Nonna is Italian for grandmother. My Nonna was Maria Maddalena Brovelli. She grew up in Italy and came to the United States in her twenties with her husband Angelo Merla, who died before I was born. She died last year, but many years ago I recorded a long conversation with her, an experiment in oral history
. This is the currently transcribed portion, picking up in media res
Me: ...And his cats? Angelo and his cats?
Nonna: Yeah, he liked cats. (laughs) But uh, we - we we, made that - not in the house. Yeah, not in the house.
Me: Did he have a lot of cats?
Nonna: One, one that was his pet. And the others, forget it. He would let them in and everything, ugh! I said, nuh-uh-uh! One little tabby cat. I think he didn’t have anything so close like that, you know. The minute he comes in up to the steps, the cat runs! and jumps right in his lap!
Nonna: Yeah! (pauses) He was an easy man. He would say, you wanna do that? Yeah, I think I wanna do that. Well, go right ahead! ...Yeah. He had (unclear) he had a hard time, when he was young. Even though, even though, he was, uh, had the money, but - at that time he had it. (unclear) but anyway, that was that. ‘You can’t go around doing things like that!’ Why not? ‘We haven’t got any money! (laughs) And we’d laugh. ‘You want to go out, we’ll go around the block!’ Easy-going. (pause) If you want to buy something - ‘Oh, you buy something, don’t worry about anything, buy it,, just go ahead and buy it!’ ‘But we don’t have any money!’ (laughs)
Me: He had a hard time... If we argue about something, he just put a cigarette in his mouth and he walks out. Then when he comes back, he says, ‘You feeling better?’
Nonna: Even if it was his fault. ‘Feeling better’! If you didn’t feel better, what happened? Too bad for you!
Me: Did you guys have a big wedding?
Nonna: Did I have a nice wedding? Yeah, I had a nice wedding. I don’t remember how many. It was down at the Merla house. I don’t remember how many, oh, 50 or 60, I don’t know. Then we, we left and we went to Milano, and Angelo took me around. At the time, he was the boss. And I never complained, which is true. What’s to complain? He was good-natured, though. He never ever, uh, hit me or anything like that. He just laughed, and put a cigarette in his mouth, and, “Haaaaa!” It’s not easy to find people like that, you know?
Imagine, eighteen years old I was, nineteen, eh? Going around the ocean, like I was going around the block. (laughs) ‘You’re going to get lost, one of these days, you’re going to get lost! There wasn’t too many people either, even in New York at that time.
Me: Where did you go in New York?
Nonna: Oh! Who knows! (laughs)
Me: You just walked around?
Nonna: Walking around! Who knows! Oh lord, I don’t remember that now. But I was young and... nothing bothered me. See the sunshine? (wacky italian saying) Uh... the sun looks back at night and it’s gonna be nice the next day.
Me: Oh, that’s nice.
Nonna: Yeah. (Al sol guardia dre alfa bella dia dre, or something) If uh, your mother was here, she would get that.
Me: Do you know that Dana’s learning Italian?
Me: Dana’s learning Italian. In school, he’s taking Italian classes.
Nonna:(tickled) No kidding! Oh, I’m glad you told me that, I’m gonna tease him one of these days.
Nonna: It’s nice to know a language. It’s nice, really. Some, they come to you very easy. Some... well, it all depends. With, with French people, or with German people, to learn their language in their own way, like me... But it’s fun when you’re young like that. You pick it up, easy. Yeah (sighs) It’s Halloween. I never know what to have, or whatever, to give them.
Me: We’ll have to get Mommy to give you some snacks or some candy or something, to hand out.
Nonna: She’s hollering! (laughs) It’s a funny thing. I never was able to holler like that, never. But in my family, I don’t remember. Course it was just my father, and my sister, and he was in one town, and she was in another one... I never had, remember, anything like that, that’s all there is to it. And then when I grew up and I went to work, there was no worry, just two girls. my older sister was younger, nine years younger than I am. My mother had two or three that... my younger sister was about nine years younger. We didn’t have that, uh, we took whatever comes, it’s okay, it’s okay, everything’s okay. You tell me whatever you have in mind, whatever’s your job, and I say, it’s okay. It’s okay. And if I didn’t have that many, that much more to give, it’s okay! I have my share. Sometime I don’t know if I’m coming or going or if I come in the back! I say, oh, that Nonna! (laughs) Too bad as you get older you lose all your friends. One die, one goes away, one thing or another. and then after long... And you make friends, but they’ not the same. No. Not the same anymore.
