Time to tell Zia Caterina’ s tale of Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt –
This is the tale of my dad’s older sister, Caterina Guerrera’s, journey on the rocky road to the American dream. You may remember my Aunt Cat from the earlier blog about my family’s Ellis Island experience – https://nonnasmulberrytree.com/2013/09/18/nonna-comes-to-america/.
Two-year old Caterina Guerrera was racing over the hills of Pontelandolfo talking as fast as the village’s babbling brooks. Then the world stopped. This peasant child was stricken with polio. Her mother put hot stones on her limbs, massaged and massaged. One of the reasons the family came to America was that my nonna, Maria Rosaria Solla, was afraid that Caterina would end up in an institution for the insane and deformed. Caterina was smart and fought hard and seven years later was able to board the ship in Naples for America.
When nine-year old Caterina entered her first American school she discovered just how quick a learner she was. In those days immigrant kids didn’t have the benefit of bi-lingual education or ESL – it was total immersion. On the happy little girl’s first day of school the teacher said something – Caterina looked at her and smiled – the other kids put their heads on their desks. Suddenly the teacher’s yard stick whacked Caterina on the back of the head. Aunt Cat figured out immediately what the English phrase “put your head down” meant.
Polio left her with a short right leg, “baby sized” arm and marked limp. Because of her jaunty walk – step and drag the dead leg, kids would call her 1 and 2 and. She swore to me it didn’t phase her – that they were just teasing. Bottom line, she remembered and replayed the story tape for me.
At that point in time, folks who were disabled were often hidden away. Well no one was hiding Caterina Guererra – “Guerrera” does mean female warrior. She was a fighter, often protecting herself and her younger brother, Salvatore, by tossing rocks squarely at all taunters. Eventually, the family moved to a small farm in the Flagtown, section of Hillsborough Township, New Jersey. A number of other Italian families had settled in Flagtown – this was the depression and members of this tight knit community helped each other.
She graduated from Somerville High School in June of 1933 and then attended Drake College (business course – 6 months). Catherine wasn’t going to let anyone hold her back. After attending secretarial school and pounding the pavements looking for work, the only job she could get was in a sewing factory in Bound Brook – cleaning. With her shriveled right arm that hung like a dead branch and a right leg that didn’t work at all, she picked up dropped pieces of cloth so the ladies sewing wouldn’t have to take the time to bend down. Catherine took the train every day, angry that her active brain was mildewing in a sweatshop. There had to be something better – mannaggia this was America!
The President during this period of American history was, Franklin D. Roosevelt, also a victim of polio – something he hid well. Roosevelt overcame his affliction and Catherine felt she would too. He had helped all kinds of folks during the great depression. Including her brother, Salvatore, who traveled across America improving our park lands with the the other poor young men of the Civilian Conservation Corp. The CCC was just one of the programs that were instituted under the “New Deal” moniker. The Works Progress Administration was one of my favorite programs. Jobless Americans built buildings, bridges, schools. More importantly artists, writers, musicians and theatre professionals were included in the WPA. WPA art can still be seen in public spaces around the country.
“It is only in recent years that we have come to realize the true significance of the problem of our crippled children. There are so many more of them than we had any idea of. In many sections there are thousands who are not only receiving no help but whose very existence has been unknown to the doctors and health services.” Radio Address on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Birthday Ball for Crippled Children January 30, 1934
Aunt Cat saw that Roosevelt also was instrumental in raising funds for polio treatment and creating the innovative use of hydrotherapy with polio patients in Warm Springs, Georgia. This plucky young lady sat down and penned a letter to the Roosevelts.
This is how my Aunt Cat told the story to me:
I wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt. My friend Libby (Elizabeth Quick) thought I was pazzo – why would the president’s wife listen to a “guinea” from Flagtown, NJ? My father and Mr. De Angelis started the Democratic Club here. All the Dutch farmers were Republican. I wrote 20 different letters and finally got it right. I sent it.
