Ode to my Great-Grandmother….a True Italian Heroine.

9 years ago on July 19th, a major light extinguished after 81 years of living a life that represents many  lives of European immigrants.  My great-grandmother, Erminia Gualtieri, was a remarkable woman and it is my wish to remember her here, today.  Strong, sensitive, joyful, always pleasant, hardworking and, above all, loving, she bestowed on her family values that seem to have vanished in our modern time.  How lucky was I to have my great-grandmother until the age of 22?  I would not be the person I am today and I most certainly would not have the intimate connection to Italian culture that I retain and cherish every day of my life.

Born in Figline Vegliaturo, Italy, a small town near Cosenza in the south of Calabria, she met her husband, my great-grandfather Ernesto, at a young age and the two were married for 60 years.  If the term “soulmates” ever had a true representative, it was them.  Unfortunately, in the 1940s, Ernesto went to war to serve Mussolini’s army (Until the day he died, my great-grandpa had an innate respect for Mussolini and I yearned to know why, but as things were with my grandpa, he always had a good reason.  Certainly, there were many horrific things Mussolini did that Italian soldiers were not privy to, but he also did many wonderful things for the Italian State.  It was always interesting to hear his point of view on matters of politics).  Prior to this time, Erminia had become pregnant with her only child, a daughter, Ada.  Since Ernesto became a prisoner of war in Africa, he did not know his daughter until she was 5 years old or more.  During their separation, Erminia had no method of communicating with Ernesto, and yet she continued to help her neighbours by giving them produce from the family’s farm and homemade bread.  She was the type of woman who would get her hands dirty, and never eat unless her neighbours also had food to eat.  One day an envelope arrived for Erminia, and in it was a Pansy.  Pansy’s were her favourite flower and she knew that it had been sent, somehow, by Ernesto.  In his gesture, she knew he was still alive. She kept that pansy until the day she died.

Figline Vegliaturo, Calabria.

In 1949, alone with her daughter, Erminia took the long and often tempestuous voyage from Italy to “America,” as the Italian’s called North America.  Her brother was living in the Northern part of Ontario and so she found herself there.  Her husband joined her soon after.  Ada was 8 years old at the time.  After the northern winters proved difficult for the family, they settled in Niagara Falls where Erminia’s other brother was living and they remained in the city for the rest of their lives.

As a small girl, I often rode my bike to my great-grandparents and loved the smell of sauce simmering on Sunday mornings, with the scratchy sound of RAI radio playing.  Often, I would hear great singers singing and my great-grandfather would explain what this kind of singing was.  My great-grandparents loved culture, they loved opera, and they loved life.  They didn’t go to university and didn’t have the fancy shmancy degrees that in this day and age are almost a necessity in order to get by, but they were the most intelligent and culturally aware individuals I have ever known.  I fondly remember sitting with them in the backyard and listening to Pavarotti sing “Vesti la Giubba.”  They had a particular affinity for Gigli and Pavarotti.  My great-grandfather, a stoic man, would have tears in his eyes and my great-grandmother explained the story of “Colombina and Pagliacco” to me.  Little did they know that their great-granddaughter would be devoting her life to the study of this music.  When they died, I had not yet been to Italy and so when I did finally make my virgin voyage to Italy, in 2002, I felt their presence everywhere.  It was very emotional for me.  I recall bringing their photograph along and putting it on the mirror, in every room I stayed in.

“Ridi Pagliaccio”

Is it possible for someone to be gone for this many years and the pain of their absence is still overwhelming?  There isn’t one day that goes by that I don’t think of my great-grandma.  She was the greatest role model I ever had and a true Italian heroine.  Her death broke my soul and although life has never been the same for me, I try to follow in her example in every aspect of my life.  I know that she would be proud to know that I have devoted my life to everything that is Italian, of her culture, and of her values, the manner in which things were done–with delicacy, accuracy, and love.  If I can live to be half the woman Erminia was, my life will have been more than rich.

“Ti penso ogni giorno, carissima Nanna.  Non ti dimentico mai e sento il dolore ancora.  Quanto volessi sentire per un attimo la tua delicata voce ed a vedere il tuo caldo sorriso.  Qualche giorno, in un altro regno, ci vedremo….Un Bel Di.”

One to whom, Erminia often prayed.

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Published in: on July 18, 2010 at 3:23 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It is my sincere thought, and certain knowledge, that of you, she is indeed VERY proud. I shall remember this lovely lady in my prayers today and thank her for her integrity and her wonderful example that helped to form the lovely and gracious woman you are.

  2. The ode to your great-grandmother is truly touching and inspiring. Ironically, pansies were my grandmother’s favourite flower as well. What a splendid picture of Figline Vegliaturo. My mother was raised at a convent there during the early 1930’s. She has many wonderful stories to tell of this beautiful town. In her eighth decade of life now, she will be elated to see that a very significant turning point in her life still remains on the map. Grazie!!


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