Memories -Part II
I finished Part I with my thoughts on my Grandfather, Angelo Zaffino, and my loving relationship with him. It ended with his death and wake. Part I left me emotionally drained. I never expected that delving into my memories and writing them down would have such an effect on me, but it did. This, I think, is not a bad thing. It has enabled me to face things that had such a profound impact on my life, the good and the bad.
I will pick this up with my Grandmother, Theresa Zaffino. My Grandfather will also come into play here again, simply because they were inseparable for so many years. They had a love and understanding of each other that every couple that has ever been together, strived so hard to have. Not all are so successful, they were. It was a special relationship. They were an exceptional couple, at least in my opinion; and I admit that my opinion is one sided because I loved them both.
The years before I came to be are based on what I have heard from my Aunts and older cousins. I do, however, remember much of the interaction between my Grandmother and the peddler that used to come through. It seemed comical, but it was a tradition that they carried over from the old country - Italy. It's what helped make them so endearing and unique to me.
My Grandmother - Theresa Gullo Zaffino
My Grandmother, like my Grandfather, was an immigrant from Serra San Bruno in Italy. She came to the United States for a better life. She came because she was in love with my Grandpa, Angelo Zaffino, and they were to be married. She did not know the language, and she, like Grandpa, knew very little about the country that they were emigrating to. They only knew that it held the promise of a better future.
They were married in Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic Church on Washington Avenue, in West New Rochelle. Her sister in-law, Rosa, would not allow photos to be taken. She insisted that the ceremony be quiet, so there are no pictures of that day, and no celebration after the ceremony. Zia Rosa, for some reason, was jealous of my Grandma. She was also a very lazy woman. My Great Uncle, Giuseppe, worked all day, and had to do much the cooking. She put my grandma down every chance that she got. This, I heard from my Aunt Mary.
Soon after they were married, my Grandfather decided that it would be a good idea to move their growing family to California. They moved to San Francisco, and while they were there, they lost one son to an illness. I'm not really sure what it was, but they were devastated by his loss. His name was Frank, and my father was named after him.
After a short time, and several earth tremors, grandma decided that she had enough, and insisted that they move back to New Rochelle.
My father came into the world there on July 7, 1922. He was the second to the last child born to them. My Aunt Clara followed in December of 1924.
Through my Grandpa's hard work, and my Grandma's frugal accounting of there finances, they were able to buy a house on Everett Street. It was a nice stucco house, with two floors and enough room, by sharing, to raise their family.
My Grandfather worked very hard to become an American Citizen, a goal which he accomplished with great pride, despite having had to learn the English language and pass the citizenship test. My Grandmother, however, had no interest in becoming a citizen. She did have her green card, but stayed an Italian citizen until the day that she died. During World War II, she had to register as an enemy alien, and would report to city hall every week, even though she was married to a citizen. It wasn't an easy time for them.
My Grandma handled the finances, and kept the family constantly afloat. When my Grandpa would worry that the taxes were due, she would simply say in Italian "Don't worry.. I already have the money for them!" It was the same for any bill that was due: Water, Electric, whatever came up, she always had the money ready. Now, this was during the Great Depression... times were very hard for everyone, yet Grandpa managed to find work as a carpenter, and grandma shopped carefully for the food to feed the family. My father was still in school, as was my Aunt Clara, and my Uncle Salvatore 'Doody' (The way Tore sounded coming from an Italian) Zaffino got work through the WPA. My Aunt Clementine married Frank Deraffele, and he also got work through government programs. The family did much better than a lot of people.
The thing was, during those very hard times, people trusted each other. Store owners extended credit. People paid up when they could, and everyone seemed to work together to make life bearable. Italians, Irish, Jews, Germans..... all of the immigrant groups helped each other out. This was how they made it through the Great Depression. This was how Americans, those born here and those newly arrived, got through a very harrowing time. They put their differences on the back burner and did what they could to help each other out and to survive those dark times.
|Aunt Clara, Cousin Dorothy, Grandma Theresa,|
and Great Grandma Victoria Gullo
The fruit and vegetable man would come into the neighborhood crying out what he had to offer. I remember him crying out "Peaches, plums, carrots, Watermelon! Watermelon! Watermelon!"
Grandma would go out to look over what he had to offer and haggle with him. They would go back and forth on prices. Then he would tell her, in Italian, that that was the best that he could do. Grandma would say "No. That's too much!" and go back into the house. A few minutes later, he would knock on the door. "Señora, come, i give you a better price!" In the end, she got what she wanted, and I suspect, that he got what he wanted, too.
That's a little bit more of a back story than I intended, but these stories sometimes take on a life of their own. Back to the main story, then.
