The Unraveling

The doilies made by my maternal great grandmother Petrillo were loosely crocheted, as if she were too busy to finish them. A tightly wound and incredibly clean woman, she cleared your plate as soon as you put your fork down.

My other great grandmother produced the most technically sophisticated doilies—variations on an Art Nouveau rose pattern that often included the letter “T” for her surname, Turturiello—perhaps because she was an immigrant from the Mezzogiorno. While her American peers had been swept up by the speed of the Gershwin rag and the automobile, her meticulous handiwork required a preindustrial patience.

My father’s grandmother worked in a style that feels dashed off, though technically perfect. She spent hours in her husband’s tailor shop, crocheting when she wasn’t working. She would amaze her grandchildren by crocheting anything, even string or rough twine that happened to be lying around.

All of this handiwork falls under the umbrella of tatting, a needle art many European women carried with them to the New World. Some traditions used a shuttle, a triangular apparatus that contained a spool of thread, acting as both bobbin and needle. The tatters in my family favored a technique using a fine crochet hook because they were crocheters. On my mother’s side, they called the work doilies. On my father’s side they called it lace.

One Saturday afternoon my father casually dropped a piece of lace onto the kitchen table. “This is by my Aunt Angie.” I had never heard of this great aunt before. My father then told me that she'd had a nervous breakdown in 1940, at the age of 40, and lived in New York State hospitals for 50 years until she died.

The family tatters all used a cotton yarn finer than twine but thicker than thread. My great grandmothers used flat and braided yarn. My grandmother’s is thinner and lighter. All of their lace is some shade of off-white.

Angie’s, though, is bright white, which makes me wonder if all the lace started out so immaculate. Or if Angie’s is so brilliant only because it was the newest, created in the 1980s.

Instructions had to be purchased. Each woman must have bought one pattern, because they did the same design over and over again, varying the pieces by size. Except for those Art Nouveau roses, most of the doilies I inherited were made using a technique typical of the ubiquitous afghan quilts of the 1970s. Lone stars and swirls were created individually and then crocheted together to form one piece.

Angie’s lace, however, was one continuous circle, over a foot in diameter, made up of tiny voids and fills.

“Who is Aunt Angie?” I asked my father that afternoon. I was in my mid-20s, working at a newspaper three hours from my parents' home in suburban New York. They had just returned from visiting Aunt Angie at a facility in the Bronx.

In my head I traced the branches of my grandfather’s family tree and remembered Aunt Tessie, the eldest, my grandfather, Frank, and Arthur. How did I not know Aunt Angie? It was odd that my father, whose trivia-filled mind also acts as the repository of family history, had never told me about her. The mention of her name now sent him, trancelike, into the past.

“She was a doll,” he said. “She had two dimples, one on each side, and very high cheekbones.”

We already had something belonging to Angelina, he reminded me: the black chair, which stuck out from the claw-footed mahogany heirlooms. Black lacquered chinoiserie, the chair had a raised pastoral scene carved onto its hexagonal back and a line of gold trim.

“She knows who you are and always asks about you and your sisters,” my father said. “It not that we didn’t want to tell you,” he went on. “It wasn't the right time, when you were kids.”

I once heard a scholar of Italian-American history ask an audience what stood out in a photo of an immigrant woman cracking nuts for a living in a New York tenement. I saw it right away: a piece of lace she had hung over a doorway, trying to beautify her dark hovel.

I grew up surrounded by lace—doilies on tabletops, under glass; doilies on the backs and arms of sofas and behind my grandfather’s head on his Lazy Boy and under ceramic vases and aluminum fruit bowls.

When placed on a tabletop, Angie’s large piece looked like a woman’s circular skirt spread out, but it didn't lie flat. She must have had pulled the yarn so tight that it stretched. Such a doily couldn’t very well be used on a table or dresser to hold something like a perfume tray. Maybe that’s why I never saw her lace anywhere.

