Sunday, July 15, 2018

Growing Up Italian: A Little Memoir, Part 2

Growing Up Italian: A Little Memoir, Part 1 (The Maternal Side of the Family)


In late February 1903, 43-year-old Giosué Alfonzo Mattera said goodbye to his wife Marianna, and their children, Vincenzo, Salvatore, and the baby, Mario, and left the family home in Serrara Fontana, a tiny hill town on the island of Ischia. At the small Ischia Porto he caught a ferry for the bustling Port of Naples, some 25 miles away, where he would board a freighter bound for the United States. He had a son with him, Antonio, who was 10 years old. 



The manifest showing entries for Giosué Alfonzo, and Antonio, which I've dotted in red

Below: the freighter Victoria on which they traveled. Passage on a freighter was even less accommodating than steerage class on an ocean liner. Both images from the the Liberty Ellis Island Foundation 


Antonio was my paternal grandfather.

This story is pieced together from what I learned in Serrara Fontana from Giosué Alfonzo‘s youngest son Mario
—the babywho was close to 90 when I visited him in 1985; what Antonio’s daughter, Maddalena (my Aunt Madeline) told me in conversation throughout the years, but particularly after my visit to Serrara Fontana, over family photographs; and what I remember from my childhood in the Fifties.  

Giosué, who was called Alfonzo, found work as a pick-and-shovel miner in West Virginia. This was a place where sons labored alongside their fathers, so little Antonio very likely was put to work as well. (A quick Google search reveals that Southern Italians were recruited for these jobs, and that Alfonzo and Antonio were part of a significant immigrant population in the state.) A year or two after their arrival, Alfonzo died. Whether it was an accident or natural causes, I never found out, and I'm not sure the family knew, either. Antonio, lived on his own until Children’s Services found him and put him on a boat back to Italy.  

Zio Mario told me that when Antonio arrived back in Serrara Fontana, he announced his intention to return to America. Shortly thereafter, despite his mother’s protestations, he did. He would have been about 14 when he departed. “He went back by himself,” Madeline told me. By his own account to her, he made his way to the Port of Naples and found a New York-bound freighter where he hid for the duration of the trip, a stowaway. A resourceful young man, on arrival he somehow found his way past the point of entry. This would have been about 1907.


Giuseppina and Antonio


We resume the thread of this story in 1920, when Giuseppina Clericuzio, from Ariano Irpino, in the hills above Napoli, came over on the steamship, the Duce Degli Abruzzi. She was 22. It appears she traveled alone, but she was likely met at Ellis Island by her brother Luigi who had arrived eight years earlier. How Antonio, who would have been about 27 then, and Giuseppina met and married I can’t tell you, but it seems to have happened quickly and they settled in Revere, Massachusetts. Just north of Boston, Revere has a three-mile crescent beach that must have called to the Napolitani who missed their own beautiful, much larger bay.

Giuseppina and Antonio in the early Twenties. This photo marked either their engagement or the beginning of their life as a married couple

Somehow Antonio came to own an auto repair garage on Broadway and built or bought a small, single-story house right behind it, on Cummings Avenue. This is where he and Giuseppina had five children: Richard (Ricardo); my father father, Aurelio, known by the Latinized version of his name, Aurelius; Anna; and the twins, Gabe (Gabriele) and Madeline (Maddalena).

Ever the striver, Antonio built his business over the years. He sold it to Gulf in 1929, investing his profit in the stock market. The crash wiped him out. Crushed but somehow undaunted, he opened a gas station and repair shop across from the one he had sold, running it until he died at about 50, which would have been around 1943. 


The Texaco gas station Antonio opened after he lost everything in the Crash of 1929. This photo dates from the mid-Fifties, when it was run by his sons. The horse on the roof? Early marketing

The cause of Antonio's death was liver disease. Antonio was not a drinker beyond table wine at dinner, so the coal dust from his childhood and the leaded gasoline he pumped (and cleaned up with) were almost certainly the cause of his illness and demise. Uncle Richie took over the business. My father worked at the garage before he went into the service and after he got out, and he continued to do so after he married my mother, Elena. By then a teacher, Dad worked at the garage on Saturdays and during summer vacations.


