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Nonna Rosa Grieco née Schiavone

A tribute to our Nonna, Rosa Grieco (née Schiavone), lovingly written by her Granddaughter, Lina Aykler (Colosimo)

My beautiful Nonna, Rosa Grieco ( née Schiavone) embarked on her journey from Palermo to Halifax, Canada on March 19th, 1953 when she was only 17 years old. She had never travelled outside of her hometown of Foggia, Italy and did not speak a word of English; but she was incredibly brave! She travelled alone to Halifax and then Malartic, Quebec, where she hoped my Nonno Ciriaco would have received her telegrams and would be awaiting her arrival. Young, scared, but excited, she departed for Canada. After the long boat ride on the Saturnia ship she arrived in Halifax on March 30th, 1953. She bought something to eat in Halifax,  to take with her for the next leg of her trip, some cookies and bread. It was the first time that she had ever seen or tasted white bread; she thought it was cake, and didn’t quite appreciate the taste yet! From there, she got on a train, and travelled for another 3 days, and made her way to Malartic, Quebec where my Nonno Ciraco was working in the Gold mines.

After a joyous reunion with my adoring Nonno, they began building their life together. It was here, in this small mining community, that my Nonna, so far from her support system in Italy,  would have her first baby, my mother, Filomena, in 1954.  While living in Malartic, they learnt French, and then later English, finally settling in Toronto on May 10th, 1956. Her second child, Celestino, was 9 months old. When she arrived in Toronto, she began working at Weston Bakery Factory, in the cookie shop. She worked there until 1963 when she then would open, and successfully run, her own clothing business for the next 50 years. They would also expand their family, adding 2 more beautiful children, Anna and Francesca.  The store, located at Old Weston and Rogers, Rosa Dry Goods, catered to women and children’s clothing, and fine linens. These linens were often what Italian women would include in their hope/marriage chests.  My grandparents lived in the building above and behind the store for most of their lives.

My Nonna Rosa had such a loyal customer base that oftentimes, even when families would move out of the neighbourhood, they would still make their way back to my Nonna Rosa’s store to buy their clothing. Nonna Rosa spoke to people with an ease and confidence that quickly made customers into friends. She was an excellent businesswoman and adored by all.  I remember fondly sitting in her kitchen (behind the store) with customers who came to buy something and who would afterwards stay for a cup of coffee and indulge in some homemade cookies that my Nonna miraculously always had on hand. They would call her,  Signora Rosa.

Although my grandparents were betrothed to each other before my Nonno came to Canada, my Nonna’s parents would not allow her to travel to Canada until she was officially married. Because of this, my grandparents got married through proxy; my Nonno’s brother stood in for him. They never had a ‘real’ wedding until 25 years later, in 1977, when they renewed their vows and had a proper wedding reception. She wore a simple but beautiful off white dress, surrounded and celebrated by family and friends.

Nonna Rosa has had 4 children and has been further blessed by 10 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. I am the eldest grandchild. She has always taken an active role in all our lives; the first to say yes to attending every birthday party, graduation ceremony or trip.  My cousins and I have been so blessed to have so many wonderful memories. Some of my fondest memories are staying with them in Florida, going out for Chinese food or just sitting on their back porch, having a coffee, and listening to their stories.

After my adored Nonno passed,  Nonna Rosa was heartbroken,  but continued to be the strong Matriarch of our family. She left her home on Rogers and moved in with one of her children,  Anna. Her life changed drastically, but her strength and determination did not. Surrounded by so many grandchildren, she is rarely alone.  On her 85th birthday her grandchildren bought her an IPAD. I know at first she thought it was a silly gift, however;  we knew she would easily figure out how to navigate it, and of course, she did!  During the past two, awful years of Covid, she has been able Facetime all her grandchildren and great grandchildren, not missing a beat.

I have been so blessed to spend time with her, to have my children know and appreciate her. We have been able to make memories together at my parents’ cottage, with my mother and my children for the past few summers. Despite sometimes feeling unwell, she would wake up every morning excited; already talking about what we would cook or bake that day. It was a very special time – cooking and baking up a storm, but most importantly spending time together.

She has passed down so many wonderful gifts to us all – especially her love of cooking,  baking,  knitting, and crocheting. Every house ( and couch)  in our very extended family has been blessed with a blanket that Nonna Rosa has lovingly made by hand. My children, her great grandchildren, love spending time with their Nonna Rosa – who still makes all their winter hats and scarfs. In fact, when any of their clothing is ripped or they lose a button, they always say, don’t worry, Nonna Rosa will fix it!

I never remember my Nonna’s hands ever being idle- she was always up so early every morning, making pasta by hand, starting a soup, and sauce to simmer before dressing. And every day she dressed so beautifully, her salt and pepper hair impeccably styled. As she is slowly ageing, her hands still remain busy, even though she is not as mobile as she once was. Her arthritic hands are constantly knitting a hat or blanket or little booties and a receiving blanket, getting ready for her next great grandchild.

Nonna Rosa worked full time for most of her life, however; she also was an extraordinary homemaker. Her stand-up freezer was always full of homemade food. Every time I visited;  I would go home with dinner for the next day. Frozen sauce with meatballs , ready to reheat. Homemade pizza dough ready to bake, cookies and of course my children’s favourite- “pizza fritta’. These treats were basically the original ‘Beaver tails’ sold around the city. Hers were made from fresh pizza dough, quickly fried and served hot, sprinkled with sugar.  Her homemaking and organisational skills would give Martha Stewart a run for her money. I often asked her how she managed to run a successful clothing store and run a full household of 6 so effortlessly. I really think she just enjoyed having a busy home, surrounded by those she loved. I think she was truly happiest seeing those she loved leave her house with full bellies, and Tupperware’s full of leftovers.

And so, this beautiful, quiet immigrant of only 17, who had never left her hometown of Foggia, Accadia, courageously came to Canada to build a new life with her husband;  a life bigger and better than she ever dreamt she thought she could.  She is the true Matriarch of our family, our foundation, who has left a legacy of love behind her.