My Nonna Lucia was a good and saintly woman. My first memory of Nonna is a pleasant one indeed. Little "Azzarrina", "La Bella Di Nonna" (her special names for me) was about 2 or 3 years old, and she was giving me a bath in her old-fashioned bathroom sink. I remember her voice, teaching me the Our Father in Italian; and, wanting to please her so much, I listened intently I remember hearing my tiny little baby voice, repeating her words, and then hearing her delighted laughter and encouragement. I was so proud of myself !! I remember Nonna's warm hugs, her homemade spaghetti, pizza, Ricotta Cheesecake, Strufoli (hundreds of tiny airy dumplings drenched in honey and multi-color confetti), Chicken Cacciatore, Italian dishes and wonderful wedding and wine cookies. On Saturdays, Nonna would lace up her corset and get into her best "little old lady" outfit, to take me and my sister (Shirin) to the Italian market in the old neighborhood near the Bronx Zoo. What fun we kids would have watching the snails SLOWLY crawling up the sides of the market stalls. We would watch the olives swimming in the briny water of the olive barrels, play with "shop kittens" on the sawdust floors, while Nonna haggled with the shopkeepers. Nonna doted on us, and we had our fill of Cannoli from Colavolpe's, lemon or spumoni ices from the pasticcieria, and Pizza! Pizza! Pizza! while we shopped.. After shopping we'd visit our "adopted" aunt and uncle, Assunta and Aurelio, and sis and I would play Bronx Bus Driver while sitting on her sofa and "steering" with the huge elevated ash tray that sat at the end of the sofa. The adults would sip their Sambuca Romana and Espresso, laughing good-naturedly at our antics.
On Sundays, we would all go to church, St. Lucy's in the Bronx (featured many years later in the very graphic movie "The Wanderers"). At mass, Nonna would sing in Italian and Latin, and gather after church to talk animatedly in Italian with her cronies.
Nonna's kitchen companion was her humble little tan Bakelite radio. Although MY little transistor radio was tuned to Doo-wop and Elvis (AND on Saturday nights, it would bring in West Virginia radio station WWVA's broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry live!), "Pasquale C.O.D." was HER favorite Italian radio show announcer, and that little Bakelite radio in the kitchen was tuned to all the Italian Operas and regional songs, which my sister and I would dance and giggle to, depending on the mood and presentation of the song. Living in the Bronx was NOT as "terrible" as most (non-Bronx) people seem to think it was! In fact, I thought it was wonderful, and will remember those days with a special fondness, for the rest of my life!
When I wanted a baseball glove, despite my mother's protestations, Nonna took me into Davega's Sports Store to buy a glove, haggling with the guys to get the price knocked down. When mom yelled at me, Nonna would appear at my side as if by magic, with a fresh slice of pizza or freshly made cookie my Nonna was always there for me. When my sister and I played "Roman Chariot Taxicab Driver" with Nonna's Hitchcock chairs and Mom's beach towels, Nonna would yell at us and then forget it.
When Nonna wasn't dancing through the apartment wearing a rag of a kerchief around her head, cleaning the floors and the furniture, she was enthroned on the sofa, watching foreign (Italian of course) films with strange subtitles, or "Our Gang", or, even better, "The Three Stooges"! What our mother didn't allow us to watch, we 'd watch with our Nonna! I will never forget sitting with her on the sofa, the windows open, the warm, almost syrupy sweet summer air and stray sounds from the apartments across the courtyard (our "stoop") mingling with the music of the traffic on Pelham Parkway and the raucous blare of the TV. Strange to say, all of these sounds, like Nonna's arms, formed a peaceful and embracing presence.
Although I VERY sadly had to leave the Bronx with my parents in the 60's, Nonna was always happy to see me when I came back to visit her, and would make pizza, cookies, spaghetti and strufoli to honor my visit, until she was in her late 80's. When she announced that she would no longer be cooking, I suddenly realized with a heavy heart that my Nonna too, was mortal. Although she then became feeble and bedridden, any time I visited her, it was like visiting an angel. She was a very sweet woman, and I loved her dearly.
