Skip to content Skip to footer

Interview with Author, Laura Lipari Part III Little Italy

Life in Little Italy

Please note: the following is a continued interview with author, Laura Lipari, all italicized sections are input from her sister, my Aunty Virginia, from Part II

When I graduated from college, Uncle Bill’s family never celebrated with us and we didn’t have a big party. The five of us just went out to dinner together to celebrate. We didn’t even invite my uncle. Then when my brother, Tom, graduated from college and my sister, Virginia, graduated from high school on the same day, we were by ourselves. Then with other occasions like birthdays–my mother did not believe in birthday parties. If you had a birthday party you were to invite the kids that lived in the same neighborhood and the kids that lived in the apartments around you. But my mother realized that we were all together every day anyways and she knew their families didn’t have money to buy gifts; my mother didn’t want them to go out of their way. So we wouldn’t tell them it was a birthday but after dinner we called the neighbor kids in and we would have ice cream and cake. That’s how they knew it was our birthday.  We learned to grow up very quietly and very privately, I would say. You have to think about this too: We lived in an Italian neighborhood and one of the reasons my dad brought my mom here was because she knew the language (Italian and Sicilian). She was just eighteen years old when she came here; so there wasn’t a lot in common. So my mom was very friendly with everybody and she was the only one with a sewing machine. People would come and ask her, “Would you mind Mrs. Curro, doing this…” or “Would you write a letter for us in Italian…,” since many of them couldn’t write in Italian but they wanted to send a letter back to Italy. My mom was always very generous. I knew my mom didn’t understand English, so me, with my big ears, tried to help out with translating for her. She learned real fast though and even went to night school. My dad was willing for her to go to night school which was so unusual for Italian wives to go to night school, but my mother went. She was only there a short time before she quit because the men were all begging her to divorce my dad so they could marry her! My mom was very attractive and she wore very nice clothes. I heard someone say, “Mr. Curro arrived today and he brought his wife.” Then others would ask, “How is she?” to which the response would be something like, “You should see her, the way she was dressed! She didn’t have a shawl like your mother had; she had a hat, a coat, a purse, and she had gloves!” My mother spoke Italian, not only Sicilian. She also, at the time, could read and write in Italian too. My mother was definitely higher than others and all the people in my mother’s neighborhood knew it. Like my sister said, if they needed a letter, “Mrs. Curro when you have time would you write to my parents in Italian?” She would never turn away a neighbor or friend. I remember when they would start to go in their purses, my mama would say, “No, if you insist I won’t do it at all.” Then my mother was the only one that had a sewing machine. Neighbors would come over and at that time they would make a little extra money if they had a few things sewed up when they were at home. When they went to work the next day they would get a bonus for bringing the extra things in. So they came to my mother, “Signora, can we borrow your machine?” Well instead of borrowing the machine, my mother finished it for them and they tried to pay her, my mother would always say, “No.” I can’t tell you much about Little Italy because my mother would not let us play with the kids on the street; instead we were allowed to play on the back porch. The porch was as big as this apartment here in Bemus Point, New York. We were there so my mother could look out the office window and see us there playing. We were the only ones who had a bath tub! I remember that because one women had three little kids and my mother let her bathe her kids in our tub. In those days you took a bath once a week. When we came home from school and if we had played out doors, my mother would open up the tub water and have us rinse off and then we would be redressed. We always had to be dressed by five o’clock because my daddy would be home between five thirty and six and we had to be clean and looking nice when daddy got home. There was no specific reason for this and we were the only ones, as far as I know, that did it. We don’t know why, my mother wouldn’t say we were higher[1] or different. Mama would just say, “Daddy worked hard all day and when he comes home he quickly washes himself and so forth. Don’t you think we owe him the same courtesy?” We looked forward for daddy to come home. I remember in those days we used to have slips that had been starched and they stood out; I looked like a little snow white! [1] When Laura says “higher” or “above” when referring to others, I came to understand this language as not pertaining to having more wealth or being from a higher class status but more in the sense of modesty and respectability. Then Virginia with her curls; mom always had to be in a hurry to brush her curls out. But Virg was good and she didn’t ever cry.

