“We had Italy right here in Westport,” Mary Palmieri Gai recalls of her youth in the 1950s and ’60s.
“We made our own sausage. We had chickens. My mother had 6 kids, and all the laundry was there on a clothesline. I can’t imagine how my parents were perceived.”
It didn’t matter — and her parents didn’t care. For decades, they had carved out their own lives in Westport. For decades more, they continued.
Mary’s father, Filomeno, was born and raised in Fondola, Italy. In 1928 — age 13 — he came to Westport. His parents had paisans here.
On Filomeno’s 1st day of school, he was ridiculed for the dressy jacket his mother made him wear. He never returned. He enrolled in night school instead, where he learned English.
Mary’s mother, Josephine Pagliaro, was born in the hamlet next to Filomeno. The families’ 2 sisters and 1 brother married 2 brothers and 1 sister, so Mary now has 3 sets of double cousins.
Filomeno (“Phil”) had many jobs. He dug graves, and worked at the Richmondville mill and the hat factory in East Norwalk. “He was a maniac,” Mary says. “He worked faster and smarter than anyone else.”
Filomeno and Josephine saved enough money — with a Christmas Club account — to buy an acre-plus property at the northeast end of Main Street (near Weston Road) in the mid-1940s. They paid $800 for what was a gravel pit.
Filomeno loved real estate. “He flipped houses when no one knew what that was,” Mary says. “He was a very forward-thinking guy. And even though he spoke very broken English, he didn’t care. He had no sense of inferiority.”
Mary’s father imparted those “guts” to his children. “We got the sense we could do the impossible,” she says. To this day, she is a very confident realtor.
Phil bought and sold many properties, but the Main Street lot was his anchor. He built a house there, and opened a high-end landscaping business. One of his customers was Milton Green, landlord to an actress named Marilyn Monroe.
Phil added nursery stock to his Main Street land. Business boomed. In the 1960s, the Planning and Zoning Commission told him he could not keep trucks — or even run a business there.
Daybreak Nursery next door was okay, they said — it was grandfathered in. But Phil had established his business a year before Daybreak. He fought the ruling in court. A jury found for him, on the basis of discrimination.
Eventually Phil retired from landscaping, and built up his nursery business. “It was a true mom-and-pop place,” Mary says. “They really worked together.”
Josephine trusted customers to fill out their own invoices. When she died, Mary heard stories of how many people her mother had helped.
“You went in there and got your heart mended, your soul tended, and your plants,” she says. “Sometimes you even got fed.”
Phil died in 1992. Mary’s brother Frank took over the nursery, and developed his own devout following.
But food stores like Stew Leonard’s and Stop & Shop started selling plants; so did retailers like Home Depot. They priced smaller places like Palmieri’s out of the market.
The Palmieri family just sold the property. The good news: New owner Tony Palmer is Mary’s 1st cousin — and, with a degree in landscape design, he’s keeping it as a nursery. Anthony’s Nursery, he’ll call it.
“He’ll do just fine,” Mary says. “He’s got a huge base of loyal followers.”
The move from Palmieri to Palmer comes at a fitting time. Josephine’s last surviving sibling — a sister — died recently. She was 102.
“My parents and their relatives did amazing things,” Mary Palmieri Gai says. “I grew up there, and I lived through it, but at the time I didn’t understand what they did, and how they did it. Now I think I have a better appreciation for all that.”
Grazie, Filomena and Josephine!