My Memoirs


My Home 252 are magical numbers for me. I was born at 252 East 110th St. in Manhattan, and lived there until age 18. Let me tell you about 252, a brick building owned by my paternal grandparents, Carmela and Joseph De Grazia. The building boasted of 8 "railroad" flats or apartments, but the very important thing was that as each of my grandparents' children married they would move into one of the apartments. My grandparents had six children, three sons and three daughters. They were Anthony (my dad), Nicholas, Ralph, Caroline, Mary, and Ida. Aunt Caroline moved to New Jersey with her husband and Aunt Mary moved to Grand St. New York to be with her husband. They were the two children who did not live in my grandparents' house.

Of course, my dad, being the oldest of the children took with his wife, Josephine (Briglia), the apartment directly opposite my grandparents. As each of the children, my aunts and uncles married, they would move into one of the apartments. Now I know this won't mean very much to the average person, but just think - I am living in a building filled with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and all the cousins yet to come. You will wonder how can all these people possibly live happily so close together. To this day, I wonder and marvel at how at how close and happy we all were. Maybe it would help if I told you a little about my relatives. My grandparents, both born in Italy, were exactly what you would want your grandparents to be - loving, kind and helpful. Grandpa spoke English quite fluently, but grandma only spoke Italian. Now, all the grandchildren, and there were many, had to learn some very necessary words in Italian like "could I please have a penny". Yes, I did say penny. I will reserve telling you about my parents and family till after all the others.

Uncle Nick, very charming and handsome and a superb cellist, liked his money and his wine. Sweet Aunt Tess, his wife, was so lovely, and just as pretty. Now, of course, I will start to include my cousins. Aunt Tess and Uncle Nick had three children, Joseph, Cammelina, and a little girl who died at a very young age. Joseph and I were very close in age and always got along very well although I always felt that Joseph was never quite as adventuresome as I was. Cammelina was younger and there were plenty of cousins in her age group. This dear family lived on the second floor. Directly across from them were Aunt Ida [the youngest of Grandma and Grandpa's children] and Uncle Mike, the two sweetest and dearest people in the world. They had three children, Agnes, Joseph, and a little girl who died in infancy. Now we go to the third floor, the top floor. On the right, there was another Aunt Tess and another Uncle Mike, and their two children, Anthony and Isabel. What can I say? I loved them all. Across from them, we come to my favorite Uncle - dear Uncle Ralph, a fine pianist, and his wife, Aunt Julia. Beautiful, Irish Aunt Julia found herself surrounded by this big Italian family. I often wondered how she coped, but cope she did, and very handsomely. There were just the two of them, Aunt Julia and Uncle Ralph.
Siblings Let's go back to the first floor across from Grandma and Grandpa and this will be about my family. How can I ever make anyone know the love that filled this little apartment. I will try to tell you about my sweet, gentle, funny and very artistic Dad. He could make a violin sound like heaven. My beautiful, wonderful, intelligent, and loving mother was full of surprises. My older sister, Carmela, we called her Cammy, was only two years older than I. She bossed me around, but also protected me and taught me so much. I had a younger sister Gloria. She was dearly loved by me and everyone else. Last but not least, was my brother Joseph who was ten years younger than I was. I was very fond of my little brother and enjoyed taking him with me when I was old enough to be responsible. Please, remember, I am not talking about the deep, dark ages, this was the early 1900s. Looking back, it is hard for even me to remember how truly happy we all were. You, and even I too, who are so used to all the modern conveniences will wonder, how did we live that way.

We had no running hot water. When hot or even warm water was needed, it had to be heated on the stove. All clothes washing was done on a scrub board in a big tub with water that had been heated, and then hand-wrung, and hung out on a clothesline. We had no bathtub! I kid you not. When we were small enough, we were put into the big tub. When we were too old for this, we took turns at sponge bathing out of a large basin of warm water while someone guarded our privacy. I really think that we thought everyone lived this way. We didn't care, we were happy. Do you enjoy ironing? I did, even as a young girl. My mother had two irons, they were really iron and heavy. As you used the first one, the other was heating on the stove. On each floor there was a toilet in the hall, which was shared by the two families living on that floor. Oh sure, sometimes it was a little inconvenient if you had to go but the toilet was already in use. No problem, we would run either upstairs or downstairs to a toilet that was empty, We didn't mind, we were just one big family.

