Celebrating Grandma

Maria Liberata Crugnale, aka Grandma, my nonna (grandma) came through Ellis Island in 1906. She spent two weeks in the bowels of a ship on her way to Ohio and a marriage arranged by her older brother, Pietro. Liberata was 21 years old and had $7.00 in her pocket.

Grandma and Grandpa

After settling in Columbus, Ohio, Zio Pietro worked in a limestone quarry with Donato Berarducci, who was from the same village in the Abruzzo region of Italy, Pettorano sul Gizio. Many Pettoranesi had settled on Columbus’s westside to work the quarries and fields. At some point, Donato apparently complained that he had no prospects for marriage. Zio Pietro thought his youngest sister would be a good wife for Donato.

Though Grandma and Grandpa were from the same Italian village, I’m not sure they knew each other before the marriage. Grandpa grew up on the hill and in the town’s historic center. Grandma’s family was lived in Vallelarga, a suburb (for lack of a better word) about five-and-a-half kilometers from Pettorano. From what I’ve learned recently, the townspeople called the Vallelarga the casett’, a derogatory term meaning “small houses.” The insult implied the people in Vallelarga were poor and not as upscale as those on the hill.


The whole backstory is not really important except that it is part of my wonderful grandmother’s history and, in turn, mine. I loved talking with Grams, as I called her. Little did I know then that those stories would shape so much of my adult life.

Every Tuesday, she’d come to our house for the day. After school, I’d listen while she talked. Grandma told me stories about her life and growing up in the fields instead of a classroom. She grieved over losing three children to disease but celebrated raising eight more. On paydays, she told me, she waited at the steel mill gate to stop Gramps from drinking his paycheck. Sometimes she mentioned missing Italy, its hills and valleys. Her eyes clouded a bit, but she never cried.

On those days, she and my mother taught me to make pasta, to fry chicken her way, to make sauce. They tried to teach me to make bread, Gram’s specialty. When Mom was growing up, Grandma would bake bread in her garden’s stone oven and sell it to make extra money for her kids. The neighbors came running when the aroma wafted through the neighborhood.

At any rate, each of Gram’s daughters had a specialty, and my mother’s was baking. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite inherit the bread-baking gene from them. I think it comes down to the fact that baking bread requires a bit of waiting, of patience. Those aren’t words that are exactly prominent in my dictionary.

I’m pretty good at making pasta and sauce, though.


Fast-forward to 2009 when I was attending grad school at Murray State and needed to write something for a class.  I remember pacing about our house in Nashville trying to come up with something I wanted to write.  There was a staircase in the center of the house surrounded by the living room, dining room, and family room.  I walked the circle one way and another. I walked up the stairs and down the stairs. I sat on the stairs with the dogs, sat in the living room. I pulled out old black and white photos, threw them on the dining room table, and shuffled through them.

The photo

A photo of my beautiful grandmother sitting in the summer sun caught my attention. She was not looking at the camera, nor was she looking at me. Her gaze, however, burned a hole in my soul. I knew right then that I needed to write about her and her life and her struggles and her joys.

I don’t want to bore you with every detail, but I sat at the computer and pummeled its keys. Words and memories flooded the screen until, two days later, I had written 20-plus pages.


That was the beginning of this journey to honor my grandmother and her struggle. Like millions of other immigrants, she had the courage to cross the ocean to come to a strange place because she thought she would have a better life. She was uneducated, but she was smart. And brave. And strong. And everything I hope I am. Grandma and the women like her are the ones we should be honoring on International Women’s Day.

They are the true heroes of our history.

Chris Cutler

Travel Editor

Christine Cutler is a writer, photographer, editor, guide, teacher, traveler, Ohio native, Florida resident, and world citizen. she lives in downtown St. Petersburg with her husband and crazy Welsh terrier, and she considers Italy, where she holds dual citizenship, her second home. in addition to being travel editor and writing for live in Italy magazine, she maintains her own websites (coldpastaandredwine.com and christinecutler.com), guides small groups through Italy, and is a travel advisor for Adventures by Jamie (adventuresbyjamie.com) a travel, non-fiction, and memoir writer; photographer; and editor whose work has appeared in various publications, she spends as much time as she can exploring—and living and breathing—Italy.

  1. This is nice story of remembrance of both of your mom’s parents. I envy your recollection of the afternoons spent with her. My father’s parents came over separately from Italy in the early 1900s. I never had a chance to know them because my grandfather died in a railroad mishap in the mid-1940s and my grandmother passed about six months later from pneumonia. However, I enjoyed your story and imagine my story, if I had known my Italian grandparents. Thank you!

    1. Grazie, John. Yes, I’m very lucky I got to spend time with her. She is the inspiration for so much of what I do. I’m sorry about your grandparents but am glad you are experiencing Italy. Thank you for reading Live in Italy, too.

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