Me: How is Erminia doing?
Nonna: Erminia? Oh, she doing fine. She has her (man?) And she’s got her, her son. Nothing is wrong with her, you know. Maybe he’s twenty-five or twenty-six or something now. And she’s happy - she seems to be okay. It was good when we worked together. And now she seems to be happy. She seems to be okay now. I think she is in better health now than she used to - according to (unclear). I think so. She’s got, she’s got a lot of money. Her father or her mother was over here, and she made that.... (unclear) It’s really my fault, I should have gone to see her. Instead I wait for her to come to see me. But what can you do. What can you do. My, my (unclear).
Me: Where did you work with her?
Nonna: In the factory where they make sweaters.
Me: Oh, wow. You go way back.
Nonna: Yeah. The factory girls, they all gone, except her. She had to marry him, why did she get married? And her son, she raised it. He’s there with her, he doesn’t want to get married. He’s not gonna get married - he’s the boss!
Me: So she never got married, but she has kids?
Nonna: She never got married...?
Me: She never got married, but she has kids? Erminia?
Nonna: She doesn’t have any.
Me: But how does she have a grandson then?
Me: What were you going to say?
Nonna:(pause) Erminia - Erminia? Erminia never got married. But she’s got these nephews that she raised.
Nonna: She raised them, as her sons!
Me: Oh, I see.
Nonna: So, when, uh, when she gets mad (laughs), she tells him, “Why don’t you go to your mother?” He says, “What do I go to my mother for? This is my mother!”
Her father and mother were born over here, many years ago, before they went back to Italy. And they didn’t come back, they stayed there. But she had an uncle - family-like. Erminia, she’s all right. She’s a good person. But don’t make her mad. Ohh! She hit the ceiling. And then she says, "Made me hit the ceiling! Why did they do that for!" ...Well, she raised these nephews, they were just like her sons, that’s understood. Yeah. (unclear) I don’t know. She never got married. That’s the way that life is, one way or another. That’s the way it is....Yeah. You tell me about you. What you have in mind to do?
Me: I want to write books.
Nonna: Want to write books. How many? What kind of book?
Me: Well, I like working with people, but I really want to write books too.
Nonna: You want to write books, you go ahead and write books.
Me: Oh, okay.
Nonna: It’s the best thing. I think it’s the best thing. Yeah.
I say, I’m waiting Lord, and please, make it snappy! I don’t like to hang around. Oh, I’m talking to myself. Whatever is for you, is for you. You can say anything you want, it’s no use. Yeah. Well. Next time that we come into this world....
Me: (laughs because Nonna let it slip that she believes in reincarnation)
Nonna: What am I saying?
Nonna: Oh, Lord have mercy. Well, that’s the way it is. (about her outfit) Wonder when I’m going to change this. Nina, Nina, she says to me, "You stink! You know, you don’t wash! You don’t even wash your face! I’m gonna come down there and wash you!" I don’t say anything. I say, "maybe I stink, but I don’t smell it!" (laughs) Well, she got (unclear) remember something when you get old, so you don’t stink! (laughs) ....Whatever will be, will be. There was a song like that. Yeah. And I used to sing it, but now I don’t remember it!
Me: (singing) Que sera, sera...
Nonna: Sera, sera! That’s all there will be, que sera sera. Yeah.
Me: Did you ever think about writing a book?
Nonna: Oh, when I was young like you, I loved to write.
Nonna: I was good in school, I was one of the first ones in my class. And this lady teacher, she came to my house, and told my father to keep, uh, letting me go to school, to be a teacher or to be something. But my father says - my father says, “She’s a girl!”
