I have known my friend Millie my entire life. She takes care of her 100 year old mom, Rose. Imagine that. Rather than consider a nursing home or assisted living, Millie devotes herself to her mom, just as her mom (and all moms) devote themselves to their children. It’s the way life should work.
I had never met Millie’s mom Rose until I was lucky enough to be able to photograph her 100th birthday party. Meeting Rose was an incredible high point in my life. I had never met anyone 100 before. I could only gaze at her in amazement … the things she has seen, done, experienced, and loved. Incredible. And, Rose is sharp as a tack. Even though I was “working” (not really) at her party, she welcomed me as if I was a member of her family and personally introduced me to everyone at the party. It was the most important photo shoot I’ve ever done.
A few months later, we all got to have dinner with Rose and Millie, and my husband and kids got to meet Rose. They fell in love with her and she with them. Millie told me her mom talked about my family for months after that dinner, remarking about how much she loved meeting the kids and what good boys they were. (Yes, I threatened them.)
At dinner, Mikey said to Rose, “Grandma Olson, what’s it like to be 100? What was it like when you were a kid like me?” Rose loved that question and told Mikey and Matty all kinds of stuff about her childhood. Millie said her family has been after her to write down some of her memories.
I received this in the mail the other day and wanted to share it with all of you. There are some pictures from the party at the end.
THIS IS A TRUE STORY
A Memoir of My Childhood as I Remember It
by Rose Olson
Today is my birthday and I am 100 years old. How cool is that! I was born on November 28, 1911, but by birth was recorded and documented on my birth certificate as December 1, 1911.
My daughter Millie has been urging me to write about my childhood. She even bought me a recorder. I didn’t use the recorder, though, and I wrote down by hand what I could remember.
So here goes!
I would like to talk about my parents first. My father, Antonio Ragazzo, was born in Bisaccia, Italy and entered the US as a young boy when he was about 18. He joined up with his brother, Michael, who had settled in Haverhill, Connecticut, where he got a job in a shoe factory. My father could not speak, read, or write English. Eventually, my father and uncle parted.
My mother, Maria Concetta Careseo, whom I never knew, came to the US from Alfie, Italy. My father met my mother through her uncle, Sisto Careseo, who also worked in the shoe factory. They married when he was 22 and she was 18.
My mother died from influenza and anemia when she was 22 years and 11 months old. My father was left with two small children, myself and by brother Albert (who was born on August 12, 1914). I think that I was about 5 and my brother was around 2.
What was my father to do with us? He had to work in order to support us, so he did what was necessary and had relatives take care of us. We went from relative to relative, each family had their own young ones to look after. Eventually, our care became a problem. An interesting note: because there were so many people dying of influenza, my father would put a piece of garlic in our mouth and had us wash it down with Anisette every day. This was supposed to keep us healthy. So it did, because we survived.
My father put us in St. Mary’s Orphanage Asylum in Syracuse, New York. The first day I was there I was pulled out of the line for talking and they put soap in my mouth. I could taste it during meals. I hated the nuns and I cried all of the time. It was horrible.
I was homesick, I missed my brother terribly. I assumed that he was in the same orphanage but I never saw him. I was just a little girl and I didn’t understand what was happening! I was only allowed to speak when spoken to.
It was tough on my father, too. He wanted us to be happy but he could see that I was very sad, so he looked for another place for us. He moved us to the Onondaga Orphanage Asylum in Syracuse. I still hadn’t seen my brother, so I only assumed that he was moved with me. I don’t remember how long I was there but I think that I was around 8 years old. The orphanage had a huge, walled garden where no one could see in and we couldn’t see out, but at least we could go to the garden in nice weather. It seems like I was always on line – for going outside, for showering, and for meals. When we were outside we would form a line and we were given a piece of bread with apple butter. It was something that I looked forward to.
My father met a woman and married her so that he could make a better home for us, so he took us out of the orphanage – finally, I got to see my brother again! Unfortunately, we would have been better off back at Onondaga. She was the typical wicked step-mother who beat me all the time. Why? Because I was her target. I later realized that she was an alcoholic.
