Rosalia D'Ippolito, my great grandmother, came to the United States from Sicily in 1921 at the age of eighteen, all alone. She was the last of twelve siblings in her village of Mussomeli caring for her mother and father. After her parents passed away she made the long journey across the Atlantic to be with her brothers and sisters. She moved in with her oldest brother Joe, never having met him. Twenty six years her senior he left Sicily before she was born to open restaurants in the states. Despite being a stranger to this country, she was optimistic.
John Ricci emigrated to Pittson, Pennsylvania to work in the mines when he was only thirteen years old. After working tirelessly for a few years in dangerous conditions, he moved to Passaic, NJ in search of safer opportunities. He began working for Forstmann Mills, a producer of fabric and materials for jackets and peacoats. At seventeen years old he lied about his age and joined the Army to fight when World War I broke out. When he returned from the war, John and Rosalia met as they were living in the same tenement house, and two of their siblings happened to be married. It was a small world back then. Mimi's dear Uncle Joe who became a father figure to both of them welcomed my great grandpa into his family and gave his blessing for John to marry my Mimi.
Together they had a son, born a sturdy fourteen pounds, who tragically passed away shortly after his birth. Fortunately they became pregnant again and Mimi gave birth to my grandma, Rose Marie. She was the center of Mimi's universe. Nana tells me that the adoration was mutual, and each day was special as she beheld the world with wonderment, embracing its abundant gifts. She instilled that outlook in everyone she met, her smile infectious.
Mimi awoke every morning and put the radio on immediately. She loved music and it played the entire day. Her favorites were the Italian stations and WNEW. The voice of host William B. Williams echoed through the house.
Her longevity, in my opinion, had little to do with what she ate and everything to do with how she ate, surrounded by the people she loved, everything having been prepared with her two humble hands. The pantry was stocked every morning with fresh produce: eggplant, escarole, chicory, tomatoes, swiss chard, artichokes, lentils, and cardune. Assorted fruits and lean proteins too. Good olive oil was required and everything was homemade. Fig cakes, sfingi (pastries), bread, and pasta. She would knead the dough, let it rise, roll it out and cut accordingly. She stretched a bar across two chairs to make a sort of drying rack, where the cut pasta would set. At Christmas there was struffoli, which she assembled in the shape of a tree using cone shaped glass. I'll attempt to make it this year with my Nana. Mimi used every morsel of food in her kitchen so as not to waste anything, the aroma of garlic or lemons never far.
While learning to drive, Mimi backed up into a pole. She decided driving was unnecessary from that day forward and never drove again; she walked everywhere. She held a job briefly as well. For three days she worked on the conveyor belt at Shilton's, a perfume and powder company. Because she was left-handed, she was assembling the items backwards and was reprimanded. That too was the end of work. She made a home instead.
Mimi lived for her family and adored her daughter. My Nana performed in the Christmas show in elementary school and Mimi, bursting with pride, invited everyone she knew to see and support her darling daughter. She took Nana on outings near and far. They would board the 74 bus together to Newark, NJ and shop on Broad Street. They also frequented Paterson and Passaic which were at the time epicenters of industry.
On one occasion, Mimi read in the newspaper that the fleet was docked at the Navy Yard. With her daughter in tow, she hopped a train to New York and asked a policeman for directions to see the fleet. Mimi and Nana boarded the USS Enterprise, a massive battle ship, for an afternoon to remember. She had great courage for a woman small in stature.
She diligently upheld a beauty routine. She moisturized her face and body with olive oil based cream every evening before putting on silk pajamas, always matching. She dressed elegantly each day and wore blush, bright lipstick and perfume. She loved nail polish, especially reds and pinks. Accessories were a critical part of her wardrobe. Consistently worn were gloves, hats, pretty shoes, and costume jewelry. Mimi decided she wanted to purchase a fur coat. Although she had no middle name, she had the initials RLR embroidered into the collar. Rosa Lia Ricci. She reasoned that everyone had a middle name, so why not she?
Mimi spoiled her grandchildren, and thankfully for me, her great grandchildren. My sister and I were very fortunate to have had the blessing of great grandparents. While aging cannot be easy, as your body changes more quickly than your mind, aging is also a great privilege not everyone receives. Mimi was one of the lucky ones.
She was gracious and generous. A devout patriot, she diligently recited the Pledge of Allegiance with her delicate hand in a salute over her eyebrow, almost daily. Mimi said that the United States gave her life, and filled her mind and heart with possibilities. She learned English within the first year of her arrival because she desperately wanted to belong.
Into her nineties she still had all her teeth, and never developed any cavities. There were no signs of medical problems or declining health although she reportedly had high blood pressure. One afternoon I entered my Nana's house to find Mimi in the kitchen, her mouth and face covered in chocolate cake. She told me the cat was hungry, and they split a piece.
She lived until the ripe old age of 98, after a fall limited her mobility. Every day was a miracle in the making because Mimi chose to make it so, celebrating the simple, nourishing her body and loving others deeply. i try every day to live the way Mimi lived.