«God put me on this earth to accomplish certain things. I’m so far behind I’ll never die». This was a favorite saying of Carmela DiCianno, my precious grandmother who spent her entire long life caring for us family members and many others. In these pages I will attempt to share some of the stories of this remarkably dedicated and passionate woman.
Carmela’s story begins in Capracotta, Italy. This was a place we grandchildren grew to know because she constantly told us stories about her hometown, even though she was only 10 years old when she left there. Carmela attended church faithfully with the nuns, walking eight miles to their chapel. She attended school in the paese until the fourth grade. Up until her last years Grandma could still read and write in Italian. She corresponded in the language with relatives living in Capracotta and Rome.
Giangregorio Mendozzi, Carmela’s father, immigrated to the United States in 1913. In 1920, he was working for a steel manufacturer in Youngstown, Ohio, when my grandmother and her mother, Maria Di Tanna Mendozzi, boarded the Cretic in December as third class passengers to join him in America. She vividly remembered this voyage, for they ran into bad weather that nearly sank the ship. Grandma always said she didn’t know how they made it alive to the port of Boston.
Carmela met her husband Amedeo DiCianno when she was 17 years old in 1927, in Youngstown. She was walking with a group of girls, and he with a group of boys. He was staring at her so intensely that he ran into a pole, or so the story goes. She was a beauty. Amedeo had left Italy when he was 16, because he refused to fight for Mussolini. He never saw his parents again in San Pietro Avellana. Amedeo ended up in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he worked as a waiter. Later, he arrived in Mexico and from there entered the United States. The couple was engaged for eight months and married on April 14, 1928. Grandma was 18 and Grandpa–or Pops, as we fondly called him–was 22. They were together for 57 years. Grandma said the happiest time in her life was when she met Pops, and the saddest time was when he died. They endured so much in their married life. They were truly a team.
My grandmother did not have an easy life. First of all, her mother died during childbirth at age 38. At the time, Grandma was 19 years old and recently married. After the death of her mother, Carmela took on the arduous task of raising her younger siblings along with her own two boys, Richard and Romolo.
In 1929, at around the same time Carmela was taking on many added responsibilities, the Great Depression struck. It was a misfortune that Grandma never stopped talking about. Amedeo was out of work, the family had nothing to eat, and the government couldn’t help them. Pops had a brother in New Mexico who didn’t have any children; fortunately he was able to send them twenty dollars a month. They paid ten dollars a month in rent and used the other ten for expenses. They were forced to sell their possessions to buy food. Grandma always told me that they survived on the vegetables they grew in their garden, on rice and milk, and on her homemade pasta. They had no money to buy meat. The President during the Great Depression was Herbert Hoover, a Republican. I truly believe that was why Gram was a staunch Democrat. She often related the story of the day a salesman knocked on their door and attempted to sell them a Hoover vacuum cleaner. Pops told the guy to get the hell out of his house, as he never wanted to hear or see the word “Hoover” again! Throughout the rest of her life, Carmela would talk about the Great Depression as if it had happened yesterday.
Grandma told many stories about the Mafia. It was a period she would have preferred to forget. At the time, the Mafia and criminal gangs such as the Mano Nera were notorious for planting bombs. Once, when her oldest son was asleep in his crib, she and Amedeo heard a loud crash. They rushed to the bedroom and found the baby covered with shards of glass. The windows had been shattered as the result of an explosion down the street. Pops was not in the Mafia, but they “befriended” him. According to Grandma, one day he was walking down the street when someone came up from behind and told him to dash to the other side. A split second later, the building where he had just been walking exploded. In another frightful incident, a Mafia bomb exploded next to Carmela and Amedeo’s house with the intent to kill the man who lived there. Instead, the man’s wife was killed and sadly he had to raise his kids alone. Gram added that the Mafia would ask Pops to serve as a pallbearer at funerals. He didn’t want to do it, nor did he like doing it; but he obeyed, as they gave him money for groceries.
Pops and Grandma left Ohio in 1934, when he landed a job with the Nevada Northern Railroad in Ely, Nevada. They moved into what was called a “section house,” housing that the railroad company provided for its employees. This humble home had a kitchen, living room, and bedroom. Their boys slept on the sofa bed in the living room. There was no hot water. In order to take a warm bath they heated water on the wood fired stove. The toilet was an outhouse. In 1938, a daughter, Marie, was born. Their family was complete.
Grandma was our rock–the foundation of our family’s faith. She lived her entire life with Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph–as well as with her favorite saints– all close by her side. She was undoubtedly the most devout Catholic we will ever know. She never missed a Sunday at church, and when she became too ill to walk to services, she watched the mass on the Catholic TV Channel. She never hesitated to remind us of our duties to God and the church, such as ensuring that our children received the appropriate sacraments. «Did you go to church today?». That was a question we were often asked on Sunday night. And you had better not lie about it! She knew. She always knew. Even if you lived 325 miles away.
