April 17, 2011

Old Italian women in black veils

It's sad that I couldn't even snag a photo to go with this post. If you search the internet for images of old women in veils, it returns only Islamic veils -- because no other veils exist anymore. Sigh. Oh, and it shows photos of the popey guy, for some reason. I didn't know he was into veils. Figures. Anyway, I couldn't find one old-timey, old-lady veil. So much for a graphic element for this post.

What first brought these veils to mind was something I saw in the New York news a couple of weeks ago. A 90-year-old woman, Florence D’Imperio, was caught (on video) stealing food from a food pantry -- lots of food, with many others helping cart it away. She wasn't a poor woman in need of food; she was someone who worked at the donation center. She was merely stealing food from poor people for profit.

Days later, she appeared in court wearing one of those old-lady, dark black veils that completely covers your face and reveals nothing. I thought this move on her part was very funny but I can't find a photo of it, damn it. Bad photo days: they're worse than bad hair days.

Anyway, this reminded me of something from my childhood. In our all-Italian neighborhood of immigrants in lower Manhattan, any woman whose husband died wore black for the rest of her life -- shoes, stockings, dress, coat, bag and, of course, the veil. They were no longer people after their husbands died. I think that was the message. And of course, most of these women were old. They tended to accumulate in the landscape over time, what with all the men dying of booze and heart attacks.

Right around the corner from us was St. Joachim's Church on Roosevelt Street. It was built in the late 1800s as a place of worship for the throngs of Italian immigrants who had come to live in lower Manhattan. This church was home base for all the old ladies in black. They practically lived there, going to early mass, visiting during the day to light votive candles, and never missing an evening novena -- or god forbid, a funeral.

What was particularly amusing about these old women was that they "hired out" as mourners for funerals. That always cracked me up. If someone died you handed these old ladies some money and a chorus of crying women in black showed up for the funeral. They were called "wailers" and that's what they did: wailed with all their might throughout the service. It was a very different time, a different world.

I searched for a photo of St. Joachim's and couldn't find one of those, either. Jeez! What's wrong with the Intertubes lately? Do any of you remember these old ladies? They are, alas, just about gone -- except, of course, for the illustrious Florence D’Imperio.

5 comments:

Artichoke Annie said...

A novel about this very subject:
http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Open-Me/Sunshine-ODonnell/e/9781596922044

I remember in Greece seeing all the old women dressed in black, I am sure their culture is much the same as the Italian.

Interestingly, I had never heard of professional mourners before, you would have thought coming from a mortuary business family.

I do remember a gypsy funeral once and the king of the gypsies was there - me a wide eyed kid was most impressed.

writenow said...

The king of the gypsies! Wow! I would have been impressed too. I'm going to put a similar post up tonight, describing one of the more interesting habits of these old ladies. Memories are fun, and the older you get and the further away the memories move in time, the more interesting the recollection seems. And yes, I would have thought you'd know about wailers. Maybe they were only a NY phenomenon.

writenow said...

I just followed your link. That's so cool. And the woman even uses the term "wailers". I would LOVE to read this book. Thanks. (The book talks about wailers in PA. So I guess it wasn't NY-centric after all.)

Artichoke Annie said...

We did have 'holy rollers' - they would come in to town, pitch a big tent and hold a revival. The revelers would get caught up in the spirit of the moment and scream and roll down the aisles.

It scared me to death when I heard they were coming in to town. But the gypsies fascinated me. They put pennies on the eyelids of the deceased.

writenow said...

I haven't thought about eye pennies for a long time. People have such strange funerary practices. I think holy rollers were a country affair. I never heard of any "spiritual revivals" in NY. And a good thing, too.