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Interview with Lillian Varol

Varol, Lillian
Female Voice
Christie, Lara
Date of Interview: 
Relationships with people and places; Stories and storytellers; Cultural identification; Childhood adventures
Lillian Varol talks about stories she heard growing up in an immigrant family.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Lara Christie interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
LC (Lara Christie): This is an interview with Lillian Varol on March 19, 2000. Do you remember anybody telling you stories when you were a child?
LV (Lillian Varol): Most definitely. I had a grandmother that lived with us.
LC: Uh-huh.
LV: And she spoke Italian. Is that all right?
LC: Yeah.
LV: And, um, she told us stories every night. We wouldn't go to bed until she told us stories, you know, and, ah, they were all you know years later I found out some of them were old fairy tales that we had in the American language. They even had them through Europe. I traced some of them at one time. Remember that? And ah, well when she told us the stories of course we were thrilled with them you know and she apparently was a good storyteller. Of course that was in Italian incidentally you know.
LC: Yeah.
LV: And, ah, we wouldn't go to bed without her telling stories you know.
LC: What kinds of stories did she used to tell you?
LV: Well a lot of them were fairy tales and I remember as I got older and read a lot that I compared some of them to fairy tales we read in the English language like the one about, there was one about seven brothers.
LC: Uh-huh.
LV: And one when the last one was born there wasn't enough time. He didn't have all of his arms or something. Isn't that a strange? I'm, the first time I'm thinking of this in years. And that, that appeared in American books because I read of course as soon as I was old enough I could go to the library I was getting books, and I was coming across a lot of the stories that my grandmother told us in Italian, of course, you know. They were old fairy tales that where all, went all through Europe apparently, you know, in all the languages.
LC: Do you remember any one story in particular that you liked?
LV: I used to. In fact I wrote about it somewhere. Melanie didn't I write something?
FV (Female Voice): Yes I think you wrote about the, ah, Easter stories, the Apostles.
LV: I mean didn't I give you something? I wrote it up for everybody?
FV: Yes, but I don't think it had any of these fairy tales in detail.
LV: Oh, it didn't?
FV: \\ But you said. \\
LV: \\ Because \\ I recognized some of the fairy tales after I read \\ English and you know. \\
FV: \\ Yeah, the Grimm's Fairy Tales-. \\
LV: Huh?
FV: -But you, you also said she told you religious stories.
LV: What? \\ That she told us what? \\
FV: \\ Religious stories.\\ [Pause] \\ Religious stories. \\
LV: \\ I don't get that word. \\ Oh religion. Oh yeah. Oh yeah a lot of them. A lot of stories as, as I grew appeared in English fairy tales and in the, the religious stories.
LC: Uh-huh.
LV: Ah, most of them appeared, what is the book with the Italian-, uh, oh the religious fairy tale sort of thing, that was a book somewhere I had something on it.
LC: Well, um, why do you think you liked her stories so much?
LV: Oh they were all we could get.
LC: [Laugh]
LV: I mean first of all, I mean, plus bedtime, you know, and if my mother and father were going out, you know, oh, we wanted our grandmother to. She could-, poor Grandma, she couldn't get us to bed unless we-, she told us a couple of stories, you know, and if my father was around he'd say, "That's-," "It-," "You've had plenty, you've had enough," but when they were going out they'd say, "Now one more story." I can just see my father doing this and saying this. "Now just one more story and you're going to bed." So Grandma would have to tell a story. She, we used to sit around the kitchen stove. In those days it was the only heat you had, you know.
LC: Uh-huh.
LV: And, ah, then we'd, ah, rush into our bedroom, you know, and get into our other clothes and, and lots of times if my father and mother weren't home. And they used to go out a lot because they, they could leave all the kids in perfect. We'd crawl into bed and we'd say, "Tell us a story now while we're in bed." But we couldn't get away with that too often-.
LC: [Laugh]
LV: -You know, she could just go on and on and, as I said, I recognized a lot of them as I grew older and, and knew that they were fairy tales that were told all through Europe.
LC: Yeah, do you think any of them had moral-?
