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


  1. What a wonderful memoir! You made it so interesting by referring to the thoughts and suppositions of the present you as well as the child you were. You were very fortunate to have these two aunts as surrogate mothers who taught you so much. I also made most of my clothes in high school and even into my 20s, but I had to figure things out on my own. Having instruction must have been great. I have one name for you that you must have been familiar with — the Windsor Button Shop on Chauncey Street behind Jordan’s. What a great place that was! I still have one of their black, wooden boxes that held buttons. I pulled it from the dumpster that was being filled with all the priceless pieces of that great shop after it was sold.

  2. Excellent read, Joanne. Thank you for sharing!!!

  3. Thank you. Sweet stories, sweet memories.

  4. What a rich history you have Joanne! I loved reading this memoir and learning how your early involvement with textiles shaped your painting aesthetic. I hope this is the first chapter of your next book. Looking forward to reading the next chapter!

  5. absolutely wonderful to see the love between the three of you tm

  6. Joanne, Thank you for sharing the history of growing up Italian. It is a heart- warming journey of family, food and customs. Your story is of a loving family of bye gone days. Irene Rousseau

  7. Joanne:
    My Dad knew your Dad.
    Our families knew each other. My family lived in True Street. I had your wonderful Dad at Lincoln School when he first started teaching, then at RHS.
    He was my favorite teacher and Ralph Belmonte was also my favorite.
    Those Jr.high days were my favorite.
    When I learned many years later your Dad passed away, I cried like a baby.
    Thank you for your memories, I relayed to just about everything you wrote.
    My family had many of the customs you wrote about.
    I miss it all.
    Thanks again!