126. Roots Tour

Fully vaccinated, I had the nearly forgotten pleasure of packing my bags and heading to the airport for a weekend trip to visit my daughter Lizy in Chicago. In addition to being where my daughter and her husband now live, Chicago is a place with great personal significance for me, as my mother grew up there, and my parents and I would make the journey there every year at Christmas.

For this reason, I get little emotional jolts when I’m there. I get a jolt as we pass her elementary school, Brentano, still in operation a hundred years later, on the way in from the airport. I get one as I see signs for the Holy Name Cathedral, where my parents got married.

The bride and groom on the steps of Holy Name Cathedral.

This visit, I got a jolt when it turned out that our AirBnB was next door to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a place I’d never seen but heard about for years, where my mother get her RN degree, in an education that, as she described it, sounded more like indentured servitude than training.

Apparently, my grandmother suffered a stroke and was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s. My father would get tears in his eyes thinking about the cruelty of the nursing nuns in charge, who refused to allow my mother to care for my grandmother, as she lay dying there.

My mother’s RN pin and her medical dictionary, a graduation gift from the nuns, along with a prayer card in case things got rough.

It turns out our AirBnB was on Western Avenue, about a mile from where my mother’s cousins, the Ragos, had a funeral parlor. Not just any funeral parlor, but the one that buried Al Capone. But more meaningful for me is that my mother’s cousins, Little Tre and Little Rose (to distinguish them from my mother’s older sisters Tre and Rose), would have these huge family holiday feasts with 30 or so cousins around a dining table laden with all sorts of wonderful holiday fare that had been many days in the making. I remember Little Tre’s apartment took up the second floor of the funeral home, and she had a gold Christmas tree; Little Rose and her family were upstairs, and her tree was silver. These events were the closest I ever came to having the traditional Italian-American holiday family feasts that people often assume were part of my childhood.

This weekend, I made it my business to include the funeral home in my run early one morning, and sure enough, there it stood, unchanged, now run by my third cousin Jackie, who I haven’t seen in more than 50 years, and will likely not see again. I wonder if he lives upstairs in the old third floor apartment where he grew up.

My mother grew up in a (very!) large family of ten surviving girls and one boy. Her parents were both born in Italy but came to America as youngsters. They were proud of their heritage — my mother and her sisters danced the tarantella at the Italian Pavilion of the Chicago World’s Fair — but were also aware of the attitudes around them.

A few of my aunts at the Carnival of Nations, 1931

Some of my aunts were among the first Italian girls to get secretarial jobs at the swanky banks downtown. Even as they neared retirement, I remember them heading off to work impeccably clothed and coifed, perfectly made-up and high heeled no matter the weather, so that no one, no one, would ever accuse them of being anything but properly and elegantly turned out. They had to represent, and they took that seriously. Years later, my mother, exasperated by my chronic messiness, would say “They’ll call you a dirty Italian.”

A few of the Casella sisters on a family picnic. My mother is front and center in the white blouse and black skirt and cigarette. My cousin Joan, my source of family history, is in the second row in a white headband.

I was reminded of that Sunday evening, as we treated ourselves to a stop at the Chicago Eataly, a chain of emporiums of high-end Italian food and other products headquartered in Torino.

One can easily spend $100 and come away with a small hunk of cheese, a loaf of bread, some prosciutto and a bottle of wine. Made in Italy now connotes the height of excellence and elegance in food, fashion and design. Dirty Italians, my ass.

5 thoughts on “126. Roots Tour

  1. Such a glamorous family!!!! I remember when you would take those trips to Chicago at Christmas. I was always bummed out that you wouldn’t be around during Christmas break, but also eager to hear about your trip when you returned.


  2. Gigi, I enjoy reading about our family history. Your postings help me learn about our Casella & Rago side. I also have dear memories of visiting the aunts, & having delicious lunches with Little Tre & Little Rose. When growing up, I thought the buildings, both the funeral home & the aunts’s apartment, looked elegant, from another era. Susan


  3. A wonderful set of memories and great photos; reminds me of many occasions that my parents and other relatives had in the New York area and on some weekends in the Poconos


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