Thursday, February 24, 2011

Part II: Leonilda Verzone – A Life in Canton

Leonilda Verzone at age 16

My grandmother, my Nana, turns 100 today. As you read this story, it is my joy to reflect upon what her place in my life and in Canton means. Leonilda (Verzone) Salemme was born in New York, but was raised by her paternal grandmother in the small village of Brusnengo in northern Italy; her childhood was marked by being born an American but raised an Italian, and growing up in a family that she only discovered at age 11.

In Canton she attended public schools but never graduated from Canton High School, owing to her slow progress with the English language. Instead, she began to help her mother, Cesira, in all things domestic. Domestic life was part of the family tradition. Cesira Achino, a servant, was born in 1889 and immigrated to New York aboard the La Savoie in 1905. At 16 she traveled 19 days at sea in wretched third class and arrived at Ellis Island among hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Cesira would live with cousins in New York City and would eventually meet Emilio Verzone. Emilio, my “Nonno,” arrived in New York in January 1905 aboard the same ship as his future wife. The ship passenger manifest lists $45 in his pocket, and the 20-year-old laborer joined two of his brothers, Ricardo and Giuseppe, who had arrived together in 1901.
The hardworking brothers were almost immediately successful. Photographs of the period show them impeccably dressed and perfectly groomed. By 1914, Emilio had declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States, which was successfully granted in 1917. All of the brothers became citizens quickly within a few years of their arrival.
It would seem that their occupation was that of wait staff serving the wealthy in Palm Beach, Florida, and New York City. Ricardo (Richard) Verzone amassed a small fortune as the maître d’hotel of the famous Plaza Hotel in New York. This was the golden age of the grand hotel, and the work was prestigious as well as lucrative. In 1912, the Plaza organization sent the now anglicized Richard and his brothers to Boston to open the Copley Plaza. Richard went on to open the Black and White Club in Marlboro and became an early investor in the Boston Garden organization. The family tragedy that was never discussed in our house growing up was his suicide in Quebec in 1933. Nana would only discuss this with me when I was old enough to research the Boston Globe clippings, and even 50 years after his death she would weep for his lost soul.
A year after Richard’s suicide, his mother, Ernesta, (Nana’s grandmother) traveled for the last time from Brusnengo, Italy, to the United States and settled in Canton in the family home. Ernesta brought steamer trunks full of correspondence and photographs chronicling the entire family history. Literally, hundreds of documents in an archaic Italian dialect are in our family archives as a result of her last trip. It is indeed amazing to have saved both sides of the family stories by matching the letters sent and received. A young friend, Sabrina Ugazio, in Brusnengo has helped me translate some of the letters and documents. Rosa DiFabianis Verzone is buried alongside her daughter Maria at the Canton Corner Cemetery.
And so, in this family that served the wealthy and famous, Nana decided to open a beauty salon. She attended the Wilfred Academy of Hair and Beauty Culture in Boston, and by the mid 1930s she opened a shop in downtown Canton at 620 Washington Street. Specializing in “all areas of beauty,” she had an active and dedicated clientele. As children growing up in her house on Walpole Street, she was never pleased when we would play with hundreds of plastic curlers, strewing them throughout.
Leonilda Verzone as a bride to
George Salemme, taken in 1936

Nana would meet George Salemme from Dedham, the only boy from a family of seven girls and the youngest child. Talk about pressure — what girl would be good enough for little Georgie? The sisters: Irene, Florence, Frances, Celia, Rose, Veda, and Elizabeth all watched as George and Leonilda married on Columbus Day, October 12, 1936, at St. John’s Church with a reception at Oddfellow’s Hall in Brooks Block on Bolivar Street.
George & Leonilda Salemme
on Walpole Street
The photograph of Nana in her wedding gown is splendid — a white satin dress with tiny flower pearls, long trail, veil, and a pearl crown. The photo shows a beautiful 25-year-old woman. Immediately following the wedding the newlyweds moved to Wall Street and eventually back to a house on Walpole Street, which had been purchased by an uncle and adjoined the house that Nana had grown up in.
My grandfather, George Thomas Salemme, is my namesake, and for those wondering if there is any relationship to the infamous Salemme family — just ask me in person the next time we talk. George worked at United Drug in Dedham and eventually at the Neponset Mills on Walpole Street. It would be this factory where so many Canton immigrants would work using dyes and chemicals that they would eventually die of cancers at a time when cancer was common and with unknown origins. Nana tells of the great pain in the final days of her husband’s life when she would sleep on the floor for fear of even the slightest movement on the mattress, which could bring excruciating pain to her dying husband.
Over the course of their marriage, George and Leonilda had three daughters: Nadine, Janice, and my mother, Andrea. The girls grew up on Walpole Street, attended Canton schools, and lived full lives. Nana opened up a penny candy store in a small addition on the house that helped make ends meet. Over time the family grew up. Nana grieved the loss of her oldest daughter, Nadine, and would tell of how heavy the burden of a mother to outlive a child. Another burden was the fact that by the early 1960s Nana had begun to lose her sight. She became totally blind by 1968, and despite this handicap she never missed a beat.
Nana at the Hellenic Nursing
Home in Canton, MA

My brothers and I grew up in that house on Walpole Street. I was born a few years after my grandfather died, and so the house would seem fuller as Comeau children would come along in due course. For me, the amazing part of Nana’s life was the aphorisms she would share at each critical turn in my own life. “Deeds not words” seemed to be her most oft-quoted motto. Early lessons in art, literature, and especially history were critical to my personal growth. It was as if she had taken the role of her own grandmother in supporting the ongoing raising of the children in her household.
As the fog of age began to cross Nana’s mind, she began to slip back into her childhood. We had a 90th birthday at Pequitside Farm to celebrate her life. She implored us not to have a party, then promptly created a guest list. At 95 she celebrated at the Hellenic Nursing Home, where she lives today in a secure and loving environment. Today, at 100, she murmurs of her childhood and giggles, cries, and smiles as each day moves forward. Last week, my mom and my wife read her the first part of this story; she laughed and nodded as if the fog was parted ever so slightly. In her mind she is again climbing the hills above Brusnengo and skipping down the path of her youth.
Happy 100th birthday Nana!!!

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