Nonna:“She’s a girl and she’s gonna have children! What good could it be - what good could it be, uh, her school!” So from then on, my father decides, well, she goes to school but that’s it. And see, he was wrong, he was wrong because he shouldn’t have, um, said “she goes to school” -- make an effort, they had the money! He should have said, “She goes to school -- if she goes to school, let her go ahead and see what she can do.” But at that time, at that time they were not only my father, it was everybody that had a girl. “No school, you’re going to be a mama. No school.” See - that’s the way that it was! That’s all! Yeah. But I did like to school - I did like school all the time. Yeah. And my sister the opposite.
Me: Oh, yeah?
Nonna: Oh, mama, my poor mother. She didn’t want to go to school! “I’m not going to school! I’m not going to school!” She didn’t want to go to school - and she went, but uh, not, she wasn’t crazy about it. (laughs) From one person to another, there is a difference.
Me: What kinds of things did you like writing about in school?
Nonna: Oh, oh, anything! Any kind of book, I’d read it.
Me: That’s what I was like.
Nonna: I’d bring it home, and go up to my room, and I’d read it there. Whatever it is, I’d read it. Once in a while, my mother would used to get mad, because - ‘that’s all she’s doing! She’s doing nothing else but reading!’
Me: Wow. (laughs) That’s just how I am.
Nonna: Oh, I tell you! You can’t win! Yeah. That’s one thing I really liked, it was school I liked. And they could afford it, too, but I was a girl. (laughs) If he was here now, I’d tell him. Pow! (She’s a girl, but she had a boy. Your boy, I should say?) At that time, we didn’t dare talk back to father and mother, you know. ...It was a nice school. And we used to wear those long stockings that come over... and marbles, play the marbles, in the street, you know, when we got home from school. Play the marbles in the street, and my knee would come out. I’d get home and my mother would say, “You’ve been down there again! You’ve been down there again!” (laughs) Oh, my knee was always coming out. (unclear) And then my knee go out! Yeah. That’s life. .... I think of one thing and then it comes out the other way altogether.
Me: Was Mommy the same way when she was younger? Like the marble kind of thing?
Nonna: No, I don’t think so. But those marbles I sure did like to play. And then there was this big tree on my way home. Most of the times I walked at that time. And I’d go up to one of those big trees and make a hole and put my marbles there. Because if I go home with the marbles, my mother would, would take them away from me. Because she knows that I’m (unclear).
Me: Where did you get marbles?
Nonna: In school! At lunchtime, when we go out and play in the yard like that, that’s how I got it. Sometimes I lose, sometimes I win, I suppose so. I don’t remember exactly. But my pocket was always full of marbles! My mother knows where they come from. I had to do something!
Me: Okay, I have to show you something. Hold on right now. Oh, no, I don’t have them with me! Usually I have a whole pocket full of marbles too.
Me: Yeah, but I don’t have them with me. I was going to pull them out but I’m wearing the wrong pants.
Nonna: Oh, those marbles. We love to play with them. You play on the sidewalk too?
Me: Yeah, probably. I like playing with them in my hand too. The classic game. Did you, like, draw a circle in the dirt and play there?
Nonna: Yeah. Or we’d go up to the sidewalk and say, there was a place over here, and we’d play there.... Oh, my mother, she took them away from us, but we’d still find a way! Yeah, that was my mother all right. Well, I hope I can get back my strength to see what it is you do. One way or another. Whatever you do, Lord, make it snappy! I ain’t got no patience.... What’s going to come out of Dana?
Me: I don’t know. He’s going to finish school - he’s going to graduate from college this year, and then he’s going to graduate school. He’s moving back here - he’s going to move back to Davis next year.
Nonna: He’s going to come back.
Me: Yeah, he’ll live with Betsy and they’ll both go to school together.
Nonna: He’s got plenty of room in Mama’s house if he needs to stay there, but maybe he wants his own place. I don’t blame him.
Me: I don’t know.
Nonna: He’s a good boy. The children, they all good.
Me: Yeah.... What other things did you do when you were a kid? When you were young and, and in school, what else did you do that was fun?
Nonna: You mean playing?
Nonna: We played... I don’t know....
Me: Did you have lots of chores to do around the farm?
