Astoria Characters: Marie’s Mirror

I hung an enormous vintage mirror in my bedroom at the beginning of the year.

It was, if you will, a gift from the grave.

It belonged to Marie Milo, who would have celebrated her 98th birthday this week.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Marie loved to go out.

As showy as a peacock and as tough as her perfectly painted nails, Marie, 5-foot-3 and 90 pounds, was larger than life.

Marie wasn’t the life of the party. She was the party.

She quaffed margaritas (the message on her answering machine said, “I’m out drinking margaritas …”).

She played poker (there was a table in her basement).

She dressed up (her shoes and handbag always matched, and she once posed next to her son’s yellow Corvette in a coordinating canary-color evening gown).

She pulled all the levers on the slot machines (she was The Queen of Atlantic City).

I got to hear Marie’s story seven years ago.

At the last minute, her family had to make an emergency trip to Indiana to care for a dying relative.

I could see how disappointed this news was to Marie, so I offered to keep her company on Christmas Day.

I promised to take her out to dinner at her favorite restaurant, L’incontro, not realizing that it would be closed for the holiday.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Marie in 2016 in her World’s Fair kitchen.

So, instead, Marie invited me over for dinner.

It was, she assured me, no big deal because she’d already made the lasagna and stuffed mushrooms.

I harnessed up my dog, Zora, and figured I’d be there for an hour or so.

So enthralled was I with her story that I didn’t leave until long after bedtime.

I’m sorry, Marie, but I may get some of the facts wrong.

I didn’t write them down because I figured we’d do an interview later.

Ultimately, when we talk about the impact of a life, I’m not sure all the dates matter, so I’ll plunge forward with what I can remember.

Marie was born on the Lower East Side on March 4, 1925, and she left this life 97 years later on June 22, 2022.

Her parents were from Sicily, and Marie spoke the home language fluently.

After she graduated from high school, she worked as a secretary at NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center, where one of her tasks in those pre-television days was handing out checks to stars like Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Milton Berle and Lana Turner.

Marie’s shoes and handbag always matched.

In fact, when she got married to this really handsome Italian guy named Tommy in 1948, Como offered to sing at her wedding. (Marie politely declined.)

Marie settled into domestic life, probably not very comfortably because she always liked to be on the go, and had her one and only child – Frankie – in 1951.

Her husband, who would break her heart over and over again, had his own plumbing business.

He didn’t spend much time at home, but he did spend a lot of money on Marie.

Marie’s retro kitchen, the one she made our Christmas dinner in, was on exhibit at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in the futurama section.

It had a wall-hung refrigerator built into the yellow metal cabinetry.

When the unit ceased working, Marie replaced it with a floor-model mini-fridge and added a full-size refrigerator in the basement.

For decades, in her heels, she lugged lasagna trays so heavy I could barely lift them up and down the steep steps.

Marie’s husband became well known in the neighborhood, perhaps too much so.

He had a number of affairs that Marie may or may not have known about and never did anything about until the twins were a couple of years old.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A detail of Marie’s mirror.

Ah, the twins.

Their mother was a friend of Marie’s.

“They used to come over to the house to play with Frankie when they got older,” she told me, adding that she bought a very nice present for them when they were born.

When Marie discovered who the real father was, she kicked her husband out of the house.

After the divorce, in the late 1960s when Frankie was a teenager, Marie took control of her own life again.

At 42, she rejoined the workforce (she was a secretary for a financial firm, a sales clerk in a shop that sold nuts then a secretary at an Astoria construction company), converted the top floor of her house into a rental unit so she could pay the mortgage and for the next five and a half decades slept on her living room sofa.

Marie in a quintessential pose.

She had a lot of adventures as a divorcee in the Swinging Sixties.

She dyed her black hair platinum on a dare and never switched back.

She went to glamorous parties in glittering ball gowns; once she spent $183, then an enormous sum, on a costume bangle bracelet and earrings for a night out on the town.

(She showed me the jewelry; the price tag was still on the inside of the bracelet.)

She made trips to Atlantic City to gamble, she visited Alaska, Italy, Switzerland and England, she got at least one marriage proposal (she turned it down), and in her later years, she signed up for every seniors event at Astoria’s Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church.

Some 20 years ago, Marie cracked her hip when she slipped in a supermarket, an injury that eventually led to her retirement, long after most of us call it quits.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Marie loved the holidays.

At the same time, she started caring for her mother, who lived around the corner, until her death at 102.

For Marie’s 90th birthday, her daughter-in-law threw her a big surprise party.

One of her gifts was a rhinestone tiara.

Even when age started to take its toll, Marie was not a woman to sit around; if she wasn’t out doing things, she was bored and didn’t hesitate to tell you so.

Toward the end, she had a hospital bed installed in her house, and when I saw her for the last time, she was telling jokes.

I always thought Marie, like her mother, would make it past the century mark.

As it happened, Marie left this world a decade, almost to the day, after her only son, Frankie.

On the morning she passed, Zora tried to drag me to her house.

Marie had a lot of adventures.

It was 5 a.m.; I told her we couldn’t go there because Marie was sleeping.

I had no way of knowing that she had gone to her eternal rest.

(Rest is probably not the right word; it would take more than a coffin to contain Marie’s enthusiasm for life.)

I joked at the funeral that Marie really knew how to make a grand exit: There was street fair outside Farenga.

Marie’s house on 21st Street went on the market in August, and as I helped box up her possessions, I couldn’t help but think of all the stories she told me.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Marie’s mirror.

I told her daughter-in-law that I would take the mirror hanging in Marie’s dining room if nobody else wanted it because I couldn’t stand to see such a beautiful piece, one that reminded me of Marie, end up in a junkyard.

Secretly, I hoped that someone would claim it.

A 3-foot by 6-foot mirror is an enormous commitment – I will never feel worthy of such a showpiece, one that reflected such an exuberant and enduring life.

I’d like to think that Marie would get a kick out of its hanging over my bed.

Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling