Jennie Otranto slept on the same floors that she scrubbed clean. She was the Lord’s humble servant, too intimidated to ask her employer, the woman she called Reverend Mother, for a spare bedroom. Unlike the innkeeper in the story of Christ’s birth, Reverend Mother had ample space, especially compared with her parishioners, who lived in packed row houses and cold-water flats that rattled to the roll of Brooklyn’s elevated trains. Reverend Mother never even offered her maid a blanket. Jennie made do with her own coat and a small rug—if her minister-turned-master’s Scottish terrier and Siamese cat relinquished a favorite sleeping spot.
Come morning, Jennie shook out her coat and any fur that stuck to it. She smoothed the wrinkles left overnight in her clothes. Her scallop-edged top and skirt are crisp in a black-and-white photo old enough to be from her domestic tenure. In one hand, she clutches a box of Super Suds detergent, perhaps to wash dinner remnants off Reverend Mother’s plates or clothes—the brand’s tagline was “floods o’ suds for dishes and duds.” A fistful of Jennie’s hair is coiled around a barrette pinned just above her forehead, while the rest falls to her shoulders. The dark circles under her eyes seem to give the truth away: Jennie is a profile in exhaustion.
The circumstances of her employment amounted to forced labor. According to the 1940 census, 22-year-old Jennie earned $650 a year as a maid, and 54-year-old Reverend Mother made nothing as a pastor—a double-barreled lie meant to protect the person who told it. Jennie reaped no earthly rewards under the arrangement reached about a decade earlier between her mother, Serafina, and Reverend Mother. A friend had told Serafina about a woman who performed miracles out of a Pentecostal storefront church on 69th Street, also called Bay Ridge Avenue. It seemed as if only miracles could soothe Serafina’s arthritic joints, which confined the 40-something mother of six to bed for weeks at a time. So she went to the church, which largely drew from Brooklyn’s Italian immigrant enclave of Bensonhurst. As many as 200 self-proclaimed “full believers” sought cameos in Reverend Mother’s prayers and remedies from her “holy napkins,” pieces of cloth she anointed with oil over which she’d prayed. Reverend Mother preached that no other church in the world understood the Bible like La Cappella dei Miracoli (the Chapel of Miracles) did. And make no mistake: She was the church.
Reverend Mother expected full believers to pay for her grace, one way or another. Like many church leaders, she cited Bible verses to justify collecting a 10 percent tithe from her followers’ poverty-level wages. She went a step further, commissioning “scouts” to find families tending to dying relatives so that she could pray with them—and claim 10 percent on the relatives’ wills. But nothing was ever enough for Reverend Mother, and she levied the first of many egregious tolls on Serafina’s family around 1930. “After a while she had a stronger hold on us,” Jennie later wrote, “and decided that I should go live with her as her maid.” Serafina agreed. She considered her eldest daughter a gift to God.
Jennie’s delivery into involuntary servitude marked the end of her formal education. Eighth grade was as far as she’d go. Reverend Mother squeezed everything she could out of Jennie and her family. She once instructed Jennie to pull her mother aside after a church service to discuss Serafina’s life insurance policy. “Tell her, ‘Mom, God was good to you, why don’t you cash that policy and give the money to Reverend Mother?’ Letting it sound like it came from me,” Jennie recalled. The Great Depression plunged Jennie’s parents into darkness more than once when they couldn’t pay their electricity bill. Still, Serafina gave Reverend Mother the $200 or $250 her insurance policy was worth.
Teenage Jennie cleaned, cooked, and worshiped without complaint, but by the early 1940s, after a period in which she was sent back to her family, only to be enlisted as an unpaid maid again when it suited Reverend Mother, the twentysomething version of Jennie had to be stopped from testing the limits of her employer’s power. “As time wore on living under these conditions my patience was waning. One day, I don’t remember what happened. I might have answered her abruptly,” Jennie wrote. “She happened to have a metal can in her hand and banged it on my head.”
The can sliced into Jennie’s scalp. She pressed a Turkish towel to her head, but its fibers couldn’t absorb the blood flowing through her hair and down her neck. “Reverend Mother saw all this but did not try to help or even care,” Jennie wrote. “I then left her home without saying a word.”
