Nanutza ~

I was going to have my Mom read over this post and correct any ‘mis-memories’ in the narrative – but then decided that sometimes the best stories are the ones that we have always believed, regardless if some of the ‘facts’ are slightly askew… so in that spirit, I’m going to share the story of my Grandmother as I have always perceived it. Any inaccuracies are purely my own.

My mom’s mother’s personal story has always fascinated me. Everyone called her “Nanny” – why “Nanny” – I cannot quite remember. As her grandchildren became adults, Nanny would tell us we could introduce her to our friends as something else if we wanted, but she was not ‘something else’ she was Nanny. So Nanny it stayed.  The only alternative was a funny nickname we gave her “Nanutza” – which could mean anything or nothing for all we knew – but it sounded kinda “Italian” to us and we liked to tease Nanny about her thick Sicilian accent. As she grew older, she eventually just made up her own words – she couldn’t really remember much Italian and her English was rapidly deteriorating… my favorite word of hers was “garr” – which, I believe was some sort of pronoun…

At any rate, Nanny came from ‘the old country’ – ‘right off the boat’ through Ellis Island in 1933 when she was 20 – she traveled to the States by herself. The story goes that she came dressed in a novice nun’s habit to keep her safe from the men on the boat.  She was a hot property, my Nanny.  Apparently, my grandmother was much affronted when a gentleman passenger asked her if she would fix the closures on a pair of his pants.   That’s quite a pick up line to feed a ‘nun’, eh? As excellent a seamstress as my grandmother was, she was having NUN of it! Ha ha….

You might be thinking – why was this young woman travelling alone from Italy to New York and more interestingly, where did she acquire a nun’s habit?  Therein lays the most interesting part of Antonina La Barbara’s story.

Nanny grew up in convent in Palermo, Italy –Baucina to be exact.


She had a brother who grew up in a monastery as well.  Both children we well educated by the time they immigrated to the United States to be reunited with their family.

My great grandparents were from Sicily but had immigrated to US during the 19th century – I don’t know if they married in Italy or New York, but they had 5 children born in New York, {Pietro, Sebastiano, Pasquale, Santina, and Elizabeth} and both parents had become naturalized citizens.  In the early 1900s, Nanny’s parents and siblings went back to Sicily, via ship, to be with my great grandmother’s family as my great-great grandfather was ailing and the family needed some help.  They stayed for several years, during that time my grandmother and her brother, Francesco (1916), were born.   My grandmother was born in July 25 1913 but didn’t get registered until July 29 – a year before World War I commenced on July 28, 1914. Italy, however, would not ‘join’ in the war until 1915.

As Italy became involved in the war, my great grandparents and their 5 American born children had to return to America at the behest of the government. They were not allowed to bring my grandmother and her bother because they were born as Italian citizens and they could not obtain a visa.  Their parents had no choice but to leave their two children behind.

This part BLOWS my mind. I can no more imagine LEAVING my child in a foreign country as I can imagine gnawing my hand off.  As a mother, I cannot even CONCEIVE what it was like to get back on a ship sans two children; especially during a war.  However, it was a different time – and I guess you did what you had to do when you have no recourse.

Luckily, my grandmother and her brother were able to stay with their extended family in Sicily.  During their stay, they entered into a convent and a monastery for their education. My Nanny’s family had done well in the States and owned several businesses – allowing them the luxury of attending these boarding schools. My mother tells me that Nanny was cloistered behind convent walls for 5 years.

Why these two children remained in Italy after the war is unknown to me – but Nanny eventually boarded the Saturnia, in her nun’s habit, and arrived in New York on Dec 16, 1933.

Documentation of Nanny's arrival in NYC - pretty cool, eh?

Documentation of Nanny’s arrival in NYC – pretty cool, eh?

I can only wonder at the joy of her parents when Nanny stepped off the boat and how special Christmas 1933 was for the La Barbara family in Brooklyn, New York.

Well, if you grew up in or near a nice Catholic Italian New York family, you know that things seldom remain calm, and if there’s no drama to be found or guilt to be administered, we can spark some up a with a snap of the fingers.