Many years later, I dreamed that I was 5 years old again, and with my sister in the Italian Market. In the dream, Nonna was standing in front of me -- her back was turned to me and she was wearing all black, with a pretty black hat with a veil, jauntily perched on her head. In the dream, I was ecstatic, because I knew that my Nonna was buying me something specialWhen I woke up, I knew beyond a doubt that Nonna was going to die. A few hours later on that day, my aunt called to say that Nonna had suddenly developed a major infection with a raging fever, and was rushed to the hospital. Nonna died less than 24 hours later. She was almost 95 years old. I miss her very much, but I know that she is now with the composers, the angels, the saints and her wonderful husband Joseph (Giuseppe) whom she loved so very much.
Nonna's memory is honored anytime I hear or I play these songs:
Anything by Mario Lanza or Ezio Pinza How many times I would hear their voices in the background, as the radio played faintly in the living room while the family gathered around the dinner table, our humble dinette warm with the aromas of wonderful Italian cookery. The pure voices of these two wonderful singers epitomized, to me, the Italian Immigrant experience and my experience growing up surrounded by loving Italian relatives and extended family.
"Fiddle Faddle" by Leroy Anderson, performed by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. One of the very first songs I delighted in hearing, as a toddler.
"Chico Bolero" , by Percy Faith, as arranged and played by Mantovani -- a hauntingly beautiful, and rarely played symphonic piece that reminds me of Manhattan in the 50's, Palisades Park and other mysteries of life that a 5 year old was just becoming acquainted with.
"La Ci Darem La Mano" (Mozart from Don Giovanni) How Nonna loved to sing this to me in her sweet trilling voice!
"The Wedding of Figaro" (from "Il Barbiere de Siviglia" by Rossini) A rousing joyful song that brings back memories of Nonna's fresh basil-enhanced tomato sauce bubbling in her huge spaghetti pot, and the musical clanging of pots and pans noise and fragrance filling the kitchen with the promise of a hearty meal, red wine and good conversation.
Anything from "Madame Butterfly" (by Puccini) My Nonna used to love this song. When my sister and I first heard it played on Pasquale C.O.D.'s radio program, we little kids (sitting at the dining room table next to the dumbwaiter) laughed hysterically, thinking he said "Madame Bought a Fly." Nonna was not pleased with our " operatically sacrilegious" remark!
"Funicoli, Funicola" (by Denza) This song always reminds me of the rush and flurry that accompanied my Nonna as she whirled around in her kitchen, cooking one fragrant feast after another!
"Ave Maria" (from "Otello" by Verdi) Just an anecdote when I was a little Italian American kid growing up in the Bronx, I always thought that ONLY Italians could be ROMAN Catholics, and other Catholics who were not Italian were "just plain Catholics".
"The Hispania Suite" by Bizet (?) Like the endless colorful, bright and almost musical flow of traffic across Pelham Parkway in early summer, this song has style, and a joyous attitude!
"Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle" ("You Came Down from the Stars", an Italian Christmas Song) A beautiful love song to the Christ Child, that was on a record album we bought at the local five and dime in the Bronx.
"Ride Pagliaccio" (from "I Pagliacci" by Puccini) amazing how my sister and I used to get into mischief, beat each other up, eat and play with this traumatic ballad playing in the background!
"Santa Lucia" (by Luigi Gordigiani) My Nonna's favorite, of course!
"La Donna è Mobile" (from "Rigoletto" by Verdi) Ezio Pinza would sing this with verve and style and I would always try to imitate him; my little child's voice brought nods, smiles, but no raves from my family!
"The Dance of the Hours" (from "La Gioconda") When my sister and I heard this song, we would run through the apartment with our arms held high, for some reason or another!
"Ciri Biri Bin" (?????) A lively and lilting ballad that would remind Nonna of her girlhood days in the mountains of Acuto, Italy.
"Eh Marie, Eh Marie!" (Lyrics by Russo; Music by E. Di Capua and A. Mazzuchi) How Nonna loved this song! She and I used to sing it together!
