Michelle Ann Kratts

Archive for the ‘Niagara in Love’ Category

My Mother’s Mother’s Mother

In Coming to America, Niagara Falls, Niagara in Love, Restaurants of Niagara Falls, St. Joseph's Church, The Italians of Niagara Falls, New York on June 28, 2013 at 4:19 pm
Clementina, Gina and Francesco Fortuna

Clementina, Gina and Francesco Fortuna

The Ventresca family in Italy (not including Clementina, or her father, Angelo)

The Ventresca family in Italy (not including Clementina, or her father, Angelo)

My great grandmother, Clementina Ventresca

My great grandmother, Clementina Ventresca

I have always wondered if there is something mystical about being the first-born daughter, of a first-born daughter, of a first born daughter, etc. As far as I can tell by my research, my maternal line, the one that also carries my Mitochondrial DNA (passed only by mothers to their children) is a long series of uninterrupted first born daughters. Interestingly enough, I also gave birth, first, to a daughter. This special relationship was something that my family celebrated and I have been told that back in Italy things such as this are indicative of some sort of psychic prowess. The Abruzzo region, where my family originated, is known for its superstitious character so I am not surprised. Some things I have read have said it is the area in Italy most “prone to magic and superstition.” Bordered by the Apennines, Abruzzo is home to some of Italy’s wildest terrain. Silent valleys, vast untamed mountain plains and abandoned hill villages carelessly dot the ancient landscape today. Many unusual stories have been passed down and even in America we have a strong inclination toward unearthly things.

The furthest back in this special line of women–that I have had the privilege of knowing personally–was my great grandmother, Clementina Ventresca Fortuna. Her mother, Adelina, was also a first born daughter, however, she died a few years before I was born.

Clementina was born in the small mountain village of Torre Dei Nolfi, in the province of L’Aquila, region of Abruzzo, on November 16, 1901. Her life in Italy was far from idyllic. The eldest daughter on a farm, there was much work to do. Her father, Angelo Ventresca, was often in America, or traveling across the ocean, earning money at various jobs in order to ensure the family’s survival. Adelina, his wife, was left with the arduous task of managing the farm with her daughters. Her only son, Vittorio, was one of the youngest, and could not help with the major work. Clementina, my great grandmother, was a shepherdess and she spent her days tending to the sheep that grazed the primeval hillside. In this sort of natural solitude, her needlework often kept her busy in her loneliness, and of course, there was that other notion to keep her going…the love of a young man. His name was Giovanino. He was a policeman from Rome and over the years this sad, sad story concerning unrequited love has been passed from generation to generation. I only knew my grandmother as an old woman, but every time I looked at her I imagined the young girl she had been, because of this story.

It was really quite simple. They met, fell hopelessly in love, were forbidden to marry, threatened…and in the end he was dead and she was on a boat to America. Clementina’s youngest sister, my Aunt Phil (Felicetta) remembers how Giovanino would stand outside the window of their old stone house, in the garden, before the earthquake had struck, and he would sing his heart out to her sister. In my imagination, my grandmother was Juliet and poor desperate Giovanino was Romeo. A love so beautiful as theirs was destined for tragedy. The family was set against Giovanino as she had been promised in an arranged marriage to another, the son of the most powerful man in the village. But Clementina was not prepared to surrender. She embodied the stubbornness that we all share today. Even as various relatives did their best to instill fear within her, and even as another cousin who had also attempted to break with tradition and marry the man she had loved was brutally murdered and her body left in Clementina’s family’s garden (an obvious warning), Clementina refused to give in and marry a man she did not love. In fact, she hated him even more. And so, as they had promised, deep in the night, those who had found their love unsavory, murdered Giovanino. My grandmother was heart broken but even fear would not break her spirit. Emboldened by her anger and her grief she found there was only one thing left to do: go to America. Italy had broken her heart.

Lucky for Clementina, her father was in America. He was in Niagara Falls, New York, working on the railroad. He welcomed her to come. Little Felicetta was very small when her sister left for America and just a few years ago she told the story of her sister’s last night in Italy, while my uncle and I interviewed her on film. Clementina had been sweeping the barn when her sister ran in and she stopped her work and held onto her and cried for what seemed to be hours and hours. They cried their eyes out; the littlest sister and the oldest sister. And then she was gone. After close to 90 years, the memory still makes my aunt cry. We were all moved to tears and it was at that moment that I realized the story of America almost always begins with goodbye.

