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GRANDMA’S SECRETS
BY DIANE G. COSTELLO

There it was just as I remembered it, a department store Christmas box with snow covered pines and a cursive capital B littering a silver background. Bloomingdales, maybe? The yellowed tape and tattered corners spoke to its age and use. I had always spotted it whenever my grandma had searched for something in her bottom dresser drawer. She never opened it; just moved the articles of clothing respectfully around it until she found what she needed.  Decades later Grandma was gone but the box remained, guarding its contents and secrets until now. 

It held a hodgepodge of things – an assortment of rosary beads, religious medals and mass cards; stacks of letters, greeting cards and folded documents. Everything looked old. The paper items were browned at the edges, most ragged and fragile. The envelopes bore addresses with no zip codes and the documents were from a time when handwriting was a practiced skill. 

My grandma was born around 1893; we celebrated her birthday on September 13, but we never knew her exact age. Unlike her siblings she was born in the U.S., presumably New York City, but official searches for a birth certificate and baptismal record had turned up nothing. 

What I did know – she was born Carmela Passannante to Antonio and Antoinette Belmonte. She had married Daniele Guidone and they had lived in Manhattan. My grandfather had been a tailor which perhaps explained the tasteful striped silk shirt folded amongst all the paper, and the silk monogrammed handkerchiefs still in their original Wallach Bros. packaging. Grandma had always referred to the family as Napolitan, so I had assumed southern Italy was the start of one branch of the family tree. Daniele had died relatively young; my mom was not even six when she and her two brothers lost their father. 

Under the silk shirt, the first document I came across was Daniele’s death certificate, barely readable as the black background had turned muddy brown with age rendering the white print faint. He was 39 when he died - January 18,1922 - and had been in America for eighteen years, all of it spent as a resident of NYC according to what had been written. His address at the time was given as Prince Street near Thompson, in today’s SoHo district, and walking distance to Little Italy. His place of birth as well as that of his parents – Egidio Guidone and Carmela Perito – was simply listed as Italy. But now it was at least clear where my mom’s elder brother, my Uncle Edge, had gotten his name. The cause of death was given as acute encephalitis for which Daniele had been hospitalized at Bellevue.  Another connecting thread to the past - my mom would grow up to attend nursing school, donning the distinctive pleated organdy Bellevue cap.

So who was this man, my maternal grandfather, and what had his brief life been like?  I had only seen two photos of him – a formal wedding picture and an equally stiff studio family portrait with his three young children and my grandmother standing dutifully next to his seated figure, with her hand on his shoulder. I sifted through a handful of novena booklets and postal cards which were mailed notices of due insurance policy premiums - $5 quarterly payment on a 1921 policy with the Masonic Protective Association. I had to read that twice. My grandfather had something in common with George Washington --- he was a Mason?  There were multiple bank receipts from the Bank of Naples and one from the East River National Bank of N.Y. which was partially in Italian. Daniele had sent money to his father back in Italy.

Eventually finding Daniele’s passport among all the odds and ends of living my grandma had saved, confirmed – he was born 21 July 1882 in Altavilla Silentina in the province of Salerno. There was no photograph of Daniele in the passport but a list of features that someone with a practiced hand (and eye) had described for posterity: mouth…wide; hair…chestnut; beard…nascent, etc. The passport was issued for New York and valid until April 1904. There is a large diploma of sorts from the Board of Education, City of New York, Borough of Manhattan for Evening School No. 8 awarded “for faithfulness and proficiency as a pupil” 22 March 1906 to Daniel Guidone – notably missing the “e” from his given name.

What had he done in the intervening years? Had he already begun to work as a tailor? A business card declared Dermake & Petrocelli Makers of Fine Men’s Coats. They were located on Broadway in Brooklyn. Was this my grandfather’s employer at one time?  There was another card, that of one Francesco Infortunio who was the representative of the New York Joint Board of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America --- a union.

Many of the creased papers I came across appeared to be flyers or leaflets from societies and organizations. There was the Ordine Figli D’Italia in America, specifically the Loggia Giuseppe Verdi N. 18. Same organization but the Loggia Suprema located at 226 Lafayette Street. A receipt for paid dues to the Giuseppe Garibaldi N.Y. Caravan No.145 and a booklet of the by-laws of Roma Lodge No. 770  I.O.O.F. (the International Order of Odd Fellows – a fraternal society).