"The Late Show Theme" ("The Syncopated Clock" by Leroy Anderson -- there was a still picture of a dark building with empty windows on the TV screen, and the sound of a clock ticking in the background my 5 year old sister and six year old Azar sat on the sofa, too petrified to move or make a noise -- we were secretly terrified whenever we heard this theme luckily, we were sitting next to Nonna, our protector!)
"Carmen Suite #1" (by Georges Bizet). The beginning of this rollicking, rousing, cymbal-clashing song was the Theme Song for "Pasquale C.O.D.", the Itlian disc jockey on the all-Italian radio station (whose call letters escape me) -- all us kiddies (and Nonna of course) were thrilled to hear this song, for it marked the start of hours of Nonna's favorite music, which emanated, roared, cried, sighed and thundered from her humble off-white (until Mom Sylvia painted it chartreuse) bakelite radio on the kitchen counter. Nonna would fairly dance in the kitchen, gliding from sink to countertop to stove, wielding pots and pans as gracefully as a conductor's baton, when Pasquale C.O.D. graced the airwaves. Good music, good food, loving Nonna -- the priceless "stuff" of life which kept us kids healthy and happy.
Now, for Mom Sylvia
My favorite photograph is of Mom Sylvia -- just a young girl herself, holding a tiny sleeping baby in her arms - me. Her real name was Silvana, but when she moved to the US, no one could pronounce it, so Sylvia she became....
Mom had innocence and verve, was sweet and stentorian, an angel and a maelstrom, sugar and brimstone - very hard to deal with at times, for when she was bad, she was horrid, and everyone did their best to stay out of her way when she was in one of her bad bad moods. But when she was good, she was VERY VERY good. And everyone who knew her loved her.
Me too. She was my Mom. And I loved her dearly.
My mother, Silvana Cecilia Attura (Sylvia) was born in 1920, and raised in Rome, Italy. At one time, her family owned the apartment that once belonged to an Italian prince. (When Sylvia and the family abandoned the apartment and fled Italy during W.W.II, it was bombed out of existence.) From the very beginning of her life, Mom made it clear that she demanded and deserved nothing less than total respect! When she was four years old, with a raging fever she picked up a mortar and pestle and threatened to beat up the country doctor who had been summoned to examine her. She scared him off. But when she recovered (even high fevers gave her great respect!), she found and rescued a tiny baby bird.
While living in Italy, she and her brother would play in the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, and in St. Peter's Square. She remembered climbing up a set of stairs on her knees to see what was reputed to be Veronica's Veil, in the mid 1920's. She would take the train to Fiuggi with her family, to drink the water and create all kinds of mischief with her kid brother. She delighted in playing with her brother in St Peter's Square, as well as running through her grandmother's fruit orchards in the mountains of Acuto throwing fruit at anyone who happened to be there at the time.
She told me stories about her saintly grandmother's stone house in the mountains of Acuto -- her strong Nonna Concetta who gave birth to 18 children; a formidable woman who nonetheless would grab her rosary and sink to her knees, terrified whenever thunderstorms would sweep through that mountainous village, reverberating from one mountaintop to the other. In the winter, the chickens would live inside the house with the family -- it was too cold for them to be outside in the coop, and they would happily meander through the little stone house as Sylvia and her brother sat in front of her Nonna Concetta's (Nonna means grandmother in Italian) huge fireplace when the winds were raging outside. Sylvia loved to hear her Concetta recite a special Italian poem whenever it snowed up there in the mountains ("Lente La Neve Fiocca, Fiocca...."). Saintly Concetta (Nonna Lucia's sister), with Italian invectives flying, would literally sweep Sylvia and her brother out of the house when it was time for them to go back home to Lucia in Rome. Concetta was a wise and patient woman, but even the patience of a saint would run out in their presence!
Sylvia remembered the apprehension of coming to live in a strange country, the United States when she was eleven years old, and the deep grief of losing her beloved father Giuseppe, shortly thereafter. But with Lucia's tenacity and Sylvia's own will to survive, the family prospered. Mom grew up in the Bronx, went to college, interviewed Glen Miller and the other 1940's band leaders, had her nylons shredded while standing with the other "Crazies" in Times Square on New Year's Eve, and was a piano-playing hostess for the USO during W.W.II. Mom was fun-loving and sophisticated.