Carmela was never afraid to speak her mind. If she had an opinion, you would hear it–no matter who you were, and whether or not you wanted to hear it. Before leaving for the battlefield a soldier from Ely leased his gas station to a civilian. When Grandma and her sister-in-law, a relative of the soldier, learned that the civilian was not paying rent they visited the culprit. Grandma’s lecturing of the man was so severe that he promised to pay rent as long as she would never return to the gas station. Shame! A soldier was risking his life at the same time his renter was cheating him. There was no arguing with her! Grandma was not afraid to ask our friends personal questions. She was not even afraid to tell the priest that priests should be allowed to get married. She was always for the underdog: old people, poor people, and sick people. For people with no voice she was their voice. I recall she telephoned her representative in Congress many, many times to complain that prescription drugs were so costly that the elderly were left with little money to buy food. Grandma didn’t have much use for “big business,” for which she frequently used the word “crooks”.
Carmela was selfless and made many sacrifices for others. She was a “super mom” before the term was ever created. One of her main goals in life was to make sure that anyone who stepped foot in her house had something to eat. It didn’t matter if you had just eaten. You ate again. And then a second helping was put on your plate. «No thank you» fell on deaf ears. We would beg her to come and sit at the table with us, which she usually did, but only as we were just finishing. When you left Grandma’s house, you usually left there very full. In fact, I recall a time when my former boss and I traveled to Ely on a business trip. On our way out of town, I took him to meet my beloved grandparents. Grandma insisted that my boss drink a shot of anisette and taste some Italian cookies. It was 8:00 a.m. and he was not feeling well to begin with. He had drunk a little too much alcohol the night before. As we left, he became very pale and quiet. After a few minutes on the road he said, «You know, if there ever came a time that I had to choose only one person to be with me in a lifeboat, that person would be your Grandma». I agreed. He saw her strength after just one visit.
Grandma was an extremely generous person. She gave to every charity that asked her for a donation, even if it was only a dollar. She also sent cards for every occasion. Even “Good Luck on Your First Day of School” cards. Many friends would call to tell me that they had received their first Christmas card of the year from my grandmother. She had perfect penmanship until the end and wrote at least one letter a week to her family and friends, always enclosing two dollars “for ice cream.” As I recall, she even sent her doctor ten dollars in a Fathers Day card! You never left her house empty handed. Even when she was in the hospital during her last days, she reached in her purse and pulled out a yellow comb and gave it to me. That was all she could find to give me at the time. I still have the comb.
We, her grandchildren, had the extreme pleasure of being tended to at her house while our parents were working. We had the best time there and were never ever bored. She would always give us a candy bar, even after my mother would ask her not to because it would spoil our dinner.
Carmela lived a very simple life and was a treasure to all who knew her. Her job was taking care of her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren, and everyone else. When my grandfather got sick, she took charge of his care for 27 years, making sure he ate well, took his medications, and most of all…stayed off the roof! Many people approached me after my grandmother’s death to share how she had taken care of them, or their parents. Though she wasn’t so good at receiving care. When my Aunt Marie was cleaning Grandma’s house after her death, she moved the stove only to find many, many pills that her mother was supposed to have taken. I believe that Carmela threw them over her shoulder behind the stove as soon as my aunt left the room.
In her spare time, my grandmother worked as a custodian at the Murry Street School and at the bank, and did the laundry for Domingo’s Market. All were within walking distance from her home. Pops and Grandma never owned a car or learned to drive. I remember her letting me help at the school. She would give me a cloth to dust the desks and then would go right behind me “redusting” them as I moved to the next room.
Her love of others extended to a strong love of country. America the Beautiful was the first song she learned when she came to the US. She sang that song until her dying day. Another song that she sang to us when we were children (and adults) was “Tu Scendi dalle Stelle”, or as we called it, “Grandma’s song”.
I’ll never forget the first time that she held in her arms her first great granddaughter, my infant daughter. She wept and wept. I asked her why she was crying and she said it was because my mother, who had passed away while I was pregnant, would never hold the baby. We all cried.
To this day, I have a small framed photo of my grandmother on my kitchen counter. And I know she laughs at me when I try to make her recipes. I have several versions of the same recipe with varying measurements. As hard as I have tried, nothing tastes the same as Grandma’s cooking.
By her own example, Carmela Mendozzi DiCianno taught us how to care for each other in the family and in the world. I will always be thankful to her for the many valuable lessons she taught me throughout my life. I miss her so much.
Carmela DiCianno Gundersen