Sundays with Jo, or how to grieve a woman who shaped me

Gabriella Green
4 min readMar 21, 2022
A sepia-toned, black and white photograph of a smiling woman with a dark 1950s hairstyle and bare legs, being carried piggy-back style by a man with dark hair and a white t-shirt. She beams broadly and he grins mischeviously.
Josephine Sarti and her husband, Louis. Brooklyn, NY.

The weekly Sunday dinners. The way she would grab my hands and whisper hilariously inappropriate jokes or secrets. My partner in all things spicy and in eating an entire tin of anchovies in one sitting.

In the fifth grade, I did an oral history project on my Aunt Jo. Immigrating to the U.S. in 1955 at age 10, she was totally a born dreamer; someone who saw everything in the most funny and sincerely happy ways. She told me a story about the time she baptized her doll in a well in Sicily with her brother, and insisted on a full party afterwards. Never mind it wasn’t a living baby; Jo was someone who insisted on beauty and celebration for even the smallest of joys and milestones. She didn’t care if anyone found it silly. It was the first of many times Jo would inspire me to see the world as a place with capacity for happiness in all sorts of places.

A black and white photo, solemnly depicting a family in modest, early 1950s clothes.
The family, around the time they immigrated to the United States. Josephine sits in front (black sweater), surrounded by (clockwise) her sisters Nancy, Rosie, mother Angela, father Nunzio, and brother Tony (my grandfather).

(On the subject of being a dreamer, Jo literally believed in the all-seeing powers of her dreams. She famously tells the story of dreaming of her late brother (my grandfather). When he was alive, the two of them agreed that whoever died first would send down the winning lottery numbers. And so in this dream after he’s passed, she asks him for the numbers! He sagely replies, “Money isn’t everything. It doesn’t matter.” In true Aunt Jo fashion, she retorts, “Well it sure as hell helps a lot down here!”)

When I told Jo about my first love (she was one of the first people I told, naturally), she squealed in delight and regaled me with the stories of her own past courtships, including a slick, shady Italian boyfriend with “fancy suits…who may or may not have been in the mafia.” Leading to the story of her first date with Lou, her eventual husband and the love of her life. It’s an incredible story of a junky car in a raging snowstorm, a strict Sicilian father, and a long-distance relationship (Bronx to Brooklyn). She was never afraid to be playful, to tease, and to command the love she deserved. I’m grateful she was there to see some of that same happiness in me.

A man and a woman in 1950s wedding attire lean in for a kiss in front of a window. Their faces are in shadow and silhouetted by light.
Someday, I want to know what it’s like to be as in love as they were.

I always knew there would be a time when I had to live my life without her, but I guess there’s no real way to prepare for the hole you feel when someone like that passes. The world is a bit quieter, dimmer, and our stomachs are less full without the constant onslaught of snacks and small plates and “I’m just gonna set out the chips and the salsa and the cheese — “ “JO! We already ate!” “So what! You have some more — “ “No, please — “

Where was I? Oh yeah.

Four smiling women sit in front of a Christmas tree. Josephine wraps her arms around the author.

There are going to come many moments in my life when I will desperately wish you were there to grab my hand and give some goofy yet useful advice, or pull a box of cream puffs out of the freezer like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. (Where did these cream puffs come from? Why did you always have so many boxes? Some questions will never be answered.)

But I know 99% of the time, the advice you’d give would have to do with what it is to love deeply and unconditionally. Jo’s family was the most important thing to her, and I know that is the one value she would want me to carry above all else: To love and treasure people.

Two old ladies and an old man make goofy laughing faces at a kitchen table with a plaid tablecloth.
Her sister (my other great-aunt) Rosie, longtime family-friend Father Bob (yes, like a priest), and my aunt Jo.

Thank you for being my inspiration in all things joyful and strong and mischievous. Hope they have tins of anchovies up there. We’ll be okay down here. (Though it wouldn’t hurt anyone if you sent the damn lottery numbers, too!)

A gray-haired Josephine blows out a single candle on a pile of cupcakes, surrounded by smiling and laughing family. She grips the hand of a dark-haired young girl with glasses.
Here’s to you, Josephina.