Mom met my father, Javad (who was born in Tehran, Iran), while both of them were working at the Voice of America -- Mom as a translator, and Dad as a radio announcer. She married him and produced me -- the firstborn of immigrants. The night before I was born, I almost made my debut at Macy's, as Mom was using her large frontal mass to push people out of the way during a bargain sale. As soon as she arrived home, she went into labor. Perhaps if she had stayed at Macy's a little longer, I would have arrived there, and she most probably would have received a sizeable Macy's gift certificate!
When Mom took me for my one-month physical at the clinic, a woman whose baby had just died ran up and tried to pry me from Mom's arms, shouting "It's not fair that YOUR baby should live and mine should die!" Mom held one to me with all her strength, or I might not be here today, and orderlies rushed over and pulled the woman off us. I still think of that woman and hope that life was kinder to her, after her tragedy.
Mom always told me that I was born into a world that could be very cold some times, and she was determined to keep me safe and loved. And protected. We lived in welfare housing in lower Manhattan (Hell's Kitchen, in the 1940's) and we could not afford a crib, so I'd sleep in my baby carriage; Mom would be up all night brushing the mice off the carriage, to keep them from crawling all over me while I slept.
Even in the midst of all that, Mom still found time to play her favorite records for me and Sis (who came along a year later) -- 78 rpm wax records of Tex Beneke, Glen Miller, Spike Jones, Louie Prima, and other musical greats.
Life became easier once Dad found a better job, and we moved to a pleasant neighborhood in the Bronx, with picture windows, green lawns, playgrounds and other happy sights. More records were piled on the Victrola, pretty dresses and hair ribbons were made for us little kids, and we'd sing and dance like little Bambinas in the sunlit living room, to Italian opera and 1940's jazz.
Mom was always our defender and witty humorist (Heaven protect ANYONE who crossed us kids -- Mom was there in a heartbeat to put them in their place, no matter WHO they were!). Our stern discipliner (perhaps a little TOO stern!) who taught us not to take bullying from anyone, kid or adult, would also dress us in our summer togs and whisk us by bus to Orchard Beach, to dig in the sand, hold hands, laugh and splash into the surf, and then go home in the summer twilight -- sandy, wet and happily exhausted.
Mom would dress me in cowboy boots, fringed jackets and berets when I was 4 years old. We'd ride the bus or the Subway to Fordham University, the Bronx Zoo, the Bronx Botanical Gardens, Riis Park, Far Rockaway, Macy's (of course!) and Midtown Manhattan. The pastry stores, the movies, the roller rink -- chi-chi fashion shows, nesslerode pie at Lord and Taylor's, midnight Mass at Christmas. Mom was there holding us little kids by the hand, leading us here and there. What fun we had!!
We'd also make special trips to visit her outrageous friend Dolly (a 1950's version of Elvira, Madonna and Cher), and her wild daughter Maryanne, on Avenue S in Brooklyn. Shirin, Maryanne and I would run wild through Flatbush, while Mom and Dolly traded war stories over slices of Schrafft's (yum!!) Shadow Layer Cake and endless cups of coffee, in Dolly's apartment.
When the fun was over, Mom taught her daughters Latin, Italian, the Periodic Table of the Elements, and How to Burn Leftover Spaghetti. Mom's major flaw was her cooking. Everything came out looking overly barbecued her favorite saying was "It's charcoal, eat it -- it will clean out your system!"
Mom taught me how to speak Italian, and how to play the piano. In particular, she taught me how to play the "Flight of the Bumblebee". I was much better at it than she was. When I was 12, I gave up playing piano so I could play hardball in the park downstairs.