Icebox Let me jot down some thoughts at random: Each apartment was made up of four rooms; a very large kitchen, two bedrooms, and a large parlor. The kitchens were bright and sunny and were used for just about everything. We had a gas stove, and my dad added a little potbelly stove, which we all enjoyed. There was no refrigerator but we had a big beautiful icebox. What fun it was when the iceman came. In the summertime we would wait till he chopped the blocks of ice that went into the icebox. We would scramble to get the chips of ice that were left. Back to my kitchen... A good-sized table was in the center of the room and everyone was always welcome.
Grandpa A picture I hold very dear remains in my mind. Dad had two violins that he loved. These, of course, he used for his engagements. How I loved to hear him practice. I would sit in the kitchen while dad practiced in the parlor. I was so proud because he would try both violins and then ask me which one sounded better. I would always choose one or the other as though I really knew. Bless my wonderful dad. He always agreed with me. Everyone in the family was so very proud when Arturo Toscanini invited my dad to join his orchestra. It meant a lot of traveling. Dad refused because mom was about to have her first child.
Hydrant Ah, the summer evenings I will never forget. After dinner the children were washed up. Chairs were brought out front for the ladies. This seemed to be a neighborhood ritual The very young ones stayed close to their mothers. The older kids would roller-skate or play stickball or any of the many games that kids played in those days. This was the time to get a penny or two or three cents for a paper cup filled with ice cream from the corner candy store. Maybe the man with colored ices, or the man with delicious pieces of coconut would come down the street. What about the very hot days when we all longed to be near the ocean. There was an answer to these perspiring city kids - the fire hydrants! One of the older boys who was strong enough would turn the water on. An old barrel would be placed over the hydrant so that the water would squirt up like a fountain. Most of us would run in to put on our bathing suits. Others would go in just as they were. Oh, how cold that water was, and how delicious! Well, we knew that before long the fire truck would come to turn the water off , but till they did we were having fun.
Chelsea I remember when we finally moved to the country (namely, Chelsea-on-Hudson) people would ask me what was there to do in the city that was interesting. What was there to do? Are you kidding? There was my beloved library, just a street away from where I lived, the parks, the wonderful museums, the many big stores mostly for "just looking." This to name only a few of the wonders of New York.
Cyclone Then there was Coney Island!!! That is another story. It was always a bright, sunny morning when the joyful news was told to us kids. We are going to Coney Island! Get the beds made, get the chores done, and this is one day we don't mind doing these things. We knew that others in the family would also be going, and that there would be our cousins to throw in the water and push in the sand. Lunches were packed, our bathing suits were put on at home (to save the money it cost to change at the beach). Even the rather long subway ride was fun (ah, how young we were). Even now I can smell the salty air and feel the sand in my shoes as we ran on the beach to find a very special spot for our large family. Blankets were put down, umbrellas put up to shelter those who did not want the sun. Please, please can we go in the water? One or more grown-ups were put in charge, and off we went to the water's edge. Who was the bravest to run in first? I always tried because I didn't want to be called "sissy Mary." What fun to jump into the waves, this, of course, with our parents O.K. Now it was time for lunch. All the mothers shared the goodies they had brought, and what a feast it always was. The bathing and sunning was done for this day, and it was almost time to go, but not before each child could have a ride on his or her favorite amusement. When I was very young, I always chose the merry-go-round, but it wasn't too long before the older kids were going on the Cyclone. After the rides, somebody would always say, “is anyone hungry”. What a question! Is there anyway we could possibly leave Coney Island without a hot dog and root beer at Nathan's? You can have your vacations anywhere in the world but, in those golden days, we would not trade a day at Coney Island for any place in the world.
Grandpa I would be remiss if I did not tell you more about my dear grandparents. Unfortunately, I did not really know my maternal grandparents. How lucky I was to have lived so close to grandma and grandpa DeGrazia. Grandpa was a very fine violinist. As a matter of fact, I think music was his life. How proud he was of his three sons! In my eyes, grandpa was so handsome and so knowledgeable. So many times my cousin Marie and I would ask grandpa for help with our high school French lessons. Grandma told the story about when she brought grandpa, then eight years old, to France to visit relatives. Grandpa was asked to play his violin. A renowned French musician heard him play and wanted to have him stay and study with him. Grandma did not give her consent because grandpa was so young. We all wonder what might have happened if grandpa had stayed in France. Grandpa was a collector of fine objects. I remember beautiful little ivory figurines, a wonderful collection of canes and pipes. I know how much he loved beautiful things because he had, when I was very young, and a lovely flower garden in our back yard. Though he sometimes found it hard to express himself in English, how we loved to hear the stories he had to tell.
Grandma cooked. She cooked and sang. There was one song that must have had special meaning for her. She sang it so often, that to this day, I am able to hum it. Oh, how she cooked on that beautiful old coal stove. There was always something boiling, bubbling, or baking on grandma's stove and the smells were tantalizing. Please wait. We will get back to the cooking, but first you must know that grandma was taking care of Marie, my dear cousin. Marie's mother, Aunt Caroline, died when Marie was two years old and she came to live with our grandparents. Marie was one year younger than I was and she and I were more like sisters. Marie was a skinny little girl, and for so many years we all watched grandma try to fatten her up. If we were there to witness it, we would watch in fascination as Marie sucked a raw egg through a hole in the top. This she did each morning. Next came the spoonful of Cod Liver Oil. Ugh! This we all had to take. Double Ugh!!
Time to get back to the good things like the holidays and food. Looked like grandma was going to feed everyone and she usually did. She would throw a clean sheet on one of the beds. She would roll out the dough for the raviolis and now the older girls, Cammy, Marie and I were allowed to help. We really enjoyed these pleasant tasks, and grandma wasn't satisfied till that sheet was filled with raviolis. What wonderful patience she must have had. I don't think grandma did anything in small amounts. It was time for her homemade sausage. Even a couple of the boys were allowed to help with this. Under grandma's watchful eye, the older kids were given the task of cutting the pork (which had already been cooked) from the bones. Of course, she did the very important seasoning. Then came the exciting part. The meat was put into a machine, which ground it by turning a handle. At the far end was a casing, which would hold the ground meat. Since Cammy was the oldest grandchild, she was the lucky one to turn the handle. Grandma made sure that the meat was being fed properly into the casing. No store bought sausage for grandma.

