A day without work can yield a night without sleep
– Albanian Proverb
One of my literary heroes, and my writing sherpa – the person who has influenced me more than any other when it comes to styling my prose and shaping my fiction – is W. Somerset Maugham. His works, if you don’t know, include Of Human Bondage, The Purple Veil, A Moon and Sixpence, and countless other iconic novels, novellas, short stories and plays. He also was a sage when it came to the business of explaining to writers the essence of writing, including this tidbit:
So I won’t. Not for this article, at least. Which is about a woman I met (or let’s more accurately say she met me) but never knew. Her name was Giorgetta Alessio, and she was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. She died one day and two years after I was born (December 24, 1966), on Christmas eve no less.
It’s only been recently, in talks with my mother about her grandmother, that I am learning about this remarkable woman. It seems a shame it took me this long to make such inquiries, but, perhaps, the timing is just right. I’ve found that to be the case in many things in life – what comes to you comes to you when you really need it to come to you.
I want to keep to Maugham’s directive in writing about my great-grandmother. I don’t want to “explain overmuch”, but rather just give some facts and anecdotes and let you, if you so please, connect on your own to her story, which, I truly feel, is an American one.
But I will begin in Albania, where my great-grandmother was born and raised. Like many immigrants, she came to this country as a young woman seeking a better life. And I believe she found it in Western New York, in the village of Piffard, a tiny, rural town just outside Geneseo, which itself is about 30 miles outside of Rochester, NY.
Piffard is situated close to, and sits above, the now defunct Retsof Salt Mine. Founded in 1885, the Retsof Salt mine was the largest of its kind in North America, and the second largest in the world. It was huge, covering an area the size of Manhattan, and went down to a depth of 1,000 feet beneath the rolling and rich farmland above. The mine finally ceased operations in 1995 after a collapse, and was completely flooded and sealed off.
Yet while most people in the area worked in the mine, my great-grandmother’s husband, George Alessio, an Italian immigrant, was a “track checker”. Simply, he was employed to walk a sizable section of the rails each day to ensure they were not damaged and that the switches were working. (Track walkers are famously still employed by the MTA maintaining the New York City subway lines). I imagine the job was good for his health, but hard on his shoes. But to me, living today in such a fast-paced, digital-scattered world, the idea of working outdoors and doing something as tangible and focused as checking tracks for cuts and breaks feels more like mindfulness nirvana than tedious toil.
My great-grandmother worked hard as well, but her duties were much more varied and maybe more challenging. For one, she was in charge of running the household, cooking and caring for eight children: two daughters (the oldest being my grandmother), and six sons, including twin boys born when she was 48. It was a large family, but a close-knit one, and her ambition, faith, resilience and courage (I believe these are common traits of immigrants who make brave journeys to new lands and thrive once they settle) was infused in all her children. Each grew up to be a success; some went to college, some created thriving businesses, some had good positions at large corporations, and one taught in higher education. Each had children of their own that built further on this foundation of achievement.
My great-grandmother, and her husband, set the tone for this future accomplishment. For her, perhaps, it was to model the bravery to try new things and not be daunted by limitation. For instance, when it was not common for woman to do so, she learned to drive, got her license and bought herself a car. She also always demonstrated a great work ethic, a lack of humility, and a pride in providing what she could. My mother tells me how her great-grandmother made extra money for the family sewing salt bags for the mine. For this, she received one penny per bag. She would brag that should could sew 100 bags a day.
In between, my great-grandmother cooked and cooked. The family always had a garden in the summer, and she would pick and can tomatoes and peppers, onions and garlic, for use all the year. Her sauce was legendary. After her children grew up and moved out, she would communicate with letters. Because her education was scant and English was a second language, she asked my mother to help write these, dictating while she worked over a pot of gravy. “Mention I am putting in the Sausage,” she would say to my mother as she stirred the pot. And every now and then, as she was a devout woman, would ask, “Did I say God Bless you? Make sure to put that in.” Many of these letters were written during World War II, addressed to her son George, named after his father, who served as an ammunition truck driver at the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most dangerous and bloodiest battles of the conflict.
When George gratefully made it home and the war was over, he would always call her on the phone at a set time each week. My mother said that her grandmother would always tell her, “I had a dream last night George would call today. When he did, as he always did, she would crow how her premonition came true. And then, if she was making (and tasting sauce) when George did call, she would worry that he might smell the garlic on her breath through the phone.
But of all the stories I’ve learned recently, the one I like the most is finding out that her favorite show was Hogan’s Heroes (look it up young people). It was a comedy about Americans and Allies in a German prisoner of war camp, and how they outwitted the warden (Colonel Klink!) time and time again for the betterment of their side. My great-grandmother said that watching helped her to learn and improve her English.
My aunt, my mother’s younger sister, after finishing her job, would come over each day to watch the show with my grandmother, who called it “Hogan the Hero.” Together, they would drink a little brandy and laugh. Perhaps this is why my great-grandmother was always said to have “rosy cheeks”. Brandy and a good sit-come will do that.
There are other things about my great-grandmother’s life that must be taken into account. For one, she, like many immigrants, faced discrimination. In fact, two of her sons, faced with bias against Italians, changed their names from Alessio to Allison in order to secure jobs and advance their careers.
Another son, as a child, going for a routine surgery, was given too much chloroform by the doctor and became a deaf-mute. Undaunted, my great-grandmother made sure he was sent to the best school to learn sign language and learn how to be independent and thrive. And he did, becoming one of the nicest, most supportive, and likeable people I have ever met.
So maybe I explained too much here about my great-grandmother. Or maybe not enough. To this end, I’m reminded of the famous phrase spoken in each episode by one of the most famous characters of Hogan’s Heroes, the bumbling and rotund Sergeant Schultz. When faced with a tough question that might get him in trouble with his superiors, Shultz invariably answered: “I know nothing. I see nothing!” It’s funny, but it’s also sad. Comedy can be that way. But family history doesn’t have to. We can laugh, for sure, but we can, and must, also learn.
So in the spirit of my great-grandmother, and against Sergeant Schultz’s wishes, when it comes to family history, I implore you: Ask questions. Know something. See everything. You never know what you’ll find out about someone, and more, about yourself.
Photos courtesy of author