LV: Huh?
LC: -Do you think any of them had moral lessons or values \\ that they taught? \\
LV: \\ Oh I'm sure \\ almost everything did [laugh].
LC: Yeah?
LV: In those days. Oh, and, and when I get older we used to get a little annoyed at that, you know. But, ah, uh, yeah, all the stories almost always had moral endings and pointed out what should never happen and why things happen. I wish I could remember them. In fact I'm pretty sure I wrote them up somewhere now. They're written up somewhere.
FV: Weren't some of them like Aesop's Fables \\ with the animals? \\
LV: \\ Oh yeah. \\ A lot of them, they were the regular fables that I read later and I recognized as Grandma telling me.
FV: And Anderson, Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and Grimm's Brothers. \\ The Grimm brothers. \\
LV: Yeah. Yeah, they were. I don't know. I believe I studied up on them once and whether they got them from Grimm, you know, they, the, all through Europe, at that time, ah, you know, people couldn't read, you know, I mean it wasn't, not everybody learned, ever learned to read \\ you know-. \\
LC: \\ Did your \\ grandmother know how to read?
LV: No I don't think my grandmother could read. But she had endless fairy tales, endless stories she could tell us.
LC: Where do you think she learned the stories?
LV: Well, through her family.
LC: Yeah.
LV: Now she was the youngest of a grown up family. In fact her mother died right after she was born I think or something, but she had grown up brothers that were in the Italian Civil War and all that stuff I used to, I have that stuff somewhere. Now I don't know if your mother's got copies of it but I'm sure that they're somewhere and, ah, she used to tell us, uh, all these stories. She was a very good storyteller I would say-.
LC: What do you think-?
LV: -Cause my mother couldn't, you know?
LC: What do you think made her a good storyteller?
LV: What? As I said she was the youngest of a grown up, a very well-off family I guess, and, ah, I think they-, oh and then the big Civil War was going on in Italy you have to try to figure it's over a hundred years of when it was but they put her in for safekeeping because the soldiers were roaming over the country you know and fighting. They put her in like a convent, you know, school, when she was a little girl.
LC: Uh-huh.
LV: And they, she heard a lot of the stories from the nuns. She heard a lot of those Catholic stories that she told us-.
LC: Uh-huh.
LV: -From the nuns and, ah, she never learned to read but I think she was a born storyteller because my mother couldn't. My mother would get annoyed and she couldn't go on, you know.
LC: [Laugh]
LV: She just had a few things she could tell us but-.
LC: \\ Yeah. \\
LV: \\ -It was \\ nothing. My grandmother could sit there and, and my mother and father could go out at night, we were a bunch of kids like three or four of us anyway, and before they, I can just see them walking out of the house and my father saying, "Now one more story and then you go to bed." Because they figured we would say to Grandma, "Another story, another story," you know?
LC: Yeah.
LC: You know, and, ah, she was so good that way.
LC: So who listened to the stories?
LV: Huh?
LC: Who listened to her stories? You and who else?
LV: My brother and Sel, and Adeline was the baby at the time I'm talking about I don't know how old, you know, she might have been four.
LC: Do, did anybody ever read you stories?
LV: Read to us? My father might have. I don't know but I'm sure my, my mother didn't and my grandmother didn't read. I don't think she knew how to read, but she was an endless storyteller. She was so good at it.
LC: Did you ever read story, stories?
LV: Huh?
LC: Did you start reading stories on your own?
LV: Oh, as soon as I could, well before I was old enough I lied about my age. I felt like a criminal, you know.
LC: [Laugh]
LV: I said I was eight. I, you had to be eight and I went to the library to get books. I couldn't wait to get my hands on books and then, then I was reading. I was a bookworm from early childhood and-.
LC: What did you like to read?
LV: All the Grimm's Fairytales, I think I read them over. I can just see the shelf in the children's library in Hartford with all the Grimm's Fairytales and all the others and then the, ah, the books that the, ah, like they weren't historical.
FV: The Five Little Peppers.
LV: Oh, oh God. That was a series. What has ever happened to that? Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and who was the author? I must have it written somewhere.