One day – I was giving Mary the horse some hay – and then a big black car pulled in the yard and sent the chickens running. This woman got out of the car and showed me some papers. She came from the state and she said that she was going to take me to see a doctor who could maybe help me walk better. My father was working and my mother was at Mrs. Gallo’s – Julie’s mother – I told my brother, Tony, to tell mama I was going to see a doctor and I got in the car. If someone could help me walk without dragging my leg like a mail sack than I was going. What I didn’t know was that the doctor was in Newark – in those days you only had Route 28 and it took 2 hours to get to Newark. She took me to Beth Israel Hospital – Dr. Henry H. Kessler himself saw me and asked me if I was strong. He said it would take 8 surgeries but he could make me walk better and my bad arm wouldn’t just hang like a dead branch. He laughed when I told him that I milked the goats and cows, plowed the field following Mary the horse and dragged my leg the ½ mile to the train stop to go work in the sewing factory – strong – I was strong. I was old enough to sign the papers and the next thing I knew I was in a huge room lined with beds – in those days you slept in a bed in a ward with 40 other beds. I wasn’t even afraid. Dr. Kessler had this way about him – he cared – like the Roosevelt’s. Dr. Kessler fixed my arm first. I had 9 surgeries. After the first surgery, Dr. Kessler asked the nurse why no one ever came to visit me. Even then he knew that you had to treat the whole person – not just be an orthopedic mechanic. He asked me if I had any family. I told him my family lived in Flagtown – which to him was like living in Appalachia. I had left with the social worker and never went home. I thought she told my mother.
Dr. Kessler asked me if I wanted to use the telephone and call them. You didn’t have a phone in the depression unless you were rich. So I wrote them a letter and told them where I was – the boys could read in English – as soon as they got the letter they came. Mama was furious that I would not let them take me home – but after all the surgery and I could walk she stopped being angry.
I have never voted for a Republican. They still are for the rich – look at Bush and the oil people. Bush wouldn’t send someone to help a girl with polio unless he could get something. What did Mr. Roosevelt get? A thank you letter from me, a girl whose father laid railroad ties and whose mother kept us eating by her garden and animals.
She was soon – well not that soon – I mean nine surgeries is a big deal – back in the fields, passing her driving test on the first try – her macho brothers couldn’t do that – and looking for work. Then a miracle happened – the federal government decided that a post office was to be set up in Flagtown. Whoever ran it wouldn’t get a salary but a commission on what postage was sold. (Damn, an entrepreneurial helping hand at no cost to the government – who’d have thought!) The whoever – thanks again to the helpful Roosevlet hand – was Catherine (AKA Caterina) Guerrera. At first she didn’t want to do it – a commission – who wants to work on commission. Her dad, Francesco convinced her to take the new position. In Italy it was an honor to be the postmaster.
On March 26, 1943, Frank C. Walker Postmaster General of the United States of America appointed Catherine Guerrera Postmaster at Flagtown in the County of Somerset, State of New Jersey. Originally she worked out of a shack near the rail road tracks. Then her entrepreneurial brain started twirling. Due to her personality, more people were buying stamps and the little postal stop was growing. Why not own the building? She got a parcel of ground from her dad and with her brothers help built a post office that she rented to the government. To this day my cousins rent the newer version to the postal service.
She then marketed the hell out of that little rural post office and by the time she retired in 1980 – at a vital aged 69 – had built it up to a first-class post-office. (This designation is no longer used by the postal service.) The building also grew. From that one room rural oasis to a solid facility with an accompanying luncheonette and two apartments. She had a vision and watched it grow. Cha- ching!
Every story has a moment of sadness. Catherine Guerrera had been Post Master for forty years and hated that forced retirement. In 1984 – four years after retiring – the dreaded polio returned – post polio syndrome. I blamed the forced retirement – she was no longer lifting and chucking huge mail bags, standing and sorting mail, bending to talk to children. This time she had the resources to get the best of care at NYU’s Institute of Rehab Medicine under the guidance of Dr. Kristjan Ragnarsson. It took a while, but after a good number of months in New York learning how to deal with a wheel chair, take in the sights of the city from a little bit lower perspective and outfitted for new braces she was back to her “give ’em hell” self.
This great American Dream story demonstrates to all those non-believers – that a little bit of government assistance can jump start a life. And – for those of you who are died in the wool conservatives – her estate taxes more than paid off Uncle Sam for all his – I mean Roosevelt’s – help.
My fabulous Aunt Cat taught me that hard work, hope and being a Democrat was the American thing to do.