Angie emigrated with her family when she was 10, the third of the four children. Her sister Tessie, at 16, had begged to remain in Italy to become a teacher, but her father did not want to break up the family. Her brother Frank laid tile for a living until the Depression. Arthur got a scholarship to Cooper Union to study electrical engineering.

Angie learned the art of crochet at her mother’s knee, often while they sat in her father’s tailor shop, where her mother spent most of her time. In the middle of the new century—the one that began the year Angie was born—needle arts were practiced by girls of all ethnicities and classes and considered the mark of a marriage-worthy young woman.

Angie, like her mother, became especially proficient. She learned the basics from her mother, and the rest came from patterns bought with quarters and dimes her father retrieved from the cast-iron cash register. She’d pay extra attention when crafting something irregularly shaped, like a lace collar. Circles could be dashed off easily.

Like many of the creative people on my father’s side, Angie funneled her talents into the needle trades. Following the example of Tessie, who started out as a child laborer in the sweatshops before working her way up to dress designer, Angie apprenticed at a Manhattan workshop. That’s where she learned how to make hats.

In her neighborhood she garnered a reputation as a member of the fashionable set, which she further cultivated with impeccable manners and grooming. In the ’20s, she sported a silver fox three-quarter coat with a broad collar that extended to the shoulder. Her siblings considered her eccentric. “She was very artistic in her bearing,” my father said.

1924. Roma Art Studio, 3533 White Plains Avenue. N.Y.

J. Maiorano photographs Angie on a Chippendale chair in front of a dark curtain on the occasion of her brothers’ double wedding. She sits forward. Her ankles are crossed so tightly that her feet, in low pumps, are almost beside each other. A magnifying glass reveals that her dress is lace. A layer of organza wraps around the dress loosely, discreetly covering a knee. A bouquet of roses and ferns almost covers her torso. A stylish cloche, in a lace that matches the dress, frames her wide, angular face and emphasizes her big, dark eyes. The sides of her bob peek out from under the hat. She does not smile enough to show her legendary dimples.

She opened her own millinery next to her father’s tailor shop, which was next to their Bronx brownstone on East 233rd Street. The Bronx then was semi-rural. Across the street was a dairy.

The walls of the shop were painted a soft pink. Three oval mirrors hung along one wall, and small tables held Angie’s exquisite creations. The three black chinoiserie chairs didn’t have four legs, but two, like a sled's runners. So Angie could slide the chairs rather than pick them up, a convenient way to quickly seat an interested customer.

“She would let us help her,” said Patricia, my father’s cousin. “She would give us egret feathers, and she would curl them. I remember doing that so distinctly. She made the most fantastic cocktail hats.”

Angie’s timing, however, was unfortunate. Her doors opened at the onset of the Depression. Not a lot of people were buying hats then.

After the hat shop failed, Angie was resigned to live with and cook and clean for her elderly immigrant parents in a five-room apartment on the top floor of the brownstone. Her role as maiden aunt was the only one left that she liked. She doted on her nieces and nephews.

My father remembered going upstairs to the apartment and her urging him to take a licorice candy, and then another. “When we were around we always got one thing: compliments. Always a compliment. How nice you look! How smart you are! To all the nieces and nephews. No favorites. We were all equal.”

“She had been a very jovial young woman,” my Aunt Sarah said. “That’s the way I’d describe her: jovial.”

Angie would often take Patricia and her sisters, whom she called “Tessie’s girls,” to the ice cream parlor under the L.

“She taught us all these polite, little details,” Patricia said. “When we went out to eat, she would always use the proper table manners. If there was something you came across, like a bone, she showed us how to take your napkin, cover your mouth and unobtrusively remove it.”

Still—even her nieces and nephews could see that sometimes their aunt was amiss. “She was very concerned about cleanliness,” Patricia said. “I remember we went to an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and suddenly she’d get very curious about how the kitchen was run. If she thought it was dirty she’d make a big fuss.”

“She was always angry about the Bolsheviks,” my father said, “and sometimes would speak irrationally. She became very belligerent at times. My grandmother couldn’t cope with her. Today they would call it bipolar—or something like that.”