LC: Uh-huh.
LV: Ah, she wrote, you know, oh, a number of books and oh we were crazy about those.
FV: Louisa May Alcott. Little Women.
LV: Oh yeah, that came out. Yeah. Well see it's good she remembers better than I do. I can't remember right now.
LC: That's OK.
LV: But somewhere I have it written up.
LC: Do you remember a favorite story that you read?
LV: Well there's so many. [Pause] Well, ah, favorite stories, yes I did have favorite stories that I wanted over and over again. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew did you ever hear of that? Oh God, that was a series and I don't know who wrote that. We should look it up. Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and, you know, it added when they were this age and when they were that and when they went to school and the woman who wrote that. She's got to be famous. I must have it all somewhere. That was just, I was crazy about that, as soon as I could read. Then I was reading and I used to read to my brother and sisters, you know.
LC: Did they like it when you read to them?
LV: Yeah, I mean there was no television and no radio even, you know. This was your great amusement, what you got out of each other.
LC: What kinds of stories did they like to hear you read?
LV: Well fairytales I'm sure when they, we were all young, very young and as soon as I, I lied about my age, you know, and I said I was eight. I think you had to be eight to get a library card and I felt like a criminal,l you know.
LC: Yeah.
LV: I thought I was a real criminal and I got my first library card and from then on I've always had library cards and I used to read to the others. I must have ruined it for Sel because she loved to hear me read and begged me to read to her and she never would learn to read herself-.
LC: [Laugh]
LV: -You know. She was, she loved a story. Adeline wasn't that crazy about it. She was more of a little tomboy, you know. Adeline was, but Sel would say, "Read, read it to me, read it to me," and, ah-.
LC: Were you a good reader?
LV: Huh?
LC: Were you a good reader?
LV: I apparently must have been because I got books as soon as I could at the library. I lied about my age and felt like a criminal [laugh].
LC: Did you ever, um, the stories that your grandmother told you, did you ever retell those stories later?
LV: The stories my grandmother, I wish I could. Gee I, I'd like to go in my mind and, a lot of them I, reappeared in fairytales I read-.
LC: Uh-huh.
LV: -I realize they were the same. And as I grew older once I did a little research on that, that all through Europe, like Germany and France and England and Italy, a lot of these stories were the same stories that they repeated. Now you must have been-, there's, there's books on that you could get, uh, on that research. I did that once and I noticed that a lot of the stories that my grandmother told us that were told to her and she never learned to read.
LC: Um, do you ever remember hearing stories about yourself as a child?
LV: About myself?
LC: Yeah, I mean do you ever remember your parents or your grandparents \\ or your brothers or sisters telling-. \\
LV: \\ Oh, I can remember when my, \\ when they were quite young, "Oh yeah there was little girl once," and you know it, right away I knew it was me, who did this.
LC: [Laugh]
LV: "No, no," they'd always say.
LC: [Laugh]
LV: But yeah, they would make it up, you know, about us-.
LC: Uh-huh.
LV: -You know.
LC: Was there anything you ever did as a child that they told as a story \\ later? \\
LV: \\ Huh? \\
LC: Was there anything that you did or that your brothers and sisters did as children that they told as story \\ later on? \\
LV: \\ I don't know. \\ [Pause] Let me-.
FV: What was the story that went with that-?
LV: Huh?
FV: The story that goes with that picture?
LV: ( ) My mother, oh she was so mad.
LC: Wait, explain the picture to us. \\ What picture? Grandma, Grandma, hang on. \\
LV: \\ Because, because. \\ Huh?
LC: What picture are you talking about? Explain the picture.
LV: That one there with my arm up. The photographer came around, you know, there was very little photography then it turned out my Uncle Philip was a photographer.
LC: Oh.
LV: And, then we got, oh they, we had a lot of pictures taken because of him. But I know that was out in front of our house on a ( ) afternoon, middle of town. I always remember my, because I never could forget my mother just couldn't get over the fact that I put my arm up. They could, take it again, it's just, this man was out on the street taking the picture, you know. [Pause] I thought it was the perfect arm.
