Remembering Dr. Carmela Foderaro de Rivas

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Dr. Carmela Foderaro de Rivas, a medical pioneer and the woman I have the honor of calling my grandmother, died of natural causes in her Dunwoody Village home the evening of Oct. 6, 2016, at 95 years of age. Born on Nov. 25, 1920, in Cortale, Italy, she leaves this world with an enduring legacy in the profession of psychiatric medicine as well as in the hearts of all who knew her.

While her obituary can be found in Philadelphia newspapers, I want to take a moment to share the more personal words my mother, my brother and I shared about her during her memorial service on Friday, Oct. 14. It took three of us to do her story justice, and once you read about the amazing life she lived, you’ll understand why.

Part I (from my mother)

Good morning, everyone. My name is Sandra and I’m the youngest of Carmela’s three daughters and four children. I stand up here this morning with my two children, Alena and Alex, to speak about my incredible mother and their amazing grandmother, with the hope of filling your hearts and minds with memories of Carmela as we celebrate the life she lived over the past 95 years.

Her story of arriving at the age of 14 from Italy in the middle of the Great Depression, adopting America as her own along with the American promise of the great opportunity to achieve ones’ dreams through education, hard work and perseverance, is well known and documented. Carmela married my Puerto Rican father Aureliano, when he finished medical school, another newcomer to the mainland United States, with shared values and ideals.

Growing up in a multi-cultural professional family with strong Mediterranean traditions in the suburbs of Philadelphia on the grounds of Norristown State Hospital was a tremendously unique experience for the four of us. Only classical music came out of our father’s stereo. Anything else played in the house or car was declared as “just noise” to be turned off as quickly as possible. Carmela’s mother did not speak English. She spent most weekends and all of the holidays with us preparing meals and feasts from unique recipes from their small hometown in the mountains of Southern Italy.

Throughout the years, it seemed our home was chosen most often for our family, extended family, friends from Italy, and local Americans, and if any of these had guests visiting, well, bring them too! Imagine about 20 to 50 people or more at Christmastime. I have vivid memories of Carmela always translating and running interference between her mother and her American children. Appropriate manners, clothes, activities, behaviors and expectations, were discussed and debated constantly, across three generations of cultural norms in both Italian and English. Mom and dad ran a tight ship, as nobody else was “like us,” and we had to behave as such.

As the third child, my memories begin with Carmela already being “the boss of Norristown.” The state hospital was a community unto its own, like a self-contained village, a safe and interesting place. When not in school, my brother and I rode our bikes all day around the buildings and farms. We often visited the dairy cows and the cats and kittens who lived there off the puddles spilled milk and hiding in bales of hay. We’d zoom by the greenhouse, the laundry and smell the bread baking in the wind from the bakery. And everywhere we went, people would smile or wave at us. We were “the doctor’s children.” Yes, Carmela was “the boss.” She knew everyone and most everyone worked for her. Except the governor whom she’d meet with about every week, and others from local government, the medical societies, the Business and Professional Women’s Club, or at conferences she‘d attend a couple of times a year — all important people like she was.

As a role model, my mother was a feminist way ahead of her time. She prioritized her family, her patients, administration and professional responsibilities, going to work every day, writing and giving speeches at night with intelligence and insight beyond those in her orbit. The education, skills and abilities she displayed to execute her daily life, making good choices and seeing the consequences to others of the not so good ones taught me what I needed to acquire to pursue my own professional path. There was never a doubt that I would become a professional… something.

A major life lesson occurred when Carmela experienced a cardiac episode at the age of 47. To keep her family at the top of her priority list, she had to slow down some. Carmela returned to practicing psychiatry, which allowed her to acknowledge her personal and professional successes and open her schedule to pursue interests and dreams she had put off. My mother and father spent the next 40 years taking every opportunity to travel the world with like-minded travelers in medical groups, Smithsonian tours and such, which would not be possible today considering the current state of world affairs.

As my father was promoted up to the ranks to brigadier general in the U.S. Army Medical Reserves, and ultimately to commander of the 8th Medical Brigade in New York, and then as a special consultant to the Pentagon for Military Medical Affairs, Carmela would join him for military functions in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Some of my greatest memories as a teenager were my mother and I dressing up in formal clothes to accompany my father in his dress uniform to attend functions at the Officers Club in Fort Hamilton, N.Y. These times my father was “the boss” and Carmela could relax out of the limelight.

