By GinaMarie Gabrielle Piane
It was 1980; Granma, Mom and Dad, Karen and Rich were at my condo near DePaul University in Chicago playing Trivial Pursuit, the question was “Which president was assassinated in 1901?” Karen is one of my older sisters and Rich is her husband. Granma said, “McKinley, I remember, le Signore told me when it happened.” She was referring to Jane Addams coming into her kindergarten room to tell the children that the president had been assassinated. At this point, I decided that I needed to learn more about this woman who held my face in both her hands and gave me squeaky kisses.
What I already knew was that Granma was old. She was over sixty when I was born and now was 86 years old. She was old world. She made spaghetti sauce three times a week, made her own bread, pasta and cookies. Oh, the cookies! She always had rolls of homemade dough, nuts, chocolate and dates, that she baked- up fresh whenever we were over, which was nearly every Sunday. You know that relaxation exercise where you imagine that you are in your “special place?” Well, for me my special place is Granma’s kitchen. I close my eyes and see the grey Formica table and the white porcelain stove. I see the Guardian Service pot of spaghetti sauce with meatballs, chicken and brasciole. I smell the sauce, the coffee and the cookies and I am completely relaxed. I am a little girl and I am eating one of Grandma’s pizzelles. We call them prayer cookies because of the unique recipe. The ingredients are standard, Granma made vanilla pizzelles for us because kids don’t usually like anisette. The dough is plopped unto a sort of waffle iron that is held over the flame on the stove. To time them, Grandma said one “Hail Mary” for each side and they were perfectly crisp and golden brown.
Grandma stands about 4 foot nine and has the whitest hair I have ever seen. It is shiny and soft; I just wanted to touch it. She wears it in the traditional way, braided and rolled into a bun. When I sleep over, I get to see her uncoil it and brush out the length. She has soft brown eyes and a small nose. She lovely but always thought she was ugly. She never wears one bit of make-up. Her only jewelry is her wedding ring and the tiny pearl earrings that she wore since the midwife in Italy pierced her ears at birth. I have only seen Grandma wear three colors; light blue in summer, dark blue in winter and black for a year after a family member died.
When my son Eric was born, Dad brought Granma, aged 87, over to visit. She came bounding up the stairs to the fourth floor walk up and said, “I thought there would be one more floor.” After helping me to get Eric to breastfeed calmly, she proceeded to dust my condo. When she got to the knickknack shelf, I said, “Oh, Grandma I don’t dust those very often.” She responded “just every other day?” In my head I said “no like, quarterly.” If we go shopping, I have to ask her to take a break so I can rest.
Her house is the smallest single-family home that I have ever seen. It has two bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen and a front room. I just looked it up on one of those real estate sites and it is actually only 935 square feet. It is impeccably clean with white walls, white sheets, white bedcovers, white towels and a light green wall-to-wall carpet. You really can’t see too much of the carpet because Grandma has throw rugs strewn about so the carpet won’t get dirty. When Grandpa was alive, there was an equally impeccable garden in the backyard where no weed would dare grow. Grandpa had raised beds of tomatoes, Italian beans, cucumbers and red roses. Now Uncle Pete lives with Grandma which is good because she has company and someone to take care of.
Grandma walked to church every day, prayed the rosary, and read books about the lives of the saints. She read the Reader’s Digest and watched “The Young and the Restless” which she called her “story.” She said that the old folks in her story were restless, too. You can see why it was hard for me to imagine Grandma as a little girl and to imagine what it was like for her growing up and raising her family. I asked her many questions and started digging into genealogy records and asking about family history. We wrote down names and dates. I ordered baptismal and death records from the archdiocese. I gathered some vital records. I talked to the older cousins. I wrote lots of letters. This was before widespread use of the internet. I put together a family tree that left me wanting. I didn’t have enough of the story.
I wish I had asked Grandma more questions. I wish I knew what questions to ask. Now I need to rely on written history. We lost Grandma at the age of 98 years old. We will never forget her. Since then, I have come to find inspiration in her life story that guides my interactions with my family and my career in public health.
Her name was Antonetta Carmela Priete Orlando. I didn’t know about the middle name Carmela until I asked her. She didn’t like it and never used it. I didn’t know about the Priete until I saw it listed on the ship manifest. Females in Italy use their mother’s maiden name. She was born on October 29, 1893 in a small village in Calabria named Piane-Crati. I don’t know much about her life in Piane-Crati. The people were peasant farmers. The church was St. Barbara’s.
