The minute Mary Lou Setaro laid eyes on Anthony Piland, she was convinced she’d marry him. It was the 1980s, and Mary Lou was a freshman at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, Conn., and Anthony was a junior. The first time she saw him, she was in the hallway asking her English teacher if she could turn in some extra credit. Anthony came through the school’s doors like a cool breeze on a hot day, and Mary Lou took notice. In her book, “For the Love of Spumoni,” Mary Lou writes, “He was, without a doubt, the most beautiful boy I had ever seen.”
Two summers ago, Mary Lou gave a “Moth” presentation at the Tabernacle, and told the story about how she met and married her husband Anthony. The story had some complications: Mary Lou comes from a very traditional, white, Italian Catholic family, and Anthony is black and Protestant.
In the book, Mary Lou brings her older sister Nancy on a group outing to the movies, and her sister meets Anthony for the first time. She points out the obvious, saying, “I get it, he’s cute. Smart, and nice, too. But why are you falling in love with him? He’s black. Dad will kill you.”
Despite the warning, Mary Lou was determined to get to know Anthony better. She found out his locker combination by volunteering in the guidance office. She went into his locker, nabbed his Egyptian musk oil, and rubbed some of it on her wrists so that she could smell him all day. She even “borrowed” one of his sweaters from his locker and wore it. You might say she was smitten.
Anthony did eventually hang out with Mary Lou in high school, but usually around a group of mutual friends. She pined away during her teen years, saving every note he ever wrote her, ticket stubs, and even a half-eaten package of licorice from one of the times they were at the movies together. She still has it all at their home in Vineyard Haven, in a very thick binder full of memories.
“I knew she liked me because one of my friend’s sisters was always telling me she liked me, but I just thought it was a crush that she had,” Anthony says. “She was actually a pest at times.”
That changed after he graduated from high school and went into the Air Force. Mary Lou wrote to him faithfully, and they got to know each other better. Mary Lou hadn’t introduced Anthony to her family yet, but the two had long talks on the telephone while Anthony was stationed in Germany, and they saw each other alone when he was home on leave.
“I would call her from Germany and rack up large phone bills,” Anthony said. “We really started to understand each other, and started discussing our future plans. I always felt more comfortable with her than with any other girl at the time.”
One thing led to another, as they say, and Mary Lou realized she needed to introduce him to her parents. It was the early 1990s, and Anthony was confident that there wouldn’t be a problem. But there was.
Mary Lou’s father, also named Anthony, gave her an ultimatum: It was either her family or Anthony. She’d have to make a choice. She chose Anthony, and her large Italian family wasted no time in condemning Mary Lou’s decision, even threatening her for bringing “shame to the family.”
At 21, Mary Lou found herself kicked out of her family home and living in the basement of the house Anthony shared with his mother. They looked for apartments for her, but Anthony was adamant that Mary Lou shouldn’t live by herself after having grown up in such a close-knit extended family. One morning a few weeks later, when they were alone at Anthony’s house and about to eat breakfast, he asked her to marry him. Mary Lou couldn’t believe her dream was actually coming true. They planned a weekend elopement in Vermont, and when they came home, her family finally invited them to dinner. Just as Mary Lou had hoped — and Anthony had always told her — after spending time with him, her family decided they did like her new husband, accepted him, and even told her they were pleased with her choice.
But, Mary Lou writes in the book, her father was still worried about what the rest of the family and their friends would think.
“When I had my heart-to-heart with my dad, I told him they’re not going to accept him if you don’t, and the change has to start with you,” Mary Lou said. “He’s so proud of Anthony now. He says, ‘He’s just like me — a family man and a hard worker.’”
Anthony and Mary Lou married in 1991, and within three years, had three little boys: Anthony, Michael, and Marcanthony. The Pilands are empty-nesters now, freeing up more time for Mary Lou to ride the rollercoaster journey that began after NPR repeated her “Moth” presentation last November. Her story has approximately 12 million views.
Mary Lou thinks their story resonates now more than ever, and thanks to the “Moth” presentation and now the new book, the story will be heard far and wide.
“I’ve had hundreds of messages from all over the world. They say, ‘This is my story,’” Mary Lou said. One man came up to her after her presentation and said he had been kicked out of his house when he was young because he was gay.
“It’s a story of hope, not just for black and white people, but for Jewish people and gay people … everyone can feel connected to the story because it applies to so many things, not just your skin color,” Mary Lou said.
Their story is a testament of what kind of obstacles love can overcome. “My goal with the book is to get the message out that love has no color,” Mary Lou said.
She and Anthony have been married for 27 years now. He jokes that it works because he does what she tells him to do. And he says he’s proud of her.
“I am so proud of my wife for being fearless, creative, and so honest. She inspires me,” he said. “In today’s world, this is a message that needs to be shared and told on a wide-scale basis. A message of love and acceptance. It is a true story that is understood by people around the world. It transcends race, culture, and religion.”
Mary Lou said we need to get over judging people by their looks, religion, sexual orientation — tall, short, fat, thin, black, white, all of it. “We need to accept people for who they are until they give you a reason not to,” she said.
You can learn more about “For the Love of Spumoni” and about the Pilands’ story at theheartknowsnocolor.com.
Mary Lou Piland will sign copies of “For the Love of Spumoni” at Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Friday, Sept. 28, at 7 pm, and she’ll talk about the book at the West Tisbury library on Thursday, Oct. 11, at 4:30 pm.