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Old Fashioned Snow Days
by Flora Mitidiero Raehl
As a child growing up in the Chicago area, nothing was more exciting than waking up in the morning to get ready for school only to find out that mother nature had granted an overnight gift – the much coveted snow day! What could be better than lounging all day in your comfy pajamas, snuggled under your favorite blanket, dunking cookies in a nice cup of coffee (yes, as a child I drank coffee) and watching morning cartoons that you didn't get to see because you were in school. My father never understood how I could be excited at the thought of so much snow that an entire city could virtually be shut down, because as a child in his hometown of Alessandria del Carretto the thought of a lot of snow would send the residents into a panic. You see, living in a mountain village, far away from any real city, winter life was actually very hard. Dad's house in the mountains didn't have a furnace, just a fireplace in the kitchen fueled by chopped wood stored in il maggazino. When he was very, very young, indoor plumbing was as primitive as you can imagine and there was no "corner grocery store" that you could run to in a pinch. So I guess I can understand why massive amounts of snow would not hold the same appeal to the people who live in the mountains of Calabria. The longer my father was away from his hometown, the more nostalgic he became for the old days in the old country. Much of my childhood was spent hearing stories of what his life was like compared to the way I was growing up in the States and oh how I loved hearing those stories!
Each time I go back to Alessandria my newfound friends and relatives seem to feel more and more comfortable with me, the American, and are as anxious to tell me stories about my ancestors as I am to hear them. One night during this last trip, dad's cousin Pasquale and his wife Rosa had come over for dinner, and during the after-dinner drinks the story telling begins. Dad starts by reminiscing about the time he, his younger brother Ciccio and cousin Pasquale were sent to the family's patch of land to collect fruits and vegetables from il orto, but as teenagers, the lure of la compania was too much to pass up, and after being gone for a couple days (and nights) they return home with no supplies and no explanations. One can only imagine the untold details of that story! After a few more rounds of drinks Pasquale chimes in with a story of his own. Apparently, it was sometime around 1980 and Alessandria had been having a very bad winter. By then my father was living in the United States, his mother had passed away, Uncle Ciccio was travelling back and forth to Trebisacce every day for work, Papa was already in his early 80's and Zia Rosina had become the matriarch of the household. On this particular morning, the threat of more snow was looming and Zia needed to go to the City to supplement the larder with some much needed staples so she travelled with Uncle Ciccio that morning to shop while he was at work and they would return to Alessandria together later in the day. Once they travelled down the mountain and got into the City, the weather was much less foreboding so Zia took a little longer than she had planned, but once Uncle Ciccio was done with work, he learned that Alessandria had been pummeled with snow and there was no way to get back up the mountain so they had to stay overnight in the City. The problem, Papa was home alone. As Pasquale tells it, the snow came down fast and furious, so much snow that the door to his house was completely covered and they couldn't get out. All he could think was that Papa was snowed in across the street (just so you know, "across the street" in Alessandria is probably no more than 8-9 feet wide) and he didn't know how much food or water he had. So Pasquale stands on his balcony, looking down at Papa's house yelling for him to come to the window. Papa could hear Pasquale but of course couldn't get out of his house so he yells through the kitchen window that he was okay, and for the next couple of days that's how they communicated. Even though Zia Rosina was going to town to stock up on supplies, like every Italian household she probably had enough canning from the summer garden to feed a small army for many, many months. For the next couple days Papa lived on pasta made with Zia Rosina's jarred tomato sauce, olives and peppers picked earlier in the year, and the daily glass or two of wine, while he and Pasquale yelled to each other across the street making sure each was okay.
For someone like me who's grown up with all the conveniences of a modern city, the idea of being snowed in on a mountain top is exciting and frightening, all at the same time, and I feel a great sense of pride in my ancestors who not only survived such challenges but thrived as well. But I shouldn't be so surprised, because it was this strength that gave them the courage to leave all that they knew to start a new life in a new country. I can only hope that they were as excited about their new world experiences as I am every time I go to Alessandria – maybe even telling a story or two about me someday!!!
Article Published 1/22/12
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