Every year on the feast of St. Barbara, December 4th, the people in Piane-Crati celebrated the feast day by walking from house to house. When they arrived they shouted “Pittanza!” which means give me a pittance. The matron of the house invited them in for cookies. The celebration commemorated St. Barbara giving grain to the poor against her father’s wishes.
Antonetta at the age of 4 boarded the ship Werra in Naples with her mother, Michelina Priete (39) and two older sisters, Guissepina (16) and Luisa (11). I recall a story that one of her mother’s sisters had moved to South America around this time also. The journey across the ocean took 16 days. Granma didn”t remember very much of it. She recalled some women cooking food that didn’t smell very good. She arrived at Ellis Island. Ellis Island processed immigrants from third class or steerage while the wealthier passengers were processed privately on board steamships. The Werra held 1000 steerage passengers. It was thought that the lower class arrivals carried diseases.
In 1990, Ellis Island opened its doors as a museum. I happened to be in New York for a professional meeting and took an afternoon off to visit Ellis Island. When I saw the great hall, I was so overcome with emotion. I kept envisioning the rooms from the perspective of that 4 year old girl looking up at the hoards of people in their tattered black coats, lugging their precious belongings in their trunks. What she must have seen! The immigrants, were herded like cattle, yelled at by processors who didn’t speak their languages, changed names to make it easier for processing and separated families. Whatever happened to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”
Antonetta, her sisters and mother did get through Ellis Island. I have heard no stories about their particular delays or trials. They took a train from New York to Chicago and met up with my great grandfather, Domenici Orlando, at least that’s what we think his name was. Some records have the name reversed Orlando Domenici. Grandma’s two sisters were listed with the last name Domenici on the ship’s manifest. So who knows? Grandma used the name Antonetta Orlando so when Tony Orlando and Dawn came on the TV with their variety show, Grandma would say “That’s me, Toni Orlando.”
Dominick, as he came to be known in America was working in Chicago until he saved the money to send for his family. This is called “chain migration” and results in neighborhoods like “Little Italy” in Chicago with clusters of people from the same country, region and even villages.They spoke Italian, worked with other Italians and bought food from Italians. Grandma’s memories of her father were dismal. She told me that he would constantly beat and threaten her. He would hold her over the opening of the outhouse and threaten to throw her in if she looked at boys. She said, “I wasn’t gonna look at boys! I didn’t care about boys! I was just a little girl!”
Antonetta and her mother bought fruits and vegetables from the Jewish market, as she called it. This eventually became the Maxwell Street market. She told us that the Jews would show the nice produce in the front of the cart and give you rotten fruit from the back of the cart. She used to buy mismatched shoes and the like. It seems universal that when two or more kinds of people live in close proximity to the other and have different customs and beliefs that each group considers the other group to be inferiors. The Jews looked down on the Italians and Greeks. The Greeks looked down on the Jews and Italians. The Italians complained about the Jews and the Greeks.
The neighborhood was considered a slum. I knew they were poor but I didn’t realize just how poor they were. I recently saw pictures of the area around 1900 and was nearly brought to tears looking at the conditions. It looked like my worst nightmares of filth and rats in the streets. Grandma told me once that sometimes horses died on the street and were left there right where the children played.
Antonetta went to Hull House for kindergarten under the direction of Jane Addams. Jane Addams was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She won in 1931 but was unable to travel to Sweden to give a speech because she was ill. Since there isn’t a transcript of the speech, or potential speech I need to rely on alternate sources on Jane Addams. From what I gathered and read, Jane believed that the poor should have aspirations and the ability to follow these dreams. She believed that women should have the vote, but more importantly that they should be able to direct their own lives. Jane Addams rejected much of the dogmatic teaching of her time and used the ideas of context to teach. She believed that children should learn through awareness of their surroundings and experiences.
Antonetta loved learning to read and learning English. She wanted nothing more than to continue school. She told me about a woman that spun yarn on the spinning wheel at Hull House. She said she didn’t understand why she would spin when you could buy yarn at the market. When I attended Circle Campus in the late 70s, I saw the spinning wheel on display!
