Tuesday, December 14, 2010

“Always Praying . . . Going to Mass, and All That”: The Religious World of the Baldizzi Family: A Guest Post by Robert Orsi -- Part II

Thanks to an NEH grant, scholar Robert Orsi is advising the Tenement Museum on how we can use objects to tell stories in the Baldizzi family apartment. He'll be at Tenement Talks on Wednesday, Dec. 15 at 6:30 pm. Here is the second in a five-part essay looking at how Catholic artifacts have been used in the exhibit.

The vividness of Josephine’s memories of her family contrasts strikingly with what she has to say about her Catholicism. While her comments about the family’s religious practice are brief and perfunctory, at times even dismissive—“always praying,” she says, “you know, going to Mass, and all that”—her memories of 97 Orchard Street and of the Lower East Side are richly detailed and evocative. These stories are all about family. They recall in sensuous immediacy the experiences of everyday life and Josephine’s pleasure in sharing these cherished recollections is evident.

The first thing she says in the conversation is how thrilling it was for her to be back in the tenement building on Orchard Street and to remember “all the little things that we did together as a family.” The streets were messy, loud, and crowded, but the family’s apartment—which she always refers to as “my mother’s apartment”—was “immaculate.” Her beloved mother was “a hard-working woman,” a “supermom.”

Former 97 Orchard St resident Rosaria Baldizzi
Rosario Baldizzi on the roof of 97 Orchard Street.
Collection of the LESTM.
Signora Baldizzi was employed part time sewing the linings into coats, but she was primarily a homemaker. Josephine emphasizes over and over how clean her mother kept the apartment. “My mother was a fanatic,” she says early in the interview. “No matter what she had, it had to be clean . . . that was a big thing with her, being clean.” Josephine describes her mother teaching her and her brother how to wash in the apartment’s small bathtub. “I see her vividly,” Josephine says, “standing there and stripping and saying this is how you’ve got to wash. She would show us . . . and put the two of us in the tub.”

Her father, also much loved, contributed to the beauty of the apartment by planting flowers in empty cartons of government-surplus cheese. She and her brother looked out for each other in the streets and at school, Josephine says. She maps the spaces of her Lower East Side world with a web of family connections—her brother’s godfather lived next door; there were cousins upstairs; her godmother ‘s apartment was “diagonally across from this place called Vincent’s where everybody goes to have their fish now.” Josephine’s stories of her childhood Catholicism too come alive when her family enters them: the treat of cake after Sunday Mass with her mother, her father’s gift at the festa.

Reversing the expected hierarchy in the relationship between religion and everyday life, the apartment on Orchard Street is clearly what Josephine holds sacred; her Catholicism has the qualities of the profane, unmarked and unremarkable, not particularly special, “and all that.”

[Part III to come tomorrow morning.]

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