This poem, “Mariuccia,” is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, Maria Teresa Mainiero, who at the age of 24 years left behind everything she knew to travel with her son, Alessandro, my father, to a new life in America. She never saw her mother and father again. At the time she went to America, it is unlikely that she had ever left Paduli even to visit Naples. Her cousin, Gaetano D’Onofrio, escorted her to the port in Naples. Traveling across the Atlantic she was alone. When I think about it , I am overwhelmed by her bravery and her faith that on the other side she would be met by her husband, Rocco D’Angelis, and that she and her son would be taken care of.
October 1, 1923, thirteen days on-board,
Thirteen days since Vesuvius had vanished beyond the horizon.
Exhausted and frightened, she wondered “What if he’s not here?”
One arm held her son, Alessandro, his legs straddling her hip.
Her eyes searched the crowd and found him,
Her husband, Rocco, was waving up to her.
Her eyes came alive with that twinkle of light
That always defined who she was
And a smile emerged on her olive skinned face.
She grabbed Alessandro’s arm and waved it back saying
“Look ‘lessand’ look, Papa’ is waving at you.”
Steadied by a crew member, Maria Teresa Mainiero, “Mariuccia”,
Gripped her son tightly, stepped onto the gangplank and descended to the quay.
Two weeks since she had stood on solid ground,
Her legs wobbled as if still seeking balance against the waves.
Her valise sat waiting on the quay,
Containing everything that she owned:
Clothes for her and for her son,
And a block of pecorino cheese wrapped up in a cotton cloth.
She looked back only once at the S.S. President Wilson.
She had never seen the sea before, and did not wish to see it soon again.
Smells of oil, tar and unwashed bodies, had mingled with the salty air,
And sickened her throughout the voyage.
She grabbed her valise, and turning around,
Walked through the gates into her new life.
She would never see her mother, Giu’anna, or father, Vicenzo, again,
Never hear their voices,
Nor inhale the pungent tobacco from his pipe,
Nor touch her mother’s cheek,
Last seen streaked by tears of bottomless separation.
Nor would she see her sisters, Diamante and Teresa, nor brother, Domenico, for another 40 years.
Who can comprehend the sorrow of knowing
That you may never see your family again?
So it was for so many then, separated from family and place,
Strangers in a strange land unable to speak or read or write.
“What will happen to me and to my son?”
Please God that Rocc’ will provide whatever we need to live.”
Rocco d’Angelis, lean and dark from working in the fields,
Rushed to them and embraced his son tenderly.
They walked to South Ferry and took the subway to Penn station,
Switched to the Long Island Railroad and headed for Oyster Bay.
There they lived for the rest of their lives.
They walked from Oyster Bay station less than a quarter mile
To Larrabe Avenue, number 27, the house that Rocco had rented for them from his sister, Maddalena.
“Such a strange house, all wood, no stone and no mortar like the houses back home in Paduli.”
She fed the baby “’lessand’” and ate some stale bread,
Praying that it would stay down.
Content now with Rocco beside her,
She slept her first sleep in this strange land.
If only I had known how important all this would be to me,
So many questions I would have asked:
“How did you travel from Paduli to Napoli,
By train, by car, by mule-drawn wagon?”
“What was it like on the boat among so many strangers?”
“What was it like to leave your mother, father, sisters and brother?”
“Was only Grandpa there to meet you at the pier?”
“What did you think of the first house so different from those back home?”
Perhaps it’s a blessing of mercy bestowed on the elders,
That the children are wrapped up in their own world,
So that parents and grandparents both are spared from a deluge of inquiries.
But still, if I had only known how precious these things would become to me!
Now I pore over a few faded photos
Searching for meaning in every angle and shadow.
“Who took the picture?”
“Was the day hot or cold?”
“Is it true that some had no shoes?”
“Did they all sit down for a huge meal after the picture was taken?”
Nothing could remove the devastation of being apart from her family.
The toll of that separation would be with her until the end.
But husband and son were there needing her love and care.
Others from her native town also lived in this new place,
People who worked on the estates of the wealthy that surrounded the tiny village:
Roosevelts and Tiffanies and others of even greater wealth.
