In fact, I just shared stories of Aunt Lee’s Christmas Eve baccala with a friend of Italian heritage at a Christmas party this year. Like me, my friend had heard tell of how the salted cod was spread out in an upstairs room on newspaper and left to dry so that over a period of days it made the whole house stink. The cold cod became a Christmas treat in salad form with celery and black olives and some sort of dressing. My Aunt Lee who was married to my Uncle Dom made the best. It was called baccala.
Some stories weren’t so festive. Italians, like so many groups of immigrants to America, went through periods of prejudice that kept them outside the mainstream of society which left them poor and created in some feelings of great inferiority. Before moving to 16 Shetland, the Cutulys lived on Orphan Street in a house with a dirt floor. 16 Shetland must have been a huge step up for them, especially since it was in an Italian neighborhood. Shetland was off Larimer Avenue. In the last year of his life, Yawgin sent me a newspaper featuring stories of the Larimer Avenue neighborhood, still close to his heart.
When I was in college, there was a Christmas dinner at which Yawgin, Dom, and Carrie admitted something they’d never told each other. They used to hide in the bathrooms at school to eat their lunches. The reason is that they were so poor, all Angela could make for them was bread with jelly. The jelly soaked into the bread and looked so awful that everyone made fun of them and the fact that they were poor Italians.
Yawgin admitted that even when he was a resident at the hospital, he would try to call his mother when no one was in the doctors’ lounge because he felt embarrassed at being caught speaking Italian.
As I think of Elizabeth who grew up at 528 going to this strange house, I think she must have been very brave to enter a world so foreign to her and so uneasy. She would sleep in a room with Aunt Carrie and Aunt Mary. She and Aunt Carrie would talk later about how Aunt Mary would get up at night and count her money in a metal box. She was very smart about investing and apparently did quite well with what she saved after forking most of it over to Grandpa.
She was also quite forward looking in her teaching, sending off to Colgate for toothbrushes to teacher her students the value of dental hygiene.
Aunt Mary had a palsy of the face that twisted her mouth to one side. She could have had it fixed through an operation when she was young, but her father refused so she bore the problem throughout her life. When Yawgin had an appendicitis, his father wanted to operate with one of his shoemaker tools. Fortunately, they got young Yawgin to a hospital.
It’s certain that Grandpa defined Aunt Mary’s life in ways we can only imagine, was that reveal his hard heartedness and make me wonder why he singled her out for such punishment and persecution.
She was engaged to marry a man who ended up taking a great deal of money from her and the dropping her. This was after a man named Mr. DiDiano wanted to marry her, but Grandpa refused to let it happen. My research has showed me that the DiDianos were a family also from Maierato. In the mid seventies, I stayed with Aunt Mary who was living with Aunt Carrie at that point. We drove over to get some of the famed Rimini Bakery Italian bread. The bakery was across from Mr. Di Diano’s house so we popped in.
Mrs. Di Diano was a mean looking lady sitting in the living room all dressed in black. Mr. Di Diano was a round little man, very gentle and sweet-tempered. He gave us a tour of his garden that covered a large hillside. I hung back as he and Aunt Mary walked with the air of young people who might have lived back in a rural village in southern Italy. They would pause and tenderly touch the leaves of the vegetables, talk, and move on. I had never seen this side of Aunt Mary who generally had an edge of control to her. But here in Mr. Di Diano’s garden, she surrendered to the beauties of life so completely that it brought tears to my heart with the knowledge of what she might have been.
When I was three in 1945, it was impossible to get a bike, for all the metal was going to the war. Aunt Mary managed to have a bike assembled from spare parts and sent it to me from Pittsburgh to Detroit. It was a cool bike, all different colors because of the way it was made. Aunt Mary was that kind of person. She would bend over backwards to give. But sadly, there was a price for your gift. And she was very selective in her giving.
More on that later, but for now, I will simply say, that this was part of the darkness.