I never called her Carmela. She was always Mrs. Denneno to me. “Hi, Mrs. Denneno?” “How are you, Mrs. Denneno?” “What’s new?” “How are the kids?” These are the questions you ask people you know, but don’t really know.
And, really, what do I know about her? She was the longtime matron of Denneno’s Pizza on Pearl Street in Stoughton, a mom-and-pop place that’s been in business since the mid-1940s. I know she made pizza behind its tiny counter for 62 years. I know, also, that there was always a smile in her eyes, that she was always welcoming, and that on the walls of her restaurant, she hung art she’d painted, which made the small space feel like a home.
She made the place feel like a home. That was her magic. She made every single person who walked in, if only for a Coke, feel special. That’s what I know. But I could never fill out a questionnaire about her. Date of birth? Maiden name? Favorite flower? Book? Recording artist? Movie?
I haven’t a clue.
And yet I knew her because I saw her soul every time I saw her. It shone from her, the way goodness always does. She lit up a room. She was a presence.
I think that the hundreds of people, maybe more than a thousand, who waited in line at her wake two weeks ago, who stood for more than two hours inside Immaculate Conception Church in Stoughton on a beautiful summer afternoon to say goodbye to this good and humble woman, knew her soul, too. Why else would they have come in droves to honor her?
Mrs. Denneno was not a celebrity or a politician or anyone the world would deem important. She didn’t grow her small business into a national chain. She didn’t write a best-selling book about life after loss. She didn’t sell her paintings on Newbury Street. But she did important things. She kept the family business going after her husband died suddenly 41 years ago. She raised four sons and a daughter by herself, working hard every day to support them, teaching them the value and the privilege of hard work and family and kindness. She cared about people. All people. And that’s what you saw -- that, no matter how busy she was, no matter how up to her elbows in pizza and orders, the phone ringing, customers lined up, if she hadn’t seen you in a while, she’d wipe her hands, take off her apron, and come out from behind the counter and give you a hug.
Little things: She always rounded off the numbers. If a pizza cost $7.50, she’d smile and say “Just give me $7.”
She never complained. It could be a million degrees inside the small white clapboard building that truly is home to the best pizza in the entire region and never once did I hear her say anything like, “I can’t wait to get out of here,” or, “There must be an easier way to make a living.” It was always, “It’s so good to see you.” “How’s Lucy?” Say hello to Bruce for me.”
Big things: Twenty-something years ago when I was knocking at doors to get free pizzas for an after-prom party in Canton, the Canton places said sorry. Denneno’s, in Stoughton, Canton’s archrival, donated 10.
Mrs. Denneno worked up until three days before she died. The last few years, you could find her most early evenings sitting on a stool behind the counter, answering the phone. “Hi, Mrs. Denneno. How’s it going?” “Great,” she said to everyone. And then she’d ask about you.
She didn’t do one big, dramatic thing for which she will be remembered. She did a million things, one by one. Every day of her life, she touched hearts. Every day of her life, she made life better.Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.