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Dan Rodricks: Snow, a shower curtain and the pursuit of happiness | COMMENTARY

Gioconda Mannetta was a seamstress who made gowns and dresses in the basement of her home in Baltimore's Little Italy.
Gioconda Mannetta was a seamstress who made gowns and dresses in the basement of her home in Baltimore's Little Italy. (Ray Alcaraz)

When snow fell on my hometown in Massachusetts, kids used Flexible Flyer sleds, wooden toboggans, metal discs, rubber inner tubes, plastic dishpans and their daddies’ coal shovels to sail down the snow-covered hills. I thought I’d seen everything in the way of sledding vessels until I moved to Maryland years later and witnessed a shower curtain deployed for this purpose. It was a middle-aged woman from Baltimore’s Little Italy who showed us how that was done.

This column is about something I suspect a lot of Americans might identify with — the great blessings and feelings of gratitude that come with finding a home away from home and having strangers treat you as family.

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But first … about the shower curtain.

It must have been 40 years ago now, on a Sunday in winter, that I found myself on a hill in northern Baltimore County with an Italian-American couple who had embraced me as their No. 2 son shortly after I moved to Maryland. The Mannettas, Alfonso and his wife, Gioconda, welcomed me into their home on Exeter Street, fed me and even clothed me. (Mr. Mannetta was a cloth cutter for suit makers, Mrs. Mannetta a seamstress.)

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In the second half of the 20th Century, millions of us migrated from small towns, suburban streets and city neighborhoods. First baby boomers, then Gen Xers headed off to college, pursued careers and faced the cold reality of adulthood in places hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles from where we had grown up. That was part of the Big Chill — landing in a new community, distant from family, both excited and anxious about starting a job, eager to make new friends.

I was lucky. I got a whole second family.

One night in 1976, I was standing under a street lamp in Little Italy, waiting for the start of an event at St. Leo’s Church, when the Mannettas’ son, Elia, invited me into his home. He worked for the city and lived just a couple of doors from his parents’ rowhouse. Over the next year or so, I was pretty much adopted by the Mannettas. Mrs. Mannetta called me, “Numero Due.” Having emigrated from Italy after World War II, leaving their families and moving to a new world and new culture, the Mannettas saw themselves in others who landed in Baltimore. They were generous, welcoming and kind.

Mrs. Mannetta was consistently joyful, and she could immediately make the grumpiest person feel happy to be alive.

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She had pressures and problems, like all of us, but her smile was on permanent display. She worked hard and worked blissfully at her sewing machine in her cluttered basement shop, making hundreds of evening gowns, bar/bat mitzvah dresses, wedding gowns and dresses for the mothers of brides and bridegrooms.

Upstairs, in her small kitchen, she cooked amazing meals of dishes from Calabria and Campania, and there were frequent guests at the dinner table, a lot of doctors, researchers and patients from Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her daughter, Rosalinda, baked and decorated sumptuous, rum-soaked cakes for special occasions, and sometimes the special occasion was just Wednesday.

From time to time, the Mannettas would leave Little Italy for some fresh air and an outing, and the further out, the better. They liked to drive to the Maryland countryside, sometimes for a picnic.

On that long-ago Sunday, shortly after the new year, we ended up in the snow on a steep hill on a farm in Upperco. There were sleds and snow discs, and there must have been a dozen people, adults and children, dressed in winter coats and primed to slide down the hill. Mrs. Mannetta, sporting red boots and red mittens, wanted to give it a try. However, she did not have a sled.

I am not sure where the blue-and-green shower curtain came from, but suddenly it was in her hands. Fearless in the pursuit of happiness, Mrs. Mannetta announced that she would attempt to slide down the hill on it.

To that point, when Mrs. Mannetta was in her 50s, I had never seen her do anything that might be called sport. In her youth in Calabria, she had been a competitive swimmer and had won a bicycle in a race but, according to her No. 1 son, never received the prize because of the war.

She and her husband were married in 1949. They settled in Baltimore in 1953.

Now, as Mr. Mannetta watched with a worried frown, Mrs. Mannetta plopped down on the shower curtain and clutched its edges with her hands. She smiled and laughed. Her husband yelled some kind of caution in Italian. Then, with a wiggle of her tush, she took off — a bundled ball of Mama on a magic carpet sliding at top speed over packed snow. Everyone along the course stopped to watch. Dogs barked as she went by. The shower curtain took Mrs. Mannetta all the way to a fence. She stood up, and there were cheers and lots of laughter.

I can’t remember exactly, but I think Mrs. Mannetta made more runs down the hill, and others used the shower curtain until it was in tatters.

Mrs. Mannetta lived to the age of 93. She died just before Christmas in Italy, where her son had taken her to live a few years ago. She had a beautiful life, sewing dresses, sowing joy and showing us how to be fearless in the pursuit of happiness.

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