Chapter 1: Dee's Childhood, Marriage, and Family Life
My name is Lisa Sonneborn I'm conducting a video interview with Audrey Coccia at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 7 at 4:30 p.m. Also present is our videographer Lindsey Martin. And do I have your permission, Dee, to begin our interview?
Lisa: Thank you. Welcome.
Dee: Thank you.
Lisa: Dee, I wanted to start by asking you some questions about your childhood, and of course the most basic question of all, where were you born?
Dee: I was born here in Philadelphia, and spent the majority of my early childhood in North Philadelphia.
05:34:03:21 - 05:35:20:20 Lisa: Can you share with me some of your earliest childhood memories?
Dee: My two sisters were much older than me. One was 15, the other was 17 when I was born, so I was more or less like an only child as I grew up. My older sister got married very early, when I was about one, and a few years later had her own daughter, so my childhood was spent mostly as an only child, with my mom and dad who were a little older. And over the years, we lived in one neighborhood, and then we moved up close to where my one sister lived, so it was a nice experience for me insofar as it gave me brothers and sisters in a sense, because my sisters had children, and we all lived in a small little section of neighborhood, and around Fox Street in the northeast, in the lower northeast, near TastyCake. So we all lived very close together, which, you know, that was nice. When you're an only child for so many years, it's really nice to have other siblings, in a sense, and other family members around. So that's how I spent my early childhood.
05:35:21:06 - 05:36:18:22 Lisa: Can you tell me a little bit about your mom?
Dee: My mom, I probably gained a lot of who I am from my mother. My mother was someone who stood up for what she believed in, and was not afraid to speak out about something, and she had to go back to work when she -- she didn't work when I was younger, but my father had a heart attack when I was -- probably be around 13, and my mother had to go back to work then because my father couldn't work for a number of years, and that was the first time she had really ever worked. But she, you know, in all things, she was always there for me, and so was my dad, and as I grew older, they were a great source of support for me in my life, and I really appreciated having them all the years I did have them.
05:36:19:10 - 05:38:39:09 Lisa: You said that your mother was the type of person who would speak up when she needed to. Does anything come to mind, an instance where she might have advocated on someone's behalf, or --
Dee: I have to say this. One of my first experiences -- and my one sister is very -- both my sisters are pretty laid back. They really didn't understand my mother or me, I don't think, but a little boy was killed on our street, and this is what I first remember. Instead of ever taking part in something to make a change, and my nephews were on the street with this little boy, and the little boy ran across the street with my nephews. My nephews made it across, he didn't, and he was a young boy with a disability. And my sister was so devastated by the fact that this little boy had been killed that she started an effort to close the street off so that you could not come through that street anymore, rushing home from work, because there was a factory close by, and a lot of people would try to avoid the lights, and come through that street, and they'd come through quickly, and that's how this little boy got killed. And so it was the first time I ever participated in something where we got signs, and we closed off the street, and we wouldn't let any cars through, and got the street changed. It became a one-way street in the opposite direction. So I guess that was one of my first experiences even with a family member, seeing -- doing something and actually getting a result from it, and all that time it didn't make much of an impact on me, it probably did remain somewhere inside me, that, you know, you can make a difference if you speak out and try to do something. You can actually make a change. So my mother -- my mother was always speaking up for me, speaking up for my sisters, speaking up for my -- well, her grandchildren, my nieces and nephews. And you know, she would certainly speak out if she felt something was going on in the neighborhood that wasn't appropriate, and sometimes that wasn't always well appreciated. But she would speak out, and again, she would make a difference. So.
05:38:41:08 - 05:39:40:04 Lisa: Can you tell me a little bit about your father?
Dee: My father was kind of a quiet man, and he was a blue collar worker, all of his life, and he only went to third grade, and he taught himself how to read, and to spell, and to do math, and he became quite good at all of it. But he was self-taught, and even as an adult, he worked menial jobs, not making a lot of money, but always supporting us as a family until he got sick and had a heart attack. But he was a quiet man. My mother was more or less the driving force in our household. I'm sure she wouldn't appreciate me saying that, but she was, she was. She was a driving force for all of us. And my father didn't seem to mind, he was okay about it.
