Searching For My Family

my paternal grandparents

My paternal grandmother died when I was 6 years old. I don’t have any photos of her, but her face is permanently etched in my memory. (my sister did find this one photo) A careworn, very strong Sicilian face. She came to America on the ship: “Mendoza” from Realmonte, Grgenti, Italy with her four year old daughter, Vincenta. I’ve come to love Italian words and names. Unfortunately, my family changed their first names shortly after arriving in America in order to better “fit in.” My grandmother went from Giuseppa to Josephine. Her daughter changed her name to Jennie.

My grandfather, who had arrived in New York two years earlier, waited until he had secured a job and a place to live before sending for his family. He was a stonemason and laid the foundation of many buildings and homes that are still standing today, over a hundred years later. I remember the big, dirty cement mixer that was left in their yard long after his death, right near the mulberry tree which we kids picked and ate from.

My grandfather purchased a steerage ticket for my grandmother in 1911 at the cost of $30 which was a lot of money in the late 1880s and early 1900s. Many of the passengers on these ships to Ellis Island arrived sick from one contagious disease or another. They had to be hospitalized and some 3500 died there without realizing their dream of a new life. The most dreaded disease was Trachoma. A contagious bacterial infection that affects the eyes and can lead to blindness. Passengers were given a physical examination upon arrival which included the use of forceps to pull back the upper eyelids.

My grandmother kept the “old country” life she was accustomed to in Italy. Superstitious beliefs along with the mysticism of Roman Catholicism. She would use herbs and plants which she grew in her backyard to treat ailments. Doctors and their drug dispensary were frowned upon. Preferring the peasant lifestyle, her dresses were old and plain, always covered with an apron. Her long, hip length hair, which no one was supposed to see, was kept tied in a tight bun. Once when my sister spent the night there, she saw my grandmother in her bedroom letting her hair down and brushing it. My sister counted 100 brush strokes.

My grandmother lost nearly all of her hearing by the time she approached middle age. Family members devised their own simple sign language or shouted directly into her ear a few words in English mixed with some Italian. I don’t recall ever speaking to her. As children, my sisters and I and our cousins didn’t know how. We would just nod and smile.

My grandmother brought 9 children into the world. The third eldest child, a girl, died at age five from drinking contaminated river water during a picnic. My grandmother, not believing in doctors, try to treat the child’s severe stomach pain with a concoction of herbal remedies. None of it worked and she soon had to bury her child. I can’t help but wonder where my grandfather was during all of this. I know little about him except for the memories my oldest sister has shared. But that’s for another blog post…

7 thoughts on “Searching For My Family

  1. You look like your grandfather. Interesting story of your “roots”My grandmother’s family is from the same town.Her name was Josephine as well and my grandfather was a mason who built “Donuts Delight” in the city. Keep telling your stories. I’m really enjoying them.

    Liked by 2 people

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