ItalianSide stories: After Matera


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After Matera – Memories of My Grandfather

by D. Hirsch


My grandfather, Francesco Paolo, was fourth of seven children, born in July 1893. Of those seven children, only four of them ever reached adulthood.

Francesco was 17 years old when he left the town of Matera in the Basilicata region of Italy to come to America. Making the long journey by himself, he was to meet his Uncle Eustachio in New York. His father, Graziantonio, had died 3 years earlier and making a living was difficult. Stories of opportunities in America reached Matera and having a relative already living there made it easier to go. I don’t know if he realized that he would never see his hometown again, nor do I know whether he dreaded leaving or if he embarked on his journey eager to start a new life in an adopted country. Either way, I am sure it was heartbreakingly difficult and that many tears were shed the day he left home. Francesco entered the United States at Ellis Island and like many other Italians, he settled on the lower East Side of Manhattan. He lived for several years with his Uncle Eustachio. Eventually, Eustachio returned to Matera, but my grandfather remained, and in 1920, his mother, Antonia, and younger brother, Michele, joined him in Manhattan.
Matera – beginning of XX century

Francesco never learned to read or write and eventually got a job as an elevator operator. Although of small stature, he enjoyed dressing well and had a tooth capped in gold to reflect his improving status. He earned the nickname “Duke”, a title he liked and would keep forever. He met and fell head-over-heels for a girl named Lucia, and they were married in 1921.

During the first years of their marriage, they lived in Greenwich Village and later moved to South Beach in Staten Island, NY. At that time South Beach was like Coney Island in Brooklyn, but smaller. There was an amusement park with an arcade, a Ferris wheel and a carousel. It was very popular with Manhattanites who would go there on weekends and some families would spend their entire summers there. My grandparents had three boys. My father, Luigi, or Louis, was the middle son, named after my grandmother’s father. None of us know how or when it happened, but at some point the “a” in our last name was changed to an “o” and, unless we go through the legal process to restore it, our surname is forever altered. My grandmother, who never cared for her given name, preferred being called Rose, and that is how everyone knew her.

The family lived for several years in a modest apartment on Argonne Street. Except for the wood-burning stove in the kitchen, there was no heat. As they sat around the stove on cold evenings, Duke would tell his sons about growing up in Matera and how, when he was a boy, he kept warm by sleeping next to the pet goat. When they had finally scrimped and saved enough money, Duke and Rose bought a beautiful house, with heat, at the top of the hill one street over. There, my grandfather raised pigeons, chickens, guinea pigs and a couple of rabbits. He had a huge fish tank with guppies. There was Daisy the duck and Spotty the dog. Duke would walk to the beach every morning and go for a swim a stone’s throw away from where the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge now stands. His garden was one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen, fragrant and abundant with fruit and nut trees. In his vegetable garden, he grew peppers, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, and arugula. I don’t know where this man from the City of Stones learned to garden so skillfully and I wish I had inherited his ability.

Rose and Duke would make blackberry brandy and my grandmother would make traditional Lucana dishes for my grandfather like capozella and pezzi duri, which in the Materan dialect sounded more like “purch dutz”. They would keep bottles of Coca-Cola for the grandchildren on the steps that led to the attic, a real treat for us. Almost as soon as we arrived, we would run to the pantry, which we called “the cookie closet”, hoping to find some of Rosie’s homemade anisette biscotti. It smelled wonderful, and sometimes we would just open the pantry door and breathe in the heavenly aroma. During the summer, weather permitting, we would sit and eat in the back yard and if it rained, they would put a big table in the garage and leave the door open for fresh air. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, somehow we would all manage to squeeze around their kitchen table, and always, there was an abundance of food. When the adults didn’t want the children to understand their conversation, they would chatter in Italian. My cousin and I would spend hours in the attic looking at old pictures. We could see the Ferris wheel from the attic window and in the summertime, the sultry breeze would carry with it the sounds of the arcade. These are among my most cherished childhood memories.

My grandfather was a quiet man and rarely spoke about Matera. I often remember him sitting in one of those webbed lawn chairs, arms folded over his chest. He would get that far-away look and tears would well up in his blue eyes. No doubt he was reminiscing about people and days gone by. When we asked about the old country, he would wave his hand and say in broken English, “Everybody gone.” He never mentioned his two older sisters and it was only after doing some genealogical research in Matera last summer that I discovered that he had two sisters. There was no record of their death, so I imagine they married and moved away. I hope some day to find out what happened to them.

My grandfather’s life in America was full and he seemed content, but no life is ever without sorrow. My grandfather’s brother Michele died from a heart attack in New York City. He and my grandfather were supposed to meet for lunch near where they worked and along the way, my grandfather saw a crowd of people. Curious, he went over to see what was going on, only to find his brother lying dead on the sidewalk. In November 1982, Duke’s beloved Rosie passed away and he was lost without her. My grandfather followed her seven months later, dying more from a broken heart, I think, than from the stroke he suffered.

One of my favorite memories of my Grandpa Duke was when the whole family—aunts, uncles and cousins—were gathered around the banquet-sized table at our house to celebrate his birthday. Duke stood up and grinned, put both arms out as if to embrace us all and said very proudly, “I did this!”