Giuseppina

By the time I was born, Giuseppina, whom I called Grandma Josephine, was long a widow, living by herself in the Cummings Avenue home. I didn’t spend as much time with her as I did with my maternal aunts, but my family lived next door to her on the adjacent street, so that her back yard and our back yard were contiguous, and we shared the shade of an enormous willow tree. I saw her almost every day, if only in passing. Our conversation was limited because I didn’t understand Napulitan (Neapolitan) dialect and she understood very little English. 


Me with Grandma Josephine and my father, Aurelius. While I was Giovannina on the maternal side of the family, to this grandmother I was--I'm not sure how you'd spell it, but it was pronounced Joi-anna, with a heavy Italian accent 

Grandma Josephine hadn’t received much formal education. Indeed, it’s possible she never went to school at all. She spoke only the dialect of her hill town. It was a shock to learn that she didn’t know how to read. Years later Madeline cried when she said, “I should have taught her.” But as early as grade school Madeline and her siblings were serving as interpreters for Grandma Josephine, translating Neapolitan dialect into Italian, or Italian into English, or vice versa, as the situation required. Antonio’s dialect, Ischitan’ (Ischitano), was a little bit different but under the same linguistic rubric as Napulitan. Everyone in the Cummings Avenue home spoke some version of those dialects. 

When you hear the obnoxious monolinguists whine, “Learn to speak English,” they have no idea of the back story in an immigrant home, of people who struggled to speak a language that would be understood by more than those from their village, of the children who spoke one language at home and another at school and sometimes confused the two, and of the translating and intervening that was so often required of them. If Madeline had been able to teach Grandma to read, the question would have been: In what language? Even Italian would have been a stretch for a someone who spoke only a rural dialect.

Grandma Josephine had three sisters and a brother. A photograph of them together, young and well dressed, likely dates from around the turn of the century, when they were all still in Italy. The four girls surround their mother, Marianna, who was seated. (Yes, both Giuseppina and Antonio had mothers named Marianna.) Luigi stood behind them. Luigi, whom Grandma called "Luigino,"  must have lived nearby because I saw him a number of times during my childhood. One of the sisters in the photo was referred to as Zilizett’ by my father and his siblings. I thought that was her name; it would be years before I realized they were calling her Zia (Aunt) Lizetta. Another was Angelina, who was deaf. I think she lived in Syracuse, which would be the reason I saw her only once or twice in my life. She read lips and spoke—I assume in Italianrather than signed. I never conversed with her.


Family portrait: Le sorelle ClericuzioAngelina, Laura, Lizetta, and Giuseppina—surrounding their mother, Marianna, with their brother Luigi behind them. This photo would have been taken in the very early 1900s, either in Ariano Irpino, their hometown, or in Naples


Grandma Josephine had a another sister, Laura, who in the photo is not facing the camera. If my story is correct, she was blind, and though the siblings repeatedly tried to bring her over, the authorities would not let her into this country. So as far as I know, Laura remained in Italy with her mother. Her situation didn’t register when I was a child, but recalling it and others like it now, I am moved to tears. There are so many stories of the ones left behind, like Laura, whose infirmity barred her from entering the country; of those who weren’t let onto the boat, like Antonette, who was sick on the day of departure and who wouldn’t come over for 25 years; of those who were refused entry upon arrival for one reason or another and were immediately sent back; or, like Alfonzo, who died here without seeing his wife or children again.


The Summer Uncle Richie Forgot English

In many immigrant families children often accompanied an adult making a trip back to the Old Country or sometimes were sent over on their own for the summer. Madeline told me this story: As a kid, Uncle Richie traveled to Serrara Fontana with Antonio, who went back to see his mother. (Presumably Antonio had resolved his immigration status by then.) Madeline showed me a few faded photographs of Richie working in the family garden up on the mountain with his grandmother, Marianna; this is the same plot I would visit decades later with Zia Maria, Mario’s wife. When Richie got back to Revere in time for school, there was a little problem. His head was so full of Ischitan he had to learn English all over again. 

