Aunt Frances to You, But Grandmom to Me

Francesca Delia Villari. We suspect she made the dress she was wearing. She was a crack seamstress.

“Weren’t there any women in your family?”

No. Italians reproduce asexually. At least married ones.

Look, there were some people in my family who were too good to be true. My maternal grandmother was one of them. So if you are as cynical as I am, you will stop right here. But that doesn’t change anything. This is all true

Before I get going, I should credit at least some of this to my second cousin, once removed, Christine Rogers Walls. More than some. She is a fellow Villanovan, albeit of the modern era. I had to ask her how exactly we were related because the only person I know who can figure that stuff out is James Maule. He can tell you how he is related to Jesus Christ. He is also a Villanovan, by way of the law school, where he is a distinguido profesor. Maybe it’s something in the water on the Main Line, or some Catholic gene. Anyway, give credit where credit is due. Christine has got the Delia-Villari franchise. So in the event I can’t tell you, maybe she can.

Where to start?

Francesca Delia was born in 1899. Maybe. She arrived at Ellis Island on board a ship out of Naples with her Mother and brother, Santo, on July, 9, 1903. So she was four or so. We (Christine and I) think her father, Pietro, was already here, although exactly where “here” is a bit hazy. Maybe Philadelphia. Maybe Pittsburgh. Don’t really know. But she made it. I once asked her about her memories of being a little girl. She thought for a moment and told me she saw Teddy Roosevelt as President. That would have been between 1903 and 1909, when she was at most ten.

From that day forward I put my grandmother in another category of humanity. It was as if she told me she had been at Gettysburg when Lincoln spoke. The connection to an iconic figure in American history must have cemented her status as out of the ordinary herself, which she certainly was. In 1960, both of us went to Upper Darby, PA, to see John Kennedy on a drizzly Saturday in October. She was there at my nagging, because I wanted to see him. So we went. You get the picture? Your nine-year old grandson says he wants to see a presidential candidate, so she must have figured, why not? I saw TR at nine and never forgot. Grandmom became an integral part of my memory, not to mention an early enabler of my political socialization. We were both Democrats, as was her husband, my grandfather, Joe Villari. I won’t say in my home there were no Republicans, because I know better. My Mother had registered as a Republican to get a City Hall job back in the prehistoric years before Joe Clark and Dick Dilworth ran things, when Bernard Samuel was the last Republican mayor of the city in an unbroken partisan line controlled by Republicans since 1884 and only ended in 1951, the year of my birth. But I don’t think anybody liked Republicans, even then. They weren’t our kind of people. If you know what I mean.

Grandmom was laid back before laid back existed. She was even tempered, to the point where I don’t think I ever saw her angry. She never used bad language. Never raised her voice–well, maybe in exasperation to my Grandfather occasionally, like when he exhibited symptoms of a fatal illness he was inclined to ignore. She was, in my life, a perpetually gray-haired lady who did nothing but treat me kindly, a surrogate Mother when my Mom went out to earn a living. This was what extended immigrant families did, ideally. And mine was pretty close to ideal. And I mean that. She was wonderful. Who knew from day care? I had Grandmom. I had no idea how lucky I was. Even now it’s hard for me to write about this without getting emotionally involved. But then someone will say I’m maudlin. Yeah, and that’s too bad. Stop reading. No one’s making you do this.

Since I really grew up–if the first decade or so is growing up–Grandmom and Haddington and Haverford Avenue are all together in my mind. It was a big two story stone house with basement (where there was another stove), and man, she cleaned every inch of it every week. On her hands and knees. Using a bucket and a wash brush. She did the wash and hung it out on the line to dry. She cooked every meal every day. She ran the household by herself. And that meant shopping and all the rest while keeping an eye on me–at the very least. Do you have any clue how much work that was? She had three daughters too, you know, and, forgive me, at least one was high maintenance (they all were, honestly). Guess which one? I won’t talk about the various private matters that came up, other than to say she somehow kept us all together. God knows how.

Let’s take the little matter of running the household. Now by the time I was on scene, Grandmom was in her fifties, ok? You know, not old, but no teenager either. She cooked dinner for at least five people every night, and I mean cooked. You know, she may have bought bread and spaghetti, but that was it. Meat came from the butcher, ordered over the phone–West Philadelphia Meat Market. And from specific parts of the beast–usually, “from the loin.” She knew the difference and the butcher didn’t fool around. This was a once or twice a week call, which I remember. There were closer butchers, but this guy handled Grandmom, whom he politely called “Francy” when he delivered. Vegetables came from Madon’anna (I swear) or from the hucksters in the summer selling freestone peaches, tomatoes, and watermelons (mezza pezza, watermeloon!). Cold cuts from Mr Furia at 65th and Haverford. Jesus, we ate well. Fresh bread, fresh meat, fresh vegetables. And guess who prepared this stuff, every day? No complaints. None. She was always in a good mood. God only knows how. Her specialty was bracciole, but there was also a soup called, forgive me, scudol’ (escarole) and pastafazool (pasta e fagioli, to you), along with the occasional pie from Hanscom’s on 69th Street or Horn and Hardart. Dish washer? Uh uh. That was family stuff, but she was right there too, every day. I never heard “I’m too tired.” Or “I don’t feel well.” Doesn’t compute. And that was just dinner.

