More than seven decades after growing up together in Peabody, Massachusetts, where they shared hardships, joy, love and laughter, five siblings are now back where they started, living together under the same roof — this time at an assisted living center near their old family home.
“We never dreamed we’d be reunited in our old age, but none of us can think of a better way to spend our last years,” Georgia Southwick, 93, tells PEOPLE. “Having each other to talk to every day so many years later has been wonderful. It’s a real treat to be together again.”
Although six of their parents’ 11 children have already passed away, Georgia enjoys waking every morning to share breakfast and childhood stories with siblings Carmen Wesala, 98, Mary Cena, 92, Larry Mallia, 90, and Lucy O’Brien, 85.
From left: Georgia, their mother Janet, and Mary
Carmen, who is now legally blind and hard of hearing, was the first to move into Peabody’s Jeffrey and Susan Brudnick Center for Living in 2012. Over the next four years, she was joined by her siblings as their health declined.
Because Lucy has Parkinson’s disease and Larry often has difficulty speaking since having a stroke, “Mary and I now do a lot of the talking,” says Georgia, “but we’re all so close that a lot of words aren’t usually needed. It’s just a comfort to know we have each other. We were brought up to support and love each other in good times and bad.”
The siblings’ parents, Tony and Janet Mallia, immigrated from Italy and settled in Vermont, where they raised 10 of their children before moving to Peabody in 1930 when Tony accepted a job in a photographic film factory.
“Because they had such a large family, the only way they could make the move was in a hearse,” Georgia’s daughter, Janice Regis, 67, tells PEOPLE. “Their neighbor had one, so they all piled in and he drove them to Peabody.”
All 11 siblings lived in Massachusetts their entire lives, with most staying within a mile or two of Peabody.
“Even when times were tough, we had each other and our parents somehow managed,” says Mary, who grew up helping her mother make lasagna, meatballs and minestrone for a crowd and recently published her first cookbook, Cooking From the Heart, filled with favorite family recipes.
“I’ve carried them in my mind for years and on scraps of loose paper,” she says, “and I ended up with so many recipes that now I have to do a second volume. Whenever I make one of my mom’s soups, I always look back. I remember every night when we were kids, we’d sit on the front steps to crack jokes and talk about our day.”
“We played cards, we shared rooms, we always had somebody to talk to,” Mary adds. “We didn’t have much money, but we were taught to respect one another, to love one another. It’s sad today when you hear about brothers and sisters who never speak to each other as they age. We genuinely enjoy being together. I’m very thankful for that.”
At the care center, the siblings have private rooms, but join each other for meals, movies, knitting, singing and games of bingo.
“We’re thrilled to have them with us,” Betsy Mullen, chief of operations for Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, the organization that runs the residence, tells PEOPLE. “The sisters and their brother are all extremely close — they’re a warm, loving family. It’s very rare for a nursing facility to have even two siblings living together. Five is pretty much unheard of.”
With the center set to add several assisted kitchens for residents, Georgia is looking forward to asking her sister to create every homespun Italian recipe from her cookbook.
“My mouth waters thinking about it,” she says as Mary laughs. “One thing’s for sure: We’ll have to start spending more time in exercise class.”