Uncle Richie with his grandmother, Marianna, Antonio's mother, in the family's garden plot in Serrara Fontana, Ischia, probably in the mid-Thirties

Below: Me in the same plot, some 50 years later. Both the plot and the town had grown


The Transistor Radio

Grandma Josephine was closer with my cousins, who called her Grammy, than she was with my brothers and me, since we spent so much time at the other Grandma's house. But Josephine always kept her eye out for me. When I was 11 and going head to head with my father in my struggle for independence (topic for another memoir) my father refused to buy me a portable radio. The reason was clear: a portable radio meant mobility, and good Italian girls were supposed to stay home. Grandma Josephine slipped one into my straw bag. It was the size and weight of a hardcover novel—white plastic with a black inset over the speaker—and I carried it everywhere listening to WMEX, the rock’n’roll station. Grandma knew that my father wouldn’t challenge her—he was too tradition bound, even for an American-born son—but periodically she’d check anyway. “La radio?” she’d ask, meaning, “Do you still have the radio?” Si. Yes. It was a quiet conspiracy that empowered us both.

The Food

Though I never helped Grandma Josephine cook, I liked her food. My favorite was pizza gialla, yellow pizza, made from cornmeal. Think of it as polenta pressed thin into a pan, drizzled with olive oil, and baked until it was crispy. I hated polenta but I loved pizza gialla, even when Grandma put raisins in it. My mother learned to make it because my father liked it. We ate it with ‘scarole (escarole) or broccoli ‘rab.

At Easter Grandma Josephine made pizza gain. Ghena or gain was the lazy pronunciation of chiena, Neapolitan for piena, full. This pizza was a savory, deep-dish pie with a filling of ricotta and eggs larded with ham. The version I preferred skipped the ham in favor of wheat berries—a soft, spring variety—that had been soaked for a couple of days so that each grain, plump and nutty, popped in your mouth. The dessert version was sweet instead of savory, pizza dolce. The filling of this sweet ricotta pie
—Italian cheesecake, basicallywas loaded with semi-sweet chocolate chips. The top crust was a woven lattice. Each pie, which was made in a square or rectangular pan, weighed about 10 pounds, or at least that’s what it felt like to 10-year-old arms.

For Christmas, Grandma Josephine made strufoli, a piled-high mass of tiny fried dough balls drizzled with honey. You’d break off a sticky mass and eat it, ball by ball, getting the honey all over your hands and face, no matter how hard you tried not to. “Don’t touch anything!,” the kids were admonished.

[A wonderful cookbook, Naples at Table, contains all these recipes. On the extremely rare occasion I make one of these dishes, I refer to it, something that would have horrified both Grandma Josephine and my aunts, who had committed their recipes to memory and whose advice for measurements was always,“ ’nu poga di quishta, ‘nu poga di quell’” (un po’ di questo, un po di quello). A little of this, a little of that.]


Grandma’s House

Grandma Josephine’s house was low and dark, situated as it was on the other side of the gas station wall. There was a high fence, so you didn’t see the gas station, and the walkway between the two buildings held mulberry trees, whose fruit squished underfoot in spring and summer, staining the ground, your feet, and if you fell while running, your clothes.

While the rest of the house was dark, the kitchen was dominated by a large glass brick window, the perfect solution to letting in light while blocking a view of the garage’s cars. Perpendicular to it was the back wall, with a double window overlooking the back yard. A third wall created a large nook. A banquette lined the three walls, surrounding a large table that served as the heart of the house. The other dominant feature was a round white tub of a washing machine. It's hard to believe that she was still using it in the Fifties. One other thing I remember was the TV. While my family had a console model with a fairly large screen, Grandma's TV had a screen so small that a magnifying lens was affixed over the screen. A survivor of the Great Depression, Grandma threw out nothing that still worked.
  
Sometime in the Sixties, when she was in her 70s, Grandma Josephine decided to move into the attic apartment and rent the downstairs. It was tiny up there: a little living room, bedroom, and kitchen, everything under the slope of the roof. She lived there for about 10 years. Though the move was in part financial, it was also convenient. A smaller place was easier to maintain, as she continued to cook and clean for herself. She took the things that were important to her. One was the formal photograph of her and Antonio when they were engaged or just married; another was Antonio’s work cap, which she’d had bronzed; and there were pictures of her grandchildren. 