Antonetta wanted to stay in school but her parents needed the income that she could bring in by sewing buttons. She said that she earned a penny for each pair of pants. According to the historic accounts, the needle trade was run by middlemen who delivered the garments and insisted that the seamstresses and their children sew for up to 14 hours a day. These women and girls were also responsible for all of the household chores; shopping for food, cooking, cleaning and laundry. Some accounts of Chicago at this time document that Marshall Field spent $75,000 on his daughter’s tenth birthday party. Antonetta barely earned 75 cents each day!
Child labor was commonplace throughout Chicago and became a cause that was taken up by the trade unions that met at Hull House with Jane Addams’ approval. Girls like Antonetta no longer had to work. The child labors laws passed in the U.S. set the working age at 14 years old. When Antonetta turned 14, her parents took her to Holy Guardian Angels Church for her wedding. It wasn’t like the weddings that we dreamt of as little girls. She was scared. She had never met the 23 year old man that her parents arranged for her to marry. She remembered thinking that if he didn’t look right she was going to run out of the church. I guess he looked fine as she didn’t run away. Where would she go anyway?
When I was a child I just accepted this arranged marriage as a thing of the past, a relic of olden days. Now, I try to imagine the fear, the hopelessness, the abuse involved with being told who to marry and who to have sex with and having this forced on you at age 14. She really had no idea what was going to happen. I know that she didn’t want this for herself and certainly not for her daughter and future generations. I know that arranged marriages occur all over the world and that they are part of the cultures and traditions but I can’t help thinking about Grandma. Grandpa was not an ogre. He was just following traditions and expectations. They stayed married, of course, divorce was unheard of. They fought like cats for 66 years usually in loud, furious Italian.
It seems that marriage at 14 years old was unusual even then. According to the records, Michelina, Antonetta’s mother had her first child at age 23. Antonetta’s older sister Guissepina travelled from Italy when she was 16 years old and was single. The census records of Chicago in 1920 list each resident with their age, gender, marital status, race, ethnicity, formal education, ability to read and write, occupation and age at first marriage. I have copies of the pages that list my grandparents and Grandma was married at the youngest age of any of the other women. She and my grandfather were listed as no formal education with the ability to read and write.
Antonetta moved from her abusive father’s apartment to her in-laws apartment after the wedding. Her mother-in-law, Maria Teresa, took over the abuse of Antonetta. The story that I remember is that when her baby Amalia was 9 months old, her mother-in-law wouldn’t allow her to send for the doctor to the apartment because they hadn’t had him over in so long. Antonetta and the baby were forced to take the street car to the doctor’s office. The baby died the next day and Antonetta never forgave her mother-in-law. I found a 16 x 20 picture of my great-grandparents Francesco and Maria Teresa and had it framed. When Grandma saw it on my wall she became agitated. She said, “Why do you have a picture of THAT WOMAN!” I took it off the wall before she came up from then on.
My father is the seventh born. Uncle Lou was born in 1909 when Antonetta was 15 years old. In the 15 years between Lou and Ed, my father, there were Salvatore, called Sam, two daughters named Amalia and two sons named Peter. Antonetta gave birth to all seven of her children in that tenement on DesPlaines Street. After the first Amalia died my grandfather insisted on naming the next daughter Amalia. He did the same after the first Peter died of Influenza at age 3. Grandma was so heartbroken about losing Peter, that she could bring herself to call the second Peter by name until he was an adult. She referred to him as “Babe.”
Amalia, Americanized as Mollie, was the only daughter to survive. She was Antonetta’s pride and joy. When I was young, I was a bit jealous of my cousins John Peter and Joe Michael because Granma spent more time with them. I used to think they were favorites because their father was Italian, too so they weren’t half-breeds like us. I was so wrong. The difference was that mother-daughter bond between Grandma and Mollie. They were so close – like girlfriends.
My father and his generation didn’t speak Italian and I never really questioned this. My grandmother always said that my Dad spoke beautiful Italian when he was a little boy. So why didn’t he speak Italian, now? I think I found two answers; the balloon theory of language acquisition and WWII. The balloon theory, which is no longer accepted, encouraged parents to raise monolingual children who supposedly would surpass the bi-lingual children in academic achievement. It was believed that each language was stored in its own balloon and that information didn’t cross over. Therefore, bilingual individuals were at a deficit.
The second factor is that during World War II, posters were put up in Italian, German and Japanese neighborhoods that said “Don’t speak the language of the enemy, Speak American!” Though dwarfed by the internment of the Japanese, Italians without citizenship and those that spoke Italian and suspected of sympathy to the enemy were also detained in camps during the war. I guess this also explains why we call her Grandma instead of Nona.
