I’m starting to hear from poets about their submissions. I must start answering them! But I still didn’t write my thank you notes, and it’s a week already since my wonderful birthday celebrations!


Oh, my kingdom to be able to watch a movie in its entirety, as in days of yore.


I shall arise and go now and eat the half of last night’s salad that was leftover. Yum!

Have a beautiful day. Humidity has returned here and it’s overcast, but somehow bright.

 Love, hugs & kisses,



speaking of ambition


Dearest Mary,

I hope you are feeling fine and all is well this November day. Yesterday was Aunt Josephine’s birthday, and the day Eileen and Jerry designated as a day at the theater, including John and me, to see “Finding Neverland.” It was so great to see them and spend the day together. John didn’t come, as his bronchitis is persistent–he’ll feel better one day but then bad again the next.

But first things first: how was your Thanksgiving? I wrote about mine to Joan Smith and she replied that it was like a script for the Hallmark network. At first I was insulted, but then I thought, wow, if I can sell this story to Hallmark, I am likely to make a mint, and it would be about time! Evidently Joanie, who writes up a storm, has time to watch every movie on TCM as well as the dreadful Hallmark episodes. Well, I haven’t responded yet, but I’m going to ask her, do they say WTF on Hallmark? Because I say WTF throughout my Thanksgiving account. She said the little white-haired ladies who watch Hallmark programs will want to be me. Is she kidding? She may have read only one line, where John lit the fireplace and then said he wanted to meditate. Or, maybe two lines, the other being that N. rushed to us on Friday morning to exclaim that she saw an eagle in the yard! Those two events might be hallmark-worthy but I don’t know about the rest of the time. However, I think I am going to find out whom to approach at Hallmark.

Meanwhile, I have been advised that another story I have bears filming. That happened at Intermission yesterday, after Eileen asked about the conditions of J’s death. I had Jerry and her swear on the “Finding Neverland” program that they would never disclose the account to anyone, and then proceeded to tell the whole story from stem to stern, whereupon Eileen said it sounded like a movie script.

So here I am, sitting on two hot properties.

By the way, I am surrounded by the Christmas Giftie Bags which Eileen and Jerry delivered yesterday. I have your bag and Jeannie’s and will keep them safe from giftie bag thieves until you are here at Christmas. 

Well, it’s been a busy day. Washing clothes, writing out checks, going to Blue Cross, buying eggs, eating meals, getting ready to make spaghetti sauce, and also wanting to wrap a package for mailing to Canada to my WWF friend who wants to see Philadelphia Poets. I also have to plan tomorrow morning’s talk at Temple’s Center City location.

How are you feeling? I’ve been feeling very well. I think it’s the weather, which has been so nice, that kind of holds the various ailments at bay.

I walked to the Academy of Music yesterday, and once there, found Eileen and Jerry rushing from the Kimmel garage where they’d parked their car. I asked a guard who was letting people in if there was a way I could avoid the steps, and he directed me to a ramp on the side of the building. Whoever knew that it was there! It takes you right into the theater, so you even avoid the lobby. Once there, an usher took my walker, said she would park it somewhere, and helped me down the stairs to my seat. She came at intermission and asked if I needed help in case I wanted to use the bathroom, but I told her I wasn’t bothering to do so. Then, after the show, she greeted me at the doorway, Jerry having helped me up the steps. I gave her a tip that she was very grateful to receive. Now this paragraph is Hallmark-ish, though I don’t know any little old ladies who would rush to their TVs to watch it.

Well, I’m off to finally wrap that package. I wrote a letter a month ago to be sent with this package, but haven’t had the ambition to go to the post office. Now that my stories are going to be on Hallmark, though nobody at Hallmark knows that yet, I have sudden ambition.

Speaking of ambition, I imagine you are getting ready for teaching tomorrow after your Thanksgiving break.

Anyway, just thought I’d bring you up to date. 

Love, hugs & kisses,



being militant is tiring, and yet


Dear Mary and Jeannie,

Jeannie, thanks for your report of a deliciously scrumptious lunch with P. But, it can’t have been even almost as good as Napoli!

Here’s how I’ve been spending the afternoon.

I went to CVS to pick up one of the drugs I take for my autoimmune disease. This was my second trip trying to get this medicine, for I ran into a problem the other day when trying to pick it up, and it is one of my most important meds. Well, the problem wasn’t resolved, so I came home and called the insurance co., who looked into the problem, and they suggested I file a grievance against CVS. I didn’t want to do it, but then thought, why not? I’m just one of a bunch of people who get their drugs there, and it’s not like we’re shopping for strawberry shortcake and champagne. We’re trying to buy our necessary drugs! Why do they give us such a hard time? I mean, they were charging me $92 for what usually costs $20. So I filed the grievance. 