Nonna: No, my father had a lot of, uh, help that he had. Paying work. At the time, the man, they were glad to do something. And they’d come, and plant things... (unclear) And my mother, she loved to work on the farm. Oh yeah. She was the, the boss-type. She got the man to do it - “Hey! You do that? You do that!” And I said I would never work in the farm. “No, I don’t want you to work in the farm! You make me nervous!” And my sister - "I’ll work in the farm.” I don’t know if she did or not. I don’t think she did. But she didn’t go to work, she stayed at home. She worked around the house, I guess. Yeah. Worked on the farm. She said she was a very good worker on the farm.
Me: It’s good to have a farm. You always have enough to eat.
Nonna:(laughs) Yeah. That’s for sure, yeah. They had everything, you know. Two or three cows, um, all sorts of things like that. They had a big place for just, for them.
Nonna: Yeah. But I didn’t wanna have nothing to do with it. I’d rather have my book or something like that. Yeah.
Me: Did you keep reading lots of books after you got out of school?
Nonna: Yeah. Yeah, I’d go - I’d go upstairs to my room, I go to the library, and.... That was my pastime, that reading the book, there. I did like to read, you know, I did like reading.... I still like reading now. Only now, it goes in this way and out the other. And the housework was easy, on a farm like that, because... the men, they go in to eat, and then they out again, then eat, and out, and Grandma, she don’t care, I had a nice grandmother. Very nice. When we was only two girls, from the boys - and from the, the girls that she had - she also had two girls, and a boy. Yeah. And a boy, Pierino. His name was Pierino, Piero, Pietro, like Grandpa. Grandpa didn’t like Pietro, because he says he doesn’t concentrate enough. Yeah. Pietro.
Me: Pietro. So she was your mother’s mother?
Me: Did anyone else live with you, like your grandfather, or....?
Nonna: Uh... I don’t know...The main thing, I don’t remember many things. I want to, but it - it gets lost.
Me: What was your Nonna’s name?
Nonna: My Nonna?
Me: What was her name?
Me: Oh, really?
Nonna: Maria Maddalena. That’s how I got that. So they called me Maria, because Maddalena was too long, too long.
Nonna: Yeah! But it’s really nice to say.
Me: Did they call her Maddalena?
Me: Yeah, did they call her that.
Me: Lena. Oh, that’s pretty.
Nonna: Yeah.... life goes on.
Me: What did Pietro do? Was he the shoemaker, or did he do something else?
Nonna: How did he get the check, to pay...?
Me: Yeah. What was his job, what did Pietro do? Where did he work?
Nonna: For the check, to pay? He got the cash in, in an envelope... whatever, whatever it was. I never opened the envelope, I go home and give it all to my mother.
Me: That’s good, that she put it in the bank.
Nonna: Oh sure, it’s good in the bank. Because if you want to buy something you still have to go through him first. Yeah, we was lucky, we was the lucky ones.
(something that sounds like andiamo mangie passate oh) Oh, Lord, well, what can you do. You should thank God for that, because we’re pretty lucky to be able to.... You know, Nina’s right. I’m filthy.
I’m filthy! I say, I’m going to go to bed and cover myself up.
Me: And then no one will look at you and say that you’re filthy!
Nonna: I don’t say nothing when those things come up. I just keep quiet.
Nonna: It’s the best.
Nonna: I act like I don’t know. But, when you come back... You know, that’s where we make a mistake. We should have a book from the beginning and keep on going.
Nonna: Yeah. From the beginning. Mama would have to take care for a while, and then you keep it going. You wouldn’t be missing too much, you know. Because now you remember this and remember that, this and that and -- gone. My god. It’s plenty. It’s plenty. Lke that. And when you think of my age -- How old am I? I don’t know.
Me: What year were you born?
Me: You’re seventy-five? No, you’re older.
Nonna: No, no. 1915.
Me: Eighty.... seven? You’re eighty-seven.
Nonna: I think so. That’s a long time.
Me: You were born during World War One.
Nonna: Yeah, that’s right: 1915.
Nonna: Mm-hm. 1915.
Me: And then you came here during the Depression. And then that was over, but then it was World War Two!
Nonna: Because - just Mama and Daddy at the farm! You know, if I ever said we needed money or anything like that, I would be lying: we had plenty.
Nonna: Yeah. Maybe not fancy, to make risotto and pasta, you know, stuff like that, but plenty.
Nonna: So we was lucky.
