Decades ago, my Aunt Josephine, an Italian, was the top student in her predominantly Irish Catholic grade school, but the nuns didn’t want to make her the valedictorian. “Couldn’t we find an Irish child?,” one of them asked the pastor.
Fortunately, the priest told the nuns that if Josephine Cipolla was the top student, then she deserved the honor. But my grandparents were justifiably wary about the localafter that.
This story was one of the many shared by Josephine’s sisters – my Aunt Chickie and Aunt Theresa – last Saturday over a get-together at Chick’s house. We were filming them for an oral history of my dad’s side of the family. Josephine, my dad, and three of his otherhave died; Chickie, Theresa and Aunt Rita, who was in the hospital, are the three survivors of this family of eight children.
About a dozen of us sat in Aunt Chick’s cozy home, a place of many warm family gatherings in the past. My sister Julie and cousins Barb, Wendy, Ann and Paul – all of us middle aged – listened raptly to their stories. Chick, Theresa and my mom,, who knew the Cipolla family since she was five years old, searched back to their earliest memories.
Along with prejudice against 1918 flu epidemic claimed my first Uncle John when he was just 18 months old. My grandmother was pregnant with another child then; when a boy was born she named him John, who became the Uncle John that we knew. “It was like having my baby back,” said at the time.in the early 20th century, the Cipollas had many other things to overcome: poverty, illness, heartbreak. Brainy Aunt Josephine died of tuberculosis at just 22. We learned that the
Aunt Chick remembers how her mother never went to church because her clothes were so shabby. She remembers when a freak summer hailstorm destroyed Grandpop’s garden, where he grew the vegetables that fed his family through the winter. This tall, stoic man cried like a baby when he saw his ruined garden. Theresa remembered how she and her siblings would get to pick out a free toy eachfrom , a kindly neighbor, during the Great Depression.
They also told wonderful stories about how family pulled together. Grandpop would go out early after a snowstorm to shovel a walkway so that his children could walk to school. Despite hard times he would share the bounty from his garden with his neighbors. Aunt Chick would use a Here is a link to a (private) YouTube video with some of their memories.to cut wood for Grandpop’s projects around the home; while the other aunts preferred the kitchen, Chick was a tomboy who loved being with her dad. Theresa remembered when my dad’s pet duck was in peril when my Uncle Andy wanted to slaughter him for dinner; how Uncle John would scare her by pretending to be Frankenstein; and how she walked in on my grandparents during a moment of passion.
Mom remembered how her future sisters-in-law dressed her as a bride when she was just five years old, complete with flowers and a curtain for a veil. Sixteen years later Gloria would be a real bride, marry their brother “Tot,” and become their sister.
The afternoon went quickly and I was sorry when it ended. It was a peek into the past before our own past, the experiences and values that set the stage for how my generation of Cipollas would be raised. I came away from it with a new appreciation of my family’s many struggles, and renewed pride in their strength and values.