It was nighttime. Where would she sleep? Grown women in Brooklyn often lived with their families until marriage, but Jennie’s parents would offer no refuge. Her father, Frank, was even more devoted to Reverend Mother than Serafina was. Reverend Mother regularly dispatched him to the homes of delinquent parishioners. “I would go and ask them how they felt and why they did not come to church,” he later told authorities. Jennie feared her father would force—or beat—her back into servitude. “Having no place to go, I rode the trains all night,” Jennie wrote.
The next morning, she went to see Serafina. Jennie mentioned only that she and Reverend Mother had had a “misunderstanding.” What happened next sounds a lot like love bombing—the showering of appreciation by abusers, narcissists, and cult leaders to overwhelm a target’s resistance. “When Reverend Mother realized where I was, she called and sweet talked me into going back,” Jennie wrote. “Why wouldn’t she? She missed having a good free maid.”
Jennie returned to work, but only in body. Her soul was her own. Reverend Mother, it seemed, had reached the limit of her power.
Reverend Mother preached that no other church in the world understood the Bible like La Cappella dei Miracoli did. And make no mistake: She was the church.
Nanny picked me up from elementary school every day of my childhood on Staten Island. The moms of my classmates idled outside their cars, gossiping. Nanny was the only grandmother in the crowd. We met each other with hugs and kisses, and our ride home never began until we raced to see whether Nanny’s automatic seat belt, a fixture of some 1990s cars, would cinch into place before I could latch my manual strap in the back seat. I inevitably won, but the thrill of my victory was never tainted by any agony of her defeat on her part. Nanny celebrated my safety.
Among my few after-school obligations were the weekly catechism classes that would rub off like a temporary tattoo once I got older. Nanny waited in her silver Toyota Camry while I was taught Catholicism’s particular brand of shame. She also took me to borrow books from the Great Kills Library, and to buy Archie comics at a store kitty-corner from a Sedutto ice cream shop. Occasionally, on the way home, we stopped by Dazzle Cleaners, where my parents, Nanny’s son and daughter-in-law, sweated as many as 14 hours a day, six days a week. But Mom and Dad preferred I stay away from their business, especially in the summer months, when the boilers spiked the heat index in the store, making it a sauna with none of the health benefits.
Home was in the Honey Bee Condominiums behind the Staten Island Mall. There, Nanny and I settled into our afternoon routines, starting with homework. I recited my vocabulary words, and she paged through a dictionary for the corresponding definitions. I wrote short stories, only remembering to cram in the assigned words at the end, while Nanny wrapped breaded chicken cutlets around cubes of mozzarella (mutzadell in Brooklynese) or formed tiny meatballs for minestrone soup. She could also put together a solid kids’ menu whenever my best friends, Andrea and Jen, came over to cosplay Buffy the Vampire Slayer with fake wooden stakes or Clueless with our teddy-bear backpacks. We loved Nanny’s English muffin pizzas with homemade sauce and her grilled cheese sandwiches made with Kraft Singles.
Depending on their nightly ETA, we ate dinner with one or both of my parents. Mom and Dad worked harder and longer than I ever have, or will, to fuel the last segment of their white flight from Brooklyn to Staten Island to New Jersey, a path worn by many Italian Americans before them. Living with my long-widowed paternal grandmother for six months was supposed to help our little family save for a house in the suburbs. We stayed for seven years.
From the time I was five through the summer after my twelfth birthday, Nanny was a constant in my life. I never missed one of her Saturday morning beauty parlor appointments at the Staten Island Mall. Weekday mornings, she power walked through the mall’s corridors with her septuagenarian friends. I gave Nanny a set of one-pound pink weights that she pumped through the Cinnabon-scented air, and during summer vacations I’d join the group now and then for a bialy in the food court. On many afternoons and evenings, fueled by homemade rugelach or pound cake, I was dealt in to card games with Nanny’s friends at our dining room table. Other nights, just the two of us, Nanny and I played round after round of Rummikub, the tile game that “brings people together.”
Oftentimes we snuggled on the den sofa to watch our shows: General Hospital bleeding into Oprah, and The Golden Girls in perpetual syndication. The sofa contained the folded-up mattress where Nanny slept after insisting that my parents take the only bedroom in her condo. It was there that we wore out The Goonies, Home Alone, and the rest of my VHS collection, supplementing them with Lifetime melodramas and the classics starring Audrey or Katharine Hepburn. On Friday