READ PART ONE OF “MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER’S FIRE”
At the age of twelve, I was more entranced by the gory details of the sweatshop disaster that killed 148 workers, mostly young immigrant women, than I was by the greater implications that the story held for society and the evolution of worker’s rights in the United States. In fact, I could have cared less about that part. Yes, it made me angry that the owners of the clothing factory doomed their workers by locking exit doors so those departing could be searched for any illicitly pocketed fabric, thread, or buttons. Yes, it was stunning that so many workers were crammed onto each floor, and that no safety precautions had been taken: no sprinklers, no fire drills. That these young women often worked seven days a week for pennies seemed outrageous to my slightly spoiled, adolescent brain. But at twelve, having never had a job, still 12 years away from any conscious political thought, I focused only on the actual tragedy: who died where, how many jumped, how many burned to death, and the bodies lined up in a makeshift morgue for tearful identification.
I was in thrall to that book for weeks: The General Slocum, The Titanic, the Hindenburg, the Coconut Grove. I memorized the calamitous details of each disaster with a passion not shown for any schoolwork, before or after, save perhaps the Holocaust. Eventually, the book ended up under my bed, and I moved on to other childhood fascinations, namely a ragged paperback copy of “The Exorcist” that I pilfered from my Aunt Michele’s bedroom. I was, admittedly, a very dark child.
Some years later, in high school, The fire came up again in our social studies class. Although I felt that I had bragging rights, that I could let my teacher know that my great-grandmother had been in this Famous Fire, I kept silent. I realized that I really knew nothing about my great-grandmother’s experience, and I feared that if I brought up my connection to the infamous sweatshop, people might ask questions that I wouldn’t be able to answer. How had she survived? I had no idea. How old was she? I wasn’t sure. After school, I asked my mother if her grandmother had ever talked about the fire, and if she had any details she could share with me.
VIEW IMAGES OF THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE
My mother is a fascinating woman for many reasons: One reason is all the bits of family trivia and information that she holds in her steel-trap mind. Another is her complete lack of awareness that some of her family might actually want to know some of this information. It’s not that getting the information out of her is difficult, she loves to talk. The problem seems to be that one must first ask just the right question, or know just the right verbal cue, to prompt her to share what she carries around in that lovely head of hers. My favorite example of this occurred a few years ago, when in response to a remark I made about my prominent brow, she replied, “Well, you are part Native American.” I’m still trying to reconcile that information with a near-lifetime of believing myself to be solely of Italian/Irish descent.
Apparently, now that I had made a formal and explicit inquiry, she was able to offer me what little she knew. My great-grandmother, who before marrying my great-grandfather Francis Vacante had been named Rosalie Anselmo, was in her early twenties when she worked at the Triangle Waist Factory as a seamstress, or pieceworker (meaning, simply, that she was paid per piece of clothing she sewed). She lived with her Italian immigrant parents and sister Assunta on Baltic Street in Brooklyn, and she spoke very little English. The day of the fire, she was working on the top floor of the ten-floor building, and recalled rushing up to the roof amidst smoke and confusion. There, claimed my very devout Catholic great-grandparent, she offered a prayer for salvation to her Patron Saint, Joseph. Then, according to the story she told often and with absolute conviction, he appeared before her and carried her up a ladder to safety on the roof of the adjoining building while her co-workers on lower floors jumped to their deaths or were incinerated by the flames.
By the time I learned these details, I was already firmly on the path to religious agnosticism. The Saint Joseph bit seemed a bit fanciful to me, Jonah and the Whale sort of stuff, and I even felt a creeping sense of doubt that my great-grandmother had actually been in this fire. Later, a little research would show that students from New York University next door to the burning (and prophetically named) Asch Building had lowered ladders and rescued scores of young women, many of whom had fainted, from the inferno. It was understandable to me then: that a young terrified woman could have panicked, and in a haze of semi-consciousness wrapped her young male rescuer in a saintly mantle.
READ PART THREE OF “MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER’S FIRE”