I relished my mother’s influence on me as I pursued my degree in engineering and profession as a whole. I could speak with people at all levels of education, job, or fluency with English as a manufacturing quality engineer when engineers with effective communication skills were mostly found in sales. Carmela invited me to join her and her roommate Milli at several National BPW Conventions. So I channeled my mother and was right at home as I also became involved in both technical, professional and business organizations, attended conferences, trade shows and the like.

One of Carmela’s most outstanding transitions was that of becoming a dedicated loving grandmother, and she took on that role like she did everything else. A few days before her first grandchild Alena was born, Mom got word through the Norristown grapevine that she was going to be subpoenaed in a last ditch effort to testify about a long forgotten legal matter for which the statute of limitations was running out. Carmela realized that if she was served, she would be legally obligated to remain in Pennsylvania for 14 days and miss her granddaughter’s birth.

I’m sure you all can hear her: “Well… not just no! But HELL NO!”

So she turned out all the lights in the house. And when my father came home told him to keep them off, too. And “not to answer the door for anyone.” Even the general knew how to follow her orders. As night was falling my father protested, “But Lina, we’re going to break our necks in the dark!” So she relented and allowed him to have one small reading light on for the evening down in the basement — but no television. Carmela shut herself off in her walk-in-closet where no light could leak out and packed her suitcase.

Around 9 o’clock the doorbell rang a couple of times. Mom and Dad stayed quiet in the dark and eventually whoever it was went away. At 5 o’clock the next morning, Carmela loaded her suitcase in her  car in the dark garage and took off for North Carolina a day early to escape being served. She arrived the following day, triumphant and relieved, safe and  sound, to become the most outstanding grandmother ever.

Part II (from me)

I think it goes without saying that I’m beyond grateful she prioritized being there for my arrival into this world.

My name is Alena for those of you I have yet to meet, and I’m Carmela’s oldest grandchild.

I grew up hearing stories like the ones my mother just shared with you all, laughing at some and daydreaming about others. Ironically, I wasn’t aware of that last anecdote until we sat down to work on this eulogy together, but that actually made this moment even better. I only had the privilege of knowing my grandmother for the latter 26 years of her life, but that only made her more of a living legend to me. Being that my first name is derived from her nickname, I always felt a strong connection to her story as if parts of it were meant for me to somehow live out as well.

I was always amazed by her ability to not only learn an entirely new language in a matter of years, but also rank at the top of her high school class and earn a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and talk about it like it was no big deal. I was shocked when she told me about her inspiration to leave the education track, more common at the time, for medical school and how others’ belief in her was what propelled her — beyond her own intelligence and drive, of course. I then got to witness her pay that same idea forward — toward my brother and me. Nannie and Poppop both believed in our potential from the first time they held us and continued to show us during every visit just how much we could accomplish in this life if we worked hard for what we wanted and attacked that wanted with a true sense of passion. And I’m sure the rest of you had the pleasure of conducting similar conversations with Carmela and Aureliano. That generous spirit was not something reserved only for the grandkids.

As my mom mentioned, their house was often full of friends, family and members of the community — whether it was a holiday or not. Some of my favorite and most vivid childhood memories are of their dream house they built in Valley Forge — the basement always full of the best food smells, the stairway lit with those little red chili pepper lights year-round that I never quite understood but also never questioned, the sun room full of beautiful plants and smelling of bromine from the jacuzzi all of us kids had so much fun in, and the attic stuffed with treasures from the decades of their past left for us to uncover yet again.

And as a couple, Nannie and Poppop were e one I was perpetually in awe of. They belonged in one of my storybooks, a living fairytale, and they became the high-standards expectation that I hold for myself now. They showed me and everyone else in this room how to not just be a strong husband and wife and a mother and father but inextricably linked best friends. Even when they weren’t speaking the same language, they managed to catch every word. They functioned as their own little unit, a team of two, tackling the world together through the best of times and the worst of times. Their never-ending love and friendship was one of the most beautiful things I witnessed in my adolescence. When my brother and I connected last week shortly after Nannie’s passing, the first thing he said to me was, “She’s in a better place now and with her Moncho.” That was his first thought for a reason, and I have to admit, it was mine too. After more than 12 years apart, they are back where they belong: together. And that’s certainly something worth celebrating.

Part III (from my brother)

Hello everyone and thank you very much for being here to celebrate Carmela’s life. My name is Alex, and as Carmela’s only grandson, I was able to enjoy a side of her few others could. Growing up, she was always ready to encourage my sister and me, and provide wisdom from her experience when we had none. She truly had many gifts to give us.

