Digging Into My Roots
Sebastiana Mazzurco was born November 1, 1902 in Tortorici, Sicily. For those unaware of the significance of this date, this means that my Nonna was born on All Saints’ Day, a huge holiday in the Roman Catholic Church. And it’s no coincidence then that by the end of her life in 1999, when I was only in first grade, that she herself was regarded as a Saint for all she did for those in her family and community within Jamestown, New York.
She was born to Rosario and Rosaria (Bellitto) Mazzurco, the second oldest of seven children. As far as I am aware, only she and her two sisters immigrated to the United States from Sicily. I heard that some of her brothers came over, but ended up returning home at some point; however, this is an area of research I do need to dedicate more time to still.
Unlike my past posts where I have focused on one particular area of an ancestor’s life, I decided to use this post as a way to remember and share some of my favorite stories about her and the person she was. Still to this day when I mention that Bessie Guiffreda (Giuffrida back in Tortorici) is my Nonna, people know exactly who I am talking about. Please enjoy the following collection of very true (and often hilarious) stories of the life of Sebastiana “Bessie” Mazzurco Guiffreda as an Italian immigrant in Jamestown, New York:
Rumor has it, she once sang in a talent show for the St. James Church, but turned her back to the audience so that she didn’t have to see them. She also had pre-recorded herself singing, so they just played the recording, as she stood with her back to the audience, pretending to sing.
She was also known for making people pull off the side of the road when she saw a particularly ripe looking patch of cardoons (also known as burdock root) meant to make carduni fritti. And yes, she did carry a knife on her for this exact reason. Most Italians in Jamestown are very familiar with this delicious dish, and if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, PLEASE go to the next Italian Festival!
Her own personal philosophy of religion went a little something like this: Even people who were Catholic, but not Roman Catholic, weren’t even “good”. She was that “old school”. It was either Roman Catholic or you’re a heathen.
Speaking of religion and the Church, she and her sisters were some of the founders for the St. Joseph’s Table (her sisters being Sarah (Rosaria) and Josephine). Her life revolved around the Church and her family, precisely in that order. She would send a dish of spaghetti to the priest every Sunday, which was convenient since she lived across the street from the church along Institute Street. You can still see and visit the place where she raised her family, including my mom and her siblings, as it has become the St. James Thrift Store since she passed.
She would always be cooking. I loved walking into her home because you would go right into her kitchen first, and it ALWAYS smelled so good. She would cook food for her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren well into her 80s and 90s, and if you forgot to pick it up, you’d receive a phone call from a very irate old woman yelling at you in broken English. As my mom shared with me, if she would forget to get the food Nonna cooked for us as a family on a Sunday, she’d receive this phone call (side note: my mom’s name is Karen): “Kareanna, you forgotta ta pick up ya soup! *slams phone down and hangs up on her*”
Regardless of the fact that there wasn’t much yard space at their home on Institute Street, she made do with what she could to make her home feel like she was back in Tortorici. What little bit of land they had (about three feet worth of grassy area), she had it dug up completely and turned into a garden. She also grew grape vines over their home entranceway, which can still be seen there today.
She’d always call my uncle “Tommy”, when in fact his name is Carl. She also hated his mustachio, she’d say. She especially wanted him to get rid of it for his wedding to her granddaughter (my aunt), but he didn’t. So perhaps she purposefully never remembered his name because he refused to give up his amazing mustache (stay strong, UC!)
She despised smokers. Her husband smoked cigars, her children would smoke, but she never took up the habit. To help “deter” her own children from smoking, she would plot with her grandchildren to go to the barn where their parents kept about a dozen horses at one time, cut the horse hair off the horse tails, and told them to stuff that hair into the ends of the cigarettes so that it would taste awful when they would smoke again. She was quite the saboteur.
At one point, Saint James Church was doing some remodeling, and somehow my Nonna ended up with a statue of what we believe was Saint Anthony, in which she kept it in her dining room until the day she died. Naturally, she and her friends would recite their Rosaries over it quite often. After she passed, it was donated to the Fenton, where (I believe) it gets put on display every Christmas. According to my mom, my sister and I were terrified of this thing whenever we’d go over to visit, which is not surprising to anyone.
Unfortunately, she never got back to her home country. I’m not sure when the last time it was that she saw her parents or her siblings who stayed back in Tortorici. It’s certainly not something I ever considered until I was much older in life; I also feel it’s even more present now in the political climate we’re in where immigration is a huge topic for many people. But as a single, 20-year-old young woman, who made the trip to the United States for a better future for herself and her family, I can’t imagine what sort of emotional toll that took on her to be away from her family, knowing she may never see them again. My immigrant great-grandparents are not a unique story in the United States, it’s actually a very common story starting with the first colonizers who arrived on the shores of New England for hopes of better futures. It’s also a story that we see still continues today, and I think if we could take a few moments to remember our own immigrant relatives and the fact that they are no different than those seeking different futures today, that, that bit of empathy out in the world could begin to have a ripple effect. The bottom line is that none of us would have been born American citizens without some immigrant taking the risk and uprooting their life to pave a better future for themselves in the first place.
This is a “thank you” to my Nonna for being brave enough to venture into the unknown as a young girl, starting a lineage of strong, independent women in our family.