ItalianSide stories: After Matera
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.|
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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