The DeBellas got to America early, coming here from Palermo sometime in the late 1800s.
We never really heard stories about the difficulties my great-grandparents faced coming here, and by the time I was old enough to understand those stories they had already passed. Their children – my paternal grandparents – arrived with them as infants.
My maternal great-grandparents were the Abadesas and the Leones. Both of those families were from Bari. My grandmother, Renzina Abadesa, married Antonio Leone and they both came to America.
I never met my paternal grandfather. He died young, leaving my grandmother with six kids ranging in age from my infant aunt Laura to my oldest uncle, 12-year-old Lorenzo (Larry to us).
Grandpa Lorenzo was an ice man, delivering blocks of ice up the stairs of apartment buildings in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. The stress of that job is probably what killed him. I was always told that he was a very creative man. He built models that were used by movie studios that were in Astoria at that time.
My mother always claimed that he was where my “talent” came from. I always believed it came from her. She was a creative and talented woman whose claim to fame was swimming in the Billy Rose Aquacade at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. She was the Esther Williams of the family.
The life journeys for both of these families were drastically different.
Leone men did not live very long. By the time World War II had ended, two of the three brothers died in service to their country. Dominic died at sea and Joey died at Normandy. Both were younger than 21. The only Leone man I ever knew was my uncle Larry, and he died from leukemia at 46. My poor grandmother did nothing but bury the men in her life. She lived with me and my parents until 1962.
The DeBellas on the other hand had their fair share of hard times, but overall, they were a large, fun-loving, entertaining family.
My grandfather Bartholomew, whom everyone called Benny, was a musician at one point in his life but eventually became a steamfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He worked on many ships including the aircraft carrier Enterprise, the last ship to come out of Brooklyn.
My grandmother Frances was a pistol – a funny woman in her own right and someone who didn’t take crap from anybody. Grandma was a tough broad and could have a mouth like a trucker if she needed to.
My father Joe and his brother Gus were identical twins. Amazingly identical twins.
The two of them used to refer to each other as Nu-Nu. I once asked my dad why he and uncle Gus referred to each other by that name. He said that as children they were the only twins in the neighborhood.
And because they look so much alike, the older Italian men were never sure which was which. So, they nicknamed them Nu-Nu, so they would never be wrong.
When it came to the two of them, one would swear to whatever the other said. They were a comedy team whenever together. Not only were they identical twins but they were both born on the Fourth of July. For an immigrant family that was a major point of pride. But for my father and uncle that was the seed for a major joke that was played on children for years to come.
As children we all knew the Fourth of July was their birthday; but being the jokesters that they were, they would have all kids believe that the fireworks were going off for their birthday because of them being identical twins. Most of us didn’t find out they were lying until we got to grade school.
One of my biggest sources of pride is the fact that I am an Italian American. I pity other nationalities for not having the history that Italians have. I am hoping that the seventh generation of DeBellas in America will be here in the next few years.
John DeBella is a longtime Philadelphia radio personality and host of “The John DeBella Show” on WMGK, 102.9-FM.
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