She was named Eleonora after her grandmother, who in her turn must have been named for the great actress Eleonora Duse (1858-1924), a great rage in Pittsburgh among Italians recently immigrated who remained enamored of their country’s culture and heritage. To me, now, ninety-four years after her birth in 1917, Eleanora is the only living remnant of that culture, a second cousin, who grew up with her two sisters almost next door to my father and his three brothers for many years of their young lives.
Luckily for me, that connection proved strong and elastic enough to bring her rather early into my life, for she was the occasion of my first memory. “Sandy’s so ‘decided,’” I exclaimed at age two and a half. Sandy being the rather doughty, snappy cocker spaniel who greeted us at the door of her parents’ home. I had come to stay with them while my sister was being born. It was late February of 1945, and another world war had taken Dick, Eleonora’s husband, to the Pacific. Only much later do I learn that within months of my visit, she would receive a telegram stating that his ship had been sunk by the Japanese. It was the second trauma of her life.
I retain very sharp recollections of the house Eleonora shared then with her mother and father, reached like many Pittsburgh houses up several flights of cement steps. Once inside we stood in a large hallway with an interior staircase dimly visible at the back. To the right was a brightly lit dining room where Uncle Nick sat at the end of the long table, a white napkin spread over his bulging stomach. Sandy’s nails click across the polished floor as she barks and waddles toward us: “Sandy’s so ‘decided,’” I repeat, mimicking as best I can Eleonora’s amusing explanation.
The scene goes dark and then another is illuminated from the same visit. I’m squeezed beside Aunt Josephine, Eleonora’s mother, a tiny woman with wide, smiling mouth and expressive hands. She is playing on a spinet organ a very imposing and sonorous piece called “The Holy City.” I try to sing with her the elaborate name “Jeru-sa-lem,” and fail because I am so intrigued by her little hands that race up and down the keys, making big arpeggios in the bass.
In the last part of this memory, Aunt Jo and Eleanora are putting me to bed upstairs in a dark, imposing bedstead, between thick white sheets. Opposite is a bureau with a mirror that shows myself sitting up in bed, staring at the glimmering mirror which holds my rather heavy-featured face.
After that, the scene goes dark, until six weeks later when we all are stuffed in an attic. Later I’ll learn that my parents, newly born sister and I are living in a house in Beaver, Pennsylvania, not far from the Beaver River which has oveflowed in spring rains. Water laps at the doorway and will soon enter the downstairs. We have retreated to the attic where we sleep on pallets on the floor. I’m aware of Eleonora’s large shape arranged beside me and of two dim little windows at either end of the cavernous room. The water soon recedes; we return to the lower stories. Eleonora probably remains to help my mother clean up the mess, but I have no memory of that. It will be several years before I see her again, and by then my parents, sister and I will have moved to Charleston, South Carolina, and are living in the huge pseudo-fortress called The Old Citadel. I am six.