I was so frustrated. I had a flash of the last and worst episode of lesions I had, and almost tearfully paid the $92 until I reasoned with myself. Thank God for the great worker at the insurance company, who researched everything and saw that CVS was wrong and what was causing the error!

As I talked with him on the phone, I got another flash of me at the drug counter, a little old lady who they think they can put one over on.

His name is Esteban, and I told him I once did a sit-in at CVS over a similar problem. I told him I have to be in a militant mood to do a sit-in, and wasn’t in such today, but I added, Esteban and I together were a force to be reckoned with! So let’s hope that CVS mends its ways. 

I’ll tell you, being militant is tiring, and yet at the same time, EXHILARATING!

 Love & hugs,


the letter was never published

December 2002

Dearest Mary,

Thanks for your e-mail. No, I’m not wearing my Renaissance hat now, because it doesn’t coordinate with my czarina outfit. That is, the sweater with fur collar and cuff. I had lunch with B, A, L and A (from my former job) and it was just so-so because I’m not in that “crowd” anymore, which is the crowd that crams lunch into a short space of time so they can get back to work. A is just home for the holidays from Thailand, and she must go back to be in the office, there, on Monday morning. She brought me a lovely handbag from Thailand! And also a necklace from when she was in Tibet. She is our kind of person, a real kindred spirit!

A’s pictures of Thailand are amazing, so very very beautiful. But, I don’t think she is pleased with some of the negative sides of the culture and will probably be happy when she comes home to stay, which won’t be till April!

Anyway, we went to this Cuban restaurant on Sansom St. I’d never been in before—very nice –I had a seafood chowder and a glass of pineapple/papaya juice. I’d have had dessert but the workers had to get back to the office and were off and running. A left on the many errands she has to do before returning to Thailand.

Meanwhile, when I took off my coat in the restaurant to reveal my czarina outfit, eyes popped, but no one said anything. I got the feeling they thought I was overdressed, but I said, “It’s New Year’s Eve!”

Back home, I ran into Anthony in the lobby, looking somewhat under the weather, he has something that’s been going around Pep Boys, saying he was going to Wawa to buy soup, but I said why not go into Little Pete’s, and I’ll have coffee with you. We did, and I ordered the dessert I missed in the Cuban place. Lemon meringue pie.

On the way back, I saw T, who said my czarina outfit wasn’t me! I said, oh yes it is! And then I saw other (nice) ladies who oohed and ah-ed.

All that you spoke of regarding the immigration laws reminded me of a letter I wrote to the paper when an issue on that subject came up. The letter was never published, though the Philadelphia Inquirer invariably published letters I sent them. This is the letter, sent back in August 2001:

To the Editor:

Having read the front page story (August 6, 2001) of the young Carranza family that must spend eight and a half years separated from their husband and father because of the USA’s immigration laws, I am reminded of a fact I heard in a recent documentary.

Somewhere in the film, Into the Arms of Strangers, it is stated that although England opened its doors to thousands of Jewish children in the early 1940’s, thereby saving them from the holocaust, the USA refused to offer them shelter, because it did not want to separate them from their families.

Yet, today, we read about a family that is separated because of our current immigration laws! Where is the logic here?

When my parents were married, my father was considered an “alien,” since he was born in Italy and was not yet an American citizen. At the time, there was a law that said that an American lost his or her citizenship upon marriage to an “alien.” However, my mother was unaware of that law, which was repealed two days after their wedding. Meanwhile, my father became an American citizen. During World War II, my mother was called before the immigration board and threatened with being “repatriated” to a country she had never set foot on.

My father, Giovanni (John) Petracca, kept a record of his thoughts. Under date of February 24, 1942, he wrote the following in his journal: “I had to visit the naturalization office in regard to my wife. She has lost her citizen’s rights by marrying me. And now I have it! The office is filled to capacity by people of every age. The faces of these people showed me a pathetic picture which I shall never erase from my vision.”

While my mother didn’t write her thoughts, I remember her relating the story of how, when she went through the routine of becoming an American citizen, she had to stand before a judge, who asked her what boat she came over on! “Your honor, I was born in this country!” was her reply. Yes, right here in the city of Philadelphia.

Fortunately, the law that caused my mother to lose her American citizenship was repealed. Fortunately, my mother was permitted to remain with her husband and six children.

It seems that immigration laws which are not just illogical but unnatural, unjust and often cruel cry out for change, so that families such as the Carranzas will no longer be deprived of their rights.

End of letter.

Meanwhile, I found a reference elsewhere to a Ugandan who came to this country illegally and was imprisoned with hardened criminals. The Inquirer magazine did an article about his case.

There is no end to the horror stories relating to immigrants, all tied to xenophobia, it seems, and we know that it doesn’t end with the immigrant, but filters down into successive generations.

