Wednesday, September 19, 2012

La Storia di Mia Nonna

I never had the opportunity to meet my Grandma Villa (mia nonna), as she passed away a year before I was born. I would have loved to have known her, because her story is as amazing as anything you read in novels or see in the movies. She briefly lived in a monastery, survived an earthquake that killed most of her family, and came to America alone with only a photograph of a man she had met once a decade earlier, who would become her husband and the father of seven children. This is her story... [Note to my Villa cousins: I've tried to verify as much of this information as possible - if anything is incorrect, please message me and let me know! Thanks! <3] Special thanks to my mom for helping me get the facts straight and for sharing this story with me, and also to my cousin Melissa, who provided the awesome photos in this blog post. Thank you both for keeping the Villa family history alive. :)
Settimia as a Young Woman

My grandmother was born Settimia Cerimele in Pescina, Italy on April 21, 1889. Her name reflects the fact that she was her parents' seventh (settimo) child. Several of her sisters grew up and married, as was the custom in the early 1900s. Many of them became teachers, which was one of only a few career options women had at that time. My great-grandmother tried to encourage her daughter to study to become a teacher like her sisters. But my grandma Settimia wanted to become a dressmaker - she didn't want to be a teacher and nobody was going to make her! (Love the attitude - I believe the Italian term is "capa tosta"!) So, rather than go to school to become a teacher, she decided to leave Pescina and went to live with the nuns at a monastery in Naples, where she learned to do beautiful embroidery (by hand). After about a year, she decided to return home to her family. Shortly after returning to Pescina, my grandma received a letter from a man named Gaetano Villa whom she had briefly met 10 years earlier while visiting a friend or relative. Gaetano had immigrated to America and was working with his brother, Giuseppi in New Jersey. He asked Settimia to come to America and become his wife. Her mother did not want her to go to America, so she chose to stay in Italy.

Pescina, Italy
One night in January of 1915, my grandma had a terrible dream. In the dream, she saw a funeral procession traveling down the streets of her village. She went out on the balcony and saw that it was her mother's funeral. At the time, she was living with her mother, one of her sisters, and her nephew. She and her sister shared a bedroom in the house. Two nights after having the dream, my grandma's sister (whose bed was next to the window) wasn't feeling well. She asked my grandma if she would switch beds with her so that she wouldn't be next to the window. This simple act may have saved my grandma's life.

SS America - The Ship Grandma Villa Sailed to America
To view the ship's manifest, click here.
Early the next morning, on January 13 (it was a Wednesday, NOT a Friday, by the way) a magnitude 7 (intensity XI (11)) earthquake (on the Mercalli Scale) struck the Avezzano/L'Aquila region. The earthquake was one of the most destructive in Italian history. In researching the earthquake, I found this diary entry online (written by a man who had survived the earthquake as a boy), as well as photos and a video depicting the devastation. My grandma's home, her village, and many surrounding villages were destroyed. She lay buried underneath the rubble for days (in the middle of winter!) until rescuers were able to dig her out. An estimated 120,000 people were injured and more than 30,000 lost their lives in the earthquake. My grandmother lost her every member of her household that day, plus a sister in a neighboring village. The simple fact that she was sleeping next to the window may very well have saved her. After recovering from her injuries, my grandma decided to take Gaetano Villa up on his offer. Several months later, she booked passage on the ship "America," sailing out of Naples. One of her surviving sisters made her a wedding dress to take with her to America. I cannot even imagine how it must have felt to survive an earthquake, lose so many loved ones, and leave the country that she called home to move to America and start a new life in a new land with a man she barely knew. 
Gaetano & Settimia's Wedding Portrait
My grandma arrived at Ellis Island on March 9, 1916. Gaetano met her at Ellis Island, with only a photograph to help him identify her. (Remember, they hadn't seen each other in a decade!) They were married in April and settled in Westfield, New Jersey. Gaetano and Settimia went on to have seven children - one daughter and six sons, the youngest of whom is my father, Harvey. (Not a very Italian-sounding name, huh? Especially considering the fact that he also had brothers named Dante, Settimio and Guido!). They also had 22 grandchildren (the youngest of whom and the only one neither ever met) is yours truly. My grandparents lived in Westfield for most of their lives, but began spending winters in Pompano Beach, Florida in 1947. Since his parents had a home in South Florida, my father chose to attend the University of Miami, where he graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering. This is how my father met my mother, Alyce, one of the few remaining "native" Floridians! My parents were married in 1956 moved to New Jersey so that my father could work at his family's contracting business (aptly named "Guy Villa & Sons"). Four months later, just before Christmas, my Grandpa Villa passed away. My parents were chosen to bring Grandma Villa to Florida for a couple of months. They ended up living there for two and a half years (right on East Atlantic Boulevard! Their former house is now an antique shop!) before returning to New Jersey (only to return to Pompano Beach about 20 years later). 

Making Easter Pizza
My grandma Settimia Villa passed away in 1969, the year before I was born. I'm very sad that I never had a chance to know her (or my grandpa Guy Villa or my grandpa Henry Lee - one of the downsides of being the youngest grandchild on both sides of the family! I did have one amazing grandma in Clara Lee until 1999, though, and I am so thankful for that!). I still feel like I have a lot of Italian in me. 
Making homemade gnocchi with my Dad & Alana
I love to cook Italian (when I have time!). My Grandma Villa taught my mom how to make delicious homemade spaghetti sauce and my mom taught her children. (Although, I must admit I often cheat and use jarred sauce.) I love that my Grandma Villa made her own homemade pasta and made "Easter Pizza" every year. My mom had Grandma's recipe for Easter Pizza (which is actually yeast bread), so I try to make it on Easter (when I have time!) so that I can give a loaf to my parents to remind my dad of his mom. Once in a blue moon, my dad will make homemade gnocchi like his mom used to make. The last time he made it, we set up a gnocchi assembly line in the kitchen. I hope that Grandma Villa was smiling down on us. :)  I love knowing that some of the Villa family recipes and traditions are being kept alive throughout our family. Although I never had a chance to know her, I have to say that my Grandma Villa is one of my heroes (heroines?). She was truly a remarkable woman!

In loving memory of Grandma Settimia Villa

With Love and Aloha ~ Nancy

1 comment:

  1. That is the sweetest story! She is one very lucky dog to have had two families that took good care of her in her later years. How nice of him to keep in touch and let you see her. Very nice story.