As an educator, the summer months are occupied by much writing, planning, and inevitably, searching. After a few years of working on a poetic memoir, I find the floodgates of memory are open, and nostalgic portraits pop into my head at will: in the shower, in the car, during times of rest. This has been a natural way for me to explore my short legacy, and quite often it means reflection on my female lineage. I feel a pull towards the women in my family – my mother, aunts, great aunts– a sea of cousins–my sister-in-law, my lightning gem of a niece, and all the women who have become friends, mentors, and sisters to me over the course of my life.
It seems I have endless admiration and fascination for the stories of these women–their hardships, their successes, their love stories. I crave their history, the untold foldings of life of a group of people who so often were regulated to shadows in written record, no matter the glorious light they produced in their waking hours. At the center of this fascination, this pull to my feminine ancestry, is, of course, my grandmothers, Philomena (Mae) Russo Ciccone and Enrica Olympia Cerutti Marciano. As a child, I’d always wished American Girl Magazine would have turned them into those historic paper dolls – but since that never happened- I will share them with you here.
A friend once asked me what I would get, if I were to get a tattoo. This answer is simple — on the outward facing edge of each hand would be my grandmothers’ names in script – Mae on one hand, Enrica on the other. No greater influences of love and culture could attest to the person that I have become. Yet I probably wouldn’t get it done, because it would upset both of them too much to see me with a tattoo, even if it was in their honor. Grandma Mae and Nonna Enrica, both born in 1925, could not possibly be more opposite, in aesthetic, upbringing, and personality. This is fortunate for me, as I have been dually verse in two diverse languages of love (not to mention languages in general!)
Philomena Russo was born second to last of six children, the daughter of Italian immigrants who had settled first in Philadelphia, later in Riverside, New Jersey. I would describe my grandmother as a delicate flower, just so, with a bumble bee tucked unassumingly inside of her delicate petals! A child of the great depression, with five sisters, and one brother, she certainly knows how to share everything, from clothes, to money, to her unconditional love. I can picture her as a young woman, the type of person that would befriend the awkward, shy girl in her class, her own shyness averted by her insistence on social harmony. Her eyes are ones that never registered her own beauty, or cared a lick about clothes, despite being voted the best looking gal in her high school graduating class! Of course, underneath her compassion, is a deep sense of loyalty, which probably grew from her sturdy sibling relationships, and the closeness that her and her family shared. This loyalty is still apparent today – Say one wrong word about any member of her family, their looks, their way of life, the way they keep their house, and you’ll see her sugar turn sour in the blink of an eye, defending her loved ones with a fierce and courageous tongue.
Enrica Cerutti, just sixteen months younger than her brother Gianni, was born in the city of Genoa in Northern Italy. The daughter of a military and commercial sea captain, she grew up in a wealthy family under the gaze of discipline and tough love. Nonna is more a fire pistol than a delicate flower, but one that only shoots rainbows when fired. Being raised by a strict father, who was often away, she developed a fantastical imagination, one in which she could escape rules and regulations all within the confines of her own mind. She was a champion roller skater, jumping and twirling on her four wheeled skates, and she and her brother were known for their mischief at the expense of their devoted nannies and housekeepers. Her fashion sense spoke volumes even as a chlild- and her bold statements coupled with exotic beauty have resulted in a lifetime of turning heads. Yet, despite this whimsical, magic nature, her apple did not fall too far from the family tree. Growing up in Italy during a time of World Wars, and the threat of Nazi occupation, she developed a stiff upper lip like that of her father. At fifteen a Nazi soldier climbed onto the train platform where she stood and put a gun to her temple. “Go ahead shoot me!” was her response, and the soldier, impressed by her guts, laughed and walked away. Nonna still has the guts, fighting with sales reps who try to cheat her, or rude men who speak to her the wrong way!
Both of my grandmothers were war brides who left their families for love. Their tales of letters and courtship have taught me about sacrifice in love, and what it takes to dedicate yourself to another.
Mae Russo became Mae Ciccone a year after meeting her beloved John at a military event. Poppy John had been the head of the marching band for his brigade during WW2, providing entertainment to troops that were homesick and in need of cheer. Mae and John’s courtship consisted of love letters, and eventually they were married and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where my grandfather was from. Mae cried for months, missing her sisters, brother and parents she had left in New Jersey. My grandfather, sensitive to this, encouraged her to visit her family whenever she needed to. After her children were born, she took them to the garden state each summer by train, spending weeks with her now even larger family with the advent of the baby boom. This was an important time for her, watching her children light firecrackers with their cousins on the 4th of July. Years later, when her mother passed away, my own mom tells me she watched Mae cry and cry, wishing she could have been there, wishing she hadn’t left her mother so soon.
Enrica Cerutti became a Marciano after being swept away by a handsome American soldier at a military ball. My poppy, Joseph Marciano, was an intelligence officer who had been assigned with bringing displaced Jewish families back together at the end of WW2. His job gave him much prestige in the Italian government, and my Nonna and her love enjoyed the celebrity life, meeting dignitaries, attending galas, and living in a twenty-five room villa! Nonna was very young, only 21 when she was married, and she recalls that as she walked to the church through her city in a traditional bridal parade, many people thought she was going to receive her confirmation! After a few years of marriage, and one miscarriage, she gave birth to my father, and the three enjoyed a cultured and tender life in the south of Italy. Yet, my poppy told his wife it was time to return to the US to be with his family.
Nonna had dreamed of this place, with streets paved of gold, the America she had known of in the movies. Her father, however, warned her otherwise. In good old world fashion, he had a priest check up on my grandfather’s family in the states. He warned his daughter, that although her husband was a good, hard working, passionate man, his family was not well off, and her life would change. He told her, also, a daughter in America is a dead daughter, words she still repeats today. Nonetheless, they traveled to the US, and just as her father had told her, she went from living in this 25 room villa to a one room apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. Wearing her fur coats and expensive clothes, she was mocked by her five sister-in-laws, or at the very least, misunderstood, since she didn’t speak a word of English! She cried and cried, feeling shameful and depressed as she washed the kitchen floor for the first time on her hands and knees. Of course, my Poppy Joe, ever the gentle soul, also saw his wife’s sadness. He encouraged her too to visit her parents, which became easier once airplane travel was more accessible. She and my young father would travel back and forth to Italy for years, and eventually, they all traveled together as a family. To this day, my Nonna spends 9 months in Italy and three months in the US, her life a perpetual series of arrivals and departures for the sake of others.
My grandmothers have instilled many things into me since I was young. Grandma Mae has encouraged me to be sweet, to be grateful for what I have. She has taught me about sharing, even when you have very little to give, and has given me graceful lessons on how to always extend your home to others — even when you don’t have the room. She tells me to be neat, and that even if you can’t afford the best, you can always look neat, always make the best of what you got, the strongest lesson she learned as a child of the great depression.
Nonna Enrica has taught me to be an individual, to be true to myself, despite what others think or force upon you. Having had to adjust to a new culture and way of life, she was determined not to lose her nature. She has always encouraged my unusual sense of high fashion, which mirrors hers, and told me that you are what you believe yourself to be-to always face forward and walk with pride so that no one can knock you down. She also taught me how to save every penny I earn, since although she came from a wealthy family, she saw what it could also look like to have to work hard for everything you had, as she and my grandfather did in America.
I am forever indebted to these two women for the gifts they have given to me. My love for them is unending, and their stories pump through my delicate and courageous blood each day, their voices resonate in each word I speak to others. I am lucky to still have them both with me here on Earth-and they still teach me lessons with each loving encounter.
Mae, 1940 Enrica, 1947