1929, the great depression! How well I remember and how sad it was. So many times someone would knock at my grandparent's door and ask for something to eat. Grandma never, ever turned anyone away. Sometimes all she had to offer would be a cup of coffee and a piece of bread. We were so much more fortunate than a lot of people. We always had enough food to eat, and a happy place to live. My heart would ache whenever I saw somebody's belongings put out on the street because they weren't able to pay the rent. Where could they go what could they do? Men would come to our back yard to sing a song or play some instrument no matter what the weather. Mama would let us wrap a few pennies in a piece of newspaper and throw it out to that unfortunate person. Yes, we had to do without a lot of things, but that is another story. Still, it wasn't so bad. You see everyone I knew was in the same situation or worse.

I would like to come back to my home. Simple as it was, it was such a happy place. I'm sure I mentioned our large sunny kitchen. There were two big windows with rather wide windowsills. How many books did I read sitting at those windows? Of course the kitchen was always a very busy place and sometimes quite noisy. If I wanted a little privacy, I would move to the parlor. Here the windowsills were wide enough to sit on very comfortably. Just across the street was a blacksmith! How interesting! I would watch the horses come in to be shod. As a matter of fact, there were many times that my father would take me over to see the blacksmith shape the shoes over a hot fire so they would fit the horse. You must know that I was very worried until I was assured that it did not hurt when the shoes were nailed on.

In the winter, dad would have a fire going in the little potbellied stove. Mom, dad and those of us old enough to read would sit around that stove to read and munch on an apple or some goodie that mom had made. You see we had no radio at that time so our entertainment on cold evenings was a good book.

November 10, 2003. It is almost Thanksgiving and I will be eighty-four years old in less than a month. Will I get a small turkey? We will probably be only four for dinner. How I remember the joy of this holiday so many years ago. Mama always had a big turkey, as did grandma and Aunt Ida and Aunt Tess and the others. I don't remember the turkeys looking as they do today, they weren't chubby and fat but oh how good they tasted! We had all the traditional foods and fabulous desserts, but the best part of all was when we all gathered at grandma's house. What a noisy bunch we were - uncles, aunts and so many kids. Of course we had to taste grandma's delicious food. Why did hers always taste the best? Thanksgiving didn't end that day because we knew there would be left over turkey and dressing and homemade cranberry sauce and so much more. No turkey for Friday. No meat on that day, but Saturday was only another day away. There weren't too many Thanksgivings that we didn't see at least a few snowflakes. Oh to be young again when snow was such a joy! Lest we forget, it was a four-day holiday---so much time to have fun. We never lacked for something to do, cousins to visit, cookies to bake and eat, and grandma and grandpa to visit. Evenings were always so pleasant because it was almost always spent with our own family. It was the time to talk things over. It was time to start talking about Christmas! What joy! Should we think about what we might want for our one special Gift.

