Monday, June 23, 2014

Whence I Came

I was very fortunate to know my paternal grandmother for the first twenty-six years of my life. When she died at the age of ninety-three in 1989, she was an old ninety-three. Men and women of her generation—from before the many modern medical miracles—tended to be old before their time. In sharp contrast with those of us existing in the pampered present, they led patently rougher lives. I, for one, couldn’t imagine doing hard labor on the railroad as a teenager, which is what my grandmother did while all the able-bodied men from her town were off fighting in World War I. She hauled big rocks long distances. I could envision even less fighting in the trenches and getting gassed in the "war to end all wars."

My grandmother was born in 1895 in a place called Castlemezzano, a rocky mountain town in the province of Potenza in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy. From my perspective as a boy, she was always an old lady. That is, an old lady in the most positive sense, revered for the wisdom she amassed while navigating through the rough and tumble of life.  From an impoverished existence in a small village with no electricity, running water, or plumbing of any kind to a new life in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan during the Great Depression, she always appreciated what she had, even when it wasn’t much, and was never heard to complain about anything.

My grandmother’s father—my great-grandfather Antonio Casa—was a musician who could read and write in a place and in a time when that sort of thing was exceptional. He made a little money and received bottles of wine and freshly made cheeses by reading and writing letters for townspeople. The problem with “Signore” Casa was that he didn’t have much of a work ethic and didn’t feel remotely obligated to his family—a wife and two daughters. My grandmother’s mother—my great-grandmother Maria Casa—worked every conceivable odd job to provide for her children. She baked breads for neighbors in her brick oven for, quite literally sometimes, bread. Her roguish husband was known to pilfer what little the family had and, with the spoils, endeavor to impress his numerous lady friends around town. Antonio Casa—with his piercing, manic-looking green eyes—was the antithesis of a faithful husband and devoted father. He employed his reading and writing talents to win over more than a few hearts and—so said the scuttlebutt—purposely misread a letter or two for personal gain. Those scenarios, however, are left to our imaginations.

Antonio Casa eventually assumed the role of transatlantic guardian—for a fee, of course—when he accompanied a woman from town across the ocean to reunite with her husband, who had settled in America. Upon learning of his departure from Italian soil, his long-suffering wife—my great-grandmother—kissed the ground and prayed to the Almighty that she would never, ever see the louse again. She never did. Thereafter, she raised the Casa family without interference. Maria Casa even insisted her two girls go to school and learn to read and write, just like their no-good father, which was not very commonplace back then. Ignorant folks in the village sneered at the audacity of her desire to see her two girls get an education.

Mission accomplished. Antonio Casa arrived safely at his final destination, Al Capone's Chicago, where he lived for a spell. The historical account gets a bit sketchy here, but it seems the man did more than reunite a husband and wife on American soil. Apparently, he was engaged in a full-blown affair with the woman he accompanied to America. When his transgressions came to light, the Lothario was compelled to get out of Dodge and fast. Antonio Casa subsequently found himself in New York City, where he announced with fanfare he was returning to his native Italy to live with his daughter, my grandmother, whom he had abandoned many years earlier. While in America, his eldest daughter had passed away during the Spanish flu, and his wife soon after that of a stomach ailment. As his birthright, though, he expected his only surviving child would care for him in his sunset years.

The best laid plans of mice and men. My grandmother was at that very moment—the mid-1920s— prepping to come to America to join her husband, my grandfather, who was already here. In fact, my grandfather attempted to convince Antonio Casa to stay put, but he refused and rather ham-fistedly attempted to keep my grandmother in Italy. The old man nonetheless got to live out the remainder of his life in the house that his wife had purchased with the sweat of her brow while he was a philandering gadabout. My grandmother, who inherited the house upon her mother's death, sent her father a few dollars from time to time until the day he died. He was, after all, family.

I’ve always wondered what it must have been like to look back on a life like my grandmother led—one that witnessed two World Wars, a worldwide depression, and the Spanish flu, which devastated her town and killed her only sister. What was it like to have a father like Antonio Casa? I can’t conceive of that life journey through a world like that. I do know that my grandmother never wanted to return to Italy and the town of her birth, Castelmezzano. She was just grateful for everything she had in the here and now, and was a loving and large presence because of it. That’s what I remember most about her (and, of course, her unparalleled cooking acumen whose likes, I’m certain, I will never see again).

(Photos one, three,and six from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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