My parents grew up in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, so they knew each other as kids. My mom, Carole Chillano, is Italian; her parents were first- generation Italian-Americans. My dad, Dan O'Donnell, is Irish-American, with family roots in this country that quite possibly reach all the way back to our Founding Fathers. My parents lived on opposite ends of what they've always called the Corpus Christi part of town. You won't find that name on a map of the city, but in those days, to hear my parents tell it, Philadelphia neighborhoods were known by the churches in each community. My mom lived on the Italian side of the neighborhood and my dad lived on the Irish side, with a playground in between, on Clearfield Street. They started dating as teenagers, and they've been together ever since. (They even married as teenagers, so they got a good running start!) And they still keep in touch with their neighborhood friends from the playground.
My paternal grandmother, Kathleen Carroll, had a real zest for living. She was witty, charming, and full of spunk. I remember visiting in the hospital when she was dying and she said, "Go get my purse, let's go dancing!"— and she was serious!
Kathleen Carroll came from a long line of Carrolls— for a time, one of the most prominent families in Philadelphia. We were always told that one of Grandmom's great-great-great uncles was Charles Carroll, a United States Senator from Mary land, the longest-living and last-surviving signer of our Declaration of Independence. We were never able to confirm a direct relation, but I mention the connection here because I know my nay-saying critics are fact checking this book. I'm hoping to use their scrutiny to my advantage—either to corroborate our long- presumed link to Charles Carroll of Carrollton or to set it to rest.
Just in case, we'll have it covered!
At a young age, my grandmother found herself "in the family way" after taking up with my grandfather, Francis O'Donnell. The circumstances surrounding their relationship and the pregnancy caused a great scandal and in the end she was estranged from her family— and cut off from what would have been a sizeable inheritance.
I can't imagine what my grandmother suffered, for the choices she made as a young woman, but in the years to come her courage and great conviction came back into play, because it turned out my grandfather was an alcoholic, the same disease that would later haunt my father— only in Grandpop O'Donnell's case, sad to say, the battle didn't exactly go his way. The marriage didn't last, and my grandmother eventually found someone special— a wonderful stable man named John, who worked hard in a gas station and was utterly devoted to my grandmother. We called him Grandpop John, because in time he became more of a grandfather to us than Francis. In fact, later on, my grandmother's dying wish was to make sure my father would look after John once she was gone— and, as always, my father was true to his word. Grandpop John ended up moving in with my parents the last couple years of his life, and here again the takeaway for me was the importance of family.