Many times, especially in the summer when school was over, we'd all go for long walks toward Pelham Bay, weekend jaunts to Alexander's Department store (I hated that!) leisurely and wonderful breakfasts at Schrafft's, and elegant snacks at Sutter's Pastry store (oh, their seven layer French Buttercream cake!!). These culinary forays in part made up for Mom's Terrible Cooking. On warm summer nights, Mom and Nonna would talk and sometimes argue in Italian, while sis and I sat at the open window near the fire escape, watching the traffic hum by on Boston Post Road, White Plains Road and Pelham Parkway, convertible tops down, radios blaring, motorcycles revving up, while the "El" rumbled nearby. Noisy?? Actually, this was very calming for such a hectic location.
Mom and Nonna got along fairly well, but the relationship was strained badly when one day Mom decided to paint the kitchen chartreuse and orange. She then made kitchen curtains 2 orange and 2 chartreuse. That prompted one of our neighbors to have a small screaming fit (wow -- I thought ALL New Yorkers were unflappable!), when she saw the curtains hanging in our kitchen. However, the worst sin was committed when Mom had some chartreuse paint left over and promptly painted Nonna's Bakelite radio!! It took months for Nonna to calm down whenever she wanted to hear "Pasquale C.O.D."
She also painted the bedroom violet and the living room dark green. Sigh... (Actually it loked pretty good!) I remember well her whirlwind of non-stop activity and the order that she would produce out of chaos -- well, sometimes with Mom Sylvia, it was also the other way around!
After we left the Bronx and settled here in Arlington in the 60's, Sylvia continued to be a dynamo, much to the bewilderment of our genteel Southern neighbors. However, as life went on, life intervened, and Mom's health deteriorated badly. We didn't dare tell Nonna, as she was becoming quite ill herself.
Then one day the one who provided for us and guided us, became the Child of her Children. Mom's strength ebbed as one illness after the other took hold of her body. She who would storm to the defense of the underdog, now lay in a hospital bed, wasted away by cancer, heart failure and diabetes. Eventually she slipped into a coma. "Mom, I love you" I'd say as I placed new flowers in a vase by her bedside table.
And one night, Mom's frail body gave up the fight. Her spirit however, was undaunted, as the week she died was a week filled with violent thunderstorms (her very favorite type of "music"); and shortly before she slipped away, a special storm ripped through the area, most probably taking her with it -- or, knowing Mom Sylvia -- perhaps it was the other way around!!
Nonna died in October, 1991. Mom passed away in July, 1992. They will never totally leave my world, because I am a part of what they are and what they made me. My early life was filled with song because of this dynamic duo! And as a child born of immigrant parents, I am very proud of my heritage and my ancestors' history this is the legacy they passed on to me, a part of the good times I will always remember fondly while I was growing up in the Bronx.
God bless you Mom -- you have never really left - your spirit lives on, anytime I hear the Sylvia ballet, anytime I hear the distant rumble of thunder. And yes, I still stick up for myself just the way you used to for me, when I was a tiny little kid.
Mom Sylvia's Favorite Songs:
"The Dolly Suite" by Fauré A song considerably tamer than Mom's friend, Dolly, but perhaps a calming counterpart to the "real" Dolly's pizzazz and presence.
The ENTIRE "Sylvia Ballet", especially "Diana the Huntress" (Léo Delibes)
Mom would breeze through our humble Bronx apartment singing the "Sylvia Ballet", her very favorite -- so what if there really were NO words to that ballet! If Mom said there were words, - then, there were words!
"The Thieving Magpie" by Rossini ("Magpie" was one of Mom's nicknames, because the scarf she wore on her head to church came to such a point in the back, that we kids called it her "beak")
"Sabre Dance" (by Aram Khachaturian) Mom, from whom emanated VERY few dulcet tones, "identified with" this very hard-edged and aggressive score. Each time I listen anew, I am astounded by the depth and complexity of this musical piece.
"American Symphonette" (by Morton Gould) Mom dearly loved this song. This beautiful song reminds me of Manhattan sunsets silhouetted behind the dark water towers perched precariously on the rooftops of adjoining buildings.
