Tiziana Alessandra Teresa Rinaldi Castro
Updated: Feb 11, 2020
While I was growing up in Italy, my maternal grandmother lived with us. Her name was Teresa Falcone and I was given my third name to honor her.
Before now, I never thought about her outside of being “my nonna,” who cooked, baked, sewed, canned, gardened, and practically ran the household while both my parents worked out of the house. My mother was an attorney, an unusual position for a woman of her generation, and my grandmother sacrificed a lot to support her career, starting with uprooting herself from the native Calabria she had lived in until moving to the town where her daughter opened her law firm. My mother needed her to help raising us, her children.
Teresa was born in 1909, in a traditional family. At that time, girls were not encouraged to continue their education, and in a family like hers, which included a long line of male artisans who provided for their women, these were expected to become wives and mothers. And though my grandmother was a good student who loved arithmetic, and dreamed of one day becoming a teacher, her father, my great grandfather Francesco, forbade her to attend school after she completed the third grade: by then she could read, write, and do simple math: wasn't that enough to make a good homemaker? Teresa was mortified over this decision, but nothing could be done.
What then? Not much was available for a girl of her means to make something of herself but perfecting one of the skills learned at home. It was just what Teresa did: in the hope of becoming a seamstress, she dedicated her time to the craft of sewing.
But that too proved to be arduous: her father was adamantly against it. When, from her meager earnings as a sewing apprentice, my grandmother managed to save up enough money to buy a pair of big, black tailor scissors, he demanded that she give it to him. Teresa refused and hid it under her mattress. The scissors became a symbol for my grandmother of her independence: a way to cut a future for herself.
These two inequities scarred my nonna for life and turned her into an angry person. I can still remember a tone of vibrant indignation in her voice when she recalled either memory, being forced to leave school and then having to fight to learn a skill that she could call her own.
Teresa met my grandfather when she was a very young woman, still in her teens. One day, sobs and cries of sorrow reached the girls as they were sitting down sewing in the courtyard outside the shop where the seamstress would teach them the trade. A young man was grieving his mother’s death, which had just occurred. Teresa was love-struck by the young man, and vowed that one way or another, she would make him notice her.
And so it was that my grandfather Carmine, on the very day he lost his mother, my great grandmother Agnese, he gained a wife. They had three children together, my mother was the firstborn. She was named Agnese after her father’s mother.
Strangely enough, my siblings, my cousins- we all lived very close by and grew up together- and I remember our nonna Teresa very differently. They all remember her as a mostly kind and good-humored person. I, on the other hand, recall a cantankerous woman who often yelled at us and did not hesitate to hit me when I misbehaved. I concede, looking back, that I was hyperactive, prone to accidents, disobedient, and that she most likely felt that she had to discipline an unruly child, and did it in the only way she knew how.
My siblings, my cousins and I agree, however, on some fundamental facts: nonna Teresa cherished and respected freedom. She made it a priority that we all had time to play and run outdoors; she cherished fun, even if her own life did not seem to include much of it. A fiercely competitive woman, she enjoyed sports and all kinds of contests; she would always cheer us on against any opponents, and she herself happily challenged us to cards and table games.
Nonna Teresa had also a soft side, which she expressed when one of us grandchildren experienced something to be proud of, like achieving good grades, winning a prize, passing a difficult exam, or excelling in a performance: she was proud of us and would celebrate us by baking delicious cakes. And I shall never forget those nine white envelopes coming out of her apron’s pocket on Christmas day: in each a crisp large bill saved from her pension, one for each of her children’s children. She displayed her tenderness as well when communing with nature, nurturing her exquisite roses and lilies, and in the way she looked after pets. At the same time, she did not shy away from knocking the life out of a rabbit with a mallet or pulling a chicken neck, if that meant a savory meal for us. I must say that I could scarcely reconcile these two sides of Teresa in my heart, though I never minded sitting down for supper when she called.
My grandfather passed away very young, after only ten years together with her, leaving behind a successful shoe making business that unfortunately died with him. Teresa never remarried, she didn't want to, and she didn't have to: through her sorrow she raised her three children while working as a seamstress and encouraged and supported each of them, to follow their own path.
Certainly, my grandmother was not a feminist in the modern sense of the word, but she was a strong and willful woman, proud, opinionated, and autonomous. She did not speak much and when she did, it was in her native dialect. And ah, what an amazing storyteller she was! Remarkably original, her stories both enchanted and scared us, and to this day I can close my eyes and return to the timber of her voice kneading words into her toothless smile while she roasted chestnuts in the fireplace.
Teresa died when she was eighty-four-years-old. She met my older daughter, Dafne, but not Alchesay, the younger one.
My second name was given to me to honor my paternal grandmother, Alessandra Niglio. She lived far away from us, in Agropoli, which was a ninety minutes’ drive from our home in Sala Consilina and did not visit us very often.
From the stories that I heard, Alessandra was a very beautiful woman, and with untamed curly hair just like mine. Unlike other women in those times, she preferred not to tie it up, apparently caring little about what people would say. She was also tall and proud of it. She was much younger than my grandfather, who was a widower and already had three children of his own when they married. But he also had a title- he was a baron- and a peculiar name, Stanislao, and he owned land. Perhaps she considered herself lucky. Together they had six more children. Despite the family status, Alessandra’s life was not easy: one daughter died while still a child, and when fascism came to power, life became bitter. Notwithstanding their social position, my grandfather, and his father before him, were rebellious against the authoritarian power at large and because of this they paid a price: financial ostracism, jail, isolation.
When I was a kid, Alessandra was to me a mysterious creature, whom I didn’t know well but to whom I was strangely attracted. I remember a gift she once sent me: a very tall doll with black hair and large blue eyes. I didn’t know anyone with blue eyes, and I was mesmerized by them. The doll wore a pink dress and could walk, albeit in a mechanical, unrealistic way. On the box her name read Michela, just as Saint Michael, the patron saint of our town, Sala Consilina, where every other person was called either Michele or Michelina, in His honor. This made my doll disturbingly “alive.” The feelings I had toward that doll strangely resembled those harbored towards nonna Alessandra: fascination and anxiety at once; without understanding why, to this day.
My most vivid memory of nonna Alessandra comes from one spring afternoon when I was ten years old. While the adults were resting after supper, I sat on the living room floor playing. All at once I felt a tap on my shoulder and when I lifted my head, I saw Alessandra. I remember the mixed feeling of surprise and happiness. “Nonna,” I said, “When did you arrive?” She looked at me carefully and replied, “Go, wake-up your father and tell him to call home.” I ran to my father and relayed the message. He went straight to the telephone and there he learned about his mother’s unexpected death less than a half hour before.
I never questioned what happened on that day and why my grandmother chose me to inform her son of her passing. Maybe she knew something about me that I did not yet know myself. Or perhaps it was nonna Alessandra who opened a portal for me to the after-life. It was on that day that I began speaking to the dead.