One time when I was visiting, Grandma explained the she was saving to leave $1000 to each of her 14 grandchildren. That was an enormous sum in the late Sixties. Because communication was so difficult, she pulled out her bankbook to show me the numbers as she said the names of of her grandchildren. I figured out her intent, thrilled at the thought of an inheritance but shocked that she would rather give money to us than use it to make her own life a little easier. She could have gone back to Italy once before she died, but she had no interest in returning, she said, not even for a visit.

Grandma died when I was in high school. She hadn't quite met her financial goal of leaving each of us that $1000. It was more like $800 or $900 each. When I graduated, I moved into her apartment for the summer before I left for college. I liked occupying the space that she had so recently been in. The money she left me, like the transistor radio years before, gave me the independence I so craved. When school started, I moved to Boston, to art school, and started my life apart from the family.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Growing Up Italian: A Little Memoir, Part 1

Growing Up Italian: Part 2 (The Paternal Side of the Family)


Our current national conversation about immigration prompted me to write this post.  I am the granddaughter and niece of immigrants. Though I was born here, my early life was shaped by the experience of people who crossed the ocean in search of a better life. I grew up in an extended family where Italian was the primary language. 


When I was Giovannina, with my maternal grandmother, Annina

My maternal grandparents, Amedeo and Annina Misci, arrived at a time when Italians in this country were treated as second-class citizens. Still, it was better than where they’d come from. Southern Italy in the late 19th-early 20th century was a place of grinding poverty, hunger, and unrelenting heat. Here there was indoor plumbing, electricity, a telephone, eventually even a TV. Sometimes they’d curse the difficulties of navigating this new country—“Managgia l’Ameriga,” they’d say, Damn America—but they were grateful to be here, so much so that they never set foot in Italy again, not even for a visit. Maybe they just couldn't afford the trip, or didn't want to subject themselves to that five-day crossing in steerage, but I think it was more than that: The Old Country was a closed chapter.

While all the relatives became naturalized citizens of the United States (as far as I know), the food, language, and culture remained Italian. 
I didn't live with Annina or her daughters, Antonina (Antonette) and Rafalena (Lena), but I spent a lot of time at their home on Carleton Street in Revere, Massachusetts. On Saturday afternoon we listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, the performances mostly in Italian. In the days before la RAI, it was the only chance for Annina to hear her language. I remember sitting with them on the plastic slipcovers in the living room, my feet dangling, looking at the radio as the arias poured out. The big anvil number from Il Trovatore was my favorite

On Sunday afternoon the entire extended clan of commadri e compadri—elderly siblings, in-laws, friends of the family, all of whom were addressed with the honorific (which in dialect sounds like goomma and goomba) gathered at the house for espresso, biscotti, and conversation. It was loud conversation, the combination of many voices speaking at once and what I realize now was probably a diminished capacity for hearing. I understood a bit of what they were saying but responded in English when they spoke to me. Mostly, though, they pinched my cheek while saying, “Quand’e’bell” (quanto e' bella). I didn't care how cute they thought I was, that cheek tweaking was painful and I tried to avoid it. 

(True story: Until I was five or six, I thought all old people wazz-a talk-a lakk-a deez when they weren't speaking Italian. It was not until I heard an elderly woman speaking English like this that I realized my family was different. It was later still that I understood that the Italian they were speaking was a dialect native to their region, and not il vero italiano, the standard Italian taught in schools, which had a more melodious sound and flow. )


Being Italian

"Don't talk with your hands," everyone told me. They might as well have said, "Don't walk with your feet."  In the minds of the older relatives, broad gestures made you Italian, and being Italian in America could mean trouble. They didn't want any of the the American-born kids to be considered a dago, a guinea, or a wop. That's why my birth name is Joanne and not Giovanna. I was named after Giuseppina (Josephine), my father's mother, and Annina. But growing up I was Giovannina, or as pronounced in dialect, Joowaneen.


Antonette

My beloved aunt Antonette came over in 1936 at the age of 25. The first of seven children, she should have come over with Annina some 20 years earlier, but she was sick the day the boat was to leave, so she remained with her aunt, Zizi ("auntie")--Annina's sister, Maddalena--until Zizi's husband died, and then the two of them, Zizi and Antonette, took the boat here. 
Antonette in 1912 with her mother, Annina, seated, and Annina's sister, Maddalena Castoro, with whom Antonette would remain for 25 years


I have Antonette’s passport. It's slim and blue, from the Regno D'Italia, the Kingdom of Italy. She left the Port of Naples on June 8, 1936, and arrived five days later at Ellis Island with several steamer trunks, one of which was filled with linen tablecloths, napkins, hand towels, and muppine (dish towels) handwoven by her maternal grandmother, Rafaella Ciammaichella. (That family name would be shortened here to Ciamma.)  



















