The Voice of My Past

Every October, the more than 15.7 million Americans of Italian descent celebrate National Italian American Heritage Month. For every single one of those Italian Americans, there is a story as to why they are proud of their heritage and what their ethnic origins mean to them.

I’m no different from my Italian American brothers and sisters. I’ve often written of my grandfather, Joseph Anthony Longo, and if you know me personally, you know the stories I’ve told of my Aunt Jennie. And let’s not forget “Mamma Longo” herself, Ann Marie Longo, because without my mother handing down her family’s stories to me since childhood, I would not be here today doing all I do in our community, both here in northeastern Pennsylvania, and nationally.

In our family, however, is one story of an incredible woman that I get to call bisnonna, or great-grandmother. In celebration of National Italian American Heritage Month 2021, I would like to share her story with my readers.

The path that leads to the now-abandoned Fontanili. (Courtesy of Menina Troiano)

Nicoletta Castellano Luongo was born on January 3, 1882 in Guardia Lombardi, Province of Avellino, Italy. Her mother, Rosa Imbriale, originally came from Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi, while her father, Antonino Castellano, was from Guardia. Nicoletta grew up in a section called “Fontanili,” which is a now-abandoned section between the two towns. She had a sister, Vittoria, and four brothers, Antonio, Giuseppe, Pietro, and Lorenzo. All of her siblings came to the United States, Vittoria also settled in Scranton, PA, while her brothers settled in and around Brooklyn, New York.

Besides her birth information, the earliest records available on Nicoletta are from 1903 in Guardia when she was to marry my great-grandfather, Salvatore. Apparently, Salvatore’s mother, my great-great grandmother, Filomena, did not want the two of them to get married for some reason and vehemently opposed the union. They were supposed to be married in November, but due to the hold up, they finally were married on December 31, 1903 after Filomena consented. Part of me feels that Filomena did not want them to get married because Salvatore’s father, Gaetano, died tragically in the USA in 1884, and she was afraid she’d be left alone in her old age. Filomena had Gaetano legally declared dead in 1890 after never hearing from him again. Per New York City records, there is an unidentified man who slipped off a pier in Brooklyn and fall into the East River in 1884. This man was also buried in a common grave and fits the possible death date and age of Gaetano Luongo.

Nicoletta and Salvatore at their home in Scranton in the 1930s.

According to both my mother and Aunt Jennie, Nicoletta and Filomena eventually made peace somehow as Filomena died in Nicoletta’s arms in 1926. Nicoletta would regularly tell both of them about how her mother-in-law died with her head in the crook of her elbow, “Right here,” and her eyes would well up with tears. Nicoletta did not leave Guardia to join Salvatore until after Filomena’s death.

Nicoletta and Salvatore had a chestnut grove in Guardia, but due to the phylloxera pest, the grove died off, leaving them without money. This pushed Salvatore to decide to try his luck in the United States, traveling back and forth between 1903 and 1920 and living in places such as Brooklyn, Rochester, and Northeastern Pennsylvania, working in the rail and coal industries.

At some point between 1910 and 1920, Nicoletta had a tragic accident in Guardia. I’ve heard a few stories on this, but take Aunt Jennie’s as the official version as Nicoletta was her mother. While building the family home on Largo Capodaria, Nicoletta slipped from a ladder and fell, breaking her leg. The ladder came crashing down on her and cut the leg. By the time she could get to Avellino to see a doctor, gangrene set in and the leg had to be amputated.

After the accident, Salvatore got her a donkey named “Chichil” (“Francesco” in Guardiese dialect) and he took her everywhere. When Nicoletta left with my grandfather and Aunt Jennie to come to Dunmore, she wanted to bring him with her, but had to leave him with Rosa and Antonino.

Nicoletta was devoted to St. Lucy and prayed to her to cure her vision as she began to develop cataracts at a young age. In fact, to thank St. Lucy, Nicoletta named her first-born daughter (1919) Lucia. Unfortunately, little Lucia died in 1920. Aunt Jennie arrived a year to the day after Lucia’s death in 1921 and was named Giovannina in thanks giving to St. John the Baptist as she was born on his feast day. On Aunt Jennie’s atto di nascita from Guardia, it is listed that Salvatore was “far from home,” as he was in Scranton preparing for his family’s eventual arrival. Aunt Jennie didn’t meet Salvatore until she was 6 years old.