Among the immigrants were Rocco’s aunts, uncles, and a sister
Drawn there by those who had come before.
Oyster Bay was their “Little Paduli”, their “Little Benevento”.
There was Diamante La Bella, a Principe from Ceppalone;
Cicco Saverio Melillo, which my mother couldn’t pronounce,
So she called him Czechoslovakia.
Each one had a sopranome, a nickname from back home,
Needed to tell one Giuseppe or Rocco from another.
Rocco’s sopranome, “e Mario”, was from some Mario back in time.
If someone said “Rocco did this or Rocco did that”,
You asked, “Which Rocco?” And the answer was Rocc’ ‘e Mar’.
Bartolomeo Ranaldo lived up the street, Cumba Meo to his paesanos,
One of the Vigna Cort’ Ranaldos, so called because,
They lived near the Grape Vine Courtyard in Paduli.
There was “Fin’ a Mond’” Abate, End of the World, from Anstice Street.
Mazzeos , Marmorales, Verlingieris, and Truglias,
Florios, Frumientos, Ferravantes and Feleppas,
Mastrovitos, Marrones, Massimianos, and Messeres,
Sarnos, Savinettis, Saras, Scaramuzzos and Sordis,
And so many Minicozzis , it was impossible to keep track.
Vegetable mongers drove through the neighborhoods,
Calling out their produce in the dialect of home.
Mulingname, vasa Nicola, cugoozill’, fazull’,
And last but not least, cidriulla per la sorella,
The last shouted out with particular vigor to the giggles of all the ladies.
Ciambruno, the Bread Man from Glen Cove,
Came every day with freshly baked loaves,
Some round, some long, some covered in sesame seeds,
Some Neopolitan, some Sicilian.
In the fall the Luigi Galassos, senior and junior, delivered cases of grapes from California
For each family to make its own wine, just like back home.
You either worked or starved,
But those facing hard times were helped by neighbors,
Especially paesanos from the same home town.
There was help in life and also help in death to cover that last worldly expense.
Grandpa worked at Sagamore Hill, Teddy’s Roosevelt’s estate,
As a bracciante, a “pair of arms”, doing gardening and other chores.
Mariuccia took in laundry and kept the family home.
She scoured the fields for dandelions to make minestra,
A soup of boiled greens, often with cannellini beans and maybe some bacon or fat.
The dandelion’s yellow flowers she gathered to make wine.
She picked cardoon, a collard-like green that grew wild in vacant lots.
She boiled it and boiled it and boiled it, until it was safe to eat.
Mariuccia wasted nothing.
Even chicken feed sacks became sheets.
As a child I would sometimes sleep with her.
I saw faded pictures of chickens and letters.
“Grandma look. There’s chickens on the sheet.”
‘lessand’ gathered coal that had fallen off the locomotives to heat the house.
They always grew tomatoes and cugootsill’, “baseball bat” squash,
To make ciambott’, a thick vegetable stew.
Tripe was often on the menu, unfortunately,
As was baccalà, dried, salted cod, made into a soup with potatoes and prunes.
The best of foods was ciccatiell’, a short pasta of flower and water,
That Grandma rolled with her finger tips into little concave pieces.
Topped with her salsa di pomodoro, nothing could be better.
Coming home from school each day,
And turning the corner from Summit Street to School Street,
I could tell what was cooking from fifty yards away.
At Easter she made pizza chiena, a giant, rustic sort of kische,
Filled with ham, and sausage and cheeses
Covered in dough both bottom and top,
And baked until brown with a shiny egg wash.
I loved it cold as well as hot.
It lasted for days and grew better with age.
Our neighbor, Antonietta, made a different pie,
With wheat and eggs, it tasted somewhat sweet.
We shared our pies and had a drink to celebrate the Feast.
Every year on George Washington’s Birthday, or so said my father,
Grandma made polenta in a big pot on the stove.
She stirred and stirred as corn meal was added slowly.
When it was finished it was soft, not hard like polenta from the north.
We ate it like pancakes with tomato sauce on top.
It really had nothing to do with George Washington,
But rather with the beginning of Lent.