Sibling Relationships

We were three children; I was the oldest, then Tom in the middle, and Virginia was the youngest. My siblings and I never quarreled. Virginia doesn’t know how to quarrel, she isn’t a good quarreler. Sometimes we would have some ideas that disagreed, and I got really worked up and tense about the argument but then Virg would say in a calm manner, “Can’t we discuss it?” She makes me so mad, here I am all set to defend and argue and she is so sweet. So I can’t quarrel. All my ammunition, down on the ground.
Grandma, Aunt Virginia and Uncle Tom
My mother used say to me, “Take care of your little sister,” and here it’s my little sister taking care of me! Virginia was easy to take care of when she was younger. I did look after her and when she went to school I told her what she was supposed to take and supposed to do. I made sure I showed her all around. I used to sit next to her on the piano bench, otherwise she wouldn’t practice! When she had to give a report for class, “Oh Laura, would you mind listening to my report?” I asked her, “You haven’t given it yet?!” Virginia would then say, “The teacher said we will do it tomorrow.” She would stand up really stiff and rigid and start to recite whatever speech she would have. I remember hearing, “I’m going to tell you about the lumberman,” over and over. Then in college when she was supposed to be in a play she would ask, “Laura do you mind helping me with my lines?” I always did  help her and remember saying, “Virg! Don’t shake your head that much…one-two-one-two.” Even in church, when the father gave her a pitcher to pour from during mass, she said, “Tell me Laura, when I am supposed to do it?”  And when she was going to dance, my mom would always say, “Virginia, bend your knees!” My brother Tom and I used to dance all the time. I took after my dad. He was not a dancer, my mother and my brother were great dancers. She would demonstrate to me how to dance with my brother.  When I was in college I had the same Spanish teacher that Laura had. My sister always loved drama and was in many plays and always took the leading role. So when I started taking Spanish, Ms. Williams wanted me to be in the play. So I told Ms. Williams I didn’t know how to act and that I didn’t take after my sister. I had a hard time convincing her until my friend and I had to make an entrance on the stage and we both had one line. There was a trunk on the stage during the play and when passing it, my friend stumbled and then I stumbled. Luckily we still got onto the stage in record time! She knew after that I wasn’t a good performer.  

A Woman in College

When I went to College, my Aunt and Uncle told my parents not to waste their money. They thought my dad should save his money and use it for my wedding. But my mother said, “If my daughter wants to go to college, she will go to college.” My mother believed you could never get enough education. My mother had a saying, “Learn and put it aside,” in other words, get a degree because you never know when you may need it. My father went along with this also. My father had to get money from the insurance to send me to college! I went to Case Western Reserve College. They had a division for women. Rockefeller’s daughter wanted to create a school for women. So they built it in Cleveland, Ohio and it’s named after her. So it was “Case Western Reserve College – Flora Stone Mather.” We were very few women, at that time, that attended. We were allowed to study whatever we wanted, but the school was still very prejudice. I cried through my years in college and I didn’t ever go to the reunions, except once.
Laura Lipari at graduation
When the notes came out for the freshman that year to join a sorority I was so sure that I would receive a letter. I went to college from Shaker Heights High School, which at that time was considered one of the best high schools in all of the United States and it was constantly in the newspaper for its excellence. Case Western was anti-Catholic and anti-Italian. When the invitations came out for the sororities, all of my girlfriends from Shaker Heights High School that I always sat  with at the lunch table, received their letters except me because I was Italian and Catholic. One of the girls, who became my bridesmaid in the future, said to me, “Laura, don’t worry about it.” My friends all joined the sorority and I couldn’t sit at the table with them anymore.  So I sat at the table with girls I had nothing in common with .  When my brother went to college he received letters to join fraternities and clubs, but he declined them because I was never accepted. So they would come to me at the house and try to persuade me to tell my brother to join the fraternities. The fraternities knew if they had my brother, they would have a very important person in the group. I didn’t say no, but I also told them I wouldn’t encourage him either. Later on they invited me, but I didn’t join. When I tried to invite the Dean to a play that I was lead for in college, she turned around and said to me, “Whom do you really expect to attend?” And I told her, “The Italians of Cleveland will come.” Sure enough they did and filled the auditorium. My French and Spanish teachers came too. The day after the play when I went back to class, my French professor said, “Mademoiselle Curro, I would like you to be in our French play.” While speaking in French I explained that I didn’t go to auditions and so forth but she still wanted me to be the leading lady in the play. So I was the leading lady in the French play and I received a couple letters afterwards that expressed people’s admiration for me. Then after that, the Spanish teacher put me in the leading role of a play too! By the time my senior year came, I didn’t care anymore about all the prejudice. Teachers that treated me differently for not only being a girl, but also an Italian Catholic didn’t have such a strong impact anymore. But when I graduated I did receive honors. I could have been part of Phi Beta Kappa, but I didn’t join. When the girls would take science courses they would go to the men’s side of the college and the men would come to the girl’s side of the college for history and so forth. I know I was good in history, it was my major, but even so the men who came over to take courses in history received A’s while I always received B’s. When the professor would ask questions of the class, they would always pick the men to answer. We had mostly male teachers and at this time they were all prejudice against the girls. I remember the teacher always gave the boys the favor. I never raised my hand or anything. I also never took notes my senior year but still received A’s on all my tests.  We were all girls in most of our classes but we did have boys in the history class. For example, I got an A when I was a student teacher but the man who was in charge of that division changed it from an A to a B.   Please Note that this is the third part in an extended series by Gabrielle Lipari on the life of author Laura Lipari.