Carmela Pellegrino (a.k.a. “Nana”) at age 90, surrounded by her grandchildren (from left: Mario Costanzo, Jeanette Costanzo (Speicher), the author Brother Victor-Kenneth, Donna (Scioto) Costanzo and her husband Frank Costanzo), 1991.
In 1953, after my grandfather’s death, an unexpected yet wonderful event occurred at my house: My Nana came to live with us! Although I was only three years old, I knew that life would never be quite the same. And it wasn’t.
For the next forty-nine years, my mother’s life, my father’s life, and my life would be even more full and rich than before — for this recently widowed little lady from Italy (the embodiment of “Old World” customs, food, language, and relatives) would become as much a part of our future as she was our past.
Carmela Blasco (sometimes spelled, Brasco) was born in Motta Santa Lucia, in the Region of Calabria, the Province of Catanzaro, Italy in 1901 (according to some records, 1902). Her father, Salvatore, was a businessman in the United States, and he made trips back and forth between Italy and the US.
Nana would tell me stories of her home and her life in Motta. For instance, how she would make a “doughnut” out of cloth, place it on her head, and walk a long distance to get water. On the way, she would climb a steep hillside area and pass the house of a wealthy woman who took a shine to her. “The lady had a beautiful house with marble and glass everywhere,” she would say. “She wore beautiful clothes and made these delicious cookies called mustasole.” I asked my Nana how she made these cookies, and one day she showed me. They consisted of honey and flour, and were shaped like an ‘S.’ She continued to make them until she was 94 years old. I loved every bite of those cookies!
Nana would also tell me about her house that was four floors: how the bottom floor was where the horse and carriage were kept, and how one of the floors had wooden cases where nuts were stored and dried. She told me about how she and her girlfriends would run around the village and sneak into a house where a very old man was sick and near death. She remembered that his casket was stored in the basement area, and that she and her friends would scream and run out of the house after seeing it. It might sound somewhat morbid, but what else would one expect from children in any country except that kind of curious mischief?
In 1911, my Nana traveled here with her family when her father took his wife, Carmela, and their children (Frances, Anthony, Joseph, Victoria, and my Nana) to the United States on board “The Canada” in second class — not steerage! Nana remembered getting sick onboard and that the ship — part steam, part sail — sunk on the way back.
When my Nana spoke about the Statue of Liberty in New York, her memories were vivid, even though she was only 11 years old at the time. She loved New York and didn’t want to leave. (She revisited that city seventy-five years later and didn’t want to leave at that time, either!)
For years I heard Nana’s nieces call her “Aunt Helen.” I asked her why (since her name was Carmela) and she told me that, when she first attended school, she knew no English at all. When the teacher asked her name, the girl seated next to her said “Helen” and it stuck.
Nana married a young man in town named Frank Pellegrino. They then moved to Beyer, Pennsylvania, where my mother Mary (1920 – 2015) and her sister Virginia (1925 – ) were born. The family then moved to nearby Sagamore after a late-night, deliberately-set fire destroyed their house. My grandfather worked in the mines, as did the other men in those small towns. The wives, meanwhile, stayed home each day and worked in the homes, and my Nana was no exception.
What anyone of this generation realizes is that no Italian mother is going to accept just anyone for her son to call “Mrs.”
My great-grandmother Pellegrino was one of those tough, stubborn mothers: No woman was good enough for her sons and no man was good enough for her daughters. She was not a nice lady…
Nana would tell of the times when her mother-in-law would come to the front porch and yell that she was going to put a curse on the baby (my mother) and she would die before she turned five. Well, my mother lived until the age of ninety-five (so much for the curse). Even so, it upset my Nana, as did my great-grandmother’s antics of waiting until my grandfather went to work and then throwing pots and pans at the wall all morning to annoy my mother (they shared walls in the company houses). Later in life, my great-grandmother would finally make her peace with my Nana; consequently, she came to like my mother well enough as well.
Over the years, I accompanied my Nana to visit various relatives from Niagara Falls to Washington, D.C. I can vividly remember my Aunt Carmela Bosso, my grandfather’s sister and the oldest child in his family. Carmela was a tough but wonderful, soft-spoken lady and her colorful husband, Uncle Palmarino, would sit in his kitchen on Sunday afternoons listening to the Italian Hour and drinking shots from a bottle he hid in a large radio (he never wanted Aunt Carmela to know about the alcohol, but she did). I would go pick apples and cherries with Aunt Carmela. She was such a warm, loving woman — the very opposite of her mean mother, my great-grandmother Pellegrino!
In Washington, my Aunt Frances (Nana’s older sister) lived with her husband, Philip. We called him “Hillie.” These were two colorful characters who were gracious to a fault. I thought my Aunt Frances was delightful. She and Nana were very close throughout their lives.
Nana also loved my Aunt Jean. She was always so happy when my Aunt Jean would come to stay at our house. They were friends from their earliest years as well as sisters-in-law. Aunt Jenny, as we called her, was my grandfather’s youngest sister. Again, the opposite of her mother, my great-grandmother Pellegrino.
