I have always believed in the courage, strength, and humility of my grandmother, Josephine LaGattutta Fountain. Born in 1898 to Sicilian immigrants, Grandma grew up in an Italian-speaking household in a proud Catholic community in New York‘s Little Italy. My great-grandparents, Joseph and Grace, owned and operated the popular LaGattutta’s Butcher Shop on Mott Street and Grandma, her four sisters and brother were the darlings of the neighborhood. Though Grandma thought in Italian, as she used to say, she longed to be totally integrated into the larger American society. She hoped one day to be able to leave the safety of Little Italy and be accepted as just another American. Grandma knew that twentieth-century American cities, though largely built and inhabited by immigrants, could discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities, especially those with darker skin like hers.
At home, Italian was the dominant language, but Grandma knew that learning English would be key to her successful integration. Grandma studied English grammar tirelessly and while still a child, worked in sewing factories outside of Little Italy specifically for exposure to English. As it turned out, this early training in sewing and needlework led Grandma to a career as a seamstress in New York’s famous Franklin Simon Department Store where she designed and tailored high fashion for the New York elite.
If Grandma needed validation of her success in being accepted as an American, she found it in her one and only love, my grandfather, Charles Fountain, whom she married in 1925. Grandpa, who grew up in the Protestant faith, was an elegant and charismatic Englishman He stood six foot three, had blue eyes, red hair, and fair skin. At a petite four feet eleven inches with dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin made darker still by New York’s summer sun, my demure Grandma stood in sharp contrast to Grandpa. Back in the 1920s, they likely seemed an odd couple. Their love and 44 year marriage until Grandpa’s death from melanoma, would endure the Depression, a miscarriage, a serious illness and quarantine of their daughter (my mother), a three month missing-in-action status of their son during the Korean War (Uncle Bob eventually came home safe and sound), Grandpa‘s loss of sight, cancer, and ironically, life-long rejection by her family for the crime of marrying outside of her religion and ethnic group. Grandma, sometimes sad but never bitter over this cruel twist of fate, would often comment to me how she never saw that coming; how she never would have guessed the discrimination she feared and worked to avoid in her marriage, career, and social life would be leveled against her by her beloved family. She never anticipated that her family’s love would be conditional.
Watching Grandma, I learned how to love, how to forgive, how to plan and succeed, and how to endure. I believe the most important of life’s lessons are learned in observing ordinary yet magnificent people, like my beloved Grandmother, navigate their way across life’s bumpy and sometimes disappointing roads.