The following story is about my maternal grandparents who emigrated from Italy in their early teen years and met in Philadelphia while tailoring, the occupation they shared. Although this is about real people and based on some real events, such as the fact that they both worked at a shirtwaist factory, the story is fictional. I obviously wasn’t there for their first date, nor did I know how they interacted with each other when young. I simply wanted to write a story about how it may have happened that two such very different people got together and stayed together for the duration of their lives. The featured photograph is of a piece of cloth embroidered by my grandma.
A Love Made by Hand
When Vincenzo first saw Grazia’s pale, blue eyes, he thought of the sea-tossed pebbles he’d find along the coast in his childhood home in Calabria. She was waiting in line to have her handbag checked before she could leave the factory warehouse where they both worked. She stood with one hand planted firmly on her hip, the other clutching her bag. She wore a white button-down blouse tucked inside her floor-length black skirt. Her short hair was neatly tucked behind her ears. In her face, he saw both fire and innocence.
When she caught him staring at her, he had no choice but to go over and greet her.
“Hello,” he said, standing a couple of feet away from her.
“Hello.” She spoke loudly above the continual murmur of the spinning sewing machines, their sound magnified in the cavernous space.
“My name is Jimmy,” he told her, smiling. He wasn’t lying about his name. Jimmy was in fact a nickname for Vincenzo in Italy. He hadn’t used his formal name since he arrived in America.
“My name is Grazia,” she said in Italian, holding her chin high.
It was her turn to have her bag checked. She did so without care or concern for her unfair treatment. Like the other male workers, Vincenzo had no bag to check. If he did, he surely wouldn’t be as obedient as Grazia. How dare they even suspect that the workers would think of stealing something from this place.
“Goodbye,” he said as she exited.
“Arrivederci,” she said, turning to him.
He walked outside into the freezing air that made the cold, drafty factory seem like a tropical island. Philadelphia was mostly gray, but he wasn’t bothered by its lack of color. There was excitement and movement and newness here. He passed by the newspaper stand where the headlines read, “German forces launch massive attack against Verdun.” The war had been on for two years now and it felt like it would never end.
He got to his home, which was a dingy, small room inside of an old brick building. Clothing hung on the lines outside his dingy little space. He made a cup of hot milk and drank it with a piece of bread that was on its last day. He went to sleep on his twin sized mattress that sat on the floor and was back at work the next morning, without feeling like he’d ever been away.
Vincenzo worked as a custom tailor, which would have seemed glamorous to Grazia, who, like all the other women in the factory, was enslaved to a sewing machine she sat at from early morning until night. He was finishing up with a gentleman by the name of Mr. Thomas. A repeat customer who was always having the seam in his trousers let out. Vincenzo could see disappointment in Mr. Thomas’s eyes as he looked at his fat reflection in the mirror. It served the rich right, he thought. The rich have too much to eat. If they shared with the poor, like they should, he would have only one chin, instead of three.
When he finished, he wasted no time going to Grazia’s section, hoping to find her, as he did yesterday, waiting in line to have her bag checked. He found her near the end of the line, looking the same as she did yesterday, but tonight, she was looking around the room as if searching for something. Their eyes met, she smiled at him, and he walked towards her.
“Do you want to go to dinner with me tonight?” he said, expecting that she would accept with delight.
“Tonight, I need to go home,” she said in her best broken English.
“Yes, I will go with you tomorrow.”
He grinned and walked away. She stared at him until he was gone.
Vincenzo and Grazia walked through the howling February winds to the Horn and Hardart Automat on Chestnut Street. The entrance to the restaurant was a heavy brass door with intricate carved designs and flourishes. Outside, it was icy, but inside, it was warm and bright. The place was filled with sparkling white marble. Tall pillars in the center were covered in hand-painted tiles. The rich smell of coffee filled the air.
Vincenzo went to the cashier where he exchanged two quarters for a handful of nickels. They went to the wall full of windows showing an array of food. Grazia put a nickel in one of the slots and a cup of the world’s best coffee came out of a dolphin head spigot. Together, they picked their food: Baked beans, macaroni and cheese, a beef pie, creamed spinach, tuna fish salad, and a slice of chocolate pudding pie. They sat down at a table not far from the entrance. It was packed and noisy but quiet compared to the factory noise they were used to.
“I love the food here,” Vincenzo said as he dug into the mac and cheese.
“Yes, it’s good, but how I miss the food I grew up with. When I was a little girl in Sicily, I’d have a hunk of cheese, a loaf of bread, and some olives every day for lunch. Here, it is good but not fresh.” Despite her complaints about the food, her appetite was anything but poor. She was more than halfway through the tuna salad before Vincenzo had his third bite of food.
“What part of Sicily are you from?” Vincenzo pierced the beef pie with a silver fork.
“Carini in Palermo? You?”
“I’m from Calabria. A little town called San Mauro d’Marchesatto.”
“Then your real name couldn’t be Jimmy. What is it?”
“It’s Vincenzo.” He looked down almost as if he was ashamed.
“Do you miss home?” Curiosity filled her eyes.
“The old country? No, not me. Not much to do back there.”
“Oh.” She looked down as if hoping for a different response.
“You miss it, I bet.” He smiled and squinted his dark eyes.
