AN ONEIDA INCIDENT

In 1928, George Bernard Shaw finished The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, his Magnum Opus as an economist and social philosopher.  Prompted by a question from his intelligent sister-in-law, Shaw sought to explain to women the world’s major economic systems.

This book, which took Shaw three years to write, was in keeping with his longstanding beliefs and practices.  His plays had often dealt with the education of women.  The celebrated Pygmalion had concerned, for example, the phonetic education of a cockney flower girl.  His 1898 play Caesar and Cleopatra depicted the political education of a teenage Egyptian queen by a fiftyish Roman general.  Even in his 1884 novel An Unsocial Socialist, the socialist protagonist seeks to convert the students at a women’s college to his economic doctrines.

For Shaw believed that the key to improving society lay in the education of women.  For women as mothers would give to their children the lessons they learned.  Hence, in The Intelligent Women’s Guide, this Irish playwright sought to convince women of the sense and ultimate necessity of socialism.

I have often fancied that my two grandmothers were two intelligent women such as Shaw sought to reach.  Both were young women in 1928.

My maternal grandmother was tall, red-haired and Irish.  She knew Shaw’s plays in the theatre, and was, like my grandfather, an avid reader.  Yet I doubt that she would have had much patience with Shaw’s socialism, had she been familiar with it.

My other grandmother was dark-haired and Sicilian.  She also enjoyed reading.  She read Dante, and also liked The Song of Roland, another medieval epic.

She enjoyed reading to my father and my aunt.  I doubt that my aunt paid much attention to this, but my father developed his own interest in reading.  I believe this interest helped him go on to law school.

I never knew my grandmother.  She had died before I was born.  And I only heard my grandfather mention her once.  He had remarried before my birth, and perhaps this gave him an incentive not to mention his first wife.  But I heard enough about my grandmother from my father and aunt, and from my mother, to form a picture.

Unlike many Italian immigrants of her time, she was literate.  She had been schooled in Sicily, where her parents owned land.  But farm life was harsh.  And Sicily was subject to earthquakes.  My father remembered his mother speaking with her Sicilian friends of the “terra moto,” the earthquake that had all but consumed Sicily in 1908.

For whatever reason, my grandmother sailed to the United States in 1912, when she was twenty-one.  She joined her brother in Oneida, where he worked at the knife plant.

A young man from Calabria lived in her neighborhood.  Despite his intelligence, this young man had rejected schooling in Italy, and had been sent to work in the fields as a shepherd.  In the States, he also had a chance to be schooled.  But by now he was more in interested in what he called “the high heels”.

His town in Calabria lay across the Straits of Messina from Sicily, and now he lived across the street from my grandmother.  He was strongly interested in women, and he took an immediate interest in my grandmother.

My grandmother wanted nothing to do with him.  She was from a strict religious background.    Yet eventually she responded to his personable ways, and they married in 1916.  Their children were my aunt and father.

My grandfather, like my grandmother’s brother, worked for Oneida Limited, the famous silverware maker.  He was responsible for the heating system at the plant.  In the early years, this meant attending a coal furnace.  Later his work involved technology, and my grandfather became a heating systems engineer.

In 1922, they bought a house on the main street of town, then known as James Street.    My grandmother was quite sociable, and the house was regularly filled with friends and neighbors.  My grandmother enjoyed playing bridge with her women friends.

She also enjoyed gardening.  Their lot was long and narrow, extending far back from James Street.  Behind the house, there was a garage my grandfather built.  Behind the garage was a shed.

Much of this property was used for gardening.  A number of photographs show my grandparents at work together in their garden.

A few years ago, I came with my in-laws to collect a dresser.  The house was to be sold, and I needed my in-laws’ truck.  My father-in-law helped me place the dresser in his truck, and then took time to look around the backyard.  He said that garden showed signs of having been well taken care of in the past.

My grandmother was quite devout.  She attended Mass daily at St. Joseph’s Church, which was about a block from her house.  The parish had been a German one, but Italian immigrants now formed a considerable portion of the congregation.  Parishioners were expected to contribute to the parish, and my grandfather had helped to build the present church.

The pastor was German.  He had lost his legs from frostbite years earlier, and he daily hobbled about the altar as he said Mass.  No doubt bitterness mixed with his native sternness.

My grandmother was a kind person.  She cared about people, and this contributed to her popularity.  She responded calmly to my grandfather, who, while being an excellent man, nonetheless possessed an Italian temper.

But on at least one occasion she was stubborn.  One day at Mass, the old German priest ordered the Italian parishioners to sit to the side of the church.  He wanted the main section of the church reserved for the Germans.

I do not know what thoughts went through the head of the grandmother I never knew.  Nor can we know what thoughts went through the head of Rosa Parks the day she refused to turn over her bus seat to a white man.  Did she know she was beginning the Civil Rights movement?  Or was she simply too tired to stand?

But my grandmother refused to move from her seat by the center aisle.  She calmly continued her quiet prayers.  The other Italians moved to the side of the church, and saw that my grandmother remained near the center.

They expected a storm from the priest.  He looked angrily at my grandmother, and waited for her to move.  She didn’t.  He was about to say something to her, but stopped.  He then went on with the Mass.

My grandmother never read The Intelligent Woman’s Guide.  Oneida had no book stores or public library.  She was far from the reach of Shaw’s ideas.  Yet that day at St. Joseph’s, she showed that an intelligent woman with principle could make changes, if on a small scale.

The parish had no segregation after that.  Italians and Germans sat side-by-side in the pews.   People in Oneida spoke for quite a while of my grandmother’s refusal to move, but I have not heard that she ever mentioned it.  She cheerfully continued her bridge, her gardening and her Mass attendance.

Such was one fine moment for my grandmother.  She had many.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About jalesy55

Charles Lupia is a playwright, freelance writer and lawyer. His blogs cover a range of topics, from politics to entertainment.
This entry was posted in Gardening, Memoirs and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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