“You can’t forget the past,” Carmen Boschetti said. “That’s your family.”
She said this as we browsed through old family albums at her home art studio. I was there to learn about her mother, Carmen Torres, who had passed away three years ago.
The years in Carmen Torres’ life spanned nearly a century. Over the course of three long summer mornings, those years would gradually unspool in the forms of memories, anecdotes, and photographs. The story that emerged would come to tell the life of not an individual, but the roots in a family.
It is the story of a grandmother and a mother.
It is the story of a daughter.
Josefina Torres Boschetti was born in Puerto Rico around the year 1899. Her life was eventless—at least, according to public records—until 1912, when she met José Napoleón Benjamin Boschetti Pascual, whom she fell in love with. She was thirteen years old when they got married. He was sixteen.
The Boschetti’s are a rare breed, numbering 12,500 people in the world. (Compare these figures to those of the Smith family, which comprises 4.5 million.) Their lineage traces back to the Island of Corsica, a French region out in the Mediterranean Sea. (In passing, Carmen remarks on the island’s connection to Napoleon Bonaparte—he was born there—which might explain why it crops up as José Boschetti’s second name. Interestingly enough, Napoleon’s first wife was named Joséphine.) Somewhere along history, three Boschetti’s decided to try their fortunes elsewhere, away from the island: One went to Argentina, another to Miami. José’s ancestors settled in Puerto Rico.
Over the next 35 years, Josefina and José would have 13 children, all given birth at home, after which Josefina refused to have any more. Josefina, José, and their 13 children settled in Bayamón, in a small neighborhood called Hato Tejas, where much of the family can still be found today.
On August 19, 1922, Josefina gave birth to Carmen Luisa Boschetti Torres. She was the fourth out of thirteen children—or the fifth. At seventy-four, Carmen Boschetti (Carmen Torres’ daughter) doesn’t concern herself too much with the numbers. “I have lots of papers for my mother, my own papers too.” Records found on Family Search and Ancestry do not offer much numerical accuracy either and actually offer conflicting data. (I resigned myself early on to the fact that the lives in Carmen’s family would elude my best attempts to ground them within the bounds of strict documentation.)
Much of Carmen Torres’ early life is forgotten or buried within the annals of history, but there is a day narrated by her daughter that stands out fatefully in the course of the Boschetti history. On that day, Carmen caught her husband and his mistress on a bus. She responded promptly, calling up a lawyer and filing for divorce. Her daughter was two months old when Carmen Torres left her husband.
Divorce was cause for endless gossip among the neighbors at Hato Tejas and an impetus for Carmen Torres to move. Josefina provided extra motivation and a direction: New York.
So they moved to the Big Apple: Carmen Torres; her son, Luisa Antonio Boschetti; and her younger daughter, Carmen Luisa Vega Boschetti. The year was 1952, and Carmen Boschetti was seven years old when the family of three settled in an apartment across the street from the Natural History Museum.
“Little Carmen” (what people called her to differentiate her from her mother) enjoyed fond moments in this neighborhood, captured by many black-and-white photographs.
She pulls out one that shows her in a light-colored trench coat on the manicured lawns of Central Park, where she spent many long hours and days. I note her fashionable attire, which she brushes off as being the trend of the time. “People dressed nicely back then. Now, people wear T-shirts and jeans.” (I’m not convinced. Even in quarantine mode on a weekday, Carmen has her hair tied neatly back with a hair tie and a scrunchie. Her white-rimmed glasses complement her pearl earrings and striped top. Silver-glitter nail polish coats immaculate nails.)
She points to another photograph: she and her mother stand side-by-side on the streets on her First Communion, which she received at a church close to her apartment. Carmen, a picture-perfect First Communion girl, smiles into the camera. Her mother hovers protectively behind.
Little Carmen lived with her mother and brother in Manhattan for two years. Afterward, they moved to Brooklyn, where Mama Carmen eventually opened up three beauty salons.
While the school years kept the two grandchildren from their grandmother, summers offered reunions. Carmen Torres and her two children visited Josefina at Hato Tejas every summer until she passed away.