Same as Alena, I remember those fun days of visiting Valley Forge and being greeted with a big hug from Carmela. The reunions and holidays were always big events, with afternoons spent playing at the creek in the backyard and playing hide-and-seek under Aureliano’s desk. Some of my best memories at this time were the small ones. On rainy days, I remember waiting till Aureliano fell asleep to change the television from the history channel to cartoons, only to have him instantly wake up and tell us to “turn off that nonsense.” The most special of treats was when we would help Carmela make her canolis. I have encountered no shell as crunchy or filling as delicious as those we made together. I would beg to be the one to lick all the filling from the bowl afterward. The canolis could only be matched by her and Aureliano’s spaghetti and meatballs. They were such a team. On coming home from school, Alena and I ran towards the wonderful smell of dinner and the warm embrace of our loving grandparents. True to her Italian roots, Carmela knew the quickest way to her grandson’s heart was through his stomach.

During those cheerful holidays at Valley Forge, the house would be filled with laughter, kids running and playing, and the hustle and bustle in the kitchen. For in the true Italian and Puerto Rican way, no holiday was without a grand feast. Despite all the guests and cooking to boot, she always seemed calm and in control and ready to give you her full attention. Maybe that was just because I was her grandson, but that is how I remember it. To her, it wasn’t chaos; it was an orchestra at her fingertips, with the sounds of laughter and eating the chorus. This was a great gift she gave Alena and me at a young age: a big, loving family. Growing up, I have carried a piece of Carmela with me. For as long as I could remember, I’ve been told I have her eyes. Hazel green, and with the spark that says, “I’m listening.” I’m reminded of her lessons every time I look in a mirror. When Alena and I were young, I would play any game or watch any movie my sister picked without argument. Some thought she was bullying me, but I liked the games and didn’t mind the choice being made for me. During one of Carmela’s visits to North Carolina, Alena and I were going through this same routine. Alena pronounced we would watch her favorite movie The Beauty and the Beast, and

Growing up, I have carried a piece of Carmela with me. For as long as I could remember, I’ve been told I have her eyes. Hazel green, and with the spark that says, “I’m listening.” I’m reminded of her lessons every time I look in a mirror. When Alena and I were young, I would play any game or watch any movie my sister picked without argument. Some thought she was bullying me, but I liked the games and didn’t mind the choice being made for me. During one of Carmela’s visits to North Carolina, Alena and I were going through this same routine. Alena pronounced we would watch her favorite movie The Beauty and the Beast, and

When Alena and I were young, I would play any game or watch any movie my sister picked without argument. Some thought she was bullying me, but I liked the games and didn’t mind the choice being made for me. During one of Carmela’s visits to North Carolina, Alena and I were going through this same routine. Alena pronounced we would watch her favorite movie “The Beauty and the Beast,” and as usual, I was about to go along with it. Then Carmela turned to me asked, “Alex, do you really want to do that? You don’t have to do what your sister picks.” To my young sister’s dismay, I pondered this and said we should play a game instead. My young sister couldn’t handle this objection from her obedient little brother and argued till Carmela settled her down and said, “Alena, his choice is just as important as yours.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but in that moment, she gave me the gift of my own voice.

Devoted to her grandchildren and family, I didn’t fully realize her strength for her family till I was 10 years old, on a cold morning in Pennsylvania. The 21-gun salute had just finished ringing through the air as we said goodbye to my dear grandfather, Aureliano. Barely young enough to understand the loss of this great man, I looked through my tears and saw Carmela front and center between other generals. She did not show any tears, only a calm sense of strength. I do not know what she was thinking in that sad moment, but her calm washed over me gave me strength through her example to cherish the memory of our lost general. She gave me the strength of calm that day. From her struggles, triumphs and love, I learned to be the calm ship in a waging storm, and to believe that eventually, the storm will end, the seas will calm, and the sun will rise to greet a new day full of possibilities. She was truly one of the greatest women I have ever met, and I will do my best to pass on her memory, ideals and gifts to my future children and grandchildren.

We will all miss her dearly, but her 95 years of life are incredible ones to be celebrated. And that’s exactly what we are going to do today. Let us all remember her in our own ways this morning throughout this service, help her rejoin the love of her life, and then spend time together smiling and laughing and crying — hopefully more tears of joy and nostalgia — about the amazing woman Nannie, Lina, Carmela, my grandmother was to us all. That should be one of the easiest things any of us ever do. Thank you.

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