We called our grandfather Grandpa. Gabriele Antonio Piane left Piane-Crati at the age of 14 with his mother Angela Teresa Gagliardi in 1899. The ship’s manifest for the Ems that journeying from Naples to New York also lists a 5 year old boy by the name of Angelo Piane. I have never heard stories about the fate of this younger brother. I have more investigating to do. Grandpa worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad for more than 45 years. His retirement certificate says 45 years, however, when he arrived at age 14, he worked for a few years instead of his father Francesco. It was said that Francesco (Frank) was a drunk. The picture that I have of the whole gang on Taylor Street in 1914 does show Frank with a bottle in his hand looking pretty bleary-eyed.
Grandpa also drank; quite heavily, too. He made his own red wine and told stories of drinking huge quantities of beer (ponies) with his older brother Giuseppe (Peppino or Uncle Joe). The family rationalization was that Gabriele never missed a day of work so he couldn’t have been an alcoholic. Grandpa never drove a car; he either walked or took the street car or bus. My Dad says that he knew that he had to choose between drinking and driving; he chose drinking. Grandpa loved to put a taste of his wine on our tongues when we were kids. He laughed when we made faces at the strong, pungent taste.
The family heirlooms that we have (heirlooms can be quite strange in poor households) include Grandpa’s monkeys. We all saved peach pits for him which he would carve using only a pocket knife into these tiny, incredible monkeys. I used to watch him carve them sitting in his white Adirondack chair in the backyard in the sun. It was fascinating, like magic. He used to check that his knife was sharp enough by shaving the hair off his arm. This was among the “macho” things I remember Grandpa doing. The other was cracking walnuts with his teeth. He kept all of teeth, save one until his death at age 89. He went to a dentist once for a tooth ache. The dentist pulled his tooth. It hurt. He never went back.
The family, with the financial help of the older boys, was able to buy a small bungalow in Cicero in the late 1930s. Lou was a great baseball player. He was offered a position with the Cubs, but the pay was too low to support his family. He drove a truck and raised two girls. He listened to Cub games until he died at age 92. Sam was the fun uncle. He always made us laugh. When I asked him what he did for a living he always said, “nothing but don’t tell Aunt Virginia.” I was afraid of Uncle Pete when I was little. He didn’t talk very much and he called me “Fatstuff.” When I was in my twenties, I became closer to Uncle Pete who in a total 180 began to call me “Skinny.” He loved to play with Eric when he was a baby and toddler. I have some great pictures of Uncle Pete swinging Eric around by his arms in the back yard. Aunt Mollie was everyone’s sweetheart.
When I was about ten years old, we had a gathering of sorts at our house, probably for Eddie and Toni’s 8th grade graduation or something. Eddie is my only brother, the oldest, and Toni is my oldest sister. They were in the same grade in school; Irish twins. Anyway, my Dad’s friend Joe thought that he saw me crossing a street the day before and started yelling at me that I wasn’t being careful enough. Well, I wasn’t out the day before but he insisted that he saw me. I was indignant and hurt and started to cry. My Aunt Mollie took me aside and somehow made everything better. She was so sweet.
Very, very sadly, Mollie was the first of the five surviving children to die. She was diagnosed with lung cancer when she was 57 years old. I was 15 years old. She succumbed in just a few days. It was so sudden and so unexpected. Neither Aunt Mollie nor Uncle Joe, her husband straight from Italy, was a smoker. Mollie did work in a hair salon for years and was exposed to fumes from perms, hairspray and all of that second-hand smoke. She also had pneumonia as a young girl that may have weakened her lungs.
Before, I mentioned that Granma was very old world. This can be very quaint and it can also be very frustrating. Granma believed that stress and bad thoughts caused illness and maladies. She believed that her haired turned white before she turned 30 because she had bad thoughts. She believed that Mollie’s cancer was as a result of my cousin Mike’s misbehavior and the stress it caused Mollie. It was hard to see her reject Mike instead of offering to comfort him in his grief.
The funeral procession was the longest that I have ever seen. The Wake was excruciating. This was the first time that I saw my father cry. He was overcome and sobbing. My Grandmother was a wailer. This was the first time I witnessed this Italian custom, too. Grandma screamed and yelled at the top of her lungs the entire time. My Grandfather also sobbed and was hugging and kissing Mollie’s body. I have never seen such grief as these parents losing their precious daughter. Antonetta buried 5 of her seven children. Only Lou the oldest and Ed the youngest survived her. In her last years this grief often overcame her. She missed them so much.