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Comments

24 Comments to “ItalianSide stories: After Matera”
  1. Christina Fark says:

    What a wonderful story! Full of great love of FAMILY! My mama is 79 years old and has many stories like this too from her parents immigrating to America. I am trying to document her stories so we can pass them down. Thank you for sharing.

  2. cuzzin rob says:

    TERRIFIC job Di! I can picture Duke and Rosie with a huge smile of joy and pride over your remembrances. luv and best always

  3. petra says:

    thank you for such a well-written piece of cherished history.

  4. Jamie says:

    Hey Diane- That was a great story about Papa Duke. I wish I knew him better.

  5. Uncle Frank says:

    Diane that was a great story and brought back many memories.

    • Diane Hirsch says:

      Uncle Frank, I was inspired by a combination of your story about growing up in South Beach, my trip to Matera last summer and the documentary on this website about people who immigrated to other countries. I am always amazed by how Grandpa and the others took such a big chance coming to a strange land with little more than the clothes on their backs to start a new life. Such fortitude!

  6. Gloria Valenti Denaro says:

    What a wonderful story, I never knew about any of it. I did know that Uncle Duke, used to be a sharp dresser. My dad Dominick Valenti, said he arranged for Duke to meet his sister Rose, because they were both the same size. So Cute. I used to love to go visit them in S.I., Uncle Duke was so quiet and Aunt Rose was full of mischief and so much fun. I loved when they would come to visit us in Canarsie, we all looked forward to it.
    Thanks for the write up. Gloria

    • Diane Hirsch says:

      Thank you, Gloria and everyone, for your kind words. These are only my memories (and stories I’ve heard) and I’m sure there are many stories and facts I am unaware of. I’m hoping that everyone is exploring this fantastic website and I’m looking forward to reading many stories by others about their families – after all, everyone has a story to tell!

      • Gloria Valenti Denaro says:

        Thanks for acknowledging my comment. My Father. Her brother Dominick Valenti, had 9 children. We all, loved Aunt Rose and Uncle Duke. In fact they were my Godparents. It’s too bad we lived so far away from each other, I used to love to spend time there. For breakfast she would have pastries on the table, a treat for me.
        When she came to visit us in Canarsie, she would bring her fancy shawl and do a fan dance for us. She was really something, she kept us all in stitches and Uncle Duke would just sit and smile. Aunt Rose also knew my mother’s family the Stella’s. She said she would put a sheet over her head and knock on my Grandmother Rosalie’s door and scare the life out of her. She then would take off the sheet and say, “Rose, Rose, it’s only me). Years ago people believed in ghosts.
        She also told me she used to sit at her window, and make believe she was playing the piano by moving her fingers all around. (This was her way of flirting with the young men passing by). I truly do miss them and think of them often. Your father Louis was my first cousin.

        • Dawn says:

          Gloria your memories of Grandma Rose had me laughing out loud..I can just imagine her doing all the things you said. Such great memories, thank you for sharing!

          • Gloria Valenti Denaro says:

            You’re welcome Dawn. All those memories stay with us, I will never forget Aunt Rose and Uncle Duke.
            Your Grandmother was a barrel of FUN……….Gloria ( I guess I’m your second cousin).

  7. COUSIN LOUIS says:

    HEY DIANE , GREAT STORY ABOUT MY BELOVED ” AUNT ROSE ” AND “UNCLE DUKE ” LOVED READING IT AS IT BROUGHT BACK MANY GREAT MEMORIES FROM MY LIFE GROWING UP WITH THEM WE ALL HAD LOTS OF FUN , LAUGHS AND PARTIES AND ALWAYS GREAT FOOD !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! MISS THE GOOD OLD DAYS

  8. Dawn says:

    That was beautiful Diane..we were blessed to have such wonderful grandparents like Rosie and Duke..miss them so much

  9. Dawn says:

    Great story Diane! I miss Rosie and Duke so much.. we were definitely blessed!

  10. lorraine says:

    Diane, your story brought tears to my eyes. Although not Italian, it made me think of my life in Scotland and the decision I made to leave and start a life half way around the world. Although the world is a much smaller place today, the pain of leaving loved ones behind still haunts me, especially as I age. Great story!

    • Tara says:

      Great job Aunt Diane. I love learning about our family history. I hope theres going to be another story soon!

  11. Little Louis says:

    Nice write up Diane! It’s always fun to learn about our family history.

  12. Kathy says:

    WOnderful job…written so the reader could visulize the story!! I look forward to the next article.

  13. Diane Hirsch says:

    Thank you, ItalianSide, for giving us a platform to keep the memories of our ancestors alive and to honor them for the sacrifices they made.

  14. Yves says:

    Diane, it’s wonderfull. You should think about writing a longer narrative.

  15. Louis says:

    Awesome story! How does it seem so long ago and just like yesterday at the same time? Nice writing style too.

  16. Tami Kane says:

    What a great story, I enjoyed it very much!

  17. Mike Schiumo says:

    Diane-Nicely done. I plan to read to Michael tonight. Rosie and Duke would be proud!

  18. Linda says:

    Great memories, great story! Keep writing, Diane!

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