Friday, September 6, 2013

Carmela’s Ordeal

This blog post is based on a chapter from the book Nettie: Tales of a Brooklyn Nana, by Peter Franzese (  Carmela was the elder sister of his grandmother, Nettie.

Carmela Carrano was born on September 2, 1912, in a six-family tenement house at 60 Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn that was gas lit and where an airless hallway bathroom was shared with another family. She was the 7th of 11 children born to Maria Carrano between 1898-1925. The sisters – there were five at the time – all slept together in a large bed. Carmela was severely bow legged and had difficulty walking, but in spite of that difficulty and the teasing other children subjected her to, she was a sweet, kind-hearted girl.

This is Carmela at her confirmation with her confirmation sponsor. Her bow legs can be seen in the picture. This picture is posted courtesy of Peter Michael Franzese.

Peter says: “She looked out for her younger sister, my grandmother, and always worried if my grandmother had her school supplies and would make sure my grandmother was ready for school.  She was also devoted to her mother, even though she was small.” Peter’s grandmother was 2 years and 13 days younger than Carmela, and the two were very close. Peter’s grandmother would walk to school with Carmela every day; she was always sad when kids at school taunted Carmela over her bowed legs. The kids would tease Carmela about her “bandy legs.”
But aside from her legs the kind, gentle child had no serious health problems.

“Then,” says Peter, “on August 25, 1922, she had been playing with a cousin all day, when she suddenly was stricken with high fevers and lancing headaches. The neighborhood doctor was summoned to the house, where he diagnosed her malady as viral meningitis.”

This far back, we don’t know if Carmela actually had viral meningitis and if so what caused it, though the CDC lists a number of vaccine preventable diseases among the causes, including mumps, “varicella-zoster virus (which also causes chicken pox and shingles), measles, and influenza.”
Debbie Fearon, a pediatrician from Australia, isn’t sure. “The death rate from viral meningitis in otherwise healthy ten year olds is very low.” Debbie and other physicians aren’t sure, on these facts, what Carmela actually had. But at any rate, the little girl suffered horribly. Carmela lay in bed, her fever burning, her head splitting. The house was quarantined – she was trapped in there, with her parents and seven siblings and all the families in the tenement. There was nothing they could do for her.
She screamed her agony.  For nine days, she screamed day and night, non-stop. Towards the end, she was stricken blind. The other children, the other neighbors, never forgot her screams. Peter says: “The thing that stayed with the children in the house was the screams that seemed to never end over those 9 days.”

This picture of Carmela was put up in a place of honor in the apartment of her older sister, Rose. Picture posted courtesy of Peter Michael Franzese.

She died on September 2, 1922, the day of her tenth birthday, in the same house in which she was born, via a midwife. Her wake took place in the same apartment, too. Dressed in the same beautiful dress in the photo above, she was laid in a casket. Peter remembers how “Her brother, Jimmy, filled the pots to represent the tears their mother shed with water,” – a child’s effort to express the deep, painful sorrow he saw his mother suffer through.
Peter describes her funeral procession: “Her casket was brought to church in a white horse drawn carriage with white horses. Their heads were bowed. As the horse drawn hearse was pulled from her home to church, the girls who she had made confirmation with walked along side dressed in their white dresses.
She is buried with her parents at St. John's Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, NY.

It wasn’t unusual to lose a child at the time; Peter describes the experience of his great-great-grandmother on the other side of the family: “My great-great grandmother came to America in 1895 and between 1892 and 1914 she had I believe 12 kids...and buried 8 of them ...some babies and some adults - so, I guess, Maria Carrano was lucky that she only lost one child compared to my great-great grandma Luppino.”
But Carmela’s death left a hole in her mother’s heart: “For 35 years her mother travelled [to Carmela’s grave], mostly by foot, to visit her daughter. Just because she had 10 additional children, that one child was never far from her mind.” 
Others remembered Carmela too, her life and her death. Her sisters never forgot; and her neighbors. Peter described how the last person who knew Carmela – a child of a tenant in the building, who met Carmela in 1917 (and died in 2011, at the age of 101) – still remembered her 90 years after her death and “spoke with such a vivid description of this little girl she had not seen in 90 years”.

Carmela was remembered. Partly for her kindness, partly for her painful, too early death, in an era when there was nothing to protect her against disease and when no one could help her. 

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Peter Michael Franzese for sharing this story, and to Melody Butler for bringing it to my attention. I am grateful to Alice Warning Wasney for reading the draft and to Debbie Fearon and other physician  friends, including Carolyn Bursle, Amy Eschinger, and Khedron Frank, for discussing Carmela's illness and offering insights.

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