It does seem strange that those born here cannot put themselves in the shoes of an immigrant. To me, one of the worst parts of being an immigrant is not being able to speak your native tongue, not to mention the whole thing associated with language, such as, here, if one doesn’t speak English perfectly, they are considered stupid, whereas the American can’t speak the immigrant’s language—but that’s not stupidity! I was thinking of how, at the Russian concert I attended recently, the woman behind me, from Russia, said later that over and above the music and the singing, she so loved to hear her language! Communication is hard enough when people speak the same language. It can be troublesome when people are misunderstood.

I asked Eileen what I should do with all my leftover cookies and nuts and she suggested giving them to Vladimir the Jeweler! Good idea. I could see he was touched by my discussing Russian culture with him—but, whereas the cab driver we spoke with encouraged us to see Kiev, the old city, he said, bitterly, there is nothing old left there! The Germans destroyed it all. It is hard to conceive of all the devastation suffered in Russia, that massive country, and one we considered so strong, by the other imperialist countries.

Ah, yes, I, too, love Prokofiev.

Well, guess I’ll go over to the piano to practice a bit. Can’t wait till tonight when I sip Campari from my new cordial glass, which is so cute. Is this living?

More and more people seem to be opting for that quiet New Year’s Eve at home. I’ll feel lucky if I write some old year/new year poetry…Till then, thanks for your e-mail, and your wonderful description of the flushed face condition.

Wishing you and Jeannie all the best of everything in 2003—good health, happiness, and continued involvement in all that you are doing that brings out the best in you and everyone you touch!

Love, hugs & kisses,




Dearest Mary,

Thanks for your wonderful e-mail! I love the subject of “dormancy” that you are pursuing for your next book. Coincidentally, I’m working on a poem about being kissed awake—having felt that it happened to me–only I wasn’t sure if it was a dream, or really happened, for I stayed asleep. So the poem (not finished yet) is about those gentle happenings that kiss us awake.


autumn leaf dreams

Have a good night & pleasant autumn leaf dreams. On the way to the doctor’s office, I walked over the most gorgeous blanket of leaves—I wanted to stand in the midst of them and just relish their beautiful colors of russet, gold, and yellow.




Dramatis Personae

Anthony: my mother’s second eldest son

John: my mother’s partner, a 94-year-old ceramicist/sculptor

Sidney: my mother’s long-term partner for many years (following her divorce from my father), and who died of a heart attack on the cusp of his 80th birthday in 1997

Jeannie: my partner, my mother’s daughter-in-law

Jack: my mother’s former psychoanalyst

Joanie: Joan Smith, California based poet, and long time editor of Pearl Magazine, my mother’s good friend through the mail: they have maintained a correspondence for over forty years. Together with the late Anne Menebroker, they co-authored a poetry chapbook in the 1970s called The Habit of Wishing. My mother maintained the same life-long friendship in letters with Annie.

Aunt Josephine: one of my mother’s four older sisters

Eileen and Jerry: Eileen and Jerry Spinelli, the well-known children’s book and young adult authors, close friends of my mother dating back to 1970

Philadelphia Poets: sometimes referred to herein as “the issue,” the poetry journal/literary annual that my mother has edited and produced since the 1980s. For decades my mother has hosted readings and related events in Philadelphia featuring a mix of poets from all walks of life, all ages, races and creeds, sexualities and ethnicities and class identities. I don’t know of any other community reading series that is truly constituted by such a multi-cultural cross-section of people. This is grass roots poetry organizing all the way.

“Madre”: one of the ways that my mother signs her letters since having been designated such by Sidney, who was a humorist and word-coiner. For everyone in his life, there was an affectionate made-up name. Also the Italian word for “mother.”



Rosemary Cappello has been an avid letter writer since the age of fifteen, when her two oldest sisters entered the convent and she wrote to keep them informed of family happenings. Her letters on topical subjects have appeared in newspapers, such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Camden Catholic Star Herald, and her articles have also appeared in the latter newspaper. Otherwise, she is a poet whose book of poetry, Wonderful Disaster, will be published by Bordighera Press in January 2020. She is also a watercolorist with two major exhibitions this past year. She founded, edits, and publishes Philadelphia Poets, with its anniversary issue, Volume 25, soon to be appear.



Mary Cappello’s six books include a detour (on awkwardness); a breast cancer anti-chronicle; a lyric biography; and, a mood fantasia, Life Breaks In. Devoted to forms of disruptive beauty, she is a Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of the Dorothea-Lange/Paul Taylor Prize, and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Rhode Island. A co-authored experiment in essayism with James Morrison and Jean Walton, Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration, appeared in September 2018. Cappello is currently composing a book-length essay on dormancy, and a collection of literary études.