By: Alyssa Ruffolo
Over Easter weekend, I spent some time with my family and had a chance to interview my grandmother who is first generation from Italy (full name Rosaria Angela). I have always taken interest to other cultures, especially Italian culture because it is in my family and is part of who I am/ my identity. Upon speaking with my grandmother, who I call Nanny, I was able to learn more about the details of her first-hand experiences as an Italian immigrant in the 1930s. Some of her experiences are unimaginable to me as someone who grew up in a different time period and with a different economic status; maybe you will find some of them as fascinating as I do. (I tried to reflect her thick Italian accent by choosing not to correct her grammar, so if you can imagine her speaking in a little old Italian voice, that may help)
Me: So Nanny, how old were you when you came over to America and how did you get here?
Nanny: I was six, and we came on a big boat me and my mom.
Me: Okay and why exactly was it that you came here again?
Nanny: Well, for years we were very poor when we lived in Italy. It was me, my sisters Mary and Francis, and my brother John and my mom. My dad was working over in United States, and for a while he didn’t send no money so we had nothing to eat. Then later my mom heard he was cheating on her in America, then she wanted to come over here and go with him so she took me because I was too young to sign the papers myself.
Me: When you were a little girl in Italy and you were poor without any food, what was that like for you?
Nanny: Oh it was awful! I was so skinny, I remember my knees the bone was popping out of my legs. I could barely walk. Then I got tuberculosis and I almost died at six years old. My mom took my sister to the doctor – Francis, my sister Francis – because that time she was not eating because she was sad about a boy she like. She loved this boy and my mom wouldn’t let her date him, so she stop eating! [laughs] I don’t know why she didn’t worry about me.. I was so sick that time I was dying. I remember the doctor said she’s not eating because she is lovesick. Then he saw me sitting in the corner and he said, ‘Virginia, who’s that little girl over there?’ and my mom said, ‘that’s my other daughter’ and he said, ‘that little girl is dying Virginia.’ And I was, I was dying. My mom couldn’t afford [the treatment], so the doctor said I’m going to take care of her for free. And he save my life. Sometimes I think about what would happen if my mom never took Francis to go see the doctor. I would have died.
Me: Wow… that’s crazy. What did you guys used to do about food?
Nanny: I remember one time for dinner, my sister went outside and picked grass from the ground and we boiled it. [laughs] That was dinner!
Me: Oh my god. I can’t imagine!
Nanny: That was the best part when we went on the boat over to America, I remember they had so much food! I was in heaven! I never ate that good in my life.
Me: [laughing] and so when you came over here, where did you live first? What was it like when you first got here? Culture shock, I’m sure.
Nanny: Yes, I was so scared at first. I remember one time when I first got there, someone knocked on the door and it was a salesman for the vacuum cleaner. And my mom yelled at me to get the door [laughs] I said, ‘Ma, I don’t know English either!’ [laughing] Then we had to go get the neighbor, she was an Italian lady she live here for a while so she told him, ‘No, they don’t want no vacuum cleaner!’ [laughs]. That time people were different though. The whole block the whole neighborhood was all Italian that time. People would come up to you and say how you doing today? You need any help? Now people [are] not like that.
Me: So how did you learn English? How long did it take you?
Nanny: I taught English myself you know that. I remember my friend Lina I used to ask her ‘what that word means?’ on the TV and she would say ‘you know Sarah you’re never going learn that way!’ I said ‘alright okay just tell me what it means don’t worry about it!’ and I did, I learn English all by myself from the TV. I used to practice the words again again like this until I know it.
Me: Did your mom know any English?
I knew my great-grandmom (Nunna) never learned English (although she lived to be 99 years old and lived a good portion of her life in America), but I wondered if there were any words or phrases she knew/used.
Nanny: No. I remember sometime I would ask her ‘Ma, can’t I teach you?’ she would say, ‘I’ll never learn it!’ [laughing]
Me: So you and your dad didn’t get along obviously –
Nanny: OH NO, he was so mean. Oh my god he was so mean. He had eyes so dark like the devil I swear. He was evil what he did to me. He didn’t send me to school. I’m sorry God but I will never forgive my parents for what they did to me. Didn’t send me to school, I would have been so smart.
Me: I know (showing sympathy), it really is a shame.
This is Nanny’s biggest regret, what she talks about most. She always wanted to go to school and being illiterate has caused many obstacles and issues in her life. Some of these obstacles include requiring her to be completely dependent on other people her whole life, never being able to get a good job, and never learning to drive.
Me: So how did the arranged marriage happen? Can you explain a little bit about that?
Nanny: Well, I remember that time I was in the kitchen and I saw this man come over my house and he was talking to my dad, and I said ‘Ma, who is that old man?’ [laughs] Because I didn’t know, and I thought I heard them say something about marriage –in Italian [of course], they only spoke Italian that time – and then she told me I was going to marry him. I start crying, I kneel down to her I said, ‘Please, please don’t do this. Sign the papers and I’ll go back to Italy. I don’t want to be here no more. Please!’ I beg and beg her to sign the papers and send me back. My uncle said ‘Virginia, don’t take that little girl over to that country. She is too young. Look at her, she won’t be happy over there. Let her stay here, I’ll sign the papers and I’ll take her. She can go to school, get a good education, get a nice job.’ I would have been rich! I mean really. What they did to me was awful. He sold me to that old man. I didn’t even know him. I was fifteen and a half he was thirty two. I was crying.
Me: And you got married and ended up living together in New York for a while, right?
Nanny: Yes. He used to make me take the subway. I had to work piecework. That’s very hard you know. We used to sew all day. I have scars from the stitches going into my fingers. I took the subway by myself, and I would come home and he would take all my money. He only gave me bus tokens that was it. It was awful. All the older ladies used to say ‘you look like a movie star, why you workin’ here?’ I didn’t say nothing. They felt bad. He was awful.
Me: It must have been so scary in the city by yourself! I can’t imagine. Did you miss Italy?
Nanny: Oh yes. Oh yes. I call my sisters they said ‘why mom had to take you over there? You should stay here.’ My sisters they had beautiful lives. They travel all over. Francis married a big shot – he was a director from the bank. They used to go to Paris every weekend. Mary too, she had a beautiful life. They married for love. Si I woulda stayed in Italy, I would have too. Get married around 27, 28, go to school, get a good job. My parents they ruin me, I mean really. I should have never came in this country.
Me: What was your favorite memory from Italy?
Nanny: Well, I was just a little girl that time but you know I have a really good memory. I always had a strong mind God gave to me. [smiles as she recalls the memory] I remember one time me and Francis was walkin, and we pass by a little boy (I was a lot younger than her, you know) and I saw them start lookin’ at each other like this, and I said ,’Francis what you doing?’ in Italian. And he run to go buy roses and he came back and he gave them to her and he said, “I’m gonna marry you. What is your name?’ They were very romantic that time. Not now [laughs] boys are not like that now. Francis was so happy. I was just a little girl, I thought they were crazy [laughing] I said ‘Francis, why are you looking at that boy?’
I have talked to my Nanny many times about Italy and her past, and some themes always emerge. She has major regrets about not going to school and not “marrying for love” as she would phrase it. Her parents forced her into an arranged marriage, and he was much older than her. Eventually they had three kids together, including my dad. But in the end they got divorced – they never got along very well, and from what my dad tells me there was lots of screaming in Italian in his house as a kid. Times were much different then. It is mind-blowing to me to hear details about boiling grass and eating it for dinner – that’s truly how poor they were. I thoroughly enjoy listening to my grandmother’s first-hand accounts of Italy in the 1930’s and I hope you got some entertainment out of it as well.