A conversation with Maria Leone: a window into the history of an island family

Mon, 07/11/2011 - 2:25pm

Sitting down recently with Maria Leone was an opportunity to slip back with her into her vivid memories of a childhood in Italy during World War II, the challenges of coming to the United States in her 20s and the adventure of joining her husband Aldo in coming to live and work on the island.

An animated and engaging woman, Maria clearly enjoys being the great-grandmother, grandmother and mother to the expansive Leone family which has over half a century carved out a significant place for itself on Block Island.

Maria and Aldo came to the country first in the late 1950s, “when we didn’t speak the language very well or even know the island existed,” she says. The young couple lived in Providence.

Although in the old country his father had been a lawyer and he an accountant, when he came to the United States, Aldo went to work in a bakery owned by relatives, apprenticing for his new craft as a baker, before going on to work as a pastry chef at Brown University.

At the invitation of Venetia and Sam Mott in 1959, Aldo came to bake for the Spring House and Narragansett Hotels, both owned by the Mott family. For several years Maria worked in the hotel laundry, “hanging clothes.” At the time, she says, all the linen was hung to dry in the open air, taking advantage of the island winds.

With them when they arrived were Leo and Anna — respectively 4 years old, and a year and a half. For 13 years thereafter, Maria says, they packed up their growing family and came to the island each summer, occupying the second floor of the King’s Spa on Water Street.

Their children soon numbered seven with the addition of Bobby, Rosemaria, Johnny, Aldo and Lisa, and though working seven days a week, the family found time for a daily trek to the beach. Maria says, “Aldo worked from four to 11:30 in the morning; then we would take the kids to the beach, and then at 3:30, he would have to go back to the hotel to serve dinner.”

Eventually, Maria found she could no longer work “with all those children.” A smile lights up her eyes as she says, “We just went to the beach.”

She remembers that there was a weekly ball at the Spring House, and Venetia Mott always invited Maria and Aldo to come. “We were good dancers,” says Maria, “and all the women guests always wanted to dance with Aldo.”

As the children grew, Maria says, “they became dishwashers and waiters.” As a teenager, for instance, Anna worked with her father as assistant baker, as Leo had done before her, and then in the afternoons, she was the “salad girl” at the Narragansett.

The family would spend their summers here, returning to Providence for the academic year — for Aldo to return to Brown and the children to go back to school. Although they worked hard, Maria says, “It was a beautiful life.” Increasingly as her love for the island grew, she began to dislike going back to Providence.

In fact, she says, the island “was beautiful! We all loved it here.” Of Aldo, she says affectionately, “He was a workaholic and for 13 years, between the school semesters, this was a perfect schedule.”

A way to the island’s heart

Over the years, as more and more hotel guests and islanders became familiar with Aldo’s talents as a baker and grew to love his breads and pastries, they asked him to open his own bakery on the island. Though she and Aldo grew excited about the idea, Maria says they did not have the money.

When the Firemen’s Hall came on the market for $35,000, it was way “beyond our means,” she says. However, in 1969, island friends offered to help the Leones purchase the building for $9,000. With $1,000 down, which was all they had, they bought the two-story building that still houses Aldo’s bakery and restaurant.

At the time, there was no road in front of the Hall; their deed included the land that is now occupied by Weldon’s Way in front of the restaurant, “and right up to the ice cream parlor across the way.” Again with the help of friends, the Leones were able to renovate the ground floor, which was made literally of dirt.

Among those who helped was Weldon Dodge, who lived around the corner on Chapel Street. Maria says, “He knew some of our difficulties getting settled.” In the end, the family donated the area that became the street to the town and opened Aldo’s Bakery in 1970. The street was eventually named for Dodge.

A long road

For Maria, the road to the island and a series of successful business ventures for her family was a long one, beginning in Caserta, Italy. When her father died, she was only 3 years old. Her mother, now a widow, planned to send her to the Unites States with her grandfather Valentino Cairo, who owned a fireworks factory that had been in the family for generations. But he was killed in an explosion in 1936 that leveled his business.

As a child of 10, Maria and her mother lived through the Allied bombardment of Italy during the Second World War. The family home was completely destroyed, as were those of neighbors and friends, forcing them all into dank underground shelters where they lived for months.

Maria remembers having pneumonia at the time, and periodically being taken out into the open air in order to breathe. The family’s poverty was so great, many of their meals were made from the thickened water in which her mother would cook pasta. It was a kind of nutrition-less soup offered to fill their empty stomachs.

“There were German soldiers all over the place,” she recalls, “and each of us received a ration from Mussolini” of 100 grams of bread (the equivalent of 3.52 ounces), which was meant to nourish them for a day. There was no communication with family in the United States.

Though the Allies came to bomb the Germans, they brought ruin to many families and children, she says. “It was a very bad time.”

Leaving the past behind

Maria doesn’t dwell on the dark memories, but turns back rather to her marriage to Aldo. She was 17 when she and Aldo married, and she recalls, “We had a good life in Italy, but Aldo wanted to come to America.”

In 1954, Maria and her brother emigrated, leaving two-year old Leo and his father behind for a year. She says it was one of the hardest things she ever did. During that year both she and her brother worked for a jeweler and lived with her uncle, who with his wife had many years earlier adopted them, hoping at the time to make it easier to bring the children to this country. Aldo and Leo followed in 1955.

Of her large family, Maria says, “In a way, I was like a single mother, because my husband had to work all the time.” She says she taught her children to the best of her ability, “learning as I went along.” Aldo, she says, “was always looking for ways to support his family.”

It was Aldo’s idea, she says, to bring his pastries and breads to New Harbor, walking along the slips to offer freshly baked goods to boaters. Eventually he took to the sea, bringing his famous Portugese sweet bread and other specialties out to boats moored in the Great Salt Pond. Friends remember him singing opera as he did so — even as he did while baking.

By the time the children were grown, the bakery extended into a pizza parlor and eventually into the popular restaurant that introduced Italian cuisine to the island.

During the off-seasons, Maria notes, for 18 years the family lived in the Silver Lake section of Providence, which by the mid-seventies she was “ready to leave.” In 1976, while visiting her uncle in Florida, she decided to look at houses there and to everyone’s surprise, she bought one.

When she returned home and told Aldo, he said, “Are you out of your mind?” But he came to enjoy Florida, which Maria says reminded her of Italy. He would relax and bicycle and eventually “he loved it as well,” she adds. Sadly, however, he was only with her there for six years before his death in September 1982, at 51 years of age.

Though bereft at her and her family’s premature loss, Maria has continued their dream and has helped her children carry on with the life she and Aldo began some 60 years ago. She sees in them a continuation of the work ethic that was deeply ingrained in their father.

In looking back at their lives, their struggles and the traumas of her childhood, “I am very appreciative of what I have now.” Thinking about her husband, her children and grandchildren, Maria’s eyes brim with pride as she speaks of all they have accomplished and of the joy they continue to bring into her life.