Travels With My Aunts

Josephine Cipolla, who had both brains and beauty, died of tuberculosis at age 22. She and other members of our family endured poverty, illness and prejudice.

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 local Catholic school after 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 other siblings have 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, Gloria, who knew the Cipolla family since she was five years old, searched back to their earliest memories.

Along with prejudice against Italians 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 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,” Grandmom said at the time.

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 each Christmas from Mrs. Potts, 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 hand saw 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.  Here is a link to a (private) YouTube video with some of their memories.

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.

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7 thoughts on “Travels With My Aunts

  1. A family always go through bad times. It matters the luck, the time, and the strenght just to put the next generation the base to a good life, which can give a lot of headaches. And most of the time we don’t care enough about the past that gave us a future. After reading this I realize I don’t know much about the past of my family, just about some participants but not all, and so I neglect an important part of my life.

    No matter what, while you can feel pride from the past, it means that you did good. So I work hard so my grandparents see the fruits of their work and never say “did I broke my back for this?”

  2. I love this entry. I wish I knew more about our family history. I look forward to the video you guys are making!

  3. Just loved this – so many wonderful memories – hope you can do the same with memories of the DiNatale’s.

  4. We really enjoyed the video clip!

  5. TSL: Where did you get an Aunt Chickie? What kid wouldn’t want an aunt named Chickie?

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