Fish Ornament

Glorious, wondrous Christmas! Shiny red and green Christmas! Scents of pine and cookies! Sounds of bells and laughter! It's Christmas all over the world and especially at "252". Fresh holly wreaths decorate all the windows. Smiles and secrets are throughout the house. My sisters, brother and I discussing what our one special gift would be, of course we knew, without being told, that there were limitations. But there was plenty of time to make up our minds, so many other things to do. Cammy and I being the oldest must figure out how to save enough money to be able to get a little gift for mom and dad. Then there were all our cousins with much the same feelings as ours. What fun it was to share in their excitement! How the house bustled - Moms cooking, Dads helping with the decorations. The kids will be making popcorn and cranberry strings when the tree was brought in. Well, finding the right tree was quite an adventure. Now you must remember we live in the big city. Who ever heard of cutting your own tree? Mom, dad and all four of us kids go looking for the perfect tree. It didn't matter how far we had to walk - hold this one up hold that one up, shake it to see if the needles fall off. Finally we are all satisfied. Dad will carry it with our help. How much did it cost, a dollar, maybe two. If one was willing to wait till the last minute, you might get a tree for a quarter or less. There was no way that we kids would agree to that last minute deal. Keep in mind that these preparations are going on in all six families living in that wonderful house. This made for so much fun. At this point, I would like to remind you of my dad's glorious violin, uncle Nick's magnificent cello, and uncle Ralph's wonderful piano. Just think of the beautiful Christmas music and hymns we will hear and sing. At this point, a little aside - dad, Uncle Nick, and uncle Ralph would play in our neighborhood church for Midnight mass as the DeGrazia trio. We children would be allowed to go when we were old enough to stay up this late. How I remember the glorious music that could bring tears to our eyes, and how special and proud we felt. Of course it wouldn't be Christmas without the Crèche. The baby Jesus would not appear till one minute after midnight Christmas morning. Each family had their own Crèche - each one somehow different and beautiful in it's own way. At last it is Christmas Eve. Were we excited? Of course, we are almost to the point where we just could not stay still. Well, there were a few little things still to be done. The little gifts we had managed to buy or make must be wrapped, in secret, of course. Our beautiful tree stands proudly between the two windows in our big, homey kitchen. Hope I have mentioned that we do most of our living in the kitchen. It was the biggest and warmest room in our apartment. Sorry, I forgot to mention that the tree is still undecorated except for the popcorn and cranberry strings that we kids had made. Somehow, overnight, the tree would become a sparkling, glorious vision to behold. How did our parents manage to do this? I tried when my children were young and gave up after a few tries - just too exhausting! Christmas Eve dinner was always special - no meat - but very special and delicious food. Time now to wash up and be sure we don't miss any corners. Now, such a special time! Mom will tell us the story about Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. We wait as patiently as we can as mom gets the well-worn "Christmas Carol", the happy, happy ending that we all love and have waited for! We are satisfied now and know that we must try to go to sleep, it won't be easy. Christmas morning - very, very early morning! At the foot of our beds, Santa had left our stockings, (we had no fireplace). The four of us gathered in one bed to see the goodies in our stockings. At the top was always the red and white candy cane. For the girls, a little clothespin doll that mom had dressed beautifully, and for our brother, a little tin car. There was more, a pretty pencil, probably a souvenir from one of the fancy hotels my dad had played at, and at the very bottom, an orange, some nuts, and a shiny ten-cent piece. Mom and dad are at the bedroom door. Hurray! Now we can run to see what Santa has left under the tree for us. The tree! I think my heart must stand still at the sight! It stands in all its glory, sparkling and shimmering in the early morning light. All the glass balls in every color have been carefully hung and, right smack in the place of honor is mom's favorite, the Fish! (Now, at age of eighty-five, I hang this same fish on my tree each year.) Run to see which package has my name on it. Mine is big! Rip the paper off. Just what I wanted, a big paint box with paints in every color under the sun, also brushes, pencils and lots of paper to paint on. My siblings look just as happy as I am. Looks like Santa has been good to them too. We know that four tiny packages, beautifully wrapped in shiny paper, will hold a crisp, new dollar bill. Each Christmas this is a gift from aunt Julia and uncle Ralph, and will hang on the tree. All day the house will be filled with joyful sounds, tantalizing smells, and kids running up and down. In the evening, the children and grown-ups will gather in our parlor to listen to and sing the familiar carols that the De Grazia trio will play for us. Christmas will go on for a long week with visits from relatives who live within traveling distance. How we hated to see it all end.


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