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December 19, 2011
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A person is so much more than their favorite color or food, a person is someone who has lived an unparalleled life full of memories and stories gathered up over time. They can share stories never heard before and impact you in ways indescribable. Rita Palombo Santangelo certainly isn’t any exception to that, it is true that her favorite color is red and favorite food is seafood but after living a life of over eight decades she has a lot more to offer then just suggesting a paint color or restaurant.

Rita, delivered by a colored lady, was born in her aunt’s home to Anne, a German stay at home mom, and Anthony Palombo, an Italian ditch digger. Growing up with four other sisters, Viola, Lucile, Mable, and Mary, and one brother, Sam, was a challenge in their small three bedroom Kenner, Louisiana home described as, “Not to nice,” and, “Inconvenient.” Rita was the closest to her sister Mable, teaming up against their other siblings, “We were crazy together,” she giggled as if replaying fond memories of the two in her head. To her recollection sometime during her childhood she was branded with the nickname Rita Dita. Rita Dita’s oldest sibling Sam would tell her that she was spoiled since she was the baby in the family, which she didn’t mind one bit. Although he would pick on her, like all older brothers, she can recall a time when a hurricane was approaching and he took all of the Palombo children into a nearby saw mill sheltering them from the storm.

Since Rita was the youngest of six children most of her grandparents died before she was old enough to remember them. She only remembers one of them, her mother’s mother. Not able to recall her name she referred to her as Mawmaw as all of her siblings had. Mawmaw, who was blind, was described as a sweet little old lady. “Every time I would visit her she would allow me to take home one of her baby chickens. I would take it home, feed, and care for it. But after it was grown my mom would always kill them and put them into her soups and gumbos. I refused to eat any meal that had my own pet in it.”

When asked to reminisce about school the first thing to come out of Rita’s mouth, flashing a grin, was how much she loathed it. When Anne, Rita’s Mother, would wake her for school the first thing Rita would say was how bad she was feeling, trying to convince her mother every morning before school that she was sick. She can recall crying from the time she woke up to the time she made it to school, but that did not faze her mother Anne. Anne was a strong woman and never gave into Rita’s reluctant behavior telling her, “You’re going to school regardless,” seldom did Anne allow her daughter to stay home, “She knew what I was up to, She knew I hated it and didn’t want to go,” recalled Rita. Rita was a student at Kenner Junior High and had one teacher that she really loved, Mrs. Hall. “Mrs. Hall was a sweet lady who put up with me every day, we actually got along.” When Rita would walk in dragging her feet every morning crying Mrs. Hall would console her and make sure everything was going to be okay. When asked her favorite subject sarcastically Rita said all of them. Then following that she explained that she really never understood what was going on nor did she want to. Rita made it to the seventh grade before dropping out.

As a teenager Rita had one very close girlfriend, Antinet, who she would do everything with. Rita’s favorite pass time was dancing. “My poor mom, that doll, she used to take me and my girlfriend to go dance and she would sit there until we were ready to leave, around one or two in the morning.” Rita’s legs never hurt her though; she was used to it, dancing every Saturday night. “My favorite music was the real fast kind that I could do my favorite dance to, the jitterbug.” Rita also enjoyed playing baseball.

Since Rita is a white woman who grew up during the time of segregation and the time of the civil rights movement you could only imagine that Rita is very touchy on the topic. “When I was a waitress blacks weren’t allowed in my restaurant,” she said sternly. Rita didn’t agree with equality, but hating the idea was the only thing she had been taught her whole life so how could she go against it. Rita said, “Some blacks I like, and some I don’t. Some whites I like some I don’t.” Rita’s view is slowly changing as she’s, “Getting used to the idea.”

Rita was first engaged to a man named Charles Rogers who she says she didn’t like that much, but she dated him because his dad was her boss at a restaurant she waitressed for. One day Rita was visiting her sister and when she looked over she spotted a man next door, when she asked her sister who he was she was told his name was Vick. “That guy is going to be my husband,” Rita proclaimed. “You’ve never even met him,” said her sister. “I will meet him and he will be my husband.” Rita was never so sure of anything in her life. She brought Charles Rogers his ring back and told him that she didn’t want him anymore and that she had found someone better. Rita then proceeded to get to know Vick Santangelo and eventually got married to him when she was sixteen. Vick, a mechanic and the airport, and Rita were married by the justice of the peace and followed that by getting their weeding blessed by a father.

The next year she gave birth to her first daughter Paulette. Rita wouldn’t give birth to her second child for another seven years. “When you have kids you worry a lot more.” Rita described Paulette, her first daughter, as a good kid as long as you didn’t bother her, “She could get real mean.” Paulette would drop out of school to go to beauty school. She took the bus to beauty school each day and that’s how she meet her husband Ramon, who was the bus driver. Pam, the youngest, was always a good kid according to Rita. Pam met and started dating her future husband, Billy Micheal Wallace, in the second grade, Rita liked him a lot. Pam would go on to graduate high school and get married to Billy and they would have one son, Billy Wallace Jr. Both daughters lived with Rita and Vick until they were married.

Between the births of her two daughters Rita and Vick were considering adopting an orphan named Jacky. Jack was a sweet little girl and Rita felt sorry for her. Rita would go to St. Elizabeth’s Orphanage and take some of the kids out to the park to play with them. “I once asked my mom, “What do those kids have to look forward to?” In the end Rita did not adopt the little girl.

When Rita was asked talk about Pontchartrain Beach she quickly responded “What about it,” in such a tone as if the theme park had hidden secrets that she knew about. The Zephyr was Rita’s favorite ride in the whole park while her kids enjoyed the Ferris wheel and the Flying Horses, “They never wanted to get off.” Rita went as often as she could, but refused to get into the water with Vick. Rita never learned how to swim, although Vick was always eager to help her learn she was against the idea and would always tell him, “You aint drownin’ me!”

Only one of Rita’s daughters had kids and it was Pam, but Pam only had one. Rita said she always thought she was going to have more than one grandchild, but she’s glad it worked out that way, she was able to spoil him to the fullest. Rita recalls her only grandson as bad when he was growing up, but they had a very close relationship. Billy Jr. would never want to leave Rita and Vick’s home. Rita allowed him to drink little pony beers and when she took him on vacation to Las Vegas she snuck him into the casino and allowed him to play the shot machines with her. Rita gained the nick name, Jay, from her grandson. When he was little she walked into the room and his eyes lit up, someone commented and said it’s just like Jesus Crist walked into the room. Jesus Christ later evolved to J.C and then when Rita’s only grandson had his only son, Billy Micheal Wallace III, he shortened J.C to Jay.

At the beginning of last year Jay feel and broke her hip, forcing her to stay in a nursing home for rehabilitation. Rita described some of the nurses as nice and friendly while she called other ones smart in which case she got smart right back with them. Mrs. Lucy was Rita’s roommate and Lucy would constantly accuse Rita of stealing her stuffed animals that she would win at bingo. “You are crazy. If I wanted to steal a bear id steal one better than yours,” Rita argued with Lucy. Rita’s favorite pass time during her time in the home was watching the big gold fish swim around in the pond.

No matter if you call her, Rita, Rita Dita, or Jay she is a complex person with many life experiences. She’s more than a favorite color or food; she’s an interesting woman with stories to share and guidance to give.

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