A century ago, Carmine Rizzuto left Italy for the United States. A time later, his wife Rose and two children followed. Eventually, they had six more children, the youngest being my grandfather.
I was an eager listener to all my grandfather’s stories. It was hard not to be fascinated – he told tales that were of movie quality in my little mind. His father, the foreman of the railroad, his mother, who spent her time maintaining house and children, the older brothers, teenagers when my grandfather was born, his oldest sister, Mary, who lived two doors down from them, already married with kids of her own by the time Grandpa was born. He’d sneak over there and she’d feed him cookies.
“You remind me of my sister Mary.” he told me once. A greater compliment could not have been given.
But there was always this funny little twist in the story of my great-grandparents immigration. Not the part where my grandfather would say how they only had money for one ticket, so his mother got a ticket and his father stowed away (which is when my grandmother would pipe up with “Now Edward, that’s not true.” “No, but it makes a good story.” he’d reply.) No, the interesting part to me, to this day, is that my great-grandparents were so determined that their kids would be American that they moved to the English-speaking neighborhood. Aka, the Irish neighborhood. It made sense – the Irish spoke English but also had Catholic churches. The best part of the story was that they all lived on Emerald Avenue – if that’s not the perfect setting for such a story, I don’t know what is.
The house on Emerald Avenue saw a lot. There were laughing tales about how the older teenage boys would get into fist fights, only for Ma to try to step in and get hit, Dad would come home to the brothers blaming each other for the fact Ma got hit, everyone getting into trouble. It wasn’t a holiday at the Rizzuto house until the cops were called to break up the fight, or so I’ve been told. It sounds horrible, but it was just life with teen boys in the 1920’s. Shenanigans abound.
Like the time two of the older brothers stayed out late drinking. Ma was not impressed that they were out late, and was up waiting for them. They could see her silhouette through the glass of the front door as she sat there on a chair, holding the broom. Knowing they were in deep trouble, they tried to find a new way into the house, and that new way was to shimmy up the drainpipe and through their sister’s bedroom window. Then they could just sneak into their beds and pretend they’d been there the whole time.
Now, as they were not sober, they didn’t complete this task delicately. Instead, they woke up their sister, who started screaming at the sight of two men climbing through her window. They tried shushing her, but to no avail. In a flash, Ma came into the room, saw two men in her daughter’s bedroom, and started beating the crap out of them with the broomstick.
“MA! Stop! It’s just us!” they cried.
When she realized it was her two drunk delinquent sons, she hit them harder.
Life lesson – never try to pull one over on your mother.
Which my grandfather had to learn on his own, having his own “Then Ma came at me with the broomstick.” His parents had moved them to America to get good educations. They wanted their children to go to school. So when the truant officer showed up at the door, my grandfather knew he was in trouble. He thought he could use the fact that she didn’t quite speak English to pull one over on his mother.
“Tell your mother you haven’t been in school for two weeks.”
“I couldn’t tell her that,” he’d tell us grandkids, “She’d of killed me. But she knew who she was, and said “Tell me what the man said.”
So he fibbed. “I skipped school a couple days.”
As she started smacking him, the truant officer yelled “Ma’am! Don’t kill him!” (my grandfather would laugh at this part.) He tried hiding under the bed, only for her to pull off the mattress and poke at him with the broomstick through the open box springs.
Life lesson – don’t bother trying to hide from your mother when you’re in trouble. She’ll hunt you down better than Liam Neeson.
But then there was the softer size of her that my grandfather would also talk about. Like on certain days, she would pull out the leaves to the dining room table, so it would stretch the length of the room. Then, she’d mix up flour and water and make pasta dough, rolling out and cutting thin strips for spaghetti. She’d lay them over a rack to dry. My grandfather, a little boy then, would stand at the table’s edge, watching her create pasta from scratch.
In their kitchen, they had an ice box. But it was the kind that hung out the window. In the winter they didn’t need ice, the Chicago winters kept it naturally cold. In the summer, they’d have ice delivered, to keep things fresh. This might have been the first new-fangled gadget my grandfather fell in love with, because he painted the picture of it so well, even I thought they were cool. I still do actually.
Together, he and his mother would go to the shops, and he’d laugh when he’d tell how the butcher would try to get one over on his mother, thinking that her lack of English meant lack of intelligence. She would choose a cut of meat, and he would try to switch it out for a less choice cut. She would stop him – “No, not that one. I want good one.”
And then, there were trips to the movie theater. Ma loved going to the movies, even if she couldn’t understand the words on the screen. They’d go to the Capitol Theatre – my grandfather would always pronounce it “thee-A-ter” – which was a stunning representation of old movie houses, built in 1925, with Greek columns and stars painted on the ceiling. Sixty-odd years later, one Sunday afternoon, my grandparents came over. I had the silent screen version of “The Phantom of the Opera” on, as I was slightly obsessed with the musical of the same name. My grandfather walked in, saw what I was watching, and said “I saw this in the theatre as a child. I was so scared, I was just peeking over the seats to watch it.” I could totally picture them – his mother, maybe just enjoying the atmosphere of the movie theatre, my grandfather, a little wide-eyed boy peeking over the seats. Her possibly smiling at his inability to look away.
She passed away in the autumn of 1941. My grandfather had been drafted, much to her dismay. He wrote her letters, letting her know he was going to church and eating well, two things an Italian mother would want to know. When he got a letter one day from his brother stating that Ma was ill and in the hospital, he went AWOL to be by her side, which turned out to be the final days of her life.
As a child, in a way, my great-grandmother was this mythical creature encased in a stern portrait that hung in my grandparents house. She was tender and tough, which I guess you would have to be if you left your country for a new one and had eight children and lived through the Depression. Their life as immigrants, literally off the boat from Italy, eventually settling in Chicago, was a thing of legend, and in a way, made more of an impression than the stories of our Irish immigrants.
But that could have been due to the storyteller.
This is part of the 31 Days writing challenge…to find out more about it or read more from this challenge, check out the 31 Days page!