Sunday, July 24, 2011

The stories our grandparents tell us is actually our own history...

As I get older I try to take more time to reflect on the meaningful things in my life. A conversation I had with someone today reminded me of discussions I've had with my grandmother May and how those discussions fascinated me, prompting me to ask questions, and the answers to those questions would work their way into really neat stories my grandmother would tell me. These weren't tales, rather they were stories about things that happened during her lifetime. The stories were prompted by a word or a question or even a photograph. Once she got started there was no stopping until the end.

I've always enjoyed talking to grams about our family history and her life growing up in New York City. Grams parents were Thomas Gaetano Mangiere, who was born in Manhattan in 1890 and Giuseppa "Josephine" Sanna who was born in Sciacca, Sicily in 1887. Rumor had it Josephine (we called her Nonna which means grandmother in Italian) was born on a leap year but her Sicilian birth certificate, which I possess, actually has her born in March, not February.  Thomas's parents Nicolo Mangiere and Michelina Fasano were both born near Naples Italy and emigrated to the US around the 1870s.  Josephine's parents Filippo Leone Sanna and Giovannina Barbera emigrated from Sciacca Sicily in 1899. 


Grams family was a very well-to-do family in New York City. Her grandfather was a real estate magnate, the family lived in a very large beautiful home on the corner of 82nd Street and 19th Ave in Brooklyn. After her grandfather Nicolo died in 1915 (his son-in-law Donato was his attending physician), his daughter Elvira and her husband Donato and their children lived in the big house. The family was very close and Thomas, his siblings and their children lived in large homes on or around that same street, as I found out through census records. Grams fondly remembers their nice older housekeeper, kids playing in the yard, and the men playing bocci ball in the street. Those were fun times for her. She and her sister would play in the sprinklers with not a care in the world. That house on the corner seemed to be a hub of activity all the time. Even my mother remembers spending days during her childhood in Brooklyn playing in that house.

I never met my great grandfather Thomas because he died in the hospital from what is now known as Deep Vein Thrombosis. He'd had minor surgery and the doctors let him lie in the bed too long. When they got him up, a bloodclot dislodged and killed him instantly. Actually, Thomas's case was documented in a medical journal in an effort to bring the issue of DVT some needed medical attention. Maybe his case saved the lives of others, who knows?

I knew my great grandmother Nonna. She used to tie my hair up in pigtails and give us kids little pieces of candy she kept in her purse. Nonna was a sweet old lady with curly short white hair.  She died in 1976 when I was 7. I remember so much about her down to the perfume she wore and the way her closet smelled of mothballs protecting all her precious wool sweaters. Nonna spent half a year with my grandmother and half a year with grams sister and so we were fortunate enough to be around her during our childhood. I only wish I'd been old enough then to talk to her about her life in Sicily. Speaking of great grandparents, I am fortunate to have known not only my Nonna but two other great grandparents as well--my grandfather's mother Yetta Unger Hershkowitz  who died in 1979 at age 103 and my father's grandfather Grady Hogan who died in 1986. I feel very fortunate to have known them.  

When I started my genealogy research some time ago, I had a very good working knowledge of our family history and that helped quite a bit. And while I had heard stories all my life from family members about their days growing up (I live for the stories!) I knew there were always more stories. When I presented grams with information I found on her family, it automatically opened the floodgates and the stories began pouring out. I used a tape recorder because I wanted to remember not just the stories but the sound of her voice and the emotion she emanated when she told the stories. She told me of times she spent with her father, with the family in their vacation home in the Poconos and times when she would hang out with her boy cousins Mario, Ugo and Frank Viggiano. Grams was a tomboy so she liked to do what the boys did. She remembered that during the early 30's when she was a teenager, she couldn't sleep at night so she would take her dog and they would go for a run down to the water. Back then she said you could go for a run in the middle of the night and nobody bothered you. I just imagine my grandmother doing that too. She's not at all shy and I get the feeling she might have been a little bit of a rebel in her day. I can imagine her mother not being happy with that but her father probably loved it.

Grams fondly remembers the times when she hung out with her boy cousins and she met a friend of theirs, his name was William. I believe he was her cousin Ugo's best friend. Willie and Ugo went everywhere together, and did all the usual boy stuff. Willie got along with May, but used to do "pull her pigtail" kind of stuff, as boys will do at that age. Turns out William's family didn't live far away...his parents Yetta and Isaac, emigrated from Iasi Romania in 1901. William, his twin and their siblings had been born in New Jersey and moved for a time to Brooklyn before moving back to Jersey. Little did May and William know that later on around 1942 they would get married after not having seen each other for some time. William, that friend of her cousins, would eventually be my grandfather, known later as Bill.

Grams is 94 and she remembers so much about her childhood, her teenage years, and the war years. She could tell you stories about things that went on, things she witnessed, that we only read about in the history books. She remembers the Depression, D-Day, Hitler, the Hindenburg disaster, Korea and all of the national and world events in between. Grams was a Rosie the Riveter too and has really neat stories about what it was like to live during World War II, live on rations and work in the factories. Some of the stories are happy and some not so much. She remembers for instance the day of her grandmother's funeral in 1929, when she and her cousin/best friend Mario Viggiano were giggling when they were supposed to be silent. In the next breath she remembers living in New Jersey and being pregnant with my mother in June 1946 and not being told until after my mother was born that her father had died from DVT just a couple of weeks earlier.  Nobody wanted to tell her because they feared she would go into premature labor and cause complications. She never forgot that she never had the chance to say goodbye to her beloved father, with whom she was so close. Even now when she talks about it, she gets tears in her eyes. I can only imagine the pain she felt all these years, thinking about the very last conversation she had with him.

We can read history facts and figures all day long but in the end it's the stories that make it all come alive. These stories are real-life and they are riveting because they are a part of us. They make up who we are. Grams and millions of others her age have seen this nation and this world endure a lot and they have stories that deserve to be heard. Even our own parents have stories to tell, lots of them. I never found the stories told at the dinner table boring, never for a moment. Stories from my grandparents about the good old days and living through world wars and stories from my parents about what life was like in the boomer generation and living through the tumultuous sixties. There is so much there for us to know, we have a duty to pass it on.

If you walk away from this blog with anything, I hope it is the desire to sit down with an older family member and just start talking to them about life as they remember it. Everybody has a story to tell  and it would be a shame if these stories were never told.

1 comment:

  1. Jess, you've talked about events that I never knew about. It makes me sorry that I never sat down with Nonna, Grampa, and Grandma Hershkowitz while they were still alive, to ask them about their lives before I was born. It also makes me realize I need to begin spending more time with Grams, while she's still here. Thanks Gaga..you've made me realize quite a bit here. xoxoxo

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