They stayed at a house that would weather multiple alterations and provide a sturdy roof for the passage of many different stages of life. From its humble beginnings as a wooden structure, it would survive a phase with cinder-blocks, shoulder the weight of a second floor, and face off against a government determined to construct a highway on its property. Eventually, the government would win, and the house razed down. But before then, it would see the arrival of 13 babies into the world; the happy tears of many of those babies, grown, on their wedding days; and the burgeoning of a young family in its loft.
The back of the house held the financial foundation for the family and was the cause of Josefina’s widespread prominence in Bayamón. It was a flower shop.
The Boschetti Floristería was often called upon to provide flowers for weddings and funerals—and for good reason. The house had the serendipitous proximity to Porta Coeli, Hato Tejas’ local cemetery. Many times, Carmen would see people come down the side road to the shop and leave with big wreaths of flowers to continue on their ways to the cemetery, three miles away.
It was a big deal for the community when Josefina passed away, for it marked the death of the neighborhood florist. Many people in Hato Tejas came to her funeral and accompanied her casket as pallbearers carried it by foot to Porta Coeli Cemetery. The woman who had brought joy and comfort with her flowers, in moments of both beginnings and ends, was laid to rest surrounded by the people she had served throughout her life. She was 68 years old.
Throughout history, philosophers from Plato to Thomas Hobbes have pondered the thought experiment called the “Ship of Theseus.” Also known as “Theseus’ Paradox,” the ship of Theseus refers to the vessel upon which Athens’ mythical king Theseus traveled. Legend has it that Theseus’ people wished to preserve the ship, and so they took upon a plan of action that replaced weaker planks with sturdier wood until, one day, they had replaced everything of the original. The crux of the paradox lies in the question of whether the ship keeps its identity even after all of its parts are replaced—and if it doesn’t keep its identity, at which point it undergoes this shift to become another entity.
The answer in the metaphysical realm can probably be found on an ever-shifting spectrum. As for the house that holds Little Carmen’s childhood summers, it might seem as if this two-storied, cinder-block building had long ago revoked its right to its original identity, let alone its existence. After the government tore down the building and built Route 2 nearby, the property became the grounds for a car dealership that now sells Chryslers, Dodges, Jeeps, and Rams. The only elements that remain intact are the adjacent primary school Escuela Juan Ramón Jiménez and the proximity of Porta Coeli Cemetery.
The answer became more complex, however, when Carmen took a marker and began drawing the plans of the house and the outer boundaries on a piece of printer paper. As she drew lines and filled in the spaces with her memories, the house seemed to re-emerge with the full vivacity of its original character. Before my eyes, gardens and mountains sprung up, walls were raised, rooms erected, and hundreds of flowers conjured.
She lingered over a particular room in the flower shop she called the “ribbon room.” Gazing in, one could see rolls of satiny ribbons of myriad colors hanging along the wall. Along another wall were mini shelves filled with carved wooden letters that could spell out any name or word in the Latin alphabet. She would watch as her grandmother carefully arranged the letters, inverted and spelled backward, on a wooden support, which she would run over with a roller dipped in glue. The lower height of the support ensured that only the letters received the glue, on top of which she would swiftly press the end of a ribbon. The last step involved glitter sprinkled over the glued parts of the ribbon. After one shook out the ribbon, the creation that emerged would show no more of the arduous process than the name of the flower’s recipient spelled out in glitter.
“Life was different then,” Carmen says. “There was more work. We had an outhouse.” At nights, she used to drift off to sleep to the co-kee of frogs. Though the home at which she now lives has many amenities, it does not include the night sounds of her birthplace. It is a sound she would not hear again until the passing away of her mother.
Life continued in Brooklyn for the single mother and her two children. At first, Mama Carmen worked in the garment industry as a seamstress. But she soon found out that working with fabrics wasn’t enough to support a family. She entered beauty school, studied hairdressing, and opened up her first beauty parlor at the corner of Rogers Avenue.
“A very good hairdresser,” Linda Cervi says of Carmen Torres over the phone. They had worked together for 12 years at the Lemon Tree Salon at Williston Park, the last job Carmen had before she retired.
Carmen probably not only impressed her customers with her hairdressing skills but also charmed them with her personality. “She used to come to work sometimes with easy-off to remove some brown spots off her arms,” Mrs. Cervi says, chuckling. “And the best I remember about her?” She recounts the day when she asked Carmen for some change, to which the latter directed her to the trunk of her car. “And she had all this money in the trunk because she didn’t want to leave it in her apartment. And we’re not talking about a hundred dollars. We’re talking about a lot of money!
