When my great-grandmother arrived on a dock in New York on Oct. 14, 1912, she brought a modest trunk of sewing notions, some personal items — and all the resourcefulness her mother had bestowed upon her.
Angelina D’Alotto, who had lived a difficult life as the daughter of a tenant farmer from Canna, in Calabria, Italy, had been encouraged to come to America by an older sister who had already married and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She was about 18.
At Mother’s Day, her story inspires me. She survived and settled in New York, married and raised four children without English literacy. I knew her in my childhood, and I’ve enjoyed stories about her from her daughter (my grandmother) Mary Englund; a cousin, Joe Trincellito; and my stepfather, Victor Emanuelo.
Angelina traveled here with migrants of various European countries, and some taught her bits of Yiddish during her voyage. She settled in Brooklyn with her sister Agnes. Like other immigrant women, she relied on work in the numerous unregulated factories in Brooklyn; she didn’t need English to sew.
In Brooklyn, she crossed paths with Giuseppe Trincellito, a butcher’s son who in Italy joined the national military police, but in the America worked as a mason. She had actually met this man, her future husband, a few years earlier in her village. Giuseppe told my cousin Joe, his grandson, that he fell in love with her at first sight when he rode by her farm on his horse in his Carabinieri uniform. .
Angelina took care of her family and sewed, doing piecework at home, like coat pockets or buttonholes for men’s vests. Giuseppe didn’t approve of her working, though he probably looked the other way because they needed the money. She did the same when he lost his money one day to a “fortune teller,” according to my stepfather, who knew them well. He says Giuseppe was a skilled mason who helped build the foundations of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
They had difficult moments, and my grandmother tells me that her parents argued audibly. There were stresses from assimilation, facing prejudice against Italian immigrants, finding work during the Depression and maintaining traditions. One time, Giuseppe yelled in disapproval when she cut her hair. Perhaps he was mourning the long wavy locks of Angelina had when they first met.
Angelina also assisted neighbors in childbirth and practiced the medicinal remedies of southern Italy. A cure for earaches involved lighting a roll of paper on fire, perhaps to melt earwax. She also practiced “cups,” in which heated shot glasses were placed on a person’s back, creating pressure that relieved muscle aches.
Poverty, stingy living quarters, and the care of her oldest son, crippled from polio, forced Angelina to take Mary, the oldest of two daughters, out of school at age 16 to work in a Brooklyn factory in the 1934. (When FDR told the public about his polio infirmity, Mary wrote to Washington, and I was told that officials sent her coupons for train fare to Manhattan for Jimmy’s physical therapy and first leg brace.)
Angelina was a homemaker with her own style. She went on cooking sprees. My cousin Joe recalls there was never a mixing bowl or recipe in sight. She would “pour a 50-pound bag of flour on her clean kitchen table, dig a depression, add water and kneaded the dough there,” he recalls. “When she made thick crust pizza, there would be pizzas spread out on every surface, and we all ate them for days.”
Angelina and Giuseppe moved with their daughter Mary and family into a mother-daughter cape in Bay Shore in 1959. Two of Angelina’s other children and their families moved next door on Udall Road, which created a cousin-filled neighborhood that I recall fondly. My great-grandmother, with grey hair and wearing a white cardigan, taught me regional Italian lullabies and numbers in Italian and Yiddish. She cooked up fried dough “sfinges” on Christmas Eve and made me dolls from folded kitchen towels.
My grandma Mary, with whom I am extremely close, has told me stories of her mother over the years, such as how Angelina had to fudge her age for her Italian passport to come to America, and how, as an adult, Mary taught her American history so her mother could pass the U.S. citizenship test. Angelina told me, “Democrat is for the people.” She never forgot the help from President Roosevelt for Jimmy.
My great-grandmother passed away when in 1978. She was proud to declare herself an American, never using the hyphenated Italian-American. I will always be grateful for my Italian heritage, the way she sang to me, her passiion for cooking, and her determination to live an American dream.
Reader Joan Nickeson lives in Terryville.