After Grandpa's Death
After my grandfather was laid to rest, things did not return to normal. My grandmother, such a force of nature, took his death very hard. She cried a lot and seemed to shrink visibly, at least in my eyes. She always seemed so tough, but that toughness seemed to have died with my grandfather. My father and mother, and my aunts and uncles tried to bolster her spirits, but to no avail. What was worse, my Aunt Anne, who lived with my grandfather and grandmother, liked to go out at night after work. She worked for New York Telephone, and worked split shifts, which meant that she was off usual between 8 and 9 PM.
The house was empty without my grandfather there, and my grandmother felt the walls closing in on her. My aunt was adamant that she would not change her lifestyle, and I suppose that she was right; but grandma was full of grief and hated to be left alone.
My father would go over in the evenings and spend time with her, and my aunts and uncles would come and have coffee and cake and comfort her; but it was when she was alone that she grieved the most.
They had a family talk and tried to get Aunt Anne to at least commit to staying home a couple of nights a week, but this did not work. Finally, my parents came up with a solution. They asked 7 year old me if I would mind staying with my grandmother at night.
Now, we lived right next door to her, so that wasn't a problem. A plus for me was that I would have a room to myself; and to someone that had to share cramped quarters with his siblings, this was a real plus. Besides, I really loved my grandmother, and It was nice to be around her, even though she was not herself.
So, I would come home from school, have dinner and go right next door to spend the evening and the night with grandma. Many nights, I would also have dinner with her. After dinner, we would retire to the living room and either listen to the radio, or watch the limited choices on television. There were very few choices for me in those early days. We would watch Life Is Worth Living with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. The Loretta Young Show, something called the Halls Of Ivy, and, if I was lucky, Science Fiction Theater with Truman Bradly.
At nine o'clock, my grandmother would make me warm milk and give me a cookie, and we would go upstairs to bed. Some nights, I would hear her softly crying in her bed. It made my young heart ache.
My memory has faded somewhat about this time in our lives, so I honestly cannot tell you what length of time that I stayed with my grandmother. My grandfather died in August of 1953, and my Grandmother did not follow him until a year and four months later.
My recollection is that it was several months that I spent with her, but I could be wrong on the time frame. I remember that my cousin, Bob Iannuzzi, went in the Navy in the Autumn of 1954, and I believe that I was with Grandma at that time. I know that I was with her in December of 1954.
Somehow, we made it through two Christmases without my Grandfather. The Christmas days came and went, with all the old traditions, like making the rounds... visiting all of the relatives homes to exchange Christmas greetings, and the adults saluting each other and the Christ Child. It amazes me, at my advanced age, how no one was concerned about the effects of all of those shots on the visitors as they all made their way to each home in our rather large Italian family. That no one got into an accident is a miracle.
That Christmas Holiday season, I spent keeping my grandmother company. Christmas came and went, and we were going supposed to visit my cousins Dorothy and Joan in Fort Dix right after New Year's Day. My Uncle Jack was a Career Military man, and he and my Aunt Clara and the two girls were stationed in Fort Dix New Jersey at the time.
I don't remember the exact date that my Grandmother was taken by ambulance to the hospital. I just know that it was before New Years Day. I remember being woken up and hearing her saying to my Aunt Anne "I gonna die!"... Aunt Anne kept trying to reassure her that she was not going to die. There were ambulance attendants there, and they determined that she should be taken to the hospital.
She was in the hospital for several days, and the adults in the family visited her to keep her company. Her spirits were not good. She was suffering from heart failure and was not improving. My cousin Bob Iannuzzi came home on leave from the Navy and visited her.
I was still staying at the house... now to keep Aunt Anne company. Late one night, early morning really, the phone rang. I hear my aunt saying "I understand, Dr. Bernstein. Yes, I know that you've done all that you can. Thank you, Dr. Bernstein." With that, I knew that my grandmother, too, had now died. This was all very hard for my seven year old mind to comprehend. I had an idea what death was, but, at that age, you really don not understand the concept.
The adults all went to the wake, which, in those days, was three days long. They would return to my grandparent's home and speak in hushed tones, drinking and eating. The looks on their faces was frightening for such a young man.
After the funeral, they had the usual meal, and all of the relatives sitting around and exchanging stories about grandma and grandpa, many of them very funny. It was a celebration of their lives, and it was long overdue. The visitors came and went for the first week or so, then they slowed to a trickle, and finally stopped. The final chapter in the lives of Angelo and Theresa Zaffino was finally written. It was a sad time for all of us, and I have never stopped thinking about them even after all of these years.
|Theresa and Angelo Zaffino|