To make ends meet, my father took in a boarder. My step-mother, always looking for her next drink, would rummage through his room while he was out. She found a bottle in his closet but she made me taste it first. It was urine! Apparently it was easier for him to use the bottle than to get up to use the bathroom. How lazy can you be? And how horrible a person, to make you test the liquid! Even if it was alcohol, I was still just a kid.
One night while my brother and I were asleep – we slept in the same bed – I woke to hear my father and step-mother having a big argument. SHe said something about the devil being in the house. I was so scared that I woke up my brother and we hid under the bed because we thought that the devil was really in the house. My father tried to calm us and would say “I got him and I put him in the fire”. Our “fire” was the pilot light on the stove and we could hear my father pick up the stove plates and slam them back down.
One day when my father came home from work, he could see that my step-mother had beaten me again, but when he asked what happened I told him that I got hit by a snowball. I didn’t want to cause more problems, but he knew that I was lying – there was no snow on the ground! That same night, they had another big fight and I remember my father hitting her and he almost threw her down the stairs. By this time, my father had had enough and consulted a lawyer. He wanted out of the marriage, but the lawyer told him that there was nothing that could be done.
My father said to me that if she ever was to hit me again, I should take my brother by the hand and run to the Mineola Courthouse, which I did. My mind is fuzzy about this, so I don’t remember all of what happened there, but my father put us up in a hotel near the courthouse.
WIth by father’s hands tied by the legal system, he took matters into his own hands and had her put on a ship and sent her back to Italy – she was shanghaied and I never saw her again. His lawyer praised him for doing something that he couldn’t do. Apparently, he had connections.
By the way, there were two girls born from this marriage: Mildred and Susan. I have no idea what happened to them at the time, I could only assume that they were put into a “home”. Mildred was born in Scranton, PA. How and why we ended up in Scranton I do not know. Susan was born on a ship passage to the US from Italy. There’s five years between Mildred and me and 12 years between Susan and me.
After that the next thing I remember is being on a train with my brother. My father put a note on me instructing the conductor to let us off in Hartford, Connecticut. We were going to live with my Grandma (my mother’s mother). She had been married three times and had 16 children. She sold vegetables from her porch on Front Street.
The school I went to was across the street. I was told that I had a cousin in my class, so on my first day I was looking around to see if I could find him or her. The next thing I knew, I was slapped on my face for not paying attention. When I told my Grandmother, she called my Uncle Michael and he had one of his sons go to the school to speak to the teacher. Whatever he said, it worked, because from then on she was very nice to me.
Unfortunately, we did not stay with my grandmother for very long, and we were sent to another orphanage called the Brooklyn Home for Children. I was about 10 and my brother must have been around 7. I say “unfortunately” because, to me, a “home” was always a terrible place. But, our lives were about to change for the better. The new “home” had two locations, a winter home (in Brooklyn) and a summer home in Hauppage, NY. Our first day there was in the summer home and I remember the first thing that happened. The nurse, Betsey Bowen, sat me down and put a sheet on my and dipped my hair in kerosene to get rid of the lice. I had long black hair, which she cut off up to my ears. Then, she gave me a bath and scrubbed me clean.
I missed my hair and cried for weeks.
After that first summer, we moved to the winter home in Brooklyn. It was on South 3rd Street between Bedford Avenue and Driggs Avenue. The building was separated with girls on one side and boys on the other, but I would get to see my brother in the yard sometimes. Our lives were grouped in three stages: small, medium, and large. I was put into the middle group. Only the girls that got their periods were moved up to the large group.
We lived a regimented life where everything was done by the ringing of the bell. I lived in a dormitory with about 25-30 girls in one very large room. Without pillows for comfort, I liked to sleep on my stomach. Every girl had a job to do before the bell rang for breakfast. My first job was cleaning the boys’ bathroom. My second job was making the beds, and if they weren’t perfect, they were stripped and I had to do them again until they were perfect.
I remember having an infection in one of my fingers from biting my nails. Sometimes the pain and pounding was so bad that I would climb into my friend’s bed at night for comfort. With both of us in the bed, she couldn’t sleep either, so she told the nurse, Betsey Bowen, who took me to the doctor. The doctor cut an opening in my finger and the pain was relieved.
