On 28 October 1956, John Rocco Aquilino and Esther Angelina (Rashella) Aquilino were blessed with their firstborn. The children of Italian immigrants living in South Philadelphia, they raised their daughter in a warm family oriented environment.
Amelia learned to cook from her grandparents, and she often praised her grandfather’s Sunday gravy. The neighborhood was full of family and extended relatives, and she had a wonderful South Philly childhood.
Her parents moved to New Jersey after her brothers were born, and over time she grew to be a strong willed, independent young woman. Her father was a strict disciplinarian, and shortly after graduating high school she moved out on her own, living on the street at first, determined to go her own way. She met the love of her life, Geoffry May, who gave her the name “Emma”, and lived in Manhattan in the seventies, enjoying every drop of life.
Geoff was a decade older than Emma, and from a prominent family. He was also a free spirit, and the two of them had a wonderful life together. Geoff died mysteriously on Christmas Eve just nine years into their marriage, and Emma’s world was shattered. Emma pulled herself together and worked in restaurants in Philadelphia, including Bookbinders, where she honed her skills as a server.
She moved on, meeting Charles Armstrong a few years later. They married, but had a difficult relationship, with Charles ending his troubled life in October of 1998. I met her shortly afterward, and it was love at first sight for both of us.
Emma was an incredibly complex woman. Strong willed and driven, there was also a little girl inside that needed gentleness. For the first few months we were together she didn’t allow me to enter the kitchen, but over the years she came to appreciate my cooking. She could be sharp and severe, but she could also be tender and loving.
She loved living in South Philly, being part of the neighborhood. She was on a first name basis with most of the business owners in the area, and couldn’t walk down the street without running into someone she knew. It was as if we were all one big family.
Just after our tenth anniversary, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She remained strong through the treatments, always encouraging other patients in the hospital. Her greatest fear was losing her hair, which never happened, and in fact she looked healthier than I did. It was not unusual for people to think that I was the patient and she was the escort. She took a turn for the worse after chemo, radiation, and surgery, but never lost her sense of humor. Her last interaction with the nurses was telling a joke.
Her last hours are indelibly burned into my mind, but I prefer to remember her life, which began fifty seven years ago today.