Antonette's passport from 1936 with the obligatory bad photo. Her occupation was listed as "housewife," though she came over as a single woman and would remain so




"Mi sono sentita comé una gatta sperduta," Antonette said about the transition from there to here. I felt like a lost cat. She was welcomed into a family of six sisters and brothers, all but one of whom were born here. But the transition was not easy. Raised in a fairly comfortable household, she studied opera and art and learned to speak standard Italian in addition to the dialect. When she arrived here, with exquisite skill in embroidery and other handwork, she found work not in a specialty fashion house but in a sweatshop making eyeglass frames, a job she would hold for 40 years. 





Above: Antonette in her later years, in the 1980s


Left: Lena and Antonette in 1969 visiting Ortona a Mare, the Ciamaichella/Misci hometown on the Adriatic. Although the old folks never returned, Lena and Antonette did. This might have been Antonette's first trip back since her arrival in 1936. It's possible this is the gate to the home where she grew up


Lena

Lena, who had a mild form of petite mal epilepsy, worked at home in a corner of her bedroom lest she have a seizure and reveal what was considered a shameful family secret. Still she and Antonette took public transportation into Boston on Saturday morning almost every week. When I was five, they started to take me with them. We walked to the end of Carleton Street and waited for the bus for Wonderland, about a mile away. Wonderland, whose name conjured a fantastical place, was just the last stop on the Blue Line, across from Revere Beach. We boarded the train at Wonderland, passing through East Boston (which the Italians pronounced Eashta Boshta) to State Street in downtown Boston. If the weather was nice, we’d skip a change of trains and walk to where the stores were—Jordan Marsh, Filene's, and the narrow stairway that led down to Filene’s Basement. Mostly, though, we went to fabric and notions shops. That was the real wonderland, all those colors, textures, threads, beads, sequins and yarns. 

Lena specialized in dresses for large-size women—some  immensely obesewho needed nice clothes for church and other special occasions, so there were a lot of fabrics and trimmings to buy. There was almost always an enormous dress in some stage of pinned or stitched construction hanging on the back of her closet door. I was forbidden to touch the dresses. The pins could draw blood, and Lena didn’t want me bleeding over those yards of fabric. 

Left: Lena looking glamorous, probably in the late 1930s


Below: Annina Ciammaichella and Amedeo Misci. This is likely an engagement  photo, probably taken in the very early years of the 1900s. They married in Italy. He went ahead to America to establish his tailoring business, and Annina followed. Look at the bias-cut sleeves on Annina's jacket and all the dressmaker details. I'm guessing Amedeo made her suit and his 



Amedeo and Annina

Lena learned tailoring from her father, Amedeo, who was already an established tailor in Italy. Grandpa had a stroke before I was born, so I remember him as an old man with yellow teeth sitting in a red Naugahude recliner in the living room, smelling of cigarette smoke. I could never understand him because the stroke had impaired his speech. To tell you the truth, I never knew what language he was trying to speak. It was a surprise, then, to see photographs of him as a well-dressed young man. It was a point of pride for the young tailor to have made all the clothes for Annina, himself, and their children—dresses, jackets, and coats cut from beautiful fabrics, with details like welted buttonholes and piping and bits of fur trim.  (In turn, I may have been the only first grader with a couture wardrobe—five dresses that Lena made for me. One, I remember, was was ocher with a pattern of little red hearts and diamonds and black clubs and spades, like what you’d see on playing cards, with a little white collar. I remember a plaid dress, too. I was nowhere near the size of the women Lena dressed, but I was pudgy, what Italians call “a good eater.”)