Grandpa died before his 90th birthday of arteriosclerosis. I guess all of that sausage eventually caught up with his arteries. Even in the hospital on his deathbed, he was yelling at my grandmother. He said, “Tonya, why aren’t you getting these people some coffee?!” After Uncle Peter died, Granma moved in with my parents, Ed and MaryAnn. It was good for her to be around more people. She ate more meals and was more active than when she lived alone. This is a typical pattern with the elderly. The social isolation can lead to ill health because of poor nutrition. It’s just hard to get up the enthusiasm to cook for one.
Granma had very few health problems. She had her gallbladder removed in her 50s and her blood pressure was high in her 80s and 90s. This eventually led to the stroke that slowly ended her life. After she moved to California with my parents, Dad and Granma attended one of my hypertension classes. Anyway, Granma attended one of my hypertension classes and it was very eye opening. She didn’t really know how to behave in the class. I couldn’t get her to be quiet and listen. The other class members seemed a bit perplexed because Granma kept talking to me during the class. What is a health educator to do? How do you shush your Granma? I guess it showed that she had no formal education other than kindergarten. I became a health educator in order to help others to improve their health. I am proud to be a bleeding heart liberal; proud to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Jane Addams who devoted her life to helping others.
Granma died in a long-term care facility in California about a year and a half after the stroke. The stroke occurred in my parent’s house after Granma has been making dinner. She had babysat for Karen’s children earlier that week. Granma’s stroke took away much of her memory but didn’t stop her heart. With no heroic measures or machines, she lingered in a semi-lucid state for months. When I visited her, she was mixed up. She asked, “Do I have to have this baby?” we answered “No, Granma, you already had all your babies.” She also called me Mollie and asked where I had been. It was so sad to see our family’s matriarch in this state for so long.
As a health educator I have worked with the poorest of the poor in Cook County, Illinois. I think I look at poor people differently than some others because I know that they often just need an opportunity. The famous Birth Control Pioneer, Margaret Sanger described the poor as weeds in the human garden. She thought that those who worked with the poor were wasting their time and actually doing a disservice to the future of humanity. I believe that all people are valuable. I learned that from Granma and Jane Addams. To me, Granma has become the face of child labor and exploitation of women and teen marriage and helping those in poverty and recently arrived immigrants.
I realize that now as a professor, I do more talking about the accomplishments of others than actually accomplishing myself. I hope to inspire my students to do great work. I often lament that I haven’t really done anything great. I do have one thing for sure in common with Jane Addams. We were the only two people to ever have Antonetta Carmela Priete Orlando Piane in our classrooms.If Jane Addams evaluated her work at Hull House like we currently evaluate Social Work and Public Health programs she might have measured the number of children that stayed in school, that graduated from high school, that had careers. By these measures, Antonetta would have been in the ranks of her failures. After all, Antonetta never went to school, was put to work at age seven, and was married at age 14. However, I can’t count her as a failure. She read books; she kept her children in school. She encouraged her children to learn. She also encouraged them to have aspirations and to marry for love. Some of her grandchildren went to college. Two of us completed our doctorate degrees and one female cousin is a lawyer. I attended the University of Illinois that displaced most of her old “Little Italy” neighborhood. One door closes and another opens. The work of advocates like Jane Addams can have immeasurable, intangible effects years after the work is done. I believe that Jane Addams affected my life two generations later.
This is not one of the spectacular rags to riches stories that we often hear about. How the outliers like Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Kennedy, Adolf Coors, George Gershwin or even Al Capone made it big by pursuing the American dream. Our family story is one of four and five generations who crept slowly from rags to upper working class. I still don’t have a middle class existence. I clean my own, small ranch house that the bank owns. I can’t afford a summer home or frequent vacations. I am struggling to pay for my daughter to attend university even though I have worked for universities for 22 years. However, I have opportunities and aspirations that Granma could only imagine.
My daughter Danielle is now attending the University of Illinois at Chicago. Looking out her dorm room she can see the site where the tenement used to stand where Antonetta gave birth to her seven children. Looking down the street she can see the remaining two buildings of the Hull House. In the other direction is the site of the Maxwell Street Market. Danielle, who speaks English, is taking Italian on the same property where her great-grandmother who spoke Italian learned English.