“Yeah, she was a character.”
Little Carmen remembers helping out her mother at the age of 12, performing miscellaneous tasks around the parlor.
Initially, she did not want to become a hairdresser. She knew she had inherited the artistic gene through her mother and grandmother, but it wasn’t until her artwork got chosen in a contest organized by Abraham & Strauss that she decided to study fashion design, specifically dress design. She entered Clara Barton High School, where she received a comprehensive art education, and continued her studies at FIT as an art major with a focus on dress design.
By this time, her mother had opened up two other beauty salons in Brooklyn. While the weekdays occupied Little Carmen’s time with classes and studying, weekends would always find her at her mother’s shop.
At some point during her weekend shifts, an idea struck Little Carmen. My mother is a hairdresser, she thought. So she decided, I’ll be a hairdresser. And she did. It is one way her mother influenced her, she admits, along with the customers who came into the shop who encouraged her to pursue an artistic career at an early age.
In 1969, Carmen got married. Family members from Puerto Rico and many of her mother’s customers came to congratulate the young couple. Her mother did her hair in one of her shops. Shortly after, Carmen moved out with her husband, which precipitated another stage in the lives of both mother and daughter.
After her daughter left the house, Mama Carmen left her three beauty salons and landed jobs on two cruise ships, the MS Queen Victoria and the S.S. Amerikanis. Onboard, she worked as the manager of their hair salons. For three years, she “ate well and visited a lot of countries.”
Work on the cruise ships was the perfect antidote for Carmen Torres’ love for traveling. Little Carmen tells me of the long drives her mother used to take from New York to California and back. “I don’t know why she went there,” she says, laughing. “But she did it twice! I don’t know how the heck she did it.” The first was a solo trip. The second was accompanied by her sister visiting from Puerto Rico. “My mom had balls. She wasn’t afraid of anything. Although,” she muses, “there weren’t as many horror stories back then.” After watching John Boorman’s Deliverance, Little Carmen is less eager to be traversing long stretches of uninhabited roads anytime soon.
When her mother was 85 years old, Little Carmen took her on a cruise to Italy on the Royal Caribbean. The itinerary started in Barcelona and took them through France, Rome, and all the way to the city of Palermo at the end of Italy.
The occasional vacation Mama Carmen took was not indicative of an end to her work life—in fact, she did not stop working until she was in her 90s. Carmen Torres’ patronage had whittled down to three customers by the end of her career, but Linda remembers her friend coming into work every day. She liked to sit on her chair and talk to the customers who passed through. “She was like a hostess,” Little Carmen says. “Everyone loved her.”
She would have continued working were it not for her daughter. “She was mad at me when I made her retire at 92,” Little Carmen says. “She loved getting dressed, doing her hair, going to work.”
Her working life ended officially at a restaurant over dinner with her boss and daughter. While Little Carmen looked on, the boss handed Mama Carmen a bouquet of flowers and a plaque in honor of her long service.
A daughter and a mama
Mama Carmen passed away on July 30, 2017. She was 95 years old. The funeral took place in New York, but the burial happened back in her hometown in Puerto Rico. Little Carmen looked on as the white casket with golden decorations she had bought for her mother was lowered into a cement cutout on the grounds of Porta Coeli Cemetery, sealed on top by a cement block.
“My mom’s life is a story of strength.” It was one of the first statements Little Carmen said about her mother. “She came with nothing, supported my brother and me with just her beauty parlor. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for us. She never went on social services to get money to raise us, and she didn’t owe a penny to anyone when she died. I had a lot of respect for her.”
As she talked, bizarre incidents started happening. A broom near us, held in place by an upright dustbin, fell down. A while later, a thud was heard in her upstairs office space. It was as if the spirit of her mother was reassuring her daughter that she was still watching over her.
“I miss her,” Carmen says.
The funeral home that arranged Mama Carmen’s funeral wrote a few words in homage to her life online:
Lamento su pérdida, que el Dios de amor los consuele.
“I lament your loss. May the God of love console you.”
Mama Carmen’s death was lamented by many. But during her life, she was a source of kindness, humor, and fearlessness to those fortunate to have known her.