Of course she made her own spaghetti sauce and meatballs. Usually Sunday mornings and man, did the house smell good. I’m there watching Bertie the Bunyip and Larry Ferrari on tv and she’s already got the madinad (actually, we called it gravy in my family) (marinara, thank you) going. Before we went to Sunday Mass. Before. You dig? Now, in those days, Joe Villari opted out of Mass, but the rest of us went. As a group. Amidst all this cooking and hustle and bustle. I have no idea how she did this. None.

Did I tell you she made time for her family in South Philly at least once a week? Yeah, that too. With me in tow as a little kid. I guarantee you my Mom never worried if I was in good hands.

And she never took a holiday. No. Usually a big one (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, New Years Day) began three days before, because she had to bake. Yeah. Bake. I still cry over her biscotti. Forget Termini’s. You know, like, “What is a weekend?” from Dalton Abbey. “What is a holiday?” And remember, she did peppers and eggs pretty much every night for Grandpop to take to lunch at RCA in Camden, because he got up at 4AM to commute. Yeah. He got the gold watch (literally), but she made it possible. So now you know why I don’t like anti-immigrant talk. I haven’t forgotten. Even if some of the cafones who love Trump have. And never a trace of bitterness, racism, all the stuff that drives the woke police to bestow “white privilege” on us from time to time. My ass. My family’s white privilege was Normandy.

I realize this whole discussion is going to displease some people. I don’t care. Stop now, because if this is “Momism” or some damn thing, you’re only going to get even more unhappy. Because she didn’t do self-realization. Grandmom was too busy being the anchor for a frequently difficult, neurotic, querulous group that would have fallen apart very quickly had it not been for her. I know she saved at least one life, and she was a friend to Linda and me when we really needed one in 1975. And do remember that everything of which I speak took place after she had raised three daughters, whose creativity in causing agita was pretty much unmatched. Grandmom was the polar opposite of her daughters in temperament. You tell me.

You know, this was even before the move to Haverford Avenue from South Philly, let alone to Penfield in the 1960s. I can’t tell you much about that, because I wasn’t born yet, so this story starts in the early 1950s. A half century after she got to Ellis Island. So, what, if anything do I know about that? Not much, and my cousins, especially Richie d’Adamo (God rest his soul) and Christine Rogers Walls have led me to a lot of this. To Richie, Grandmom was Aunt Frances. Richie, if possible, may have loved her even more than I did. He was her nephew, and she did tell him stuff she never told me. About family. Really amusing NSFW stuff. Cause she was no plaster saint, believe me. A saint, yes; plaster, no.

A lot of people think of old Italian ladies as dressed in black, solemn, and religious in a peasant superstion-y way. Grandmom wasn’t. She did not see Gesu on the burnt toast., even if she lit candles. I don’t think I ever heard her praying, although I did hear her sing “Oh how I miss you tonight” as she washed windows (for real). She and Grandpop did have some kind of difference about contributing to a building fund at Saint Donato’s (which I’m sure the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will dump as soon as it can so that some professional atheist can knock it down and put up a condo or some crap), but that was about it. She went to Church and was no rebel. But, here’s a clue. When one of my relatives–who had a penchant for blondes and matrimony–had latched on to yet another one (she was cute)–Grandmom got exasperated. You know, here we go again, with all that expense of weddings, divorces, property settlements. “Why don’t you just live with them,” she asked? Maybe she was 70 at the time. Good question, Francy. Good question. And not very appropriate for an Italian Catholic grandmother. You obviously don’t know much about Italian Catholic grandmothers.

Grandmom and Grandpop had an arranged marriage, and it lasted close to 60 years. Can you imagine? I thought, silly me, that all couples were as well suited to each other as they were. The question has recently come up, arranged by whom? Well, of all the things I wish I had asked Grandmom, that may have been the biggest one. I assume–and please enlighten me if you have some idea–that there was some kind of established procedure in Sicily for just this–but I have no idea of what it might have been. My cousin speculates–on pretty good evidence–that the families (Delia-Villari) may have well have known each other in the old country, and certainly did in Philadelphia. I can’t prove it, but, as James Maule has explained to me repeatedly, in small towns in Italy, a marriage market only included so many families, and over hundreds of years, families would intermarry. I suspect that I spotted one such occurrence among the Salvucci in Philadelphia, and it is hardly beyond the realm of possibility that the Delia and Villari were related in Sicily. Although Grandpop came from Bordonaro and Grandmom from San Filippo (there are two!) (both near Messina), I was thunderstruck when this possibility first came up, but it now seems much more logical to me. It’s going to take a lot of archival work in Italy (or maybe online in the Antenati records for Sicily, or both) to get to the bottom of the question, but I have the feeling that Ms. Rogers Walls will, some day. I can only hope I’m around to hear the answer. In any event, Grandmom did not know a lot about her family in Sicily. She was too young to remember, which is why her English was as fluent as her Italian. She was a child in the United States and learned English here. I said she learned English. The way all immigrants should.