LC: [Laugh] You, you used to say my-.
LV: And I have one with the foot here [laugh].
LC: Tell me about the one with the foot.
LV: My daughter with a cripple foot, you know, I mean I got that thrown at me [laugh]. Where was that picture? Um-.
FV: Who were you imitating when you crossed the foot?
LV: Huh?
LC: Why did you cross her foot?
LV: Oh, the men in the corner, you know, the men, we, we lived right off of the main street and I mean I don't know if there was a bar there I don't remember any bar, I remember a bakery, 'cause we used to go up and get, bakery. But the men were leaning against the building and, with one leg crossed over, you know. I thought that was so smart, these long-legged men you know, and the one leg crossed over looking so, standing there talking. There were no benches ( ). So I thought I'd try that.
LC: [Laugh]
LV: Where's that picture? Oh, it's in there. Oh, my mother never, you see they could just take, snap one picture, they couldn't take, you know, repeat or anything. And that's the, the picture with the lame arm and the other with the bad leg and I had to own up to it for years, because they never could take another. Then my Uncle Philip, the model, hobnobbing, my cousin Frank, with his son Frank, they came from ( ) after the World War, there was a \\ war-. \\
FV: \\ Earthquake. \\
LV: Huh?
FV: The earthquake.
LV: Oh, earthquake or something. And he was the photographer and then he took nice pictures of us in the studio a couple of times but-.
FV: Do you remember the story of the earthquake?
LV: Huh? Oh-.
FV: The story that everybody knows.
LV: I'm trying to remember what-.
FV: They fell out of bed.
LV: Oh yeah, that was the men ( ) 'cause they were over, my aunt, your mother, right and my cousin Frank-.
LC: In Italy.
LV: -He was the only one of my cousins that was born over there. All the rest of them here. My Uncle Peter's family had ten children but he came over when he was only 12 with my grandfather. My grandfather was a, my mother's father, you know, was a nervous guy. He came over to try to decide-, lot of his friends were moving to America. And he couldn't take it, he couldn't stand it, the, the way things were done and all that, he was a little nervous guy, so he went back home. My uncle, he had taken my Uncle Peter with him, he was the oldest one of my mother's brothers. Well there was ( ), Peter, and then the baby, Uncle Frank, who became the marine engineer but, he had taken him, the oldest boy with him and then, ah, he didn't want to come back, he fell in love with New York, so he jumped off the boat after the boat started he jumped off the boat. This was, the boat was, I, I had it all explained to me later. In the park, what do you call it, piers, uh, in the Hudson River, the mouth of the Hudson River, this was. So when he jumped off the boat and swam my grandfather fell into a trance. He just, he was a nervous little guy anyway, and he came home without my uncle and my grandmother never forgave him. "You didn't bring my son home." Thought her son was dead and all that. Eventually they came over again and they stayed a long time and, ah, 'cause I remember them and seeing them there everyday regularly. My grandfather was a little nervous guy but he loved my mother, my mother was like the special. He used to come over to the house and visit with my mother in the middle of the afternoon I could remember that and my mother had a strong-, actually, my grandmother was a, you know, bossy nervous woman but he was a little quiet nervous guy.
LC: And what was the story about the earthquake in Sicily? About the people when they were sleeping in bed?
LV: Oh the one that we all used to laugh about.
LC: Yeah tell that story.
LV: My father rolling, rolling out of, it, they caved in, you know, apparently it was a calm cave in, you know, there was no big shaking stuff, you know the earth just, my, my grand my, my Uncle Peter ( ) they stayed over there. 'Cause she got married very young and he had a job. But my mother and her older sister came over single girls you know to America. But um-.
FV: ( )
LV: Huh? So anyway the earthquake came to Messina where they were, and um they sort of caved in so and my, uh, there were two single girls living on the floor, and my, Michael used to love to tell that, my God the men loved, he loved the single girls living on the first floor and I, my aunt and my uncle, uh Philip, fell into bed with the girls and my aunt fell on the floor. They loved that, they thought that was just the greatest joke, you know, the men. But uh-.