On St. Rocco’s Feast in mid-August, his statue, that had come from Paduli, was paraded through the town.
Ribbons hung from him that the old folks adorned them with cash.
An Italian band from Brooklyn came to play.
They stopped in front of our house and played a mournful song
While Grandma knelt at the upstairs window,
Her arms raised toward heaven praying Gesù mi prende, Jesus take me,
Tears running down her cheeks.
She would not go out to the saint as her own Rocco was very sick
And it would have been wrong to enjoy the parade.
I rushed down the stairs to tell my father
That Grandma was crying by the window.
He raised his eyes toward heaven and called from the bottom of the stairs,
“Ma, Ma, stop it, stop it, you’ll get sick.”
But she only cried the more.
Mariuccia believed that evil spirits were always ready to pounce if you didn’t ward them off,
What many call Mal Occhio, the Evil Eye.
Don’t talk about good fortune,
Don’t act too proud or boast.
As mal occhio will see you.
If someone looks at you askance or wishes evil upon you,
Pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary or St. Rocco to shield you from harm.
Men would hang il cornuto, the horn, from gold chains around their necks,
To ward off all kinds of evil, from mal occhio to cheating wives.
For those unfortunates that became cornudo,
The sign of the cuckold, a forefinger and pinky finger extended
As the hand is twisted back and forth,
Might furtively grace their passing.
Her bedroom was like a temple.
On the bureau a statue of St. Catherine covered in a glass tube,
Gazed out lovingly at crosses and pictures of Jesus and the Holy Family.
Old Mrs. Minicozzi who lived in the apartment on South Street over Herman Bernstein’s store,
Would come to the door selling pictures of Jesus,
Framed in sparkling blue rhinestones.
“This will protect you and your family from harm.
Who knows what could happen if you don’t have His protection?”
Diamante Principe La Bella, Sandra Lombardi Florio, Mrs. Velingieri and her daughter Jenny,
Would visit Mariuccia and munch on ciambella,
Hard biscotti, dunked into coffee or tea.
They told jokes at the kitchen table,
Compared their operations and the scars.
Talked about husbands and children in detail,
Each one’s story grander than the other’s.
Sometimes they were seized by a devilish mood,
And laughed like teenage girls sharing secrets.
I was washing my hands at the kitchen sink,
They laughed and giggled behind me.
I knew something scandalous was up when they said “Sonny, look at this!”
I knew better than to look around, so I scurried out of the kitchen
With peals of laughter trailing after me.
These gatherings at each other’s homes, and love for their husbands and children,
Were their only sources of joy and rejuvenation.
They also spent much time at the funeral homes, Orlando’s or DeVine’s,
At wakes for their relatives and friends.
Each life gone was one from a special and limited group
Of those who came from the old hometown.
No understudies waited in the wings.
Grandma was love incarnate.
She cared deeply for my sister, Bette, and me,
And took us on her jaunts around town to the houses of her friends.
She fed us in our high chairs, chanting abla ‘occ’, e man’ia,
Open your mouths and eat,
To the mirth of our neighbors nextdoor
Who heard through the open window.
She washed our faces over the kitchen sink,
With harsh brown laundry soap,
Until our faces and necks were red.
We screamed at the time,
But what I wouldn’t give for another scrubbing just like that.
“Vieni qua, strunz’ ‘e merde,”
Grandma called us and we hastened to her side.
I won’t tell you what it literally means.
You might get the wrong idea.
Just know that it’s a funny of way telling the children,
I love you.
We’d grab her apron or hug her around the legs,
And she would stroke our heads .
My childhood was filled by her love and care,
And the smell of her apron as I hugged her knees.
Her life was not easy but her will was strong,
Doing her best with what was given.
Every day I think of her,
And see her deep brown eyes,
That shone with the fire of life and love.
Oh how I wish she were here today,
So I could grasp her by the knees,
And smell her apron and feel her hand caressing my hair.
She is alive in my thoughts and in who I am,
And in my sister and who she is.
Thank you, Mariuccia,
Thank you so much,
We were so fortunate that you were our Grandma.
- Alexander Patrick DeAngelis – 5 October 2015