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, was one of thousands of Italians who 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.

According to family papers, Antonio made his way to Michigan, probably near Detroit, to work in the salt mines and eventually back to Boston to work in the Mead, Morrison iron and steel plant, which was providing track for a rapidly expanding railroad system. He would have been living in East Boston, where so many other Italian immigrants lived. I can't imagine that formal schooling was part of his life.

Two of Antonio's siblings 
would emigrate to the United States as well—Salvatore to Brooklyn, Vincenzo eventually to the suburbs of Los Angeles. Mario, the youngest, stayed on the mountain to care for his mother and would start his own family in Serrara Fontana.

Giuseppina and Antonio

We resume the thread of this story around 1915, when Giuseppina Clericuzio, from Ariano Irpino, in the hills above Napoli, came over on the steamship, the Duce Degli Abruzzi. She would have been about 20. It appears she traveled alone, but she was likely met at Ellis Island by her brother Luigi who had arrived eight years earlier. Giuseppina moved in with her sister Eliza in East Boston (Eashta Boshta, as the Italians called it). Eliza was already married and may have by then started a family. How Antonio and Giuseppina met I don't know, but they were living in the same town, likely in the midst of other Napoletani. They married in 1917 when Giuseppina was 23 and Antonio 25. Eventually they settled in Revere, 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 1917. 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, at 9 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. 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 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, the fumes from his foundry days, 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.


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 four sisters and a brother. A photograph of five of the siblings 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, Lucia (nee Scauzillo), who was seated. 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. This was the Eliza with whom Grandma lived with when she first came to this country. Another was Angelina, who was deaf; 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. Laura, another sister, also lived in East Boston with her own family.

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

Below, the informally drawn family tree showing the siblings of both Antonio and Giuseppina. Some of the names here are Americanized, while others remain Italian, not uncommon in families where two languages are spoken. This drawing was probably made by my father, Aurelius ( Aurelio).

Grandma Josephine had another sister, Maddalena, who is not in the photo. 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, Maddalena remained in Italy with her mother, Lucia. Her situation didn’t register when I was a childindeed, I barely knew of itbut thinking of it and others like it now, I am moved to tears. There are so many stories of the ones left behind, like Maddalena, whose handicap 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.

Giuseppina (Josephine) on her birthday, March 19, sometime in the mid-Fifties, surrounded by her children. Clockwise around her: Anne, Aurelius, Richie, Gabriel, and Madeline

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.

This post was updated on July 28 with additional information and pictures, and on August 2 with a correction.


  1. Thank you for that lovely and interesting family history.

  2. Wonderful memoir and photos, Joanne! Thank you!