Wednesday, March 14, 2012

march is women's history month — my grandmother gertrude

My father's mother was born in Marsala, Sicily and given the name Gaetana Marta. When she was five years old her mother sailed with Gaetana, her brothers Gioacchino (James), and Settimo (Seven, called Albert in the U.S.) on the Napolitan Prince to New York, to join their father, Giuseppe, a chef who a few years previously had left Sicily to establish his restaraunt on Elizabeth Street in New York City.

Gertrude D'Ippolito, c. 1906
A serious young lady, c. 1906

Sometime after young Gaetana was being processed at Ellis Island she went from being called Gaetana to Gertrude. There are varying accounts of how, when, or why this happened, but she went from having a very Italian name to having one that was easier for her and others to say in her new country. I used to feel bad, even resentful, about her losing such a musical name as Gaetana, until I found a love letter from my grandfather to her that started, "My darling Gertie ..."

Gertrude & Giuseppe (Don Peppino) D'Ippolito, c. 1920
Gertrude at the piano, with her father, Don Peppino, in the background, c. 1920
Giuseppe, also called Don Peppino, was very strict, and although Gertrude had a lovely voice and wanted to be an opera singer, he forbade it as a not appropriate career for a girl. Don Peppino was also a healer. When he retired from the restaurant business he set up his own consulting practice and began to see people in his home — the local Sicilians and Italians knew, through word of mouth, to bring family and friends to him to cure any ailment. On one occasion a young man, John Angelo, brought his mother for treatment for dropsy from Paterson, N.J. to see Don Peppino. He took one look at Gertrude and that was it. When he kept coming long after his mother was on the mend, Don Peppino told Gertrude she could only continue to see him if her older brother Albert accompanied her. John brought his younger sister Margaret and the couples double dated, and both couples eventually married.

john a & gertrude
John Angelo and Gertie, young and in love

Gertrude was also talented as a seamstress and worked in the garment district (after her father died, to help bring in money for the family). After she was married she had her own bridal shop in Spring Lake, N.J. We always lived near Gertrude while I was growing up. My grandfather John Angelo had passed away long before I was ever born. She was an amazing cook — not a surprise, with a chef for a father. Like him, she was also strict, but tempered her rules with laughter. She didn't let small children do a lot of hands-on helping in the kitchen. Instead we were told we could sit and watch — and of course get treats while she was cooking. Most of the dishes she made reflected her Sicilian origins — eggplant parmigiana, garlic bread, caponata, braciole, artichoke pie, and of course her specialty, our family dish, sfincioni.

John Angelo & Gertrude
John Angelo and Gertrude on Broadway in New York, 1937
I was with my grandmother the night before she died. It was in August, and I would soon be off to college, art school, in New York. She had made another fabulous spaghetti dinner and we were all sitting around the dining room table, telling jokes and trading stories, as always — my father, mother, brother and my uncle and aunt. Grandma of course didn't want any help, and was getting up from the table, clearing, listening, and contributing to the conversation as she went back and forth to the kitchen. As she was rounding the table one more time she suddenly dropped in her tracks beside me. I caught her, so she didn't actually faint or hit the floor. We helped her to the couch and she picked up her fan — she always had a fan nearby as she would get hot in the summertime — and waved it back and forth, insisting she was fine, she had just felt a little lightheaded for a moment. My aunt and mom finished up in the kitchen and we all stayed for an hour or so with her, watching television, joking. The next day my uncle tried to call her, but didn't get an answer. When we all arrived that afternoon she was still sitting on the couch, with the television on, her head slightly to the side, as if asleep. We should all be so lucky to go that way, sharing a nice evening with people we love and then dropping off to sleep.

I still make a lot of the dishes that I learned to make from observing her in the kitchen. She was also a fantastic baker, making delicious coffee cakes, but I somehow missed out on how to make those. Everyone in the family still tries to make her specialty, sfincioni, but no one could really make it like Grandma.


grandma's list
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