My grandmother was born “Teresina” in St. Louis, Missouri to Italians who had emigrated from Papanice, a village in the region of Calabria. Grandma always referred to it as the heel of the boot since Italy is thus shaped. I was disappointed as a young child to learn she didn’t speak Italian or talk about her childhood. As I grew older and learned more about the difficult beginnings and her parents strong determination to be Americans, I better understood her silence. It wasn’t easy being an Italian in America in the early half of the twentieth century.
Her early years were made more difficult when her father died in 1937. My grandma was barely thirteen and since her mother was in poor health, Grandma and her siblings (except the oldest) were separated and put into foster care. The conditions in which they lived would come to affect each of them in their own way, but it’s safe to say that for most of their years the Laratta children were often under fed and under clothed. Determined to free herself and her siblings, my grandma made a successful escape from the last foster home and thereafter lived with her mother.
A few years later she and her mother were living at a boarding house in the St. Louis neighborhood known as Dog Town. The home belonged to Louisa, the widow of Sgt. Joseph A. Schneider who had been a city police officer. The couple had had no children and after his death, Mrs. Schneider took in boarders to support herself. Also living in the home with his single mother was the young, dark, and handsome Clarence Lane who soon captured my grandma’s heart. I can still hear her saying, with her hand to her heart, “There is no love like first love”. They were married at the end of 1941 and their first child, my mother “Jeanne” was born the following year; but the marriage was tumultuous and ended in divorce.
In 1952 my grandma married Virgil “Bud” Baugh, the son of Edward and Helen (Miller), also of St. Louis. He had been previously married and had three children: Bob, Gene and Joy. My mom had recalled to me how much their life had changed. She told me that it was the first time she had ever had a “real” Christmas, but what my mom loved most was having two brothers. A few years later Grandma and Bud had a son, Gary. When he was a baby the family (except Joy who lived with her mother) moved to Phoenix, Arizona where Bud had taken a job with AiResearch.
|Theresa and 1st great grandchild (1987)|
When I was young it was always the five of us: her three children, my brother, and me. Often we were at her house, but she’d also drop us off at the community swimming pool. Many times she’d come to pick us up and we’d be full of mud and muck from the irrigation in the park, and when she saw us clambering into her station wagon she’d give us a good scolding. When we got back to the house, she’d hose us off in the backyard. On one of those occasions she had been bent over a galvanized tub rinsing Bonnie off when a bee stung her in the behind. It was a story we told a dozen times and each time she’d laugh that beautiful laugh.
I might not have had the doting relationship so many grandchildren have with their grandmothers but despite her being a busy mom, she was a constant in my life. I probably spent more time with my grandma than most. Our two families were always together for nearly every holiday and birthday. There were weekends of Slippin’ Slide, playing cards, board games, and listening to Gary play his forty-fives.
As I grew older I realized Grandma was a sentimental Italian at heart. Once, when I was twirling at halftime for our Homecoming game and she was seated in the bleachers watching, my mom said she touched her hand to her heart and with tear-filled eyes said, “The daughter of my daughter.”
|Marker at Walton's Chapel of the Valley|
Carson City, Nevada
After I no longer lived near her, I corresponded or we talked on the phone and I saw her often when I visited my mom. Over the years I would ask her questions about her parents and her childhood in St. Louis. Eventually she began to open up and tell me stories, but Grandma never thought too much of the past. She always said we should live for today, but many of those we so loved have passed: my dear mother “Jeanne” in 1999, Bud in 2004, and Bonnie in 2009.
Grandma outlived two husbands and two children and in the ninety-one years that she lived, she valued nothing greater than her family. She was our matriarch, the tie that bound all of us from generation to generation. Sadly, there seems no one to fill that role, but I will keep alive her memory and the joy she found in her family in my writings and the stories I pass down to my own daughter.
Notes and Links:
Theresa was the daughter of Armando Laratta and Eleanora (Rossomanno). She was the sister of: Leo who passed in 2006, Anthony who passed in 1980, Elvera, Mary who passed in 1996 , Calandina, Joseph who passed in 1989, William who passed in 2010 and Alfred who died in his infancy in 1932.