Annina was a constant presence in the house. I don’t think she ever went beyond the yard if she was unaccompanied. I have memories of her wearing an apron over a cotton housedress, gray hair pulled back in a bun, picking stones out of a bowl of dried lentils, of grating cheese for the evening’s pasta, and of ladling red sauce (“gravy”) over cooked spaghetti. I particularly remember jumping in the kitchen to the rhythm of her grating. She spoke almost no English, and I virtually no dialect, so I’m not sure we ever had a full conversation—and she lived until I was in high school and able to carry on a conversation in standard Italian.

What I didn’t understand when I was growing up, but learned much later, is that the oldest daughter in an Italian family—indeed, in all Latin families—was expected to not marry, to instead live at home and take care of her parents. My grandparents hit the jackpot. They ended up with two oldest daughters: Lena, born here, the de facto oldest daughter until Antonette arrived. (The third daughter was my mother, Elena, the baby of the family, who had freedoms Lena and Antonette did not.) Neither aunt married; both lived in the family home until their deaths. This is the home where I spent so much time as a child. In Antonette’s personal experience with aunt-as-mother, she took me under her wing and became my surrogate mother, teaching me all the things she had learned from her own aunt. I learned to knit, crochet, and embroider before I could write my own name in cursive. I spent many happy hours in her presence making things, basking in unconditional love.



Making Pasta and Pastry

Chef Boy-ar-Dee was persona non grata on Carleton Street. Although the everyday pasta was the dried store-bought variety—pasta asciutta—the sauce was always homemade. For holidays, the wooden board came out. On it Lena would make a well of flour and crack a dozen eggs into the center, along with some salt and pepper. She beat the eggs and then began to push the flour into the beaten egg until there was a large mound of yellow dough. “You don’t want to knead this too much or the dough will be tough,” she’d tell me. Lena’s pasta was lighter than air.

With the dough made, the the pasta machine would be secured to the table. It was a black cast iron thing, a Model T compared to the sleek stainless models available now. My job was to crank the handle, keeping the motion steady. I loved how a little ball of dough would come out as a flat strip and how, by tightening the rollers in successive passes, that strip would become ever wider and thinner. For spaghetti there was a special roller that cut the flat strip into strands. But mostly we made ravioli. One year when I was older and still helping with the crank, I suggested we use half as many egg yolks and maybe even substitute tofu for some of the ricotta. Lena walked away in disgust.

Though they never baked bread—Brandano’s Bakery was right around the corner—Lena did bake cakes. And biscotti, always biscotti, for Sunday afternoon caffe' with the loud and pinchy relatives. (As I write this, I'm thinking that anisette added to the coffee may have contributed to the acoustics.) For holidays, Lena and Antonette would work together to make pastries like bowties, thin slips of  sweet dough twisted into a knot, deep fried, and topped with a sprinkle of confectioner’s sugar. In the fall, when the grapevine yielded baskets of concord grapes, they’d make what they called cavaciune, sweet ravioli with a mix of concord grape and chocolate instead of ricotta, also deep fried. (Notice a pattern here?) They started with a vat of grape filling and used a hand-cranked food mill to remove the skin and seeds before adding the chocolate. I never liked that pastry, but I’d like to try one again. I’ve Google-searched cavaciune—my interpretation of what might be the Italian spelling of the dialect cavajhoon—but have not been able to find the word or the recipe. I'll ask around next time I'm in the North End.

The Great Gifts I Received

From Antonette, an addition to the handwork, I learned to speak il vero italiano. She was adamant I not learn dialect, even if she herself spoke it. Somehow I learned to distinguish between the two. “Ah, schtu temp,” she’d say in dialect, cursing the weather. (Ah, questo tempo.) There were some other phrases I remember. “Where are you?” I shouted to her once from the living room. “Stengo cuchinah le foi,” she said in dialect, before correcting herself for me, “Nella cucina, cucinando le verdure.” In the kitchen cooking greens. (Foi=foglie=leaves=greens.) My sense of language and its permutations and connections comes from that experience.

When I was really small, she made me a toy, a large wooden spool with five nails tapped around the hole. Using a crochet hook, I looped yarn over each nail, around and around, until a knitted tube emerged from the other end and kept growing. I used whatever scraps of yarn were available, so the endless tube was a riot of color. I came to think of Italian, dialect, and English like that—different colors connected by the same yarn.