Salvatore delayed the family’s arrival in the United States, partly for his mother, but also so he could save money for Nicoletta, my grandfather, and Aunt Jennie to come second class versus steerage, which was unheard of but brilliant on Salvatore’s part. He knew if they went steerage and the medical examiners saw that Nicoletta had a prosthetic leg, she’d be shipped home to Guardia. This choice guaranteed her entry– the ship manifest from 1927 actually proves this!

In America, Nicoletta was known to have “the gift,” meaning she could cure the malocchio and could cure minor ailments of the body. Aunt Jennie compared this to her being a kind of a chiropractor, and she also told me that her mother tried teaching her this but it didn’t work. My mother confirmed the story because Nicoletta once helped cure a muscle pull she had in her hand when she was working in her beauty shop. Nicoletta rubbed oil and herbs on it and prayed over it and it disappeared.

After Salvatore’s death, according to Mom and Aunt Jennie, Nicoletta wore mainly black for the rest of her life. She absolutely adored him and referred to him as “my man.” At his funeral, she had to be restrained as she grabbed him in his coffin to try to wake him up.

Nicoletta was also an amazing artisan, well versed in uncinetto and tombolo (styles of lace making in Irpinia). Aunt Jennie actually handed down one of her creations to me. I had it framed and it hangs in my dining room.

Nicoletta’s lace as preserved today.

The earliest photo I have of Nicoletta is from 1924. It was the final family portrait taken in Italy before they left. Aunt Jennie told me that Nicoletta brought it with her on her back through Ellis Island and made sure it was safe the whole time. That original portrait was also handed down to my mother and me and it hangs in our dining room, facing Nicoletta’s lace. My Uncle Angelo is also pictured in this portrait, but he did not arrive with our family in 1927– he broke windows at the town hall of Guardia the night before they were to leave so he could remain with his girlfriend, Maria Michela, who he eventually married. They arrived with their children in the United States in the 1960s.

The final photo of our family in Italy, 1924. Nicoletta is seated, while Aunt Jennie is the little girl in front. My grandfather is at left, and my Uncle Angelo is at right.

I have audio of Nicoletta singing in Italian with Aunt Jennie and my cousin John on saxophone on Thanksgiving of 1967. at the time of this recording, Nicoletta was 85 years old. It’s amazing to hear her voice as she sings traditional songs about working in the countryside around Guardia. This audio was originally on an audio cassette, but it was put into digital format to be preserved for future generations. Audio samples of Nicoletta singing are at the end of this post.

Nicoletta Castellano Luongo died at the age of 93 on December 5, 1975. She was finally reunited with “her man” forever. Nicoletta and Salvatore are buried in Scranton’s Cathedral Cemetery.

There’s so much more I can say about Nicoletta. The more I learn about her, the more fascinated I am. She was a trailblazer and ahead of her time. She was also made of strong stock and didn’t let any adversity get her down– and she was met with plenty of it. I am thankful to share her blood line and am so honored to be able to share her story. She really was one of a kind.

To celebrate National Italian American Heritage Month, I encourage you all to write down your family’s stories, preserve the photos, save whatever you can because, one day, these things will inspire someone else.

Special thanks to Denise De Frietas D’Antona for her assistance with researching Nicoletta’s life.

Audio Files of Nicoletta singing:

A traditional Neapolitan tarantella.
A song in Guardiese dialect, where Nicoletta is singing about leaving Guardia and going across the sea, and how she wanted a different life for her daughter in the New World.
Another song in Guardiese dialect, where Nicoletta sings about departing.
Aunt Jennie chatting with Nicoletta in Guardiese about a song her mother can’t remember, then encouraging her to sing some more.
More samplings of Guardiese working songs, including a salute to the man of the house (Uncle John, Aunt Jennie’s husband) and a song of praise to Aunt Jennie for welcoming her for Thanksgiving dinner.
A poignant moment where Nicoletta can’t remember the words to the song she was singing, she begins to sing a song about holding your neighbor’s hand so they don’t fall.

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