I have written many stories about the “Ammirati Women”. There are more to come. My thoughts today, however, turn to Vincenzo Ammirati, the name bearer, my grandfather.
It was sweltering yesterday. I was dressed in black as I stood by Dung Tran’s grave. The Vietnamese are seriously traditional in ceremony around a loved one’s passing. Everyone wears black. The family places white bands around their heads. No one leaves the grave site until every bit of earth is replaced over the crypt. The cemetery, Holy Sepulcher, is small, treeless, unadorned and very familiar. It is where my grandfather is buried. Memories overtook me as I watched Dung Tran’s grave being covered over shovel by shovelful of red clay dirt.
I closed my eyes and was transported back in time. I saw myself wearing a white sun dress. I was skipping. My curly brown pigtails swished and gently brushed my face. I paused, made the sign of the cross before the graves I passed while making sure I did not lose sight of grandma in this strange place of stone. Grandma Mariannina and I were there again to tend grandpa Vincenzo’s grave. Italian people often placed their loved one’s enameled pictures on the gravestones. I remember being at eye level of many. Soft, serious faces stared at me as I excused myself for stepping on them. Grandpa’s grave was different however. It was marked by a large stone urn into which grandma always planted red geraniums. Grandpa’s name was etched on the foundation. It was a poor man’s grave marker.
The Ammirati family history, grandpa Vincenzo’s family story, is rich with images of great wealth and great loss. My grandfather Vincenzo’s father Carlo, was involved in the most publicized court case of its time. It was around 1900. Carlo Ammirati was born into one of the richest families in Naples, Italy. The year was circa 1860, the same year Italy became a nation. Carlo’s family traded in gold. They were considered millionaires of that time. Carlo and his siblings were well-educated and lived a very good life as the young nation of Italy made its way onto the world stage. Tragedy soon struck however, when their young mother died. In time the children received word that their father would re-marry. The woman he was to marry however, did not come from within familiar social circles. She was in fact the newly chosen Beauty Queen of Naples. Together, they had more children. I do not know much about the life the children had with the beauty queen step mother and their half siblings. I can only imagine with what followed.
Carlo’s father then, died. A fortune was left. The beauty queen plotted. She would have none of the fortune go to the children born of the first wife . Her children made claim as did Carlo and his siblings from the first marriage. “Ammirati contro Ammirati” is the title of the document I found in my grandma’s precious trunk. It was the documented court case of a century ago. These pieces of paper represented the turn of events which brought my family to America and eventually the existence of the “Ammirati Women”.
A good friend from Italy translated the document for me. Millions of dollars were at stake. This case made the daily papers: “Will the First Marriage’s Children, [my grandfather’s father, Carlo and siblings] Get Their Share?” Back then, Italy’s property rights were murky and contentious, rife with intrigue. Carlo and his siblings lost. He received perhaps a small amount; one that paid for passage to America and a few years of support. Carlo was married at this time to Maria D’Ambrosia. Maria, survived physically but grew into great bitterness. She was a D’Ambrosia, born into wealth, married into wealth, and had to face losing everything to the Beauty Queen of Naples’ children. Class was a big deal then and to think that her husband was cheated by his “peasant” step mother’s children~ was unbearable. She never adjusted to America and felt betrayed by Italy.
Carlo, Maria, and their children arrived in America in 1910. Vincenzo and his brothers learned trades. Vincenzo became a cobbler, established a good business, and married my grandma. Although not millionaires, my grandparents lived a good merchant class life. Early in his marriage to my grandma, Mariannina, and after his father Carlo’s death, he took his mother Maria in.
Bitter and demanding, her diamond brooch always pinned to her bosom, she drove my grandmother crazy. She told my grandmother at the beginning of her stay that “I am the head of my son’s house and you are the tail”. Mariannina was her own woman. The ultimatum was made to my grandfather “Either she goes to live with your brother Frank, or I leave”. Grandpa’s brother Frank took her in. Frank lived in New York City, did well in business, and his son, a War Hero, became the famous New York artist/designer Carl Ammirati.
Grandpa and Grandma moved from New York City to Buffalo after the birth of their second child Mary, my mother. Grandpa set up his cobbler business on Buffalo’s East side. My family survived the depression well. Perhaps Americans could no longer purchase his handmade shoes but they could afford to have their shoes repaired and grandpa accommodated them. Life was good. Georgio Battaglia, grandpa’s cousin, was the very successful owner of Handle Bar Joe’s Bar downtown, and a great support. Family celebrations, our life’s blood, were many.
1934, the year Hitler became Führer and cemented Europe’s fate, brought tragedy also to our family. Grandpa Vincenzo was 14 years older than grandma Mariannina. He was now 42 and grandma 28. They had three small children Carlo, Mary, and Aurora. Grandpa had his first stroke. He was treated at the old EJ Meyer Memorial Hospital. He had money, why he ended up at the public hospital is a mystery. Grandma said they experimented on him by “injecting ” something into his head. He never recovered well. This vibrant grey eyed man, a successful cobbler who made the best of life after his own family’s great loss was silenced and paralyzed. In those days if you lost your work, there was no welfare safety net. Not yet 30 years old, Grandma was facing poverty, something so foreign to her and our family. She was literate in Italian but not so in English. Grandpa’s first cousin, Georgio Battaglia was wealthy and helped the family. His sister Amalia owned a grocery store which gave 10-year-old Carlo a small wage. Grandma sewed but had to take work into her home. Her time was devoted to grandpa’s daily total care, to three small children, and piece work. Every stitch would count for food on their table. Grandpa lived for seven years under her care. He died in 1941. Out of this tragedy, his children, their children, and children’s children have survived, and experience still, life’s triumphs and tragedy. We are alive and grateful.
The last shovel of dirt was tapped into place. I hugged Dung Tran’s widow and walked slowly to my car. Before I left, I knew I had to find Grandpa’s grave. I hadn’t visited it for many years. Grandma Mariannina died in 1981 and the grave tending was taken over by Carlo’s good wife, my Aunt Rose. Rose became ill and left us a few years ago. Grandpa’s grave has not been attended since before 2007.
I walked to the cemetery office. The cemetery custodian saw me reading the hours of business. The office had closed an hour ago. He asked if I needed help. He opened the office, looked up where Grandpa was buried and took me to his grave. The Urn was damaged and lying on the ground next to its pedestal. Weeds replaced the long gone red geraniums. The foundation was sunken so deep that only the top of the letters of Vincenzo were visible. I made the sign of the cross. My cousins and I will most likely be the last generation of Ammirati’s to tend the grave, but not the last generation to taste triumph and defeat, joy and tragedy.
America, so changed from when my ancestors came, is now too a nation of separation. Our children did not have to cross an ocean as did their great-great grandparents yet they are scattered within the vastness of America. They live where they may make a living and survive. They are far from us and further from their ancestors’ graves.
I write these stories so that they will remember where they came from. I write to remind them that triumph and tragedy is life. Hope will always vanquish despair no matter the sacrifice and suffering. Bitterness is defeat. My breath will one day be gone, not so the word to paper.