|Nella, 1903 - 2005|
My mother, Nella, never explained, to me at least, her ambition to become a ballet dancer and later, an actress. I’ve often asked myself how it was that a girl crippled at youth and condemned by her doctors to wearing steel leg braces, would dream of dancing. But maybe it is natural. We wingless humans dream of flying.
In any case, Nella had been crippled with rickets as a young girl in Italy. Doctors at the time declared that Nella would have to wear steel leg braces for the rest of life. Her mother, Cesira, wouldn’t have it, and placed Nella with the nuns at a sanatorium, probably in Montecatini. I’ve written about this in an earlier post.
Nella, age 12, walked unaided off the boat at Ellis Island in 1915 and started a new life in America, in Chicago, “hog butcher for the world,” where her father, Ugo, worked for a time at a cattle and hog butchering factory.
After he’d washed the blood and offal off his boots, Ugo would take Nella to the Chicago Civic Opera house, which was ten blocks north and west of where they lived on South State Street. My mother said they stood in the back of the balcony and Ugo would whisper to his star-struck daughter about what was happening in the story. Nella remembered getting goose bumps as she’d listen to the tenors perform their arias. Maybe Nella saw Ana Pavlova, the famous Russian ballerina, dance at the Civic Opera House, or somewhere there in Chicago, during those heady years. Maybe that was her inspiration.
Pavlova was a marvel of her time. But Pavlova was more than a great dancer. She was a determined person who willed herself to succeed at ballet, as classical ballet did not come easily to her. Her arched feet, thin ankles, and long limbs seemed unsuited to ballet dance, where a small, strong, and compact body was favored for the ballerina at the time. Her fellow students made fun of her with nicknames like 'The Broom' and 'La Petite Sauvage.' Undeterred, Pavlova simply worked harder than her rivals.
This determination and strong will was a hallmark of Nella’s personality. I’m convinced she ultimately walked not because the nuns had her move through the mineral waters of the spa, or because they buried her legs in warm sand, but because Nella simply decided she would walk and kept trying until she did.
When she started school in Chicago knowing only these words of English, “I doan stan English,” her fellow students made fun of her. Nella never backed down, and even became the defender of another girl who was constantly picking fights and then running to Nella for protection.
Nella learned to read and write English in record time and throughout her life never stopped trying to improve herself through night school and self-study. After completing secondary school, she went on to business school and her native intelligence and education were immensely useful ultimately when she became, in essence, my father’s office manager. I’m convinced my father’s flower shop, despite having an extraordinary clientele of wealthy Beverly Hills bankers, doctors, and actors (who weren’t always eager to pay their bills) would have floundered if not for Nella’s sensible, tough direction.
I believe Nella decided to go to California to pursue a Hollywood career. Here again, I don't know for sure. But why else? People came from all over the world and went to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune, including Rudolph Valentino, who immigrated to America from Italy. Whatever the case, Nella gave her Hollywood aspirations a fair chance before deciding on another direction for her life. I’ve written about this elsewhere.
Once Nella decided to marry Steve and bear his children, she did all she could to be the best wife and mother she could be. She did this despite her own mother being a poor example, essentially having abandoned her to a neglectful aunt when she was growing up in Italy. I remember finding the books my mother used to read to learn about taking care of infants and raising children. These things didn’t come naturally to her, yet she was determined, as always.
She handled all the feedings, the changings and cleanings, the special diets, the doctors’ appointments, and the dolling out of medicine. She kept baby books on my brother, Ronald and I, “Our Baby’s First Seven Years.” It contained time and date of birth, length and weight at birth, the baby’s condition (blue? – “no”), and lots of other data, including the “number, consistency, and color of stools.”
Mom kept up the baby books up for several years and made notes in her neat, flowing handwriting; “Will not eat soft boiled eggs.” She also sat my brother and I down one day in perhaps my tenth or eleventh year and told us about the birds and the bees. Nella used a book for that, which, if memory serves me, was titled, “The Birds and the Bees.” I don’t know if my brother grasped the significance of that lesson (he was three years older than I) there on the couch in our living room at 347 Parkman Avenue. I didn’t. But it did seem significant to me that this was a subject that women knew a lot more about that men. I haven’t changed my mind about that all these many years later.
My mother would tell me, "You can do anything you set your mind to." I knew she was right, because I knew how important her determination and strength of character had been in her life. Whatever I've achieved in life is almost certainly because my mother convinced me of that.