As I mentioned previously, my Nanny’s family owned some businesses in New York, one of the being a milliner’s factory.  Yes, Nanny made hats.  A couple of years later, in the hat factory, she met Joseph Barra, 1st generation Italian-American and factory worker. He came from humble beginnings; he fell in love with the factory owner’s daughter.   They planned to get married – against my Nanny’s parents’ wishes. But Nanny was a scrappy gal who did not grow up in the habit of having parents to mind and did as she pleased. They applied for a marriage license- and much to Nanny’s HORROR,  Joe needed written permission from his parents to be married because he was only 17 years old – yup, five years YOUNGER than Nanny.

As an interesting side note: Nanny altered EVERY document (despite the legality of it) to make herself 5 years younger because it is not PROPER for a lady to be OLDER than her spouse. She had to maintain that falsehood her entire life.  Also interestingly, my parents are 5 years apart, my father’s parents were 5 years apart, my husband and I are 5 years apart and my brother and his wife are ….yes, 5 years apart. 

How cute are they? Anna & Joe Barra - date unknown

How cute are they? Anna & Joe Barra – date unknown

So the story goes that Nanny’s parents continued to be staunchly against the marriage – however, they did not disown my grandmother.  They showed their displeasure in others ways, the most harsh being that the disinherited her. She was not left any of the family businesses. Nanny and Poppy had to ‘make it’ on their own.

Now I don’t know if this next part is true or not, I’d like to believe it was. Before Nanny was married, she was fully aware that she was to receive nothing from her parents after their death if she chose to go through with her marriage to a mere factory worker. The story goes that on Nanny’s wedding day, her maternal Uncle gave the wedding couple a special secret surprise.  Rolled up in Nanny’s elaborate wedding dress train was cold hard cash.  Her Uncle knew that he could not persuade his sister to soften in her harsh feelings about the wedding, but he could provide the couple with a little ‘help’ to get them started in their new life together.

And that is my Nanutza’s story.

My grandfather, Poppy, died in 1978 but Nanny lived until she was 96 – she died on November 11, 2009. She had given me her wedding rings a few years prior but the greatest gift she gave me was the courage to fly back to New York for her funeral (I was boarding a plane on 9/11 and lost what little nerve I had to fly from that day onwards).

I had not seen my some of my family in over 20 years and not met some of them at all. It was the most wonderful reunion of my life. As my aunt, uncle, cousins, their children and I sat around the dinner table one night, we had chicken cutlets, Nanny’s favorite.  In a completely spontaneous and bizzaro moment, each of us, simultaneously said “please pass the chickena” in the exact manner that Nanny said it.  At that moment I felt connected with everyone at that table in a way that I cannot explain in mere words – it was a moment that showed me that my Nanny linked us all together despite time and physical proximity.

Nanny, I love and miss you – thank you for what you brought to my life and even in death you had something special to share.

P.S. I’m still not going to iron my husband’s underwear – you know what I’m talking about, Lady Jane.

I had never seen this picture until recently - but it's hilarious ~

I had never seen this picture until recently – but it’s hilarious ~

About Rutabaga the Mercenary Researcher

I'm a research librarian for Public Television, story teller, bike commuter, baker, music fiend, lover of reading & books, mother, wife, friend - and many more descriptive adjectives and nouns.
This entry was posted in Childhood, Children, Family, Food, Humor, Italian, Language, love, Random Thoughts, Relationships, Secrets, Story, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Nanutza ~

  1. Rohan 7 Things says:

    Great story! I love the old photos. God, that’s crazy that she had to maintain a ten year difference in their ages for all that time. Older women are awesome and I’m glad I live in a time when “proper” when it comes to age has kind of been thrown out the window haha!

    Thanks for sharing, really touching 🙂


    • Thanks! I’ve ever battled with Nanny about her ‘proper’ and what I like to dub as ‘reality’ 🙂

      • Rohan 7 Things says:

        I’ll take reality over ‘proper’ any day 🙂 I’m glad the culture has changed and that age differences are much less scandalous these days!


        • I think the 5 year difference scandal was all her own doing – if she’d been 5 years younger, it would not have phased her at all.
          Her weirdest notion of ‘proper’ was not wearing shoes larger than a size 7.5 no matter what size your feet ACTUALLY were.. AHHHH

        • Rohan 7 Things says:

          Umm, OUCH! O_o


        • Oh yes, I have size 8 to 8.5 feet – that HATE shoes (another thing with that Nanutza fought with me about – she was convinced that my feet were ‘big’ b/c I was bare foot all the time – even though she wore heels for so long that her toes had to be FUSED together and her calf muscles atrophied in the high heel stance so she could hardly wear flat shoes)…and the ironing of underwear – also weird.

