Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Growing Up Italian: A Little Memoir

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 Raffalena (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.


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, Maddalenauntil 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. (Annina is the diminutive of Anna, but I never heard my grandmother called by her actual given name)

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, Raffaella 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, 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 had a stroke before I was born, so I remember him as an old man with yellow teeth sitting in a red Naugahyde 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. 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.

Update: Cousin Amedeo (Bobby) sent this post to his (our) cousin Fabrizio in Ortona, who confirms that cavaciune are a regional pastry, whose filling might also include chopped almonds and cinnamon. The translated recipe Fabrizio sent me does not make clear whether these ravioli are boiled, as the recipe seems to suggest, or fried, which is how I remember them being made.

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 the experience of dialetto and vero italiano.

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 (Ortonese and Napulitan') and English like that—different colors but the same kind of 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.

Want to read more?

Since publishing this post in July I completed a longer memoir. Click here to read a bit more on this blog.

Or click here to learn more about ordering the book, 
available in hard copy and as a PDF

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