Growing Up With Grit: Out of Chaos, Art


After making the transition to Greenville, Mississippi, our Italian family thrived. They still went through very hard times. White people didn’t like Italians. There was a case in New Orleans where five Italian men were framed and hanged for no reason other than their heritage.

My family is no stranger to racism or slavery (which came in a pretty package called sharecropper). Doing research on my heritage, I found an article in the Delta Democrat Times about Italian immigrants. The author highlighted the fact that she was shocked at how thrifty Italians were (eluding to Americans thinking Italians were dumb).

The other two main obstacles were the great flood of 1927 and the outbreak of yellow fever. Our family somehow survived both.

When I was born, things for Italians had changed in Mississippi. We were a large part of our community. We had a thriving Catholic Church and private school. Our family was so large that at any given event there were at least 40 people there and they were ALL blood relatives.

On Sundays after church there was always a spaghetti supper at our house. I helped make the meatballs. It seemed like we cooked that spaghetti all day. And we did. The sauce cooked for hours and then at the last hour, the meatballs were added. I don’t know how we did it but there was always enough pasta for the entire family.

On holidays, we would gather at our parent’s house about two weeks before the actual holiday to make tortellini. We made the dough and the meat filling and in the end, had about 1000 tortellini to be frozen and saved for the upcoming holiday. Those are some of the best memories of my life: not the toys I got from Santa, or finding the golden egg, or getting candy from the Easter bunny, it was the togetherness. No one lived out of town. Everyone lived right there in Greenville where one of the biggest events of the year was the Catholic Parish fair. EVERYONE was at the fair and of course, there was spaghetti served for anyone who had a ticket for a plate.

I never knew anything different than what went on in that little town.

I was a happy child but, as anyone knows with a large family, there will come traumatic times; and there were.

One of the largest tragedies in particular was my oldest sister, Joyce’s death. I was five years old at the time. On February 12, 1978, Joyce turned twenty-one. That same day, she lost control of her car and was found dead the next morning. I answered the door for the poor man who was sent to tell my parents. After that, everything changed. Everything.

Our family business went under a few years after Joyce’s death due to a franchise named Auto Zone coming to town. Auto Zone bought large quantities of parts, which enabled them to sell at much lower prices. My father’s auto parts business just could not compete. Most of my siblings were grown and married by this time. My closest sister in age, Cathy, was in high school. Cathy and I were the ones who really felt the brunt of our father’s business going under. We moved out of our home that was full of all of those amazing family gathering memories. My mother and father both ended up working for factories in town. And somewhere in all of this chaos, my love for art began.

The first piece of artwork I can remember well was a finger painting. I LOVED finger painting. Mom was gone away from the house and I remember trying to find something wonderful I could paint on to give my mom when she got back home. Low and behold in my mother’s cedar chest there was a perfect gold and white checked box.

The inside was covered in brown paper- perfect for a finger painting. To me, the inside of this box was just calling for a painting. It even had it’s own frame having sides and all.

So in my best finger painting mojo, I decided to paint a big red flower and I think maybe some green grass and of course the yellow sun…who could forget the sun?! I was proud. My creation was perfect.

I couldn’t wait to give my mother this gift when she got home. I waited for it to dry with anticipation. As soon as my mother arrived, I gave her what I thought was the “Picasso” of finger paintings. Much to my surprise when she saw it, she got a strange look on her face and I knew it wasn’t the look of pleasure.

To this day, my mother still has that “oh so perfect box for a finger painting”. She tucks it away in her cedar chest and inside this box is my oldest sister, yes, the one who passed away, Joyce’s wedding album. Today, we both laugh at what I thought was the perfect gift; and in a way, in my way, it was.

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