Jenny was deaf from the age of twelve, but it never stopped her from enjoying life and the family. I used to be fascinated by the large, old-fashioned hearing aid she wore around her neck! She and my Nana would tell stories about the old days and laugh endlessly. Jenny was great at reading lips and had a wonderful sense of humor, in spite of the tragedies in her life. Nana told me about the time when a young man wanted to marry Jenny and gave her a ring. Jenny’s mother yanked the ring from her finger and went straight to the young man’s house. She threw the ring at him and told him to stay away from her daughter. He did.
Nana also had relatives she didn’t like — but relatives are relatives. My Uncle Joe and my Aunt Rose were two such people. (Actually, Nana liked Uncle Joe, but Aunt Rose was another story…) They would come to our house every Saturday night for twenty-seven years. Yep, twenty-seven years! They seemed to only be able to watch Lawrence Welk in our living room! The ritual was the same every week: We would anticipate their arrival, Nana telling me that Rose better not put her feet on the furniture and that we shouldn’t give them anything to eat or drink so they’ll go home early (I was usually the one who would make the coffee, tea and put out the cookies or the cake).
Once that large Buick Roadmaster would pull up in front of the house and we would smell those cigars Uncle Joe used to smoke, we knew what happened next would follow suit with all previous visits: They would walk to the house, using a mix of Italian and English i(n sometimes “not-so-nice-language”) and Nana would throw the front door open and say, “Rose, it’s so good to see you!” I was baffled by this whole exchange. Then Rose would get comfortable and prepare to put her feet on the chair when Nana would say, “Rose, put your feet up, life’s too short to be uncomfortable!”
The same routine followed with the tea and with the cookies: “Kenny, don’t just sit there,” Nana would say to me. “Make your Aunt and Uncle some tea and coffee. Get them some cake, too.” I dutifully went into the kitchen, followed by my little Nana who would whisper, “Don’t give them too much or they’ll never leave. Your mother is getting tired.”
When all was ready, I called into the living room and they came in. My Nana would look at the food and chide me: “Kenny, don’t be stingy, put more food on those plates!” I gave up after that.
When at last they went home, Nana made certain that Rose and Joe had a plate with cake to take with them. As she stood at the front door waving good-bye, she’d lean in to me and say: “I put a curse on that cake!”
I wouldn’t have traded one minute of this Saturday ritual for anything. (By the way, my wonderful French-Irish father, Kenneth DeBolde, was a prince through all of this!)
There are so many more people from the “Old Country” who came in and out of our door and of our lives. A distant relative, Ida Bevaqua, would come to visit and speak Italian so rapidly that my Nana couldn’t even understand half of what she was saying; but, she made a valiant attempt to do so. Another great character was Flora Fagnani from up the street. She liked my Nana very much and would visit her during nice summer afternoons. They would sit on our large side porch and have coffee and cakes. Every time Flora left, Nana would tell me how her Italian was “high class” because she was from Rome. Yet Nana’s best friend lived across the street, Esther Christiansen, a Swedish woman of the same vintage. Who said that inclusivity was a new concept?
As with anyone, life was not always good. Nana lost her mother and her brother in the same year (1931), both from brain tumors. In 1962, her youngest sister Victoria died from the same malady at age forty-eight. Her brother Tony passed away from cancer and her youngest brother Alfred (born after they came to the US) died from lung cancer. Her oldest sister Frances, whom was a sweet lady I loved, died of cancer as well.
My Nana was the “last one standing,” and I was blessed to have her as such a distinct part of my life.
One beautiful May day, when I was sitting in the living room with Nana, the soft breeze came through the window that overlooked the backyard. Nana sighed and said, “When you die, you die.” I was surprised by this out-of-the-blue comment and asked her, “Why would you say that?” She simply repeated the phrase.
I told her that the Sisters taught us to believe in Heaven, and that when we died we would be with our loved ones again. Didn’t she think that she would see my grandfather again?
Her reply was as unexpected as her original comment: “No,” she sighed, “It’s something that the Church made up so we wouldn’t go around and kill each other.”
This from a woman who was constantly praying her Rosary, saying her Novenas, and kissing statues. Her faith truly sustained her, yet she was always there with the unexpected comment or observation; she had a wisdom understood by those who knew her and loved her.
Nana died at the age of 101, and I can’t help but think that she is enjoying the company of her relatives and friends of long ago: her husband Frank, her parents Salvatore and Carmela, her granddaughter Jeanette, her brothers Joe, Anthony, and Freddy, her sisters Frances and Victoria, her sisters-in-law Carmela, Cora, and Jean, her two sons-in-law Ken and Mario; and now, her daughter (my mother) Mary. (Please note that Rose is not listed among those names…)
I have so many more stories to tell about the wonder called “Nana” in my life. These, however, will have to do for now. These are the best memories.
I am certain that so many others have similar memories to share, and I encourage you to do just that. Meanwhile, please enjoy what has been lived and written! SALUTE!
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Our warmest thanks to Brother Victor-Kenneth for sharing his wonderful memories of Nana with us all.