Me: I need to learn to make risotto.
Nonna: That’s easy!
Me: Yeah, people say that. I’ve never tried.
Nonna: Yeah, it’s easy. I don’t make it lately, because... and it’s nice to make a little pot, you know. But it’s very easy. You just make a little bit of oil, a little bit of butter, and burn it - you know, melt it. And then you put the riso in, and you keep on turning, and you put a, a spoon, spoon a little bit of brodo, turn it, turn it, that’s all. Nothing to it. And you can make the brodo, if you don’t have the chicken, you can make it with a little butter, you know, melt it down, stuff like that, it’s easy.
Me: I’ll have to try that.
Nonna: Oh, yeah. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it, you substitute whatever you have. I think you like it, even if you put it in butter and uh... My mother, a lot of the time, didn’t have the brodo, but she put the butter in, because they had a lot of butter because they had the cows. I remember that. It tastes, it tastes good. Yeah.
Me: What else did they have a lot of?
Me: Oh, my.
Nonna: Yeah. Yeah, that’s good enough.... Well, I hope that the weather stays good. If so, I’ll take a little walk. I like it every once in a while.
Me: Yeah, I hope it stays good too.
Nonna: Yeah. I go out, but just for a few minutes, because I lost the key.
Me: Maybe I could help you look for it or something. It’s gotta be around here somewhere.
Nonna: You know... whatever, they come in, there’s not much of anything to, to steal. Oh, what did I do with it, what did I do?
Me: It’s not in any of your pockets?
Nonna: (looking) Oh, God knows what I did with it. Don’t tell Mama!
Everybody should write a book of their life, every day. That’d be nice, and then you can pick whatever you want. That would be nice. Yeah.
Me: If you wrote a book, what would you write about?
Me: What would you say in it?
Nonna: Your own life. Whatever you do, every day, even the little things, you know. Maybe you go out shopping, maybe you don’t go out at all, maybe you just sit there like a mamalucco....
Nonna: Yeah! But uh, uh, I think if you write it down, it stays more up here.
Me: Yeah. I do that, or try to do that.
Nonna: Yeah. It’s better.
Me: So after Angelo worked in the chemical factory, didn’t he do something else for a while?
Nonna: Yeah! He worked in some kind of chemical factory, he got a factory.... (thinking) He was a very easy-going person. Not to - “You want to go, you go.” He never said, “No, I’m not gonna go, what do you want to go there for?”
Me: And I thought that after that he worked in a cemetery or something?
Nonna: Yeah, he worked in a cemetery. They had to - they had no work, no work, there was a strike, they couldn’t. And he had a friend who was working there, and he found him a job, but it was too hard for him. You see, when you’re not used to that kind of work - you have to start young, then it’s okay. But he didn’t complain, he went just the same.
Nonna: Yeah. ‘Cause there was no work. No, nothing, nothing, nothing. 1934 was tough.
Nonna: Yeah. And I never complained, like, saying, “Oh - Why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that.” Because I figure if he wants to do something like that, he’ll find it, he’ll find a way. He didn’t push me, he never pushed me. It was a really, uh, plain life, easy life, you know - very easy. Who does Dana take after?
Me: I don’t know?
Nonna: His father?
Me: Probably. I think you used to say that he took after Angelo.
Nonna: Hm, he does?
Me: Maybe. When he was younger.
Nonna: Angelo was good at the school. He liked that. Then he come over here, and he learned, uh, English - very easy, but he was young, see? And he could read and write beautiful. Which I never did! (laughs) But he went to night school.
Me: Did you ever go to night school?
Nonna: I went in - I went to night school, yeah. I don’t know if I took some time out, I don’t remember. But to night school, I went there. It was a night school at a regular school.
Me: What did you study?
Nonna: I studied nothing, just learned the language. I come because it’s very hard to learn the language. Because you don’t know much of anything at first. But then after a while you catch on.
Me: When did you become a citizen, of, of here?
Nonna: It was easy! In 1939 -
Nonna: Yeah! They gave a special session, a session. But only one person, not a thousand others like they do, only one, you go into this hallway, and the teacher is there, and they give you the exam. They, they, I remember - this I will never forget - they asked me if I was a fascist.
