I correspond with people around the world, nearly all by old-fashioned handwritten letters. Some are relatives in Spain, others live within a block of the mailbox at the corner of Ponca Street and Fait avenue in Greektown where my missives are launched.
Of them all, none is as loyal, prompt, and candid as 83-year-old Mary Sanfino Armacost of Carroll County-by-way-of Queens, New York. The mother of a former newspaper colleague, Mary and I have been trading notes for more than two years.
“One recollection leads to another,” she said, mentioning rooting for Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field in one sentence and, in the next, saying that at 12 she danced in Verdi’s Aida at the Met.
My correspondents range from young people asking questions about the writing game (I advise that law school derails more writers than booze) to librarians, a cousin long estranged from his mother and Colin Asher, a biographer of Nelson Algren I befriended after writing a fan letter.
One day I’ll tell you about my late high school friend Timothy J. Getka, a gentle man whose sparse belongings I acquired from his sister after his 2015 drowning death. In with pictures of dogs, math awards and Catholic holy cards were letters from strangers responding to messages young Tim had put in a bottle and tossed into the sea.
With all of my mailbox friends but Mary (born when a first-class stamp heralding the New York World’s Fair cost three cents), the exchange is handwritten. She prefers instant messaging, long notes filled with stream-of-consciousness memories of a Gotham girlhood both thrilling and difficult. Mary apologizes for taking up my time and I tell her to keep going.
Because our communication is written, she said in a recent note – and knowing that the person on the other end is paying attention – she has let her guard down, sharing “things that family can overlook, that friends can’t understand.”
It’s an intimacy, she said, “that allows disclosure.” What has Mary disclosed since our friendship began? Not a word, thankfully, about the pandemic; nor yakety-yak about politics or culture. Her dispatches are far richer than the scandal du jour, as compelling as a Life magazine cover.
She remembers standing on Queens Boulevard when millions turned out to greet General Douglas MacArthur after Truman summoned him back to Washington; the silky taste of a Mello-Roll ice cream from the corner confectionery and, at the ballpark, a 20-cent Stahl-Meyer hot dog while the Dodgers mostly lost; the marvel of a 1940s Italian-American Christmas Eve.
And a mysterious friend from high school – her bestie for a brief moment – who landed from the Old World and vanished just as quickly.
“Vera Ermer lived across the street in the Saunders House, a very expensive apartment building with a doorman,” said Mary, a 1956 graduate of Forest Hills High School, alma mater of the Ramones. “She was from Hungarian aristocracy. The last time I saw her she’d just spent a month on the Onassis yacht. She went to a private school our senior year and I never saw her again.”
[Unless her death has gone unreported, Ermer (who survived the Holocaust with her parents) is still alive. In 1975, she married Donald M. Blinken [1925-2022], a banker and U.S. Ambassador to Hungary during the Clinton Administration. There was much Mary didn’t know about her friend, most of it detailed in a 2009 memoir, Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return.]
Mary’s childhood was vibrant – and often exhilarating – in its own way, particularly in the amber of hindsight. But she most certainly wasn’t taking cruises on the Onassis yacht.
More like wondering how “Uncle Dom” – a big shot at the Fulton Fish Market – wound up looking like a battered heavyweight when he wasn’t known to box. And dropping nickels in the Horn & Hardart “automat” cafeterias (celebrated in the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer) to slide a glass door for a slice of pie.
At age seven, she was taking the subway alone into Manhattan to perform ballet with professionals. At 12 – also traveling solo – she made the 10-mile journey by train and bus from home to Belmont Park to lay bets for her father.
“By the time I was an adolescent I didn’t look like a young girl so no one questioned me when I placed the bets,” she said. “My father took me to every racetrack on the east coast – Belmont, Monmouth, Garden State, Bel Air, Rockingham in North Carolina and Scarborough in Maine. I knew more about horses than most men.”
I have never met Mary in person. Our introduction took place in September 2020 after I put out word to see if anyone knew a letter carrier willing to talk. I was working a story on damage done to the postal service by Trump-appointee Louis DeJoy, who, somehow, continues as postmaster general.
My former Sunpapers co-worker Elise Armacost replied, “My grandfather was a mailman,” and put me in touch with her mom. That was a hundred messages ago.
“He worked for the post office for 40 years,” wrote Mary. “It’s hard to separate the mailman from the real person.”
Casper Sanfino [1899-1981], an accomplished ballroom dancer, was named for one of the three wise men, though he spelled it differently than the magi. Casper’s route was in Manhattan’s meatpacking district – a plum he refused to give up until retiring about 1965 – and to get there woke at 4 a.m. When he returned after 3 p.m., his coffee better be ready and waiting.
“Dad always came home with some kind of food, all kinds of meat and fruit a couple of times a week,” wrote Mary. “A lot of it was ‘touched,’ fruit, bruised or something. My mother would make stewed peaches and pears out of it.”
The post office story came and went but my curiosity about the nine decades of Mary’s life endured. In time, she began sharing “…things I’ve never told anyone.”
Most of the secrets concerned life after Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on apartment 6-F at 6574 Saunders Street, just about the time Mary was set to attend Columbia University to study drama.
Not only did her Roman Catholic mother Concetta “Ethel” Scotti Sanfino [1910-1992] invite the strangers in, but joined with a zealousness that made Mary’s head spin.
“Everything changed,” she wrote. Blood ties were severed with Ethel’s mother (Mary’s beloved “Grandma”) who refused to become a member, Mary was yoked into “preaching” door-to-door and Christmas – such a fantastic feast in the past – was no more.
“There was a tiny porcelain Christmas bell especially cherished by my mother and me. It was violet with tiny pink flowers,” said Mary of the day her mother hauled the ornaments to the incinerator. “I asked if we could save that one thing. She said no.”
Perhaps worst of all, a big world waiting to be engaged by a young, smart and talented woman with dreams had been eclipsed by fanaticism.
“My mother said I had to suffer for ‘the kingdom,’ it was all or nothing,” wrote Mary. “I never believed in any of it and I still marvel at how I was sucked in. I turned down a good job with the Burroughs Corporation. All I really wanted was to study and learn but no one in my family cared about that.”
At 18, she was not prepared to resist. A few years later, after a brief courtship, Mary married a devout Witness who raised exotic birds. If only in practice, she went along with the faith in which many of her now deceased husband’s wishes were codified. In 1988, when her kids were young adults, she broke away. Her children did the same.
At the end of Ethel’s life, said Mary, Alzheimer’s – quite ironically – returned to her a loving and gentle mother. “The religion was completely gone. She never mentioned it again.”
And Mary – a celebrated baker of cakes and pies, a proud and delighted grandmother, a woman who knows the worth of a gentle breeze and fresh flowers – is at peace with all that came before.
“You can’t possibly know how that makes me feel that someone can actually be interested in all the stuff I’ve pushed through,” she wrote. “I’ve felt compelled to put it all down. For what? I guess to show that I survived.”
Rafael Alvarez writes from Baltimore. To receive “real mail” from him, send a note via firstname.lastname@example.org