Ciao! Meet Ellen’s Italian Family

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder, the third book in my Catering Hall Mystery series, launches in two weeks and I was wondering what to write for my last Chicks post before the launch. I figure most of you have been inundated with my Shameless Shilling Campaign. (And if you haven’t, have I got some graphics for you!) And then I thought, hmm… the series was inspired by my real life. Family members ran two catering halls in Queens. Mia, my protagonist, works at one of them. She lives where my real nonna lived. And my pen name, Maria DiRico, is my late nonna’s maiden name. So… why not introduce you to my Italian family?

This photo was taken not long after Nonna, my grandfather (who I never met; he died before I was born), and my mother sailed from Orsogna, Italy to America.

When Mom was five, her little brother Henry came along. Uncle Henry had a great sense of humor. He once said our family crest was a fierce warrior… and our family running away from him. At a particularly over-the-top wedding, someone at our table asked, “What on earth’s gonna happen next?” To which Uncle Henry replied, “They’re gonna shoot the bride out of a cannon.” He passed away a few years ago. He was a wonderful man and I miss him.

Papa, Nonna, and Mom arrived in 1930, just in time for the Great Depression. The family struggled. Nonna did crocheting piecework. They moved from one tenement to another. Mom says a treat for her was picking up a lollipop some kid dropped on the street without finishing it. But by the 1940s, life improved. Eventually, Papa and Nonna bought a two-family house in Astoria, Queens. They lived downstairs. Uncle Henry, Zia Rose and their growing family lived upstairs.

That’s Nonna on the right goofing around. (I have no idea who the other woman is.) I never saw that side of her. Except in the early 1980s when I went to spend the night at her house, she turned on the TV to watch Saturday Night Live. I was shocked. I asked her why she watched it, and she said in her very broken English, “Is funny.”

I had to share this picture because it’s so quintessentially New York. That’s Mom on a rock in Central Park with one of her younger cousins. I love Mom’s outfit. Dig those shoes! She calls them Gillies. I’ve always thought Mom looks a little like Shirley MacLaine.

Final photo. This was Nonna’s 80th birthday party – held at the Astoria Manor in Astoria, Queens, one of the catering halls run by cousins-by-marriage Ralph and Pauly that inspired my mystery series. I won’t walk you through the crowd. But notice who’s center stage – wearing the most beautiful vintage dress I will ever own. Nonna was born in 1906, so this is 1986. She passed away four years later.

The years of communions, engagement parties, weddings, funerals, and holidays are gone now. The family is dispersed throughout the East Coast. I’m the farthest from everyone – on the other side of the country. But I consider myself blessed that I got to grow up so strongly immersed in another culture. And doubly blessed I get to relive it through my Catering Hall Mysteries.

Here’s the cover of my new book. That’s Nonna and Uncle Henry’s house on the right. These days, my protagonist Mia Carina and her nonna Elisabetta live there. Whenever I write a Catering Hall Mystery, I get visit them – and my wonderful Italian family.

Readers, share a bit about your own backgrounds!

47 thoughts on “Ciao! Meet Ellen’s Italian Family

    1. What wonderful photos, Ellen! Thank you for sharing. I’m of Irish-Catholic heritage. My dad was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and St. Patrick’s Day was, and still is, a big day in the family.

      Liked by 5 people

  1. I love these pictures, Ellen! Thanks for giving us a peek. My own background is a lot tamer, with my Celtic Isles relatives coming over a lot longer ago. Still, I grew up knowing all my cousins and some of us are still close.

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    1. Edith, that’s wonderful. I grew really close to one cousin, and then I moved to LA and she moved to Atlanta. She moved back to NY a few years ago and I’d see her every time I visited, but now she’s moved to Charleston. I miss her a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My mom’s side is Hungarian. (Budapest) Dad’s side is German and Swedish. We’re fairly tight. I adore two cousins, one just moved to TX. She’s only 15 days younger than me. The other one lives about 20 minutes away, and we still treat each other like we’re sisters squabbling all the time. That’s love! LOL! Great post! Thanks for a bit about your family.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. So nice to meet some of your family – virtually. I’ve gotten such a sense out of how personal this series is for you, so seeing some of the real people who helped inspire it is great.

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  4. Love the photos and can’t wait for the new book. My dad’s family came from Germany and I was able to track down descendants of my great-grandfather near Hamburg because I had a letter written to my great aunt in 1900 from my great-grandfather’s brother. I visited them in Germany many times and learned so much about the family. The letter also talked about a photo my great-aunt had sent to them and they showed it to me the first time I visited. I had the same photo passed down from my grandfather but didn’t know it was his sister. I’m so thankful that letter had been preserved and enabled me to meet my German relatives and learn more about our family.

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  5. Ellen, these pictures are amazing! Especially loved the “candid” of your nonna having a great time in the park. And that green vintage dress–mamma mia! So glad your family lives on through your wonderful series. Bet your nonna would have gotten a kick out of it.

