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Carmela’s Drive
Elizabeth Dice

My great-grandmother was a proud woman who reined over her kitchen in a blue flowered apron, a wooden polenta stick in her hand, and crocheted house slippers on her feet. Her name was reminiscent of a sugary sweet confection, but Carmela’s demeanor was more like an apple tart. All of the neighborhood children called her “Noni,” and not one of them dared to question her authority, particularly when she threatened a good whack to the “dupa” with her epicurean weaponry. She was the queen of her farmhouse, her children, and her wine cellars, and ruled with a hearty toughness that befit her ruddy cheeks.

Despite her four-foot, eleven-inch frame, she had a forceful presence. When my mother was ten years old, she pointed out that she had grown to be taller than Noni.

“Diana,” Noni said, “If I stack all of my children on my head, I am taller than you.” She spoke in broken English, scattering Italian words throughout her speech.

“Mangia, mangia,” she would insist, standing behind the chair of whichever family member hadn’t yet eaten everything on his or her plate, “Eat, mangia, you are too skinny!” This plate cleaning requirement, in addition to vexing my mother, who could never seem to finish her food, had its effect on Noni, for although she was short, she was also round.

Noni’s hands were so callused from a life of hard farm work that she took hot pans straight out of the oven without mitts. She grew up in Northern Italy in a small town called Campi di Riva at the foot of the Alps. Her job as a young girl was to take the cows up into the mountains to graze and to rake grass into bundles to make hay. Noni was busy raking grass on a particularly hot day when she lost her balance and went tumbling down the mountain. A well-placed bale of hay broke her fall.

When World War I began, the government sent Noni and her family to Czechoslovakia to work on a farm. When she returned to Campi di Riva, a husband was waiting. Noni’s marriage to my great-grandfather Guiseppe was arranged, and at first she was miserable; she thought her husband lacked height and charm. Over years and through struggles she grew to love him. After he died, she wore black head to toe for the rest of her days.

Noni and Guiseppe immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1927 with a baby on the way and only twenty-five dollars. There Guiseppe worked in the steel mills to support his growing family; he and Noni eventually had five children including my grandmother, Elena. My grandmother remembers her father coming home in the evening to cut their expanse of grass with a scythe in long graceful sweeps, singing Italian songs all the while. On Sundays, Guiseppe spent the day at the Italian club drinking and playing bocce with his friends, and in the evening Noni would meet him for music and dancing.

Guiseppe was proud of Noni’s strength. He loved to talk about the day she was making polenta in the kitchen, went into the bedroom, had a baby, and came back and finished the polenta.

“What a woman!” he would exclaim with a flourish of his hand and a flash of teeth.

Noni had three sons, Silvio, Julio, and Enrico, along with two daughters, my grandmother and Leopoldina. After Guiseppe passed away and all five siblings were married, the farm was too much work for Noni to take care of on her own. Silvio and Julio, both skilled developers, built sixteen houses on the farmland and named the road Tyrol Drive after the region in Italy where Noni was raised. They also developed another road in Baldwin with houses crafted of large stones and named it Carmela Drive in honor of their mother’s life in Pittsburgh.

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