Updated: Apr 21, 2021
My maternal grandmother, Filomena Urciolo, calls herself Phillie. Her married last name, Urciolo, is an anglicized version of the original, Italian, Urciuoli.
Nonna Filomena was born in Italy as a third child of her parents. When she was a baby, her father decided to emigrate to America. It was customary that the father went first, and he usually took his oldest son with him. However, my grandmother’s oldest brother was almost a grown man. He had a girlfriend and did not want to leave. Thus, the middle brother went to America and my grandmother stayed with her mother in Italy until her oldest brother got married. After the wedding, she and her mother crossed the Atlantic by boat. It took them two weeks to arrive in the USA.
They settled in Washington D.C. where my great-grandfather took ownership of a shoemaking shop. My grandmother must have been four or five, but she went to school and quickly made many friends. When the family moved to a different part of the city, she was very unhappy to leave all her friends behind. However, she did not just sulk, but instead asked her father to make her roller skates. They could not afford a bike, but she certainly could roller-skate. Every day after school, little Filomena skated through the city. First, she visited her father in his shop since he always gave her a penny for some candy. When she caught him playing cards, he gave her five pennies, so she would not tell her mother. With that sum, she could afford her double bubble gum. After spending the entire day with friends, Filomena roller-skated fifteen blocks back home.
Sometimes during these escapades, she met my grandfather, who came from a family that was better off than hers. His parents did not like the roller skating girl, but once she and my grandfather fell in love, nothing could stop them. For a long time, they exchanged love notes and met in secret, and eventually, they eloped and married. They never had a big traditional wedding or a party. When they returned home, they lived with my grandfather’s parents who never truly accepted Filomena. My future grandparents were the happiest couple in the world, despite their challenges.
My grandparents had six children who complemented their marriage. They truly lived for each other, and this is why my grandmother’s story is not hers alone. Even though my grandfather passed almost twenty-five years ago, I still see my grandmother as the love of his life. He adored her and, in this way, he made up for other disadvantages of her life.
The story of Filomena rollerblading through Washington D.C. is a metaphor for her life. Even though after her arrival in America, she has lived in the same city, she was on the move all the time. While she was traditional and accepted her conventional role in society, she constantly questioned her limits and bucked the norm. Well into her nineties now, Phillie continues to live life “her way” and serves as an example to her children, grandchildren and great-children of how to live your best life.