1936. M. Warzen. 4215 Third Avenue. Cor. Tremont Ave., N.Y.

Now she poses for a photograph with her niece, Fernanda, the eldest of Tessie’s girls, who is making her confirmation. She sits in an armchair, casually resting one hand on the arm, the other on her lap. The background depicts stained glass and a peaked country church in the distance. Her satin dress has a diagonal sash across the front that becomes a band at the hips, from which three layers of a lightly ruffled skirt fall. Ankles cross. Black pumps this time. One set of pearls and a large fake flower to the left of the V-neckline. Hair still in a flapper’s bob. A magnifying glass reveals that she is wearing rouge, has painted lips, maybe mascara.

Curiously, this lover and maker of hats does not wear one. Has she given up on hats? Have they become a painful memory of her failed business? Or were her hats too sophisticated for a religious ritual? Her head is uncovered.

Even though Angie’s mother spent most of her time in the tailor shop, there was always enough time to argue with her over how to run the house. By 1940, when her brother Frank (my grandfather) moved into the five-room apartment directly below hers with his family, Angie was 40 with no prospects of marriage or family, nothing to show for her work as a milliner but a small bankbook.

She and her mother fought often. A couple of times, Angie threw away things she considered dirty, and her immigrant mother retrieved them from the trash.

Household appliances had been easing their way into American homes starting in the 1920s, but Angie had a deeply held fear of electricity. She made toast by holding a piece of bread over the blue-and-yellow flames of the stove, tidied the rugs with a Bissell carpet sweeper.

Occasionally, her nephew (my father) and niece (my Aunt Sarah) heard hollering upstairs. Occasionally she broke things. She hated the Bolsheviks. Family members were speechless in the embarrassing silence that followed.

Though it had been closed for almost a decade, her shop remained frozen in a time warp. The chairs seemed to wait for someone to hold. The mirrors gathered dust. Her father began using the space to store overflow tailoring and dry cleaning. So even that little bit of herself was no longer her own.

It was a Saturday or a Sunday—a day when her niece and nephew were home. They remember a particularly loud ruckus that morning. Voices could barely penetrate the plaster walls, but on this day they made it through, along with heavy footfalls on the wooden floor. On this day, when she threatened to burn the house down—and possibly struck her mother—her parents called the authorities.

A long green and yellow ambulance with a siren and two red lights on its roof arrived with a descending howl and double-parked. Two men in white sprang out and walked directly upstairs. Suddenly it grew quiet. Heated shouts followed.

“Don’t look out the windows!” her sister-in-law, my grandmother Santina, said from the apartment below, even as she, herself, peered between the opened Venetian blinds. Angie’s niece and nephew caught glimpses, nevertheless.

When she appeared on the street she had a coat draped over her shoulders, an attendant at each elbow, like a double escort for a woman so elegant. She begged not to be taken away. Perhaps her father thought, mia bella figlia, che succede? (my beautiful daughter, what happened?) Perhaps her brother Frank lingered in the doorway, maybe her mother, too. Or maybe her mother remained upstairs and watched from the window.

Years later her sister-in-law would say that Angie’s mother drove her to lose her mind that day. But none of that mattered as the siren rose and the red lights flashed. Angie’s sister had to sign the papers for her immigrant parents. “No one else wanted to do it,” said Patricia. “I can’t imagine what my mother went through.”

Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in, Wingdale, N.Y. is 65 miles north of the Bronx, where her family lived for many years. The nearest train stop was Pawling. Even Aunt Sarah, who loves the country, described the location as being “in the middle of nowhere. It really looked like an insane asylum.”

Built in 1924, the imposing red brick building had white trim around the roof and white round windows, a Georgian detail. White was also the color of the windows, with a 12-on-12-pane configuration typical of the style. Except these windows were wider than usual and the frames made of steel. “I remember these poor people looking out at us through the bars,” said Patricia.

