Growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
We moved to a fourth-floor walkup at 609 Metropolitan Avenue for a few years. My earliest memory is the Christmas I got a toy box filled with toys. Any kid would have been happy to get so many gifts from Santa. However, I looked around the room and tried not to show my disappointment because what I wanted the most was missing. Then at the bottom of the toy box I found a note from Santa telling me to go look in the dining room by the china cabinet. Sure enough, there was the doll carriage I wanted so badly! I was so happy.
Two other vivid memories of 609 Metropolitan Avenue stand out. The first is that directly across the street, the "man with one leg" sat outside a store every day and sold Italian ices in paper cups. For two cents I could get my favorite - chocolate!
The other was the day President Harry S. Truman drove down Metropolitan Avenue in an open car, waving all the way. We lined the street early, shouting to people that passed by that a President was coming to our neighborhood! It meant a lot to the grownups.
When I was five, we moved into the downstairs apartment in Grandma Normandia's house at 37 Conselyea Street between Lorimer Street and Union Ave. It had been converted into a two-family house, complete with scary attic, coal cellar, and a rear house that was rented out to an ancient woman who spoke no English, whom we referred to as "The Old Lady."
Grandpa's basement was full of intrigue. You entered from cellar doors on the ground to discover Grandpa's wooden wine press and his forbidden workshop. And that locked room with chicken wire walls. What was that all about? Why was it locked? Everyone knew the skeleton key was on top of the door jam. [Note: I just found out he made whiskey there during Prohibition!! No wonder it was locked!]
But the best part of 37 Conselyea Street was that Grandma lived upstairs from us and she was always there. And she loved me.
Grandma was a tiny Italian woman, maybe 4'9" although on her legal papers she said she was five feet tall (no way). She was totally fascinating to me. She came to this country in early 1898. She got married at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church on April 17th of that year and had my father in 1899.
Grandma was a healer who did "the eyes," called "mal'occhio" in Italian, a language I am sorry to say I resisted learning. Mal occhio literally means the bad eye, also called the Evil Eye. Some call it "jettatura." The belief behind it is that a person can harm you, your children, your animals, or your fruit trees, by either looking at you or them with envy and/or by praising them too much. Mom used to say someone "overlooked the baby," implying that a person's gaze on a coveted person, usually a child, had lasted too long. The resulting sickness could be healed by women like my Grandmother who learned the secret healing ritual of "the eyes."
Many neighborhood women brought Grandma Normandy articles of clothing from their sick children and begged her to help them. Grandma would diagnose the illness and then perform a cure which looked to me like a secret prayer ritual with hand gestures that she did over the child's clothing. Finally she would start yawning, a signal that she was done. Then she would say, "Go home, your baby is better," and most of the time, it was so.
At times she suggested an amulet or charm for the child to wear to ward off the power of the Evil Eye in the future. My sister had to wear a red coral horn for protection when she was little. When she had her first son, Peter, she pinned the same coral horn to his diaper. I don't think she really believed in the old superstition by then, but she said she did it "just in case." Some wore a manofico, a charm of a closed hand with the thumb tucked under the index finger but sticking out between the index finger and the middle finger. I noticed in her later years, my Mom often held her hands this way. I thought it was a tension habit but now I wonder if she was still warding off the Evil Eye.
Mom explained Grandma's odd behavior to me by saying Grandma was "like a practical nurse." I wonder if it was anything like the Reiki healing I do now.
Born Aug. 19, 1879 Palma Campania, Italy
Married Apr. 17, 1898 at
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church
by Father Saponara.
At that time, "Jennie" lived at
108 Union Ave., Brooklyn, NY
Became a US citizen on
Apr. 10, 1944
Died Dec. 5, 1950
Born Sept. 29, 1872
When he was married he lived at
588 Driggs Ave., Brooklyn, NY
Became a US citizen on
Oct. 4, 1938
Died Jan. 23, 1946
Born Palma Campania, Italy
Married in Italy
Came to USA via Ellis Island
Died April 28, 1943
Brooklyn, New York
Born Castellamare di Stabia, Italy
Lived in Torre del Greco, Italy
Married in Italy
Came to USA via Ellis Island 1898(?)
Died January 25, 1940
Brooklyn, New York
Mom told me both sets of my grandparents came to the United States from southern Italy on the same ship around early 1898. I have not found a way to verify the dates. I know it would have to be before April, 1898, because I have a copy of a marriage license for Giovannina Tuorto and Michele "Michael" Normandia dated Apr. 17, 1898 at Brooklyn, New York. Thanks to cousin Beatrice Normandia Mezzacappa for copies of that precious document as well as others.
In her autobiography, "Ida," my mother, Olympia "Ida" said that her father, Vincenzo Simonetti, came to America first. When he saved enough money, Grandpa went back to Italy to get Principia and their three children who were born in Italy: Jennie, Salvatore, and Barbara. They had two other daughters named Barbara who died in Italy. They had three more children in this country, my mother, Olympia (Ida), Margaret, and Asunta (Sue).
On the Ellis Island website, that Vincenzo Simonetti, Principia, and their three children departed from the Port of Naples, Italy, and arrived at Ellis Island on October 17, 1900. They traveled on the ship "Alsatia." Alfonso Simonetti, 16, and Luigi Ferrara, 18, were also on the ship. Grandpa was indexed as Vincenjo Limonetti, 39, married. He stated that he was going to his brother Emilo's at 259 North 7th St., Brooklyn, NY. I haven't figured out who this Emil(i)o was.
Mom said her family was very poor and traveled in the "basement" of the ship, by which I suppose she meant steerage. They took a huge bag of biscotti (hard biscuits) with them because no food was served "downstairs" and it took almost a month to get from Naples to New York.
Grandma Normandia came to America with her parents when she was sixteen. Her name was Giovannina Tuorto at the time. She traveled on the ship Brittania (Fabre Line) with her parents, Antonio Daniele Tuorto (listed as Daniele) and her mother, Carmila Restaino, age 40. The custom then was for women to travel under their maiden names,
Mom said the Normandia family traveled "upstairs" because they had money.
All my grandparents came through Ellis Island and settled in Brooklyn. You can read their story in Mom's book, "Ida."
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Oh, this is the night, it's a beautiful night
And we call it bella notte
Look at the skies, they have stars in their eyes
On this lovely bella notte.
Side by side with your loved one
You'll find enchantment here
The night will weave its magic spell
When the one you love is near
Oh, this is the night, and the heavens are right
On this lovely bella notte!
Music and lyrics by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee, 1955
Copyright 1997- 2013 Priscilla Normandy Greenwood