There were announcements of numerous feasts for various Catholic saints. But one particular bulletin caught my attention – it bore a picture of a Madonna and Child with bold type declaring in Italian that this was a collection made ‚Äč‚Äčamong the faithful citizens of Altavilla Silentina living in New York and the surrounding areas for a new robe for the Blessed Virgin. What followed was a three-page list of the individual donors according to their place of residence – New York, Bronx, Brooklyn and even Boston. I was a bit bewildered: given its small size, it had taken some effort to find Altavilla Silentina on a map. How much of the town had left seeking a better life in America? 

I had discovered my grandma’s marriage certificate from the Catholic Church – a beautiful 12”x17” lithograph; the gilt borders and lettering still shone. Daniel of New York City and Carmela of Carlstadt NJ were united in Holy Matrimony in East Rutherford on 12 January 1913. Much more pedestrian in appearance were a marriage license and certificate from New York State. They document a 29 year-old tailor, Daniele, living on Prince Street and a 19 year-old Carmela residing on the nearby Thompson. But I find myself staring at the last two lines listed under the groom:  Number of marriage… Second.  Former wife or wives living or dead… Dead. 

Never had this been mentioned to me or my siblings. I hunt a bit deeper into the pile of folded papers wrapped separately in tissue. Oddly held together by a straight pin pierced through the corners, are two plain New York State transcripts – a Certificate and Record of Marriage and a Certificate and Record of Death. On 6 December 1908, at Our Lady of Pompeii in Brooklyn, Daniele married a resident of Passaic N.J. – Giovanna Cennamo, who had been born in Italy to Carmine and Carminella Capaccio. What strikes me immediately about the death certificate is the lack of time between it and previous record.  Giovanna had been married less than fourteen months. The couple was living on Richardson St. in Brooklyn. Giovanna never reached her 21st birthday, dying in January of 1910 of “puerperal septicemia following instrumental delivery” apparently giving birth at home several days earlier. 

Giovanna’s name also appeared in a 1906 Kingdom of Italy watermarked official letter, its cream color punctuated only by the vibrant orange and multiple purple Municipio Di Altavilla Silentina official stamps. The elegant cursive script of the author was as crisp as the day it was written, the paper’s pure cotton fibers having never discolored. Giovanna, Anna, Sofia…was easily readable while the remainder of the text was difficult to interpret because of the hand of the writer and the convoluted syntax. The best interpretation was that of a testimonial, documenting Giovanna’s family – the name of her father and mother were discernible. It is dated 28 April 1908, only months before her marriage to Daniele. Perhaps she lacked some necessary papers to be married in the church in the States? Whatever the reason, it was clear my grandfather’s first marriage was to a “hometown girl” whose path crossed his years later in America.

A bit more sorting turned up a plain booklet stamped Memorandum across the green bound cover. There are inscriptions on the inside cover ”Il vostro affezionato amico” – our loving friend – Daniele Guidone, and the date of his death.  Pencil-written on the first several pages are names of men and women, followed by dollar amounts. Donations to the family? A short list of names appears on the last page entitled “fiori” – flowers.  The previous page shows a minor calculation totaling $137, under the heading “vino”. There must have been a lot of toasting and remembrances at my grandfather’s funeral. 

Grandma had lived through so much in her ninety one years --- widowed at twenty-eight with three small children, two World Wars, the Great Depression. Yet she spoke so little of her experiences and the past. 

The only earrings Grandma ever wore were the diamond studs Daniele had given her on their wedding day. She took them out only to clean them --- and then one last time the Christmas before she died, when she gave one earring each to my sister and me. The stone has a bit of yellow color to it so it never emanated that cold, hard brilliance diamonds often do. But now it’s even warmer with the knowledge held inside Grandma’s box.

 

Images:

Xmas gifts by http://public.fotki.com/kelvinkay/collection_of_beaut/xmasparty061.html

Photo of Altavilla Silentina, marriage certificate and passport by Diane Costello