The place was so large, 800 acres, it had its own hydroelectric plant and dam. It had its own golf course for the doctors. Patients were encouraged to serve as caddies. During its heyday in the 1950s, the 80 buildings on the premises housed some 5,000 patients, as well as 5,000 employees. The halls were lined with railings. Sharp objects were scarce. Angie slept in a metal bed with rounded edges.

She entered the New York State mental health system during a notorious era in the annals of modern psychiatry. Two years earlier, doctors in Rome had used electricity to create convulsions, supplanting the repertoire of therapies that had previously been used to calm the agitated and stimulate the comatose. They called it electroconvulsive therapy, commonly known as electroshock therapy.

There are conflicting accounts on who performed the first ECT in this country, but by 1940 it was prevalent in America. Within a decade, it had become so popular, some hospitals delivered treatments on a daily basis. Early machines and treatments were simple and violent. Unsedated patients could receive shocks as high as 190 volts. (Today ECT is administered to those who have been sedated to the point of unconsciousness to avoid unnecessary fear and trauma.) The New York Times observed that the 1940s ushered in an era in which “there was hardly a sanitarium, hospital, or private office that did not use the method.” Though there were no uniform standards at the time for the use of ECT. For the entire century—Angie’s century—doctors debated the type of machinery, amperage, voltage and calibration that should be used, as well as the ideal duration and number of treatments.

Angie also entered the mental health system during an epidemic of institutionalization. At the time, such populations had increased almost 20 percent in the U.S., along with the number of first-time admissions. Not only were more people being put away, but they were often being locked up forever.

What had gone unchanged since the heyday of the 19th-century asylum was the hierarchy of the mental health system. The majority of those who practiced ECT in Angie’s century were male. The majority of its recipients, by the 1950s, were female.

“Everyone visited her,” my father said, but no one was willing to get her out. “It was a different time. Even the Kennedys had a daughter who was put away for life. That’s what they did in those days. Everyone had their own lives. And who would know what to do with her if she had one of her episodes?”

He was partially right about the Kennedys. They did have a daughter whose mental disabilities remained secret for decades. She, too, became increasingly agitated and subject to violent mood swings. After a botched lobotomy was performed in 1941, she became incapacitated, her mental ability reduced to that of a two-year-old, and put into an institution for the rest of her life.

1949. Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital, Wingdale, N.Y.

Her brother Frank takes the picture. She and her nephew, Joseph, my father, sit on the running board of his 1935 Ford coupe. Her arm is around him. Her hair, long now, is parted in the middle and pinned into a matronly bun. Her old wool coat, with a wide collar, is loosely gathered at the waist. Underneath you can see the top of what looks like a wool dress. Her nephew looks into the camera, but she looks down. Both are smiling. Through the lens of the magnifying glass, I see a deep dimple.

What could she have done to deserve such treatment? Things did annoy her. The Bolsheviks—now called Commies—or a slovenly patient. Or maybe it was a white-uniformed strongarm who looked at her in that way. She had complained to Tessie about such advances in Italian, using foggy metaphors. She couldn’t even attempt to get the words out in English.

When she became increasingly agitated, like that morning in her parents’ home, they wrangled her onto a stretcher. The nurses and strongarms pulled the three belts to strap her in tight. The nurses placed electrodes on her temples and put a padded block in her mouth to prevent her from biting her tongue. Her doctor, a man who smiled at her in the hallways, stood by the small wooden box with the three windows and a dial and turned it until she heard that awful hum. And the convulsions began.

Maybe she had many. Or maybe one big one that rendered her unable to speak, or, the worst possible result for such a fastidious woman, incontinent. Maybe she heard the attendants speaking about her in the third person as they rolled her into her room.

“Now she’s relaxed.”

“She’ll be quiet now!”

“Go get Thelma to clean her up.”

The literature on ECT talks about how patients tended to compare their doctors to fatherly figures who inflicted punishments for wrongdoing. Or how too much therapy could cause memory loss. It was unclear whether ECT was successful in all instances. For some it had no long-term therapeutic benefits whatsoever.

