“… there’s the beginning of the ‘tale of your grandmothers.’ First of all, I loved this work. The past history for both of them is so, so powerful. The details for both of these ‘characters’ are just right—the Ivory-smelling skin; the smell of sauerkraut and moth balls; amber-colored brews; bleeding toes and anger…” ~ Karen McElmurray, my MFA mentor, on my first draft
When I finished those 20 or so pages about my grandmothers, exhaustion swept over me. I don’t know if I was more tired from pulling memories out of my brain or from writing them down and dealing with them. At that time, I was writing about both grandmothers; it was mostly a comparison of the two done, I suppose, to avenge the nastiness of the paternal one. As you probably know, though, sometimes we start a project with the intention of doing one thing, but the road we take with said project has so many twists and turns that we end up doing something completely different. That’s not for right now, however.
After I wrote that first draft and sent it to Karen, I began the real work of remembering. I am lucky in that I can recall conversations or activities no matter how long ago they happened(although remembering to put that envelope that’s been in my purse for a month in the mail is another thing) especially when it was something important to me….as was talking with Grams.
There were a lot of times that I spent the weekend or, if it were summer, a week or so with my Aunt Marge and Grams. Besides getting me away from the tension in our house, staying with them gave me the opportunity to “help” Grams cook or weed the garden. I’m sure I was more of a hindrance than a help in both the garden and the kitchen, but she never seemed bothered to have me around. It was on those days or on the days when Grams visited our house that she would talk to me about Italy. I can honestly say that I have no idea if I asked her questions or if I just listened, but I was always interested. She rarely spoke of my grandfather—the reason I’d find out much later, and she always talked about things that brought her joy. The worst thing I ever heard her say about anyone was that so-and-so was a “louse,” and usually she was kidding around when she said it.
This Much I Know Is True (I Thought)
It always interested me that Grams said very little about Grandpa except to mention him in brief when telling me a story about something else. Donato Berarducci had come to the United States in 1905, and he ended up in the Marble Cliff area of Columbus, Ohio, where a number of other people from his town were. Seeing that he had no prospects for a wife among the women already in the States, he complained to Pietro Crugnale, my grandmother’s older brother. Pietro, thinking that this was a good way to get his poor sister to the “new world,” suggested that he could arrange a marriage with Liberata.
Unfortunately, Zia (aunt) Margherita’s husband didn’t want anything to do with the baby, so Zia took Grams to the fields with her daily. She never went to school and spent her life working the fields, cleaning the house, baking, and cooking. Pietro’s offer to arrange the marriage would lift her out of that drudge of a life and bring her to a land paved with gold streets.
Not long after her 21st birthday, Maria LIberata Crugnale married Donato Berarducci by proxy in Italy, the groom’s father standing in for his son who was 5,000 miles away. With seven dollars in her pocket and everything she owned in a small trunk, Grams joined a number of other people from the town to travel to Naples and board the SS Germania (above). Because they were third-class passengers, they spent most of the next two weeks in the entrails of that small ship. “We had-a no air,” Grams told me. “People-a gettin’ sick alla da time and trowin’ up.”
Gram told me that after she finally arrived in Ohio in mid-August 1906, she insisted that Donato marry her the proper way and in a church, so on August 26, 1906, a priest solemnized their marriage at St. Margaret Church in Columbus. Grandpa worked in a rock quarry, and Grammy cooked and cleaned the boarding house in which they lived. Pietro had not quite lifted her out of that drudge life she had.
“He work hard for nothin’,’” my grandmother told me often. “No money. I cook and clean-a for ever-body, even I don’t understand the English.” After the boarding house burned down, my grandparents moved to and settled in Youngstown, Ohio, because the growing steel industry in the northeast part of the state offered better jobs and pay. By that time (around 1914), my grandparents already had four children—Antoinette (Tony), Domenico (Dom), Margaret (Marge), and Asención (Ann). In 1915, six-year old Domenico contracted scarlet fever and died. Grandma gave birth to Maria a few weeks after Domenico’s death and to Elvira two years later. The flu epidemic claimed both girls within a few months of each other – Elvira in 1918 and Maria in 1919. Over the next 10 years, my grandparents added five more children to the family – Elvira (Vera), Maria (Mary, my mother), Domenico (Red), Daniel (Boot) and James (Jim).
The deaths of her three children bothered Grams a lot, and she often talked to me about them. She blamed the “louse” of a doctor (She wasn’t kidding when calling him that.) for all of their deaths.
“Domenico, he very sick,” she said of my young uncle. “That louse make-a you grandpa take him to the hos-a-pital.” The Italian doctor who cared for the neighborhood didn’t want to expose the other kids or my very pregnant grandmother to scarlet fever, so he ordered my grandfather to take Domenico to the area hospital. In the middle of the night, a loud crash awakened my grandparents.
“Dat-a night,” Grams told me, “I hear-a bangin’ inna da kitchen. Alla dem-a plates fly outta the cabinet and crash on the floor.” “”I know-a it’sa da angels tellin-a me dey takin’ my-a leetle-a boy. I know he tell me he die.” She was quiet for a few minutes, then added, “My baby girls die, too. Dat louse no come-a to the house because we have no money to pay him. My babies die because dat louse.” She would lose two girls—Vera and Maria—within the next two years.
Her children were the most important part of Gram’s life. My oft-pregnant grandmother raised her children in a crowded, two-bedroom home and her vegetables in a huge, backyard garden. But the three deaths, tedious work in horrible conditions, increasing debt and a growing family taxed my grandfather, and he started to drink more and more, spending a good portion of his scant salary on liquor. Grams, however, was intent on keeping her children healthy, fed, and clothed, so she started to meet Gramps at the mill gate on pay day in order to get some money from him before he drank it all away. She also built a large, stone oven in her garden and baked bread that she would sell to neighbors to supplement what money she culled from Grandpa’s pay.
Even though I knew that Grams grieved over her lost children and had less-than-an-easy life, I always had the impression that she was happy. My grandfather died when I was about 18-months old, so I didn’t really know much about him until I got older and heard stories about him from Mom and her siblings because, as I mentioned, Grams rarely spoke of him. I didn’t realize, though, until I started looking back, that there was an abundance of information of which I knew little or nothing. I didn’t even know the name of the town from which they came, or even if they came from the same town.
I spent hours surrounded by waves of photos, wading through the split-second, fuzzy, black-and-white views of life dating back 50, 70., even 100 years. Photos, though, are fragmented bits of life, transient moments preserved on paper, souvenirs of the past. They rarely tell the whole story, nor do they often even tell the true story. Frustrated, I realized that to uncover more of the story and to more completely understand it, I would have to go much deeper than my memories and photos. The internet was going to fill in more pieces of the puzzle—even some regarding the other grandmother, but eventually, I was going to have to find a tiny village in Central Italy to come face-to-face with facts that were not quite the truths we’d always been told.