Me: Oh, my.
Nonna: War like this, they have to, at that time. But it’s nice to know you can be asked.... Right away, I look up and say... And that too, I like the school and want to go on, but they were bad times for everybody. I was lucky to find what I found. Well, taught me a lesson.
Me: What else do they ask you besides “are you a fascist?”
Nonna: Oh, I don’t know, it was a book. And only one person at a time. And then, after that, they had a one session that they had a few hundreds. Yeah. I don’t know what happened, I don’t remember no more, but they had a few hundred at a time, like a group. But when I went, was one person, one teacher. Yeah. Things change. Things change.
Me: Was Angelo already too old to fight in the war when World War Two started? Were you afraid he would have to go fight?
Nonna: No, because... there was something else somewhere. I don’t remember. I remember his mother... oh, he tested, he was supporting the mother, because the mother was a widow at that time, and he had to, to have somebody send in the application for that, and they accepted.
Me: Oh, good.
Nonna: Yeah. But he was two years in Sicily - but there was no war then, you know, regular. He liked Sicily - very nice island. Um.... He was two years down there, that I know. But um...
Me: When was he in Sicily?
Nonna: Ah, must have been around 1917, 18, because he was drafted for the service and then they place you someplace here, someplace there, and he got chosen to go down there. He, he liked it. He said it was very nice. I remember, being away from home, and 18 years old... He, he had a ball!
Me: Did he live here his whole life, or was he born in Italy?
Nonna: He was here - he was here already before they went back to Italy he was here already ten years. I think it was ten years. He went back because his father was dying. His father wanted to see him or something. So he went back there. And I, at that time, I was making men’s shirts, besides all the rest of the sewing, you know. And that’s how I met him, I made him a couple of shirts.
Me: And then he liked you?
Nonna: Yeah, and my mother said, “Oh no,” she says, “Too far, too far away! What you want to go there for, you got everything over here!” I think she was right. “I worked here for years for you, it’s no use!” Because it was distant. I don’t think I’d do it now!
Me: How long did you know each other before you got married?
Nonna: Mm... a few months. I met him through Anna, his niece. Anna and I, we was working in the same place. I was, um, younger, she was there already, oh, maybe about three years, and she was good, like, you know, whatever she does, whatever she says - and she got me that job. Oh! I was happy. I met Angelo that way. But she never got married. I don’t know why.
Me: How did you know - how did you know that Angelo was the man you wanted to marry?
Nonna: I didn’t! I told my mother, “I’ll marry him, eh, and if it doesn’t work out I’ll marry again later.” Oh! My mother. Oh, Lord have mercy! What I thought I was thinking was I was going. That’s all, when you’re young.
Me: How did he ask you to marry him?
Nonna: He didn’t - he said, “You want to?” and I said, “Yeah!” It’s funny how our live works - how things go around and around, and you wonder why.
Me: Did you guys go out on dates at the time, or did he ask you just because he knew you...?
Nonna: No, no we didn’t go - at night there was no lights, we didn’t go on dates, no. He come up to the house, because he knew there was no lights but they go out just the same, you now. So, I said, I’ll marry him! “Oh, you’re out of your mind, you’re out of your mind, what do you want to marry him for?” Oh, to go to America! Oh, my mother.
Me: You were old for your age.
Nonna: Yeah.... What’s going to come out of this world, I don’t know. You’ll get to see it, but I don’t know.
Me: I’ll get to see the next piece, and then I’ll still be wondering what comes next. It’s a funny place.
Nonna: Sometimes when I’m not talking to myself, I talk to the Lord. I talk to the Lord, and nobody answers me! I don’t know.
Me: So, you worked sewing, and then you worked at the hotel. Did you work other places?
Nonna: We was lucky to have the bicycle because we could just use it every day, because there was no lights.
Me: Did all the bicycles look the same back then, or was there different colors and stuff?
Nonna: Different colors and stuff, yeah.
Me: What color bicycle did you have?
Nonna: Bicycle? Hmm... Everything I wanted I had it because, as I say, we had everything that was necessary.
Nonna: I had good parents, my father was very quiet, very quiet, always with his cigar (imitates puffing).... What a difference, life today. What a difference.