We think we’re brave?
A mother with babe in arms getting on a boat in Sicily–or Ireland–or any other country– in some form of steerage under horrific, unsanitary conditions and coming alone to a strange land where she didn’t even know the language. That’s BRAVE.
Those photos aren’t mine but they might well be. They represent my immigrant grandparents for whom English was either a second language or not any language at all. I’m blown away most by the courage of my maternal grandmother, who (like many immigrant women) made her way to America with two babes in arms. By herself. Yeah, that’s brave.
I was lucky enough to know both sets of grandparents, although my father’s parents died when I was young. My maternal grandparents, though, played a big role in our family, especially my grandmother, who lived until she as almost 99. They all came through Ellis Island in the early part of the 20th century. A few years ago, I found her original boat ticket from that journey. There’s so much I want to know about her life and about coming over from Sicily. I wish I’d asked her when she was still alive.
So when the divine sisterhood and I heard about the Tenement Museum in New York City, we had to go. After all, we’re all grandchildren of Italian immigrants. And we made an afternoon of it, starting with Sunday dinner at a fantastic Italian restaurant nearby called Sauce. The museum is just a short walk away.
The founder of the Tenement Museum in New York City wanted to recreate immigrant life on the Lower East Side and not only bought this tenement, but had research done on the people who lived in several of the apartments. Then, experts recreated the apartments to authentically represent what it looked like in the era. The setting is the Germantown part of the Lower East Side and there are several different tours representing different families’ experiences, Germans, Jews, Irish and Italians. It’s a brilliant concept.
Some of the building was left as it was found–urban ruins, if you will. Like this:
The apartment below looks sunny and bright, but on the overcast winter day we visited it was dark and dreary. Tiny. Cramped. We learned about the Italian family that lived there partly from an audio interview with the daughter who grew up here. Before she died in 2008 (I think) she donated some of the artifacts and worked with the Tenement Museum to help make the flat more authentic.
Family photos, religious icons and crocheted pieces on the dresser all brought back memories, as I realized that my grandparents recreated their early life here in the US even as they got older. It was what they knew. Spending an hour considering the lives of immigrant families, the poverty, the challenges –the reality of it all–moved us all. If you’re in New York City, don’t miss it. And–we’ll be going back next year to take one of the other tours.
If you’re of Italian descent, combine your Tenement Museum visit with lunch at an authentic, southern Italian restaurant down the street called –appropriately enough– Sauce.
That huge pot of tomato sauce contained heavenly flavors that were very close to that of my mother’s sauce. Which I can still taste in my mind to this day. Yes, we all talk about our mothers’ sauce, our mothers’ meatballs. We try to replicate those old recipes and we judge every Italian restaurant by those standards. We judged Sauce a winner.
So: next visit to NYC: The Tenement Museum and the restaurant, Sauce. Tell them the Divine Sisterhood and their brother sent you.