Not your typical Thanksgiving story

How my grandmother ended up at a Cuban cockfight in a fur coat with a man who wasn’t her husband…

I was not born early enough to meet either Dominick or Carmela, my great-grandparents, and that is my loss. Both came to the United States as teenagers. Had they stayed in Italy, though, they might not have been allowed to marry. Carmela’s parents had been relatively well-off in Sicily, while Dominick had little formal education and was forced into the hard life of coal mining in the hills of West Virginia. Moving to the United States was a bit of an equalizer—all immigrants struggle—but Carmela’s family still had their pride. When Dominick proposed marriage, Carmela’s mother demanded that he build his bride a big house in Morgantown. None of their children could explain to me how he got the money to do that, but he did. And, in the day before interstate highways, he even managed to commute to and from the mine so that his wife did not have to live in the hollow.

Dominick-house-Morgantown
My great-grandparents’ house in the South Park Historic District in Morgantown, a short walk from the high school. It has three bedrooms and one bathroom. Dominick and Carmela had six children, and my grandmother and her first husband lived in this house when they were newly married. That’s nine people. ONE BATHROOM.

Dominick worked hard and managed to keep his wife and seven children in their family home throughout the Great Depression. There are two reasons often given for how he accomplished this impressive feat. First, it seems that he was such a consistent and reliable worker that his boss at the mine always made sure to keep him on, despite dramatic layoffs. Second, and more relevant for these times, his mortgage was replaced by a loan from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal program. In this program, the federal government bought out mortgages from banks (who were happy to exchange it for bonds) and then gave a more favorable, more patient loan to the homeowner. Where was this in 2007, huh?

Not only did Dominick keep his job and his house, but he also made sure that his younger children—male and female—were college-educated at West Virginia University right down the street. Unfortunately, the older children were not so fortunate. For example, Dominick and Carmela’s eldest child, Josephine, was not able to go to college. This woman, my grandmother, graduated high school square in the middle of the Depression, in 1937. I still wear her class ring. (I guess the fact that she was still able to buy a class ring at this time is something, at least.)

Morgantown-High-1937-class-ring
1937 Morgantown High School class ring passed down from my grandmother, Josephine.

Now, even though Dominick and Carmela married for love, they did not give Josephine the same choice. Her first marriage was arranged to another coal miner, and it failed—spectacularly. Her husband was domineering and abusive. This was my grandfather that I barely knew.

When my mother and her sister were in high school, Jo left her family for the man she had loved since high school. Why hadn’t she married Jess to begin with? Class mattered, once again. Jess’s family ran a profitable grocery store. While Dominick and Carmella were upstanding citizens and homeowners, their daughter was not what Jess’s family had in mind. After being denied this first time, Josephine and Jess ultimately ran away together. Far away. To Cuba. In 1958. The year before the revolution.

Jennifer-Hallock-grandmother-Cuba

This is my favorite photo of Jo. This photo finds her and Jess watching a cockfight at a resort in Wajay, Havana. Apparently, it was cold because my grandmother is wearing a fur coat. Jess looks typically uptight next to her. They do not have the body language of recently requited lovers, to say the least. (Jess—or “Uncle Jess” as I called him—was never very demonstrative, to say the least, but he was always very kind to me.) They would later marry, divorce, and remarry. Status update: complicated.

Jennifer-Hallock-Josephine-Jess-Cuba-

The whole thing is still a sore subject in my family. It caused a lot of pain and embarrassment. It was the fifties, when Josephine’s Catholic family did not find domestic abuse a reason to dissolve a marriage. (They did not believe in divorce, in any case.) Moreover, because my grandmother was in Cuba, my mother and her sister had to change high schools and move in with their father, who quickly remarried to a recent widow with two daughters. (They lived in Fairmont, West Virginia, the birthplace of the pepperoni roll—see below—and the hometown of Della Berget, the heroine of Hotel Oriente.)

Country-Club-Bakery-Pepperoni-Roll-Twitter

My mother’s relationship with Josephine thawed only when I grew to be about five or six years old. It was Josephine’s more settled and reliable sister, Anita, who planned my mother’s wedding, for example. It was Anita who still filled the role of grandmother for much of my life, until her death this past summer. (Miss you, Ya!)

Even after Josephine and Jess were invited back to the table, things did not always go smoothly. Jess became a landlord of student apartments in Morgantown, and it was Josephine’s job to scour them. Jo scrubbed floors during the day and slaved over the stove in the evening—hardly a romance. She worked hard, and my mother resented Jess for that, not surprisingly. Uncle Jess was certainly set in his ways by the time I knew him. He was a Pabst Blue Ribbon man—tall boys—and he wanted his beer with dinner. Not before dinner, not after dinner, but just as dinner hit the table. Yet he was Josephine’s choice. I cannot explain it.