But fate would have it that for these sisters, goodbye would not be forever. For just a few years later, most of the family would be reunited in Niagara Falls. My grandmother also found much happiness and she did find love again. She bewitched yet another young man, Francesco Fortuna, my great grandfather and they lived happily ever after. They were married at St. Joseph’s Church on December 12, 1923, and had two children: Gina (Jean Ann, my grandmother, and their first born) and Joseph (my uncle and godfather). They opened a very popular restaurant located on 19th Street, known as Fortuna’s and it is still there today.

Marriage at St. Joseph's Church in Niagara Falls

Marriage at St. Joseph’s Church in Niagara Falls

Clementina never forgot Giovanino. As complete as her new life had become she made sure we all knew the story. I like to think it was more of a story of who she had been across an ocean and in that other world that didn’t include automobiles or electricity. It was a place and time where love and magic lit up the darkness and in some strange way a piece of me was, in fact, there and remembers everything.

I try to imagine what this special power might be that we all have, all of the first born daughters of first born daughters. Perhaps it’s the greatest power of all…the capacity to love completely and deeply no matter what the consequences. My grandmother’s little love affair with Giovanino is one of the only stories of her youth that has stayed with me. It speaks to me and to all of us and it says one thing: always choose love.

I have much research to do on the rest of our mothers’ mothers. I will be ordering great amounts of microfilm from L’Aquila and hopefully visit one day.
I wish I had more information on Giovanino. I would love to know more of him…this wonderful man, this Romeo, who always held a special place in my grandmother’s heart.

4 generations

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When a Recipe Tells a Love Story

In Antique Shoppe, Niagara in Love, Recipes, The Armenians of Niagara Falls on December 27, 2012 at 8:00 pm

ration book and recipeIt’s funny how some things fall into your lap and tell a love story.

A few years ago I purchased an old ration book holder from a little antique shop in Lewiston. It was particularly interesting because it had belonged to some local people that my grandmother actually knew–the chiropractor, Dr. Emilio Settimi and his family. But even more fascinating was the secret that was tucked away inside the tattered cover. Carefully typed and folded inside, stained with cookie encrusted hands, was a recipe for “Date and Nut Cookies” and a love story.  Beside the heading was a name in parenthesis: Angela Kevorkian. I’m not sure if this recipe was typed by Angela Kevorkian or how it ended up inside the Settimi’s ration book holder. Regardless, the story of Angela Kevorkian was too sweet to put to sleep.

Kevorkian recipe

It began on May 19, 1912, with a man about to go over Niagara Falls.

As in so many other stories (that Niagarans know so well) a man (named Henry J. Lutz–a candymaker) happened to fall into the Niagara River. As he was being rapidly carried toward the American Falls, a young Armenian laborer (who could not swim) could not help but come to the aid of the drowning man. Without hesitation, Iram Kevorkian, waded out 22 feet into the river at a point which was only 150 feet from the brink of doom. As Lutz drifted past, he caught him with a pikepole. Kevorkian slid two or three times on the slimy rocks in which his feet clung to for dear life. He called for help and suddenly other men joined in to help Mr. Kevorkian save Mr. Lutz from certain death. In the end, both men survived and Kevorkian was awarded the Carnegie Silver medal for heroism.

Strangely, in just about the same spot, two years later, Kevorkian witnessed another individual in peril on June 4, 1914.  He was responsible for rescuing this man, as well. For this act of heroism, he was awarded the Geoge E. McNeill medal.

When asked about his heroic deeds, Kevorkian replied:

Those were the most beautiful experiences in my lifetime. They call it courage. Well, something about courage is that you act quickly without knowing you have it…

And as every hero must have his admirers….Iram Kevorkian’s act of kindness found its way across an ocean and into the coffee parlor of a popular cafe in Vienna where a group of ladies sat discussing a news article.

Now there’s a fine young man to meet…they said to one another.

One of those ladies, Angela Jurasek, came to America shortly after this.   Tragedy came upon her, too, but this time by fire.  She broke her ankle while escaping a terrible conflagration that ravaged her second floor apartment in Flushing, New York, and found herself recovering in a hospital.  It was then that fate began to work out her little scheme.  For Iram Kevorkian had left Niagara Falls for a short time to take a job in that same hospital in Flushing.

And there she was.  His co-workers had raved about the beautiful woman with the broken ankle one too many times.  He convinced a friend to switch duties with him so that he might meet this lovely lady and soon he was carrying dinner trays to Miss Jurasek on a daily basis.  She became his wife one month later.

Of course, it was inevitable that the couple would honeymoon in Niagara Falls.   And it was then, at the brink of Niagara’s thundering beauty, that Mrs. Kevorkian decided that this is where she wanted to make their home.  They lived here for quite some time and operated the Vienna Tailor and Dressmaking Shop at 446 Third Street.

And they lived happily ever after in Niagara Falls, New York, eating wonderful Date and Nut Cookies.