This Singer sewing machine is a treasured possession of mine. I remember all the beautiful clothes my Italian grandmother made for me with it.
In 2014 I sketched the machine as a challenge for my art practice. I published the sketch in June 2015, when I started my journey as a blogger.
I often think of my grandmother or Nonni, as we used to call her. Since 2015, I have written many times about Nonni…read other stories here: Apprehensive Amalia, A Good Grasp of the Situation, In Praise of the Often Maligned Fruitcake, The Nostalgia in a Burst of Flowers, Who Thinks of Christmas Fruitcake in July?
A family’s immigration story
Ours is a typical Canadian story, the quintessential story of how our cultural mosaic came to be.
As a younger woman and mother, Nonni used the machine on a daily basis. Our immigration story is pieced together from different accounts and from some research.
Grandfather leaves the homeland first
My grandfather arrived in Canada in 1927 to establish himself so that he could send for and support his wife and young daughter who remained in Italy.
My grandfather fought in WWI and my grandmother had a medal from the Italian government and some certificates for his service. His relatives reside to this day in the same family home they have owned for centuries in Pozzo di Codroipo, a stone’s throw away from my grandmother’s home. The property is large enough for a garden where they grow kiwis and bananas along with the usual vegetables.
My grandfather was a master shoemaker by trade. It took him seven years to become a master shoemaker back in Italy where he learned his trade. He could make shoes as well as repair them. A little shop on King Street in Sturgeon Falls, a northern Ontario paper mill town, eventually became his workplace.
My grandmother came to Canada on the Conte di Savoia. The Italian ocean liner’s maiden voyage between Genoa and New York was in the fall of 1932. My grandmother arrived in Canada in the winter of 1934 with their first child who was by then, 9 years old.
When I researched Ellis Island records, I was unable to find any mention of my grandmother; however, I did find her name at a checkpoint on the Canadian-American border. Officials had misspelled her name, a common occurrence at that time.
Records do show many of my grandfather’s cousins coming to Canada to work. After the wars, there were few jobs to be had in Italy. Some stayed long enough to support their families back home, and then returned to Italy while others never saw Italian soil again.
The story goes that my grandmother travelled from New York to Montreal with very few possessions or food or money. She was not used to the cold nor was she properly dressed for it. From Montreal, she and my aunt, travelled by train to their new home in northern Ontario.
After having been to my grandparents’ hometown in the foothills of the Alps, near the Tagliamento River in Italy, I think northern Ontario in the middle of winter, with its vast empty spaces must have been a shock to both of them. As with many other newly arrived Canadians, my grandmother never returned to Italy. Her native country remained in her mind and in her stories all her life.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for the small family, my grandmother, their first daughter, and my grandfather, meeting after seven years of separation. My mother was born nine months after my grandmother’s arrival in Canada.
The family lived above the shoe shop. My mother told me she watched, from the window of the second floor, soldiers leaving for war at the train station. I remember the apartment as a very comfortable home. As a child, (many years later) I thought it was a special treat to watch street dances on summer nights from the upper bedroom window.
When my grandmother was widowed in 1947, she had to find a way to support her family.
Singer sewing machine and the livelihood of a family.
My grandmother bought the second-hand Singer from one of her Italian friends who was doing alterations for local shops. She helped this woman when she had too much work.
Eventually, Nonni had her own customers coming to her home. She did alterations for Higgins Clothing, a family owned store a few buildings away from my grandparents’ home.
The women brought their clothes up to the apartment and changed in one of the bedrooms where, in front of the full-length mirror, my grandmother would pin their clothes and make adjustments.
Mr. Higgins prepared the men’s clothes for alterations from the store and have them delivered to my grandmother. Nonni managed her little home-based business even though she hardly spoke a word of English or French.
As her own girls grew up, she would accept clothes from relatives and refashion them into new dresses and coats for her own children. After she retired, my grandmother used the machine to sew clothes for her grandchildren.
As I grew up, I was close to my grandmother. I loved spending a week or two with her during the summer holidays. We watched soap operas together, and she taught me to make ricotta cake, chocolate squares, and the traditional zucchini flower pancakes from her northern Italian region. From her I learned to embroider, and she told me stories of back home. I recorded her telling me a story of her escape to safety during the war. Each year, my mother made Nonni’s Christmas cake recipe, a beautiful lemony work of art. These are my memories of her.
I can still hear her laughter as we sat on the front porch on warm summer evenings, and I teased her about the boyfriend I would find for her. One particularly older man in cowboy boots was the prime target of our secret laughter and she would run into the house whenever he walked by.
Later, I visited Nonni with my girlfriends. She would ply them with sweets and then be offended if they did not eat.
Eventually, my soon-to-be husband was introduced to my grandmother (and warned in advance to eat!) and later, my oldest child as well. Nonni loved children and spoiled them with her affection and attention.
The Singer machine was left to my mother when Nonni died in 1987.
Several years ago, before my mother knew she had cancer, she gave me the machine. Mom knew I treasured anything that belonged to my grandmother. I have other items that belong to her like vintage greeting cards and notes, and her beautiful handmade aprons, and some embroidery work.
As children, we have role models we can look up to and Nonni was definitely one of mine. To this day, I remember the love she had for us, her grandchildren, and all the ways she showed us, mostly through food, that we were special.