“My family is still there. I miss the sun. Here, I can’t see the sun with all the tall buildings in the way.”
“But there’s so much more going on here.” He leaned back in his chair.
Her face lit up. “I want to go to the opera.”
“Yes, the opera. Have you ever been to the theater?”
“Oh yes, it’s wonderful.”
“Oh,” she said with obvious disinterest. “Where did you learn to tailor?”
“I taught myself. When I was twelve, I worked as a shoeshine boy on a ferry boat. One day I shined a man’s shoes and as I looked at his trousers, I decided I wanted to learn to make them. You?”
“I went to a convent every day after school to learn from the nuns.”
“Nuns? You are Catholic then.”
“Of course,” Grazia said as if there could be no other answer.
He switched the subject abruptly. “What do you do besides work?”
“Not much. Sometimes I bake. You?”
“I go to a lot of meetings for the union.”
“Union?” Disappointment came through her voice.
“It’s actually the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. But men can belong, too.”
“I guess I don’t see the reason for it. I feel lucky to have a job.”
“Did you know about the fire that happened in 1909, right here in Philadelphia. Everyone knows about the Triangle fire but not the one that happened right here. Thousands lost their lives–”
“Well, they’re in a better place now.”
“How do you know that?” He leaned forward.
“I’m sure they were good people and went straight to heaven.”
“Heaven?!” He waved his hand dismissively. “There’s no such thing!”
For the first time since they sat down, Grazia stopped eating. “How can you say that?!” she said.
“I don’t believe in heaven or hell.”
“What about God?” She moved back in her chair as if his atheism might be contagious.
“I don’t believe in God, either. If there’s a god, why is there war? Why do people go hungry?”
“But look at all the good there is–the birds that fly in the sky, a sunset over the ocean in Sicily.”
“You can kick Sicily into the ocean.” He smirked.
“I don’t understand.”
“Because it’s shaped like a boot.”
She didn’t laugh at his attempt at humor. Instead, she asked with pleading eyes, “Don’t you see all that beauty there is?”
“I see all that.”
She looked at the ceiling and came back with a different angle. “Well, if there’s no heaven, where do you go when you die?”
“In the ground.”
“Yes, yes, your body. But what with your soul? That goes to heaven!”
“How do you know?”
“That’s what they tell us at church. It’s in The Lord’s Prayer. Weren’t you raised Catholic? I thought all Italians were Catholic.”
He wasn’t budging, so she stopped talking and sighed loudly. The two of them sat for the rest of the night, miles apart, despite their proximity. They took small, tasteless bites of their food until it was all finished.
He went home but couldn’t sleep, thinking of Grazia all night. He was sure he’d scared her off but determined to go see her after work anyway. What did he have to lose?
When Vincenzo greeted Grazia the next day, she smiled at him with soft eyes. He continued to meet her at the factory every day when her work let out. He’d show up with his perfectly polished shoes. From there, they’d usually go for a walk or go to supper. One night, Vincenzo took Grazia to the theater, but her boredom showed through, so he decided not to take her again. They continued to keep company through the winter and into the spring.
“Why do you go by Jimmy?” Grazia asked Vincenzo one day. They sat in Rittenhouse Square Park where cherry blossom trees were flowering pink and white. Women pushing baby carriages and couples walking arm-in-arm strolled by them.
“It’s easier for the people here,” he said. “Why don’t you go by Grace?”
“What’s wrong with Grazia?” she snapped. “It’s a beautiful name. It’s musical.”
“Nothing’s wrong with it, but we’re in America now. Besides, what’s wrong with Grace?”
She looked at the blue, cloudless sky as if an answer might be up there. She told him she’d think about going by Grace instead of Grazia. He said that they should try to fit in.
“I brought something to show you,” she said, opening her handbag and pulling out a piece of off-white cloth. “I made this when I was only thirteen.” She held it up. It shimmered in the sunlight. The cloth was trimmed in intricately embroidered flourishes and flowers. Vincenzo studied each leaf and petal of the flower as only a fellow artisan could, fully appreciating the workmanship that went into every stitch. He imagined a thirteen-year-old Grazia sitting outside in the hot, Sicilian sun, on a cliff overlooking the ocean that played its unending music.
“The nuns, they showed me how to make holes like this in the cloth.” She held the cloth up and stared at it with prideful eyes.
“They are lucky to have you at the company. They should pay you what you’re worth.”
“I’m lucky to be there.”
“To work like a slave? I bet you can’t even go to the toilet there.”
“Work heartily, that’s what the Bible says.”
“That storybook.” He turned away from her.
“My reward will be in heaven.”
“That’s what they want you to believe so they get more work out of you.”
“Enough! Enough!” She had a mighty roar that emerged when she didn’t have a good comeback.
He thought that she might secretly enjoy the drama, it being the closest thing she would ever get to living her dream of being an opera star. He came to love her unyielding nature and how she couldn’t be swayed by his values. She was strong and sturdy as an old tree. He came to love her. He knew she loved him for she said so and she never said anything she didn’t mean. And although their arguing never stopped, their love somehow sewed through their differences, holding them together like a tightly stitched hem.
Grace Mattioli is the author of Olive Branches Don’t Grow on Trees, Discovery of an Eagle, and The Bird that Sang in Color. These books are available from all major online book sellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books.