On both sides of my family I’ve had women that were pretty amazing as role models. Some are still around and others are just in my family history, but had an effect on the formation of who I am. If you divide my family into my four grandparents, you will find that 75% have descended from ancestors that came to the United States before the Revolution.
That last 25% was my grandmother’s family that came over from Italy in the early 1900’s. My grandmother was the last of nine children with the first three being born in Italy and coming over with just my great grandmother to follow her husband as he came to the Clinton IN and Belgiumtown IL, joining a cousin and finding work in a coal mine. My great grandfather came over first leaving his wife to come on a ship with three very young girls over to the US. At that point the trip involved bringing everything you wanted to keep in a chest and staying in a small area for a long time with a lot of other people, in the bottom part of the ship. Then arriving at Ellis Island, where if you (and the kids) had managed to remain healthy, you were quarantined in dormitories until you were cleared to leave the island.
My family then went on to Clinton Indiana where one of the girls passed away. Over time they lost two girls out of all their children, one even having the same name as my grandmother. My great grandfather worked in a coal mine, and the boys went on to join him as they became old enough. My grandmother being the youngest was the only child that managed to go to high school. My great grandmother thought that she wasn’t as healthy as the others and would end up needing to work in some field that didn’t involve as intensive work… My grandmother at one point said she had wanted to be a nurse. The kids all pulled money together and grandma made it to high school. She borrowed books and studied as much as she could, going on to be a school teacher at the point when a college degree wasn’t necessary.
My great grandfather had passed away when my grandmother was only two from the flu of 1918. He was in the process of applying for citizenship at the time, so the paperwork didn’t get completed. I’m not sure when my aunt’s finished their paperwork, but my great grandmother didn’t apply until shortly before her death in the 60s. She lived simply in a small house in Belgiumtown Illinois, grew her own food, and cleaned houses for the coal miners in the area. Most of my aunts and uncles lived nearby – within just a few blocks.
When my mother’s father drowned while my mother was only about 3, my grandmother and mother moved in with my great grandmother. When my grandparents married my grandmother had to quit teaching since women teachers were not allowed to be married at that time. (It seems crazy now to think about the restrictions they faced!) My grandmother went on to do several things to keep my mother and herself fed and clothed until she met her second husband.
Even having never met my great grandmother I can say she was pretty amazing. Traveling to a new country with three young kids by herself, not knowing the language, then raising the kids including suffering the loss of two of her children – and then the loss of her husband, and keeping everyone fed and clothed is pretty amazing. Part of the time this occurred was during WWI and WWII when Italians weren’t high on the list of favorite people in the United States. I remember one day coming home to tell my grandmother a new joke someone had told me that involved Italians. I had no clue what the term Daigo meant, I’m not even sure the kid that told me the joke knew what it meant. But my grandmother knew! My grandmother could swear up a storm, but that was one word I learned not to ever repeat again. There were others, things kids called them in school, but that one was my first experience with what my grandmother faced growing up.
My grandmother when first married had lived in a little shack, using a drawer for my mother to sleep in. My grandfather worked a coal mine with his brothers – my grandmother’s brother built the shack if I remember right. I’ve written about the stories from when my grandmother met her second husband, and remarried. Like my great grandmother she originally avoided getting remarried.
There are so many things I learned from my grandmother, and so much more I could have learned from her. All my grandmother’s (and aunts) have served through time as strong role models.