“She complained about the electroshock therapy,” my father said.

“She would say, ‘Please let me come home,’" said Patricia.

“The bottom line is that no one wanted to take care of her,” my father said. “They all had families and were working.”

Her siblings routinely visited, along with her nieces and nephews. They often brought homemade food, pasta with pesto, maybe. Something special that required lots of steps.

Her brother Frank woke up at three in the morning to roast a whole chicken with vegetables and rosemary, his specialty. He took an early train, often by himself. She picked on that chicken for days.

Once my father bought a car, he drove my grandfather. Sometimes they signed her out and took her to lunch at local restaurants.

Tessie and her daughters visited, too, by train, with a picnic basket. “We always waited outside until my mother would go get her,” said Patricia.

“You could converse with her and she could be absolutely lucid. She would read the papers. She liked to stay on top of current affairs. But every once in a while she’d say something odd, she’d be every passionate about, and we would joke about it with her. And she would joke about it, too.”

Arthur, the youngest and most American of the siblings, drove. His two sons visited, too, though I know nothing about those visits. Uncle Arthur is dead. And my father has not kept in touch with his cousins.

When my father got married, he took my mother to visit his aunt at Wingdale. Although he never did bring me and my two sisters.

Unlike my father, Aunt Sarah brought an assortment of her six children, perhaps because she lived closer to the facility. During those visits, my aunt sat with Angie on a bench and listened to her concerns, while her children played on the lawn.

“She was obsessed about two things,” my aunt said, “She kept thinking that the Chinese couldn’t be trusted, that they were our enemies and would invade. She also didn’t like electricity. She said it was dangerous.”

I thought about the chinoiserie chair Angie once loved and electrical appliances she always feared. There was no rational pattern.

During one of these visits, Angie admired a Raggedy Ann doll Aunt Sarah’s daughter was holding. She inspected the gingham dress, the apron tied neatly around the doll’s waist, the yarn hair and button eyes. Aunt Sarah told her daughter to give the doll to her great aunt. As she walked back into the brick building, Angie cradled the doll like a baby.

“She was always crocheting. How else would she keep herself occupied,” said Patricia. As she crocheted, her mind started to wander. “She would imagine things that she tried to illustrate in some way in the doily. Because she wasn’t rational it didn’t come out right. She did so many of them. They were just impossible. You couldn’t really use them. They were too erratic. I gave them away. I have one doily that’s perfect, and it’s red, and I keep a little Christmas tree on it.”

Thirty years after I learned about Angie, she came up again when a history of my father’s family was compiled. There was Angie, a branch in the family tree. Unlike everybody else, she had no lines connecting her to a spouse or children.

I didn’t think much about this lost relative until my father showed me a photo of her when I returned to New York for a visit. Her looks stunned me. She was unlike anyone I had seen on my father’s side, mysterious names without faces, most of who remained distant and aloof, frozen in sepia photographs. My father was right: her face was doll-like, almost flat. She had the same thick, dark hair as her siblings, but with cheekbones prominent and high—a trait her siblings did not inherit.

I wondered about this creative and beautiful woman, single and likely a virgin at the age of 40, with a failed business and immigrant parents who, no matter how much they loved America, really didn’t understand so much of their new world.

“Today people who have nervous breakdowns are given a prescription for Prozac and thrown back into the world,” I told my aunt one day, over the phone.

“You’re right,” my aunt said. “I doubt she would be hospitalized today.”

During my 40s, I had suffered from severe perimenopausal symptoms. I cried for no reason in a yoga class and regularly snapped at my sons and husband so angrily, I had to follow-up with apologies. And I had been the kind of person my aunt would have described as jovial. I never, though, threatened to burn down a house.

Though this was not discussed by any of Angie’s nieces and nephew, there was also the subject of failure. Not quite on a scale as the Kennedys, my father’s family was nevertheless upwardly mobile and competitive. Angie had failed at her business. She had no suitors. A stylish woman who ended up wearing neatly pressed dresses for more than half her life in a place where no one noticed.