  2. Wonderful wonderful! The pics too? Bonus points!
    Gah, what I’d give to get the family pics back from my piece-of-shit-back-stabbing-half-sister. Not that I’m bitter.
    Great tale, and wonderful storytelling.
    Now, drink lots of fluids, take some Thera-Flu and eat only refined sugar. You’ll be up and about in no time.
    To share more lovely stories such as this.

  3. Elyse says:

    So glad you re-ran this story — I would never have seen it. My heart is warm now. Thanks.

    And I hope you feel better soon.

  4. klyse3 says:

    Aren’t family stories neat? Thanks for (re)sharing yours! And hope you get better soon. 🙂

  5. Reblogged this on The Mercenary Researcher and commented:

    This is my Saturday Reblog – I’ve been sick for the last 3 days and cannot possibly be clever right now. So enjoy

  6. Kim says:

    Wonderful story!

  7. Kylie says:

    This is a great story, well told. I can just picture her.


  8. Cathy Ulrich says:

    Loved this story, Denise! Your grandmother sounds like a wonderful woman! No wonder you love to bake – I think cooking is simply genetic for Italians!

  9. Wow, wonderful, Interesting story! What a brave, independent woman! Wow! Talk about gumption!

  10. unfetteredbs says:

    Great pictures. Looking at old photographs is so much fun. Your Nanny sounds like one tough strong woman–I love that she changed her documents to show she was younger than your Grandfather. Alot of spunk in your genes lady– lucky you. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post

  11. You see? Brilliant. That’s what I’m talkin about. Your Nanny is gorgeous!!! I love history and old stories about my family. My little teensy Greek grandma married my rough and tumble Arkansas-born railroad working grandpa really young. They were together since they were 13. I love the old photos and stories my mom tells me about their lives.
    THIS story that you told had me totally enraptured. Loving that she changed the date on everything and then maintained it. That is awesome.

  12. The Hook says:

    Wonderful. Just simply wonderful.

  13. SocietyRed says:

    What a wonderful story!
    I can’t imagine doing some of things our ancestors did. Brave people!
    Really enjoyed this post!

  14. Such a beautiful story! You’re really lucky to have stories about your family and it’s great that you’re writing them down. It reminds me of how important it is to ask questions of our older loved ones so that their stories live on.

    • I know – I wish I’d asked sooner – Mom has corrected a couple of things – but I’m going to leave the story as-is for now b/c I think one of the more interesting things is finding out what other people think happened!

      I bet your grandparents have interesting stories as well.

  15. Maryann Graziano says:

    I remember your grandmother fondly. I loved her “half-italian, half-English, half-? (Nanny speak)? She was always kind and funny. I used to love to visit their house. We always stayed downstairs, so much so, I’d forgotten there was a first floor! I guess everyone was just more comfortable downstairs. Yes, one sweet lady

    • Hi Aunt Maryann ~
      Nanny was quite a character! You must be talking about the house in Brooklyn? I have a couple of memories of that house (mostly the stark bedroom with the scary picture of crucified Jesus staring right at me) – but most of my memories were of their house in the retirement community on Long Island.

  16. I called my grandmother, “Nanny,” too! when we were teenagers we’d call her Nan or, my favorite, Nanathon. LOL!
    The 5 year distance in ages in your family is one of those things that repeats in families. It’s weird, huh? It’s like it proves you are genetically linked.
    Love the story. I do I’m addicted to this kind of story telling.
    great post, Denise!

    • Hi Grippy! Thank you for reading ~ I love family stories as well. I wish we’d all quizzed my grandmother earlier in her life because it seems that everyone has a slightly different story or has heard X but not Y etc.

      Yes, that 5 yr difference is really bizzaro!

  17. mairedubhtx says:

    I loved the story of your Nanny. It made me remember my own dear Grandma, whom I lost when I was 21 and miss still to this day. Nanny sounds wonderful and you were so lucky to have had her with you for so long. Thanks for sharing the story with all of us.

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