Whenever Jan. 1st rolls around, I always recall celebrating my grandfather’s birthday on this day, the first day of the year. I was never quite sure if that was his actual birthday or if no one knew and that was just the day someone picked. I was betting if it was picked, it was by my grandma when I was a kid. Like most Italians, they had their share of sparring arguments and though I didn’t speak a word of Italian, I was pretty certain she got the last word in! Besides, she had the power of the kitchen on her side.
Grandma Gliatti, Jospephine D’Angelo Gliatti was the absolute best cook, hands down. Grandpa had it made in spades when he married her, as far as having meals prepared by the crème dela crème chef! He, as far back as I can remember, was a smaller built man and I never really understood how. With all that yummy pasta around and her homemade Italian bread all us grand-kids would die for, it was astonishing!
In the far recesses of my mind, I have fond memories of my grandpa, Michael Gliatti, born in around 1900 and deceased in 1972. When he was younger, the period I recall, he was a hard worker. As a little girl, I saw a man that was proud, engaging, laughed, drank, ate and shared. It amazes me when I think back that as a household, my grandparents were not well-off and yet both were so compassionate towards others. Within their Italian support group of friends, the bonds ran deep. I recall they even came to each other’s’ family get-together. It was as if they were each other’s extended families.
When he aged, he became quite ill. The details are sketchy to me and for some reason, I am not all that interested in getting caught up in them anymore. I think, for far too many years, all I could remember were the images of him those last several years ill, not the grandpa I had come to know and love. With time and prayer, I have realized that in my relationship with grandpa, he was a sweetheart with his granddaughters. He would not want me to remember that period at all, so I choose not to anymore. Gone are the memories of looking at him in a chair and wishing the clock would turn back. Now the memories are all the happy times, as he would wish them to be.
My grandpa was from a small town called Bovina. Bovina, Italy is a hilltop town at the foot of the Irpinia mountains in the province of Foggia, in the region of Apulia, in southern Italy. It's main economy is agrarian. It was recently voted in a national contest the country's fifth prettiest village.
If you go on social media to try to meet folks from that town, you will quickly find out just how small a place it is and how out of the mainstream! It had to be imagine what is must have felt like to leave this
quaint area in Italy, travel to
Naples, take a ship to go to Ellis Island in NYC and then on to Toledo, Ohio to
make a home. Keep in mind the timeframe,
early 1900’s, no cellphones, no great transportation, safety guidelines not in
existence, medical care poor, etc. My
grandparents had an inability to speak English well, the added stress of the
culture shock and a lack of connections, besides a few folks. This was unduly
hard on a young married couple who did not have much money from the start or
|Chiesa di Sant"Antonio|
Church of St. Anthony in Bovino
Many that know me well have heard me talk about my Grandma Gliatti often. I didn’t realize, till lately, I have scarcely talked about Grandpa and he too was someone I looked up to as a child. Though the images are harder to pull up and fewer, they are there and there are some wonderful memories worth recanting of his love and light in my life. He made a difference in this world.
They came to America in 1929 on the SS Augustus. Conducting research on the treatment of Italians during this time-frame is quite disturbing. Today’s focus is so heavy on “Black Lives Matter” or as others chant “All Lives Matter.” Many felt Italians were second-rate citizens and thus, their lives did not matter near as much. Unions were not much in existence so my grandfather was resigned to work in sweatshops with unsafe standards. Grandma, I am told was a seamstress, by trade, and was also working in her field in unpleasant working conditions.
My grandfather was darker skinned which made it quite apparent he was European, native Italian. In addition, with a name like Gliatti, it is hard to hide the fact. Nicknames like Whop are extremely racist. Grandma told how women chatted and laughed about her, not even behind her back as they knew she couldn’t understand their insults so literally did it right to her face. In those days, she was treated more like a second-rate citizen and needed her job so had no real recourse.
Close to the time my grandparents had immigrated to the United States, 5 million Italians had came here, 4/5's were from the Southern regions of Italy. Interestingly, most were laborers, such as farmers with no intention of staying here. Their goal was to make money, not assimilate to America’s culture or language and return home in a few years. They felt they could make more money here with our wages, at the time, go home and buy land. Most were unskilled farm laborers and were in poverty. And many did return. My grandparents always chose to remain.
What Italian immigrants faced, upon trying to enter the workforce, was hostility. Italian workers were placed, in the pecking order with blacks, on the bottom. They were known as strike-breakers and wage-cutters, breaking picket lines as they needed work to eat. They began being labeled “dagoes” and “guineas” and were the only workers permitted to work alongside blacks. None were allowed to hold titles, political leadership or have a voice in any decision.
But somehow, through it all, my grandparents persevered. Their story is full of hardships, tough choices and dire straights. My blog is not the time or the place to tell of all the sacrifices they made. That is a private intimate look into their lives, their story. Mine is a story of just a girl who became a woman who wants to pay homage at the start of a New Year to one of her heroes, gone but not forgotten.
So, the close of my grandfather’s life, as I like to remember it, is he opened his own upholstery shop. I think he bore his name, Mike’s Upholstery. I was told his furniture, by my father, was the absolute best. My grandmother was the seamstress. Customers came in, looked at the furniture choices while us grand-kids played in the back of the store. Folks could look at the hundreds of swatches and pick out whatever they wanted, custom orders. The furniture never broke and they could just have it redone with new fabric when they wanted. This was true customer service, something you can’t find anywhere, the kind true Italians that have fought their way for everything that have can only give. They were compassionate about their customers and their customers must have known it.
They had a home within walking distance of their shop. They loved each other and they loved everyone in their family, in-spite of their faults. They didn’t complain about their lot in life, being poor, working hard, being ostracized by a society simply because they were different, immigrants and wanting to migrate to be Americans. They raised children to be more than they were and were successful at doing just that. They prospered at all they set out to do.
My grandpa let me know he loved me. Those times I walked in the door and he pinched my cheeks and said something in Italian I don’t have the foggiest of what it was I miss now. It hurt when he pinched my cheeks but it hurts more now because he can’t do it anymore.
I miss hearing the arguing and then laughing between him and my grandma knowing, that in the end, they would be gathered at the table enjoying her wonderful cooking again as if nothing else mattered but being together in the kitchen. And in the end, they were right, nothing else did matter.
I miss seeing him down that horrible wine that my father always said burnt his throat going down. I admired Grandpa’s fortitude in swallowing it, showing me that the smallest of man can be the mightiest.
I miss seeing him hold all those nails in his mouth as he pounded in nails in furniture. This was accompanied by Grandma yelling at him to please stop doing that lest he swallow them and him ignoring her because he knew it was the fastest most efficient way to build furniture and he wanted always to be a good provider for his woman, the love of his life.
Most of all, I am proudest of his devotion to God, his country and to all of us, his family. I know, in heaven, he surely must see his legacy lives on. You did it, Happy New Year Grandpa!
Love and miss you always, until I see you again,
Love and miss you always, until I see you again,