In addition to being unable to share the major events of her century with her family, like the end of the war, she would not witness the slow distancing of her family. Some might call it Americanization.

Tessie’s girls did not keep up their relationship with their Uncle Frank, the least educated of his siblings. In the late 1960s he retired from the maintenance department at Sears Roebuck and Company. Arthur also lost touch with Frank, and the relationship between his sons, who went to college, and my father, who dropped out, was strained from early on, when it was clear that Arthur and his family were moving up. Arthur had applied for a job at the then predominantly Irish New York Telephone Company; he was told to change his name and come back in a week. My great uncle Anglocized his surname, got the job and made a career at N.Y. Tel. Arthur’s progeny benefitted from his education. His sons, my father’s cousins, became lawyers, although one became a crooked judge who was jailed, my father likes to point out. My father spent his career at a multinational corporation in New York, where he ended up as a supervisor in the printing department.

When I interviewed Patricia over the phone, it was the first time I had ever spoken to her. She was my father’s first cousin, but I had never met her or her sisters. I met Uncle Arthur once and never met his sons. In contrast, I know all of my mother’s first cousins, second and third cousins and myriad aunts and uncles. The thread that held together my father’s family had already begun to unravel by the time Angie became undone.

Unlike the mouthy Southern Italians on my mother’s side, my father’s family is reserved, more interested in success through education and a stolidity that emphasized moderation and frugality over excess and pomp. They were serious. They thought highly of themselves. They said they came from alta italia, high Italy. Patricia, when I finally got her on the phone, was suspicious of my intentions. Why did I want to write about her aunt? Where would this story end up? She wanted to paint a sympathetic portrait of her mother, who had put Angie away. At one point she told me that she and her sisters had visited her aunt every weekend. After I spoke with her, she emailed my father, worried that I would use real names.

“Who will know who Angie is if I use real names?” I told my sister over the phone one day.

“Still,” she said, “It’s their aunt. They want to protect her image.”

But I wanted to tell Angie's story. This woman had followed my life, yet I had known nothing about hers. If women’s stories have historically been silenced, telling Angie’s was the one way I could recognize and honor her.

A few days after my conversation with Patricia, her son emails me a photo. There’s Patricia, with long dark curls, at Wingdale with her aunt. Angie is hugging her, smiling more fully than I’ve ever seen, revealing two deep dimples.

By the 1980s, when Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital closed—institutions of that type had fallen out of favor—she was moved to a low-security facility in the Bronx that was more like an old-age home. By that time, perhaps because the system had so broken her, she was not considered a flight risk. Or maybe she had just mellowed.

When she developed skin cancer on her nose, she refused to allow doctors to operate. Patricia thought this was strange, considering that she was not in control of any other aspect of her life. But, really, this was the one thing she could control. Eventually, the cancer became a large crater that killed her.

Before the wake, Patricia and her sisters argued over whether to keep the casket open. As a compromise, the mortician built up Angie's nose and obscured it further by wrapping the casket in a pink veil.

My father and aunt were under the impression that there hadn’t been a wake. I informed them via email that there had been. My father’s response was that he didn’t know the circumstances. Aunt Sarah, now 92, did not respond at all. A few weeks later she was hospitalized for heart failure, so I did not raise the subject again.

In my home in California, a star doily lies under a rotary telephone like a homey arrangement from yesteryear. An exquisite Art Nouveau rose doily acts as a coaster on an end table.

I remember taking Angie's big, white circle home after that weekend with my parents. Even though it was wavy, I placed it under my computer for years, even when I had my own house in the New York suburbs and children. I don’t know what happened to it after that. Did I give it to my parents before I moved to California?

In my linen closet I rifle through doilies made from stars, swirls and Art Nouveau flowers. I tossed so many things in a fit before leaving New York. Could I have been so cold as to give Angie’s lace to Goodwill? I shudder to think that I threw it away because it was imperfect.  

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