When Grandmom moved out to Delaware County to be near her daughters, I continued to see a lot of her. She never seemed to slow down, and there were times when I stayed over as an adolescent and we’d watch the Late Show together. We’d always watch the Voice of God on Channel 10 (John Facenda) prior to that, and I spent a couple of New Years Eves with her watching the Times Square ritual when Guy Lombardo was doing it. I can still date a lot of events in my childhood and adolescence to circumstances on Haverford Avenue or Penfield, and that means political events, snowstorms, holiday football games, that sort of thing. Like the Packers and the Lions always played at Grandmom’s on Thanksgiving, and the game typically meant something then (the Lions were pretty good and the Packers under Lombardi were, well, the Packers). At big family gatherings there, on holidays, Grandmom would put out a huge meal. We’d all be stuffed and she’d look around disapprovingly and say “Nobody’s Eating.” Linda and I still laugh about that, mostly because we miss it so much. We still use her recipe for gravy when we want to do it right, with sausage and meatballs. It’s not hers, but we try.

In her last years, Grandmom was delighted by her great-grandchildren. She loved Martin and Rosie and she clearly saw “Little Rosie” as some kind of live doll who brought the biggest smile to her face. Rosie doesn’t remember, and I’m not sure how much Martin does. That’s really too bad, because a lot of what I think and feel owes less to my parents’ generation than to Grandmom and Grandpop, who really raised me for a long time. I think, in a funny sort of way, I have 1940s and 1950s sensibilities and values because of them. It probably explains why I dislike what the world has become so much, because I am much closer to her (their) world than ours. I spent so much time with her and Grandpop. It makes for some uneasy moments these days. If I could go back, I would. That’s just life. My middle name is Joseph. I’m sure had I been female, it would have been Frances.

Grandmom, Aunt Francis, Francy, she was a remarkable person. She used to tell me she wasn’t afraid of passing on because Grandpop was waiting for her, having died some years before her. And she passed on at 94. Tell you what, I hope Grandmom and Joe Villari are waiting on me too. St. Peter. Meh. I’m counting on it. If that makes me a heretic, well, so be it.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

6 thoughts on “Aunt Frances to You, But Grandmom to Me

  1. Tejano, I could almost say ditto. No arranged marriage on my side but so many of the same experiences and feelings. I am impressed you can remember so much as vividly as you have.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great read. Like, Mike, some of the same experiences. No grandmothers (both died before I was born), but my mother’s oldest, married, childless sister was probably a surrogate grandmother though she didn’t raise me.

    Curious about this comment: “Francesca Delia was born in 1899. Maybe. She arrived at Ellis Island on board a ship out of Naples with her Mother and brother, Santo, on July, 9, 1903. So she was four or so. We (Christine and I) think her father, Pietro, was already here, although exactly where “here” is a bit hazy. Maybe Philadelphia. Maybe Pittsburgh. Don’t really know.” So I took a look at the New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1957 on Can’t attach a copy here but the entry for her and her brother states the sailed from Naples, and were residents of San Filippo, destination “Pittsburg, Pa.” In “whether going to join a relative or friend, etc.” column, “my father, Pietro Delia, care of [can’t decipher handwriting] 628__and Street, Pittsburg, Pa.” So it appears he was residing in Pittsburgh, probably at some sort of boarding house. By 1910 the family was in Philadelphia on Kimball Street.

    Pietro applied for citizenship 30 Dec 1941, in the Eastern District of Philadelphia. He was living at 913 Cross St, occupation fruit packer, born 31 Mar 1874 in “San Felippe Superior Italy,” brown eyes, 5’0″ 182 pounds. Married to Maddalena on 24 July 1895 in “San Fellippe Superior Italy”, she was born 28 May 1878 in “San Felippe Italy”, and entered the united States on 7-9-1903, and resides “with me.” Eight children (names and birthdates/places listed, which I assume you and/or your second cousin once removed already have). He arrived 3 Aug 1902 on the Vincenzo Bonano.

    So I found Maddalena’s arrival in that same database (her surname Mangano, found that in a family tree on ancestry). Her entry is not on the same page as your grandmother’s. But now I can read that she is going to “my husband Pietro Delia care of Jos. Battaglia ___ 628 Grand Street Pittsburg, Pa.” I cannot find a Grand Street in Pittsburgh. Is it Grant Street? There is a Joseph Battaglia in the 1910 census in Pittsburgh (on Francis Street), born in Palermo.

    San Filippo Superiore is about 7 as-the-crow-flies miles (longer by car) from Rodia, the town from which we think the Rodia family of Serino (my maternal grandmother’s family) originated (coming via Guardavalle in Catanzaro in the 1100s). Perhaps if I ever can get these lines back into the eighth or ninth century !!!!

    Some of that you may already know, but hopefully it answers the “Maybe Philadelphia Maybe Pittsburgh” question.


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