From Lena I learned, as I got older, how to make my own clothes. I started on a treadle machine, which we dragged up from the basement, and graduated to the most basic Sears Kenmore model, which was ugly but efficient. Lena’s Singer, sleek and black, was set into a dark wood console and operated by a lever you pressed with your knee. Next to it was a power machine, which I was forbidden to use because it was fast and difficult to control without experience. That needle could sew right through the bones of your fingers if you weren’t careful. She put the power machine to use sewing back and side seams on 100 skirts that were brought to her each week by a man who would collect the sewn skirts and drop off another load of pieces that needed to be sewn together. Eventually I was allowed to help; I sewed the back seams, but not on the power machine. Those semi-completed skirts would be dropped off at the home of another woman who would sew in the zippers, another in turn who would attach the waistbands, and still another who would sew the hems, just as someone had cut the pieces that were delivered to my aunt. It was a sweatshop with no overhead for the owner, and no sweat but long hours on the part of my aunt. After Grandma Annina died, Lena moved her operation into Annina’s bedroom.

While dressmaking was a job for Lena, it was fun for me. I made virtually my entire wardrobe in junior high and high school, usually from the mill ends I’d buy from a nearby fabric store for 75 cents apiece. There were some beautiful remnants—back then, all wool, cotton, or linen—but the challenge was to find enough of one fabric to make a jumper or skirt. When I had an after-school job in high school I bought fabric cut from the bolt. Lena taught me how to set sleeves, sew zippers, and how to line up the notches on the paper pattern to match the pattern in a fabric. Now I just dress in off-the-rack black, but to this day I shudder at the sight of an unmatched plaid.

I'm not sure I gave them as much as they gave me, but I visited them often and took them for errands when I was around. I dedicated a book to them. And when I moved away from Revere, I called them every week. I know they knew how much I loved them.

The other side of the family was Napolitano. Different dialect, different food. My memories are clear. As soon as I put them into words, I'
ll post another little memoir.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

An Enduring Struggle

Rene Lynch, Women's March Poster, 2017


The Fourth of July seems a fitting day to post this visual report on Beyond Suffrage: A Century of New York Women in Politics, which is at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibition begins in 1917, when women won the right to vote in our state, and culminates with the Women’s March of 2017, the day after the inauguration of the person who did not win the popular vote.


Exhibitions at the MCNY are typically short on art but long on object and text. That’s not a complaint. In a city full or art, the fabric of the city—sometimes literally—is what’s on display here.  Exhibitions have included Salsa in New York, replete with Tito Puente’s  timbales and stage clothes; Mod New York, Gay Gotham, and Roz Chast’s iconic cartoons. Beyond Suffrage is show is up through August 5. 



 The anteroom to the exhibition
Panorama below

Below: Better view of wall-photos that are part of the montage

 From the anteroom we walk into the section that focuses on Suffrage and the effort it took for women to win the vote, so the dates here are typically before 1917. There's a lot to see and read. If you go, plan to stay a while. Bonus: With school out, you're unlikely to encounter student groups. (I'm glad they're learning this history, but I hate when I'm surrounded by them.)

This is not about fashion. The dresses in this exhibition serves as a proxies for the women whose efforts helped shape the Women's Movement in New York State and the United States
Dress worn by Lillian D. Wald, 1893

Museum info: "Nurse and suffragist Lillian D. Wald epitomized New York's social reform movement of the early 20th century. Wald established the Visiting Nurse Service at the Henry Street Settlement that she founded on the Lower East Side as a way to provide medical care in impoverished neighborhoods; it is still in existence today. Wald campaigned for votes for women, as well as for world peace and racial integration, and she went on to help establish the Federal Children's Bureau as an agengy of the U.S. Government in 1912."


 Cashmere shawl worn by Susan B. Anthony, c. 1825

Museum info: "Social reformer and women's activist, Susan B. Anthony gave her shawl to Carrie Chapman Catt in 1900. Its transfer reflected the passing of the woman suffrage movement leadership to a new generation in the early 20th century; Catt became president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1915."

 With Suffrage achieved, activists turned their attention to using their votes effectively.

The dress here was worn by Carrie Chapman Catt
.
Museum info: "Suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt shifted her focus to women's club activism after the passage of the 19th Amendment. As founder and honorary president of the League of Women Voters, Catt sought to educate the newly enfranchised generation of women. Although the league was nonpartisan, Catt urged women to join political parties, believing women could not achieve full political equality until they were 'as independent within the party as men.'"



