By Nora Strano, as told to Jeremiah Horrigan
Nora Strano’s story begins in Sicily. Or rather, one of her stories begins in Sicily.
Her first story starts with her paternal grandparents. Anna Sterpi was raised by nuns in Sicily. She’d been left on the convent steps in a basket in the late 1800s. But she had a wealthy, mysterious patron, so she was able to attend college. She spoke five languages, could do very fine needlepoint and make a mean petit fours. But she could not cook an egg or pluck a chicken.
At 21, she was about to be tossed onto the streets because her time with the nuns had run out. That’s where grandpa enters.
Santo Strano’s mother did laundry for the nuns. He remembered Anna from his numerous trips delivering the clean laundry as a kid. Now, he was living in America where he was gaining a reputation as a master shoemaker for wealthy and discerning customers.
As Anna’s fate was being decided in Sicily, Santo wrote home to his mother that he desired a wife. His mother wrote back that Anna was about to be homeless.
Santo struck a deal with Anna. He would pay her fare to America, and she could live with his aunts while he courted her. If she decided not to marry him, she would not owe him for her passage.
Anna accepted Santo’s offer.
The story goes that they married despite the fact that Anna was a horrible cook. They produced five tall, strapping sons. of which my dad was the middle son.
My father’s stories – and there were many – always revolved around responsibility to family, hard work and the importance of education. My mother was another type of story teller. She always went for humor. She could laugh at any situation and at herself most graciously.
One of her favorite stories was about moving in the middle of the night because they didn’t have enough money to pay the rent.
One apartment they managed to hold on to for a while had a nosy neighbor downstairs. Mrs. Koch peeked out her window any time anyone entered or left the building. She was like an early version of Neighborhood Watch.
Her father would yell out, “Checking in, Mrs. Koch,” anytime he entered the building, and let her know whenever he was leaving. In fact, for years after we moved, any time he drove down the block he would honk his horn in front of the building and yell out, “Checking in, Mrs. Koch, checking out, Mrs. Koch!”
One story that stands out in my memory concerns my dad. He was very smart, and zoomed through school. He loved numbers and wanted to work on Wall Street. But when he brought his resume to potential employers, he never got a response.
One woman questioned where he was born. He said he was born here. She demanded to know where his parents were born. He lied and said, Here. She turned to him and said. Well. someone was born somewhere else because your name ends in an “o.” She crumbled his resume into a ball and threw it in the trash can.
My dad thought long and hard about changing our last name from Strano to Strand after that.
He eventually got work doing the books for Brooks Brothers. When he saw any type of civil-service exam, he took the tests because he saw it as a way to get ahead despite discrimination.
He ended his career as the director of the Finance Department for the City of New York.
My mom told stories to create empathy among us kids. If you didn’t get along with a kid at school and got into a fight, she would say, “What if that kid didn’t get breakfast?” or “What if they were being raised by their grandparents because their mom had died?”
But she was no pushover if she discovered her children were being hurt.
My dad and his brothers attended a Catholic elementary school. One day my dad came home for lunch and asked his mom for a clean shirt. She asked why, because his shirt was clean. My dad told her because Sister said not to come back like dirty little Wops.
My grandmother was furious, and returned to the school with her five sons to see the principal. The nun denied it when the principal brought them both to the classroom.
My grandmother said to the class, How many of you heard Sister say not to return from lunch like dirty little Wops? The whole class raised their hands. They didn’t even know what the word meant.
My grandmother took her five sons out of the school that same day, and brought them to the public school.
Looking back on her life, Nora Strano sometimes wonders about the nature of the stories she remembers and treasures. Are they factually true? Do they get embellished over the years?
She said that stories make us wonder. Does it really matter?
That’s what stories do sometimes. They make us wonder. Does it really matter whether they’re totally accurate or not? It’s not like a story is being reported on the five o’clock news.
After all, she said, some of the stories were true after all.