There are five boroughs in the city of New York – Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island – each with a unique character and charm of its own. That was true back in the 1930s and it’s still true today.
Every family has a story and mine was no different as I’ve been told numerous times. My parents were both from Manhattan. They met in 1937, got married two years later, moving into the family’s triplex apartment in Manhattan with my mother’s immediate relatives – 19 aunts, uncles and cousins plus her parents and grandparents.
World War II had begun and countless men were being drafted – but only men without children. My mother’s uncles all had several kids making them exempt from the draft. My father was also safe for my mother had a baby just ten months after getting married – a breathtakingly beautiful boy with rosy cheeks and auburn curls. He was named Gaetano after my paternal grandfather. Then the unspeakable happened. My parent’s world came crashing down just two short years later when they endured the devastating loss of their beloved baby Gaetano on New Year’s Eve. “Nephritis” the doctors said. “There’s no cure.”
Given no time to grieve, the army snatched my childless father and shipped him off to Europe to battle the enemy, leaving my mother with no husband and no baby. My father returned home in July of 1945 and somehow they managed to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and begin again. Their daughter Francesca was born in 1947; I followed four years later, born on Francesca’s birthday. I was named Sophia. Francesca still hasn’t forgiven me for ruining her birthday party!
When I was six months old my parents decided the city was no place to raise a family and started looking for houses in The Bronx. In 1951 The Bronx was a lot different than it is now; it was like a village in the countryside with farms where people raised sheep, goats and chickens and grew fresh vegetables. They got milk from the animals and made their own cream, butter and cheese. It was a far cry from Manhattan and it was idyllic.
My parents bought a nice two family house just big enough for the four of us and my grandparents. There was also a large backyard perfect for my grandfather’s grapevines and fig trees and my mother’s vegetable garden. My grandmother was always sickly. I recall my mother telling us how much my grandmother loved being away from Manhattan. She relished sitting in the backyard watching my grandfather picking grapes and feeling the warmth of the sun on her frail body.
On a beautiful warm day I was taking a nap in my baby carriage in the backyard while my grandmother sat in a chair gently rocking the carriage. I started to stir and opened my eyes. I saw my grandmother’s smiling face looking down at me, her doe-like eyes twinkling as she sweetly sang an Italian folk song, “Ti Voglio Tanto Bene” (“I Love You So Much”):
“I love you so much and I’ll be here for you. You will feel in your heart a love that is true. I love you so much and I’ll cherish you with my voice sweetly singing only to you.”
At 11 months of age my earliest memory was seeing my grandmother’s adoring face smiling at me. It was her twinkling brown eyes and sweet voice that calmed me. She passed away three years later but the special bond we shared would never die.
“Ti voglio tanto bene, nonna.”
NAR © 2019