Teresa Spano Pietropaolo: Matriarch. Storyteller. Immigrant. Hospital worker. Born May 17, 1929, in Maierato, Italy; died Oct. 10, 2020, in Toronto, of heart failure; aged 91.
Every year on the anniversary of her father’s death, Teresa lit a candle in his memory. If you happened to be visiting with her she would regale you with stories about her heartwarming relationship with her father, whom she met for the first time when she was 20. Often she might sweeten her storytelling by breaking into song, a lifelong habit she acquired in the 1930s when she was drafted into the Opera Nazionale Balilla, an Italian Fascist youth organization. She sang in praise of Italy’s ill-fated dreams of empire then, and in Canada, her repertoire ranged from religious hymns to popular songs from the 1950s. La Casetta in Canada (My little house in Canada) ranked high on her list.
Teresa was a happy woman, and her happiness was contagious. But it was a hard-earned happiness. She was the youngest of five children born to Maria Concetta Costa and Domenico Spano. She was raised by a vedova bianca, a wife bereaved by emigration, not death, left behind by a husband who ventured into the Americas to lift his family out of centuries-old poverty. Teresa’s father immigrated to Argentina in 1923 and would not return home until 1949. He did make a short visit but left once again in 1929. Teresa was born two months later. “I knew him only through the pictures he sent in his letters,” she said.
As a little girl, Teresa would send him ricordini, little mementoes in the form of drawings or nursery rhymes. When he returned home, he presented the grown-up Teresa with a collection of her notes that he had kept while in Buenos Aires. In 1954, her father attended Teresa’s marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Vincenzo. But it wasn’t long before the newlyweds left for Canada. They travelled with the family of Teresa’s older sister and settled in Toronto’s Little Italy, where they joined Teresa’s older brother and his family. She soon began working at Toronto Western Hospital in food services and housekeeping and stayed there until she retired.
The late 1950s and early sixties were difficult as a working mother of four. Teresa took some comfort that her extended family lived just across the street. They had, in effect, recreated a version of their old country village, which allowed them to depend on each other as much as they could.
Teresa encouraged her children to pursue their own dreams and not be bound by Old World expectations. A few days before she died she reminded her granddaughter Lisa to be true to herself as an independent woman. A benevolent matriarch, Teresa was not a wallflower and did not suffer fools gladly. She would tell the story of standing up for her rights at the hospital. Once, a high-ranking specialist made a rude remark and let a door close in her face. She wasted no time in taking him to task, reminding him that they were both workers at the hospital and civility was expected. Teresa was pleased when the man later called her at home to apologize.
From the day she first set foot in Canada, Teresa kept her growing family connected. A born storyteller, she wove the strands of her family’s life into a rich tale, beginning with her father’s clandestine immigration to New York in 1907. She would often leave voicemail messages for her four children and assorted nieces and nephews. Although cheerful, her messages were also a gentle scolding, a reminder that we were not honouring our end of the social contract.
Her house on Euclid Avenue was the realization of a childhood dream grounded in an epistolary bond with an absent but supportive father. Teresa, a true child of immigration, was one of the last matriarchs of Toronto’s Little Italy.
Damiano Pietropaolo is Teresa’s oldest nephew.
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