I do have good memories of Josephine and Jess, though. They mostly involve obscene amounts of food. Thanksgiving included at least three main course choices—turkey, ham, and maybe even a meat chop of some kind—plus about a thousand side dishes, the best of which were the stuffed artichokes. Jess, the grocer’s son, never trusted any supermarket in Columbus. Every holiday he arrived with a car of overflowing bags from his favorite Italian haunts in Morgantown. On the pepperoni front, I appreciated his snobbery. We had a tradition that he would bring in that bag first for me. It was a good tradition.

Josephine should get the most credit for the food, though. Once my grandmother was staying with me while my parents were away, and my high school boyfriend came over for dinner. She had prepared her signature dish: true Sicilian spaghetti with her own fresh pasta CUT BY HAND. He naively accepted her offer of seconds, which meant that she piled a new plate taller than the first. He looked at me, stunned, like he wanted me to get him out of eating the whole darned thing. I just shrugged at him. You don’t mess with an Italian grandma. Unfortunately, that kind of eating, along with chain smoking and obesity, led to her unfortunate death in 1991. I miss her too.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I wanted to give thanks for the bounty we always enjoyed at Josephine’s table. Her legacy was complicated. Her (and her parents’) choices did not really pay off, at least not for her. But she was not afraid to try, and I admire her for that.

rancho-luna-wajay-havana

Research Notes: Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines

Do you remember the days of card catalogs? Or the days when, if your library did not have the book you wanted, you had to wait weeks—maybe months—for interlibrary loan? (And that was if your library was lucky enough to be a part of a consortium. Many were not.) Even during my college years, I made regular trips to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., because that was the only place I knew I could find what I needed. Since I could not check out the books, I spent a small fortune (and many, many hours) photocopying. I still have their distinctive blue copy card in my wallet.

The point is that “kids these days” are lucky. Do I sound old now? Sorry, not sorry—look at the wealth of sources on the internet! With the hard work of university librarians around the world, plus the search engine know-how of Google and others, you can find rare, out-of-print, and out-of-copyright books in their full-text glory.

Today, I (virtually) paged through an original 1900 copy of Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines to bring you some of the original images that you cannot find anywhere else. For example, you may know that almost every village in the Philippines—no matter how remote or small—had a band of some sort, whether woodwind, brass, or bamboo. In fact, these musicians learned American ragtime songs so quickly and so enthusiastically that many Filipinos thought “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” was the American national anthem. You may know this, but can you visualize it? You don’t have to anymore. Here is an image in color:

Filipino street band 1900 full color image from Harper's Magazine in Gilded Age American colony
Full color image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

Smaller bands than the one pictured above played at some of the hottest restaurants in Manila, like the Paris on the famous Escolta thoroughfare. I have seen the Paris’s advertisements in commercial directories, but I had never seen a photo of the interior of it (or really many buildings at all) since flash photography was brand new. Harper’s had a budget, though, so they spared no expense to bring you this image of American expatriate chic:

American expatriates navy officers at Paris restaurant in Manila Philippines in Gilded Age colony
Image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

Not every soldier or sailor ate as well as the officers at the Paris. The soldiers on “the Rock” of Corregidor Island, which guards the mouth of Manila Bay, had a more natural setting for their hotel and restaurant:

Corregidor Island hotel in mouth of Manila Bay Philippines during war between Philippines and United States during American colonial period
Image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

Another interesting image is of a “flying mess” (or meal in the field). Notice the Chinese laborers in the bottom right-hand corner. Despite banning any further Chinese immigration to the Philippines with the renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1902, the US government and military regularly employed Chinese laborers who were already in the islands.

American Army soldiers field mess during war between Philippines and United States in Gilded Age
Full color image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

But enough politics. It’s almost the weekend, so this relaxing image might be the most appropriate:

Filipina girls women in hammock posing for American photographer during colonial Gilded Age
Image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

Want to learn how to find such cool sources yourself? Next weekend, on April 22nd at 1pm, I will give my research workshop, The History Games: Using Real Events to Write the Best Fiction in Any Genre, at the Hingham Public Library, in Hingham, Massachusetts. The hour-long workshop is free, but the library asks that you register because space is limited. Follow the previous library link, if interested. Hope to see you there!

(Featured banner image of card catalog from the 2011 Library of Congress Open House was taken by Ted Eytan and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)