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    1. The only thing that ever impressed Nonna was the photo of me as a waitress in Martha Stewart’s book. She was a simple woman. I wrote a whole one-act play about asking her if I could use the $ she put aside for when I got married as key money to get my NY apartment.

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  6. Ellen, I love the top photo and how your mom is holding a doll, and your Nonna has a religious icon (the Virgin Mary, I think) on her lap!
    I’m sure the Catering Hall series is especially dear to your mom!

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    1. Oh, and Vickie, I have Nonna’s rosary. It’s one of my most cherished possessions. She didn’t go back to the church until after my grandfather died. He was an anarchist. That’s why my mother is the only person in her family who wasn’t raised Catholic.

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  7. This little memoir brought a tear to my eye, Ellen. I love family histories, and yours is just wonderful.

    The coolest person in my family history was my paternal grandfather, who was a jazz drummer in the 1920s (my grandmother met him at one of his gigs) and also an aviation buff. Unbeknownst to his parents, he used to do wing-walking demos on bi-planes at local air shows in NY when he was young. He, alas, died (of lung cancer from smoking) when I was about four, so I never got to know him.

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  8. Dear Ellen,

    Best wishes on your newest book! I was fortunate to read the ARC and it’s another wonderful entry in this lovely series. How kind of you to share the stories and pictures that inspire you. (I just did a search on ‘gillies’ and they still exist although not nearly as wonderful as your Nonna’s (with that heel!).

    As a military ‘brat’, my five siblings and I grew up in Europe (yah for that!) but far from most extended family. Now, we’re all in different states (except two) and don’t see each other often so I share your feelings about that geographic challenge. That’s one thing that’s been good about the past 18 months – using technology to see people has helped so much!

    Thanks again! Ruth

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    1. Gillies are still used in Irish dancing (the soft-shoed kind, not the cool heels like Ellen’s nonna). We have a few pairs in a closet somewhere…

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  9. Thanks for showing us your pix, Ellen. I believe that there’s nothing in our lives more important than family.

    I am my family’s historian. My great grandmother on my dad’s side came to America from Ireland after her husband died young and she was kicked off the family’s farm because as a woman, she could no longer sharecrop it. She had to leave two young children behind – an unimaginable thin g for a mother, although she was able to earn enough money to bring them over twenty years later. My grandmother was a midwife who delivered all of the family’s children in the house I grew up in, and eventually earned a certification to work professionally as what would now be termed a doula. My grandfather gave her an Irish divorce (i.e., he left), leaving her with my father and my aunt to raise as a single mom.
    My mom’s people were here much longer, from England and Scandinavia, I think. They were dirt farmers in the New Jersey mountains, although I’ve found ancestors who fought in the Revolution, and in the War Between the States.
    By the time I came along, they had a paid-off house in New Jersey and had accumulated enough $$$ so I could go to college, eventually earning an advanced degree. They were the American dream in action, and I will be forever grateful to them for my success.

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  10. I literally gasped out loud then teared up at your pictures. They are amazing. (The joy! The memories! That dress!) I love this post every bit as much as I love the fact that your family inspired so much of this wonderful series. I can’t WAIT for It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder. (Fab title!!)

    As for me, I’m Scandinavian on my mom’s side and Armenian on my dad’s. The Armenians get a lot more press time in my books. In fact, Zartar (in my first book) was named for my great-grandmother and Levon (in my second and third) was after my grandfather.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Kathy, I don’t know why my reply to your comment disappeared but wow, Swedish and Armenian. What a unique mix. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it before. And so glad my photos made an impression on you.

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  11. I recognized the style of shoe right away. A good friend of mine wears versions of them to perform Irish Step Dance. The name Gillies is a reference to these:
    Ghillie brogues
    Background: Ghillie brogues are essentially a brogue with holes similar to a wing-tip, with no tongue and a long lace. The holes allowed the shoe to drain while sloshing through the bogs of Scotland. The long laces wrapped around the ankle to keep the shoe from getting stuck in the mud.

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  12. As a person very interested in genealogy, I loved hearing your story and seeing the photos. What a great heritage you have. My grandfather, Robert Runyon, published our family’s genealogy in 1952 (he owned a printing business then). His family came from France through England and to New Jersey and some later came to Kentucky. Turns out an ancestor was married to a Hatfield and another to a McCoy. His wife died, so then he moved to Brownsville, Texas and carved out a very good life as a famous photographer (he traveled with the federales through Mexico photographing the Mexican Revolution), was a world reknowned botanist with several plants named after him that he discovered, a mayor, and city manager in the 1940s. I remember him fondly wearing his khaki pants, white t shirt (undershirt), and red suspenders smoking his pipe. Look him up as his photography collection is in the Library of Congress with many family photographs–over 6000 photos all from glass plate negatives.

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  13. Madeleine, what a fascinating grandfather you have! There’s a Runyon Canyon here in L.A. We used to live a couple of blocks away. I wonder if you have any family connection to it.

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