05:39:40:16 - 05:40:51:10 Lisa: So do you remember as a child or even as a young woman what your hopes and dreams might have been for your own future, your own adulthood?
Dee: You know, I guess -- you know, in the town I was born, which certainly wasn't when people were pioneers, but even in the days when we were born, blue collar workers, many of their kids didn't get to go to college. I mean, I was a pretty good student. I was considered to be gifted, but my parents never talked about my going to college or anything like that. They couldn't afford it. And I got a job by the time I was 15, working in a factory, in summers, and kept a little job up all the way through the rest of my high school education. And in the meantime, when I was about 15, I met my husband, who was about two years older than me. So he was about 17 and I was 15, and you know, we became very engrossed with each other, and he went off to the army. He volunteered to go into the army. At that time there was still a draft, and a couple years later we got married and I went to live with him out in Kansas, where he was stationed.
05:40:51:23 - 05:41:44:13 Lisa: How did you first meet Mr. Coccia?
Dee: I come from a neighborhood very similar to the old neighborhoods you would think, like in South Philadelphia, or inner city places where kids would hang on a corner. There would be a steak shop, and I lived in -- I'm Catholic, so a lot of times we divide up where you live by what parish you live in. And so I lived in one parish where mostly Irish people lived, and my husband lived in the next parish down where mostly Italian people lived. But us young ladies used to go down to a dance -- there was a dance one night a week on Wednesday nights, and I would go down there to the dance, and we would often go to the steak shop in that Italian neighborhood. That's where you got the best steaks. And that's how we met.
05:41:45:15 - 05:42:29:27 Lisa: Do you remember when you saw him for the first time?
Dee: He was, again, a really quiet guy. I was actually going with another fella at the time, and I just kind of liked his quiet demeanor, compared to some of the other guys that hung on the corner. So if you ever saw The Bronx Tale, you can get a sense of the kind of neighborhoods that we lived in, they were pretty cool, but they were also, you know, a part of the time that we lived in. All those kids had cars, you know, kind of -- and some of them were a little wild, and some of them were not, but that's how I first met my husband. I was going with another fella from down there.
05:43:27:19 - 05:45:08:22 Lisa: Okay, so Dee, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your own family. You can tell me maybe about your children.
Dee: Well, I can start by saying that my husband and I got married when I was about 19 and he was 21, and we left almost immediately to live in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was in the army, and he was a military policeman, and we had our first child out there in Kansas, which is my daughter Denise, and we lived out there for about a year, and he only had to do two years, when you were drafted, especially because he was voluntary. And we came back to Philadelphia, and we lived in a little apartment under my mother for a number of years, and that's where I had my second child. I had a hard time having a second child. No problem having the first one, in the first year, but my second child I had a really hard time getting pregnant, and we continued to live in that apartment for awhile. But when Gina was born, she was born with a lot of birth defects and a lot of serious health problems, and so it was really just the four of us, although my mom and dad lived upstairs, and my sisters still lived around the corner from us, because we all lived in that little cul-de-sac. And you know, it was nice for my first daughter growing up there with, again, nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles all around the corner from you. And once Gina was born, our whole life situation changed because she was so ill.
More Interview Chapters
- YOU ARE HERE: Dee's Childhood, Marriage, and Family Life
- Gina (daughter)
- Impact of Gina's Disability on Family
- Dee's Early Advocacy
- Dee Advocates for Families
- Visions for Equality
- Service System and Need for Advocacy
- Dee Reflects on Life and Work
About Audrey "Dee" Coccia
Born: 1940, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Arc, Danny B., Families, Institutions, PARC, Parents, Pennhurst, PILCOP, Siblings, VOR, Woodhaven