She took me to an ice cream parlor on the way back to the home. It was where I had my very first ice cream soda.
My father lived in Mineola and because the home in Brooklyn was a lot closer to Mineola than the home in Syracuse, he was able to see us more often. He always brought us fruit, which I shared with the girls who didn’t have parents. Sometimes he would take us to Little Italy in Manhattan, where we would have a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
As the years went by I had different jobs. I worked in the laundry, and also the sick bay, which was good because I got to sleep there all the time – by myself and not in the dormitory with all of the girls! I helped the nurse – I remember she was Swedish – and I loved it. My job after working in the sick bay was the best. I cleaned Miss Fernandez’ and Betsey Bowen’s suite with my best friend Ada. The suite had twin beds and a small kitchen. They paid us and with the money we were allowed to go into New York City and see a show or a play. No matter what time we got home, we had to knock on Miss Fernandez’ door.
The assembly hall was used for many occasions. For example, roller staking, dancing, and plays. I was in a play called “The Mikado”. It was also used for Sunday School. I guess I must have been special, because I was always chosen for special occasions. For example, I went to the Wrigley (gum) home and rode horses, I went to the Gould Foundation, and I saw the circus. I had a lot of fun on these outings.
One day Miss Fernandez called me into her office. My father and half sister Mildred were there. Mildred was to join us in the home. She didn’t want to me there and she laid down on the assembly floor and cried, screamed, and kicked her feet on the wooden floor like a small child. My father started to go to her, but Miss Fernandez stopped him, saying that she would stop when she got tired.
School was nearby and we all walked there in a line. I was chosen to raise the flag every day somewhere near the Brooklyn Bridge. Marcy Avenue comes to mind. I would also take the flag down every evening. As a token of my job, the school gave me a ring with red, white, and blue colors of the flag.
I was with the big girls now. We had to wear diapers when we menstruated and had to wash them out by hand. They had to be clean or we had to wash them again. Life was good. I was happy and liked by everyone. My brother was also well liked. The boys nicknamed him “Pickles” because he was so skinny. I didn’t get to see him often, only at church or in the yard occasionally, which was separated by a fence. My brother teased me, saying that next to a pole I looked like the number eleven. I was flat – no boobs or no backside. I loved my brother, but not leading an ordinary life with a mother and father, we didn’t become close until we were adults.
Years went by and one day when we were in Hauppage, by other half sister, Susan, not quite two years old, joined us. When the trustees of the home came to visit, Susan was brought out. She was the darling of the home.
After graduating from school – we went from kindergarten to 8th grade back then – I enrolled in the Brown Business College somewhere near DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, where I learned shorthand, typing, English, and spelling. One day, they called me into the office and I thought that I was going to be expelled. I didn’t know that it was a progressive school, and I was ready to graduate.
Because of all the changes in my life, I was always much older than the other students.
The next day I went out looking for a job, and was hired by City Services at 60 Wall Street. I think that was in 1927, when I would have been 17 years old. When I told Miss Fernandez, you would have thought that I had performed a miracle. The name “Wall Street” meant nothing to me, but apparently she knew differently. My job was to take dictation from someone upstairs and then bring it down to the typing pool, where I would type it up. If my boss, Miss Cherin, okayed it, then she would send it back upstairs.
Within the home, when you got a job, you were automatically transferred next door where Mrs. Brown, Miss Fernandez’ sister, took care of you for $7.00 a week.
I never knew my father paid for our boarding in the home until I got a job and he stopped payment.
Miss Fernandez was annoyed, because she thought that he would have given me some notice so I could buy clothes for work.
Mrs. Brown treated us like royalty, cooking all of our food, setting beautiful tables with tablecloths, flowers, and finger bowls. She was showing us how to live proper lives. We were also allowed to bring guests for dinner, and she did this all on the $7.00 a week she got for room and board.
I think this is a good place to end this childhood memoir, by saying that from age 10 to almost 21 years, it was the best years of my childhood. As you read this, you can imagine what a great man my father was.