Sunday, August 14, 2005


Yolanda was 21 when she came to America, not knowing any English. She hadn't left her family to come to America; they had had been the ones to leave first. When she was two, her mother and father went to America with their oldest child, a son, Mickie. They left their oldest daughter behind in Italy with her grandparents.

It was understood that after they saved enough money, they would send for her. But they had Julio, Julia, Orlando, Louie, Albert, Eva and Jean. There was never enough money saved up to send for their daughter that they had left behind. Nineteen years later, after her grandmother died, she paid for her own way to America to meet her family.

Her life in Italy wasn't a bad one. As family history relates, her grandmother was the wet nurse to the Prince of Italy. In fact, it was always said in capital letters, as though that was her grandmother's title, "The Wet Nurse To the Prince of Italy." Her clothes were hand-me-downs from the Principessa and many of the furnishings in the house came from the Princes' family.

When she was 21, her grandmother died. Her grandfather had died sometime before that, so she was alone. She packed up her belongings and went to the other side of the world to join the family she didn't know.

She had the good fortune to meet a couple from Italy who helped her with the American language and traveled with her on the train from New York City to Chicago. She made her way to her family's home and walked in to the middle of bedlam. So many children!! She was used to a household consisting of her grandparents, an aunt or uncle or two; and herself. Some time later, she found out that some neighborhood children were added to the mix of her own siblings.

That night, she fell into bed, grateful for sleep after the long journey to rejoin her family. But the sheets kept her awake most of the night. They were handsewn, pieced together from flour sacks. The crude seams and the rough cloth irritated her back. They were not the soft, comfortable sheets she had slept on in Italy that were given to her by the Prince's family. Sometime during the night, she vowed she would return to Italy and a life that made more sense.

The next morning, as she was helping her mother with all of those children, she saw a little redheaded girl of about five, standing in the corner. The little girl was quietly sobbing, watching her with big brown eyes as she sucked her thumb. Yolanda approached her and knelt down. The little girl removed her thumb from her mouth and asked "Are you my sister?" Yolanda found out this little girl was her youngest sister, Jean.

She decided Jean needed her and that she should stay in Chicago to watch over this this little one to make sure she didn't get lost in the crowd of the other siblings. A special bond was formed between the two. Yolanda was always there for Jean; Jean was always there for Yolanda.

And so, she made her life in America, working as a seamstress at Hart Schaffner Marx, becoming a wife, and then a mother. She also became an aunt to many many more. She hosted every holiday meal over the years. The centerpiece of the Christmas meal was her homemade ravioli. Surrounding that on the table was roasted chicken, roast beef, fiorie, fried zucchini and cauliflower. A favorite treat of everyone who visited her were the brigidini cookies. They were a wafer thin cookie flavored with anissette.

One day, a nephew asked her to teach his wife how to make ravioli. This wasn't a dish that could be made from a recipe. The cooking lesson included trips to the butcher and the farmer's market. The young woman was introduced to the butcher and his wife. Yolanda explained that she was teaching her how to make ravioli. A look of delight came upon their faces, "Ahhh, how nice." Then Yolanda explained, "She is not Italian." The delight dimmed, they nodded in understanding to Yolanda and gave an almost imperceptible shrug, as though to say, "at least she's trying."

Yolanda was a short, stocky woman with an ample bosom. At the family dinners, if a baby became fretful and fussy, she would pick it up, hold it against her bosom and walk around, cooing and singing. The baby would generally fall asleep in the most comfortable bed in the house; Yolanda's bosom.

Fifty years after she left Italy, she returned for a trip home. But it wasn't the same. Upon her return to Chicago, she declared that in Italy, "if it's filthy and falling apart, they call it art!"

Not long ago, it was becoming apparent that Yolanda's journey was coming to an end. The family started to gather to be with her.

This morning, at the age of 95, Yolanda went to sleep and slipped out to join her husband, Placido; parents Isola and Narchiso; her brothers Julio, Mickie, Louie and Orlando; and her sister Julia. Surrounding her at the end were her sons, nieces, her brother Albert, and her sister Eva. And of course, at the end, was her baby sister Jean.

Ciao, Auntie Yolle. Thank you for teaching me how to make ravioli, even though I'm not Italian.

I'll miss you.


Kafaleni said...


She sounds like an absolutely amazing woman. What a blessing that she had a large, loving family around her when her time came.. and a large, loving family to go home to.

Requiem in pace.

Eleanor said...

A bittersweet, wonderful story -

Condolences, sly....

Jeff Meyerson said...

Sly, what a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it with us.

Marie said...


And just for the record, I believe non-Italians can learn to make ravioli. :-)

Mike Weasel said...

That was very touching. *hugs*

Polly P.I. said...

What a lovely tribute.


Higgy said...

A great story for a great lady. Thanks! Our condolences to you and your family.

punky said...

Beautifully written, Sly.

My condolences.

Anonymous said...

(((Sly)))...May she rest in peace


Anonymous said...

amazing weave of pa and thos.