From Wikipedia: "Mary Lilly (died: October 11, 1930) was a Progressive era activist who had a prominent role in New York City's social reform movements during the last decades of the 19th Century and early decades of the 20th Century. In particular, Lilly supported prison reform in the form of separate facilities for females who were first time offenders. Lilly was an advocate for women's suffrage and other legislation to better the lives of women and children. After women gained the right to vote in New York in 1917, Lilly ran for elected office in the November 1918 election, and was one of two females elected to serve in the 1919 session of the New York State Assembly."



Top image: Cover of Ebony magazine featuring Jane Bolin, August 1947

Museum info: "Jane Bolin became the first African-American woman judge in the United States when [Fiorello] LaGuardia appointed her to the Domestic Relations Court in 1939 . . . The first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School (1931), Bolin was also the first to be invited to join the Bar Association of the City of New York, which did not accept women until 1937."


The exhibition space is a large square room that is divided by panels and curtains into several different areas. Coming from Suffrage and Influence, we now find ourselves in the Liberation area. If you grew up in New York City, or visited regularly, or were part of the Second Wave of Feminism in the Seventies, many of the names and faces here are familiar to you.


Two panoramas show you almost the entirety of this section 


Above: Represented on the wall, just under Liberation is the indomitable Shirley Chisolm (my personal role model and hero) who is quoted with these words: "I have no intention of being quiet."

In the vitrine: a dress and hat worn by Bella Abzug

Museum info: "Bella Abzug was known for her large hats and even larger personality. According to 'Battling Bella' herself, 'Working women wore hats. It was the only way they would take you seriously. After a while I started liking them. When I got to Congress, they made a big thing of it. They did not want me to wear a hat. So I did.'"

 Four key figures of the Seventies Women's Movement: Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, and Betty Friedan at the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971
Photo: Charles Gorry, AP Images, from the MCNY website


 Gloria Steinem and Dorothy PItman Hughes posed in 1971 for this photo which was shot by Daniel J. Bagen and published in Esquire

 Wall texts include plaques of many key figures from the era. Here,  Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who successfully argued for women's rights before the Supreme Court

Below: Virginia (Ginny) Apuzzo, the first openly gay woman to run for elected office in New York. As the text alongside the images notes, "In 1997 she became the highest ranking openly lesbian woman in the federal government as one of Bill Clinton's senior staff members."



No, Hillary was not the first woman to run for President. That distinction belongs to Shirley Chisolm. Her slogan, "Unbought and unbossed," has resonated throughout the decades but has at no time been more apropos than now, when we have a traitorious president in thrall and in hock to a foreign government





Left: Betty Friedan did a lot for housewives, but she was no friend to lesbians. Her term, "Lavender Menace," was used to describe her (ridiculously misplaced) fear that gay women posed a threat to the stability of NOW, the National Organization of Women. We wore our t-shirts proudly; right, a poster from 1973



Every vote counted in the vote for the ERA
(If you're under 50, more info here)


Sign from Women's Equality Day, August 26, 1970

The sign says, "We represent black and third-world women, the most exploited and oppressed in the human race. --Third World Women's Alliance"


Say what you will about Mayor Bloomberg (2002-2013), he was an ally to gay and transgender folks.
Below: Closer view of the small framed image on this installation wall





 The final section, Persistence, brings us to early 2017. In this panorama we see Persistence  at left, and a bit of the previous section, Liberation, on the right



Lotte Petricone, Women's March Poster, 2017


 View of Persistence with posters from the Women's March, left
Hillary's iconic pantsuit is a stand-in for the Presidential candidate, reminding us of her perseverance in the face of opposition



Meanwhile, decades earlier . . . Geraldine Ferrero campaign pin
Image from the MCNY website

Below: Dress worn by Geraldine Ferrero at the 1984 Democratic Convention, where she accepted the nomination for vice president.



Back to the future: Steinham and Hughes in 2013

 Normally I hate photographing through glass, but here look how the statue of Liberty, with her similar pose, is reflected in the glass on Steinem's torso

Image below, without the glass, from the MCNY website
Photo: Daniel J. Bagen