"Copelia" (Delibes, again) This song reminds me of going to the Bronx Botanical gardens in the sweet sunlight of early Spring, to pick the wild lilacs growing there, with Mom. Their fragrance and beauty filled our apartment in fact in the Spring, all we had to do was stick our head out the bedroom window, crane our necks and look to the right we could actually see the lilacs blooming in the Bronx botanical Gardens, from our apartment at 615 Pelham Parkway! I was always sad when Lilac season was over, because there would be no more such beauty until the following Spring. In fact, in 1961, just days before we were to move away from the Bronx, never to return, ALL those lilac bushes were cut down. A (very sad) sign, perhaps??
"Aida" by Giuseppe Verdi (a most impressive-sounding name that translates to "Joe Green") My classmates and I in our 9th grade Italian class reworked the lyrics "Bella Aida, forma divina che sta faciendo questa notte?!" (Beautiful Aida with a divine figure whatchya doin' tonight?!"
"Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" (by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart) Five-year-old Shirin and I used to flail our arms and slowly sink to the floor when the death scene was played.
"The Flight of the Bumblebee" (by Rimsky Korsakov), Huh - Azar! Put the baseball equipment away! Come back to the piano!..Azar!!..Azar!!!.
"Sleigh Ride" (by Leroy Anderson), played by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra). Mom wore out one 78-rpm wax LP after another, playing this song for sis and me. I loved hearing the special effects the sleigh bells, the whip, the horse trotting and neighing.
"The March of the Toy Soldiers" (by Tchaikovsky) Brings back memories of 1950's Bronx Christmas mornings we always had a live Christmas tree back then, in the 50's, you could get a very nice one for THREE dollars!! And the weather was ALWAYS cold! We had "real Winters" back then!.
"Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" (by Jessel) one of Mom's all-time favorites, which she played in order to put me to sleep on many a night -- AND one of my all time Xmas favorites. Mom had an ornate wind-up music box that held a powder puff, and played this song. One day my sister and I, while playing jump-rope on the living room (the "sofa room"), knocked it over and broke all of its legs. Pushpins in matching robin's egg blue substituted quite nicely for the missing legs.
"Carmen" (Bizet) My mother would have done this role proud, had she been allowed to act the part of the flamboyant Carmen.
Anything by Yma Sumac -- she was a 1950's precursor to Cher, and had a lovely voice with the ability to hit exceedingly high notes. I am sure this, in part, was what endeared her to my stentorian mom!
"Mi Chiamano Mimi" (from "La Boheme" by Puccini) Again, my Italian class clowns and I decided that "Mi Chiamano Moo-Moo" had a certain flavor to it our Italian teacher Mrs. Munschy as NOT impressed. Mom actually thought we were hysterically funny!
Glen Miller, Tex Beneke, Gene Krupa -- all of Mom's favorites that she jitterbugged to when she was a teenager growing up in NY City during WWII.
The days of the Italian/Polish/Irish/Jewish immigrations are over, but the sweet memories of growing up in a mixed ethnic neighborhood in the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's, are never forgotten, and have made those of us who lived in that era far richer than anyone else can fathom. We lived in neighborhoods where the people sometimes struggled to survive, but where the people cared for one another, shared ethnic values, and morals, and passed on stories of the good times and the hard times of living in their countries of origin, and how they adapted and survived in this new and formidable world -- the United States. These stories and the people who told them to us were the gold and diamonds of our youth.
Those of us who grew up in the Bronx and surrounding boroughs in those days share a very special kinship. We were "poor" but we had everything because we lived in neighborhoods where adults looked after the kids' welfare, even if they were someone else's kids -- we were NEVER far from friendship, great food, and the special joy that comes from the shared kinship of camaraderie. We kids lived in a wonderland of diverse cultures, rituals, and histories. We never knew we really "lacked" for anything, because there was so much out there! And although our parents may have come from different parts of the "Old World", they all shared similar yet unique experiences in the Old Country and passed their values, and love of knowledge in all forms to us, their children. I am ever grateful for this experience, which might never again be repeated, given today's emphasis on "Global Villages" and computer learning from kindergarten onward. The Old Country values are still very much worth treasuring, remembering and sharing. Add music to these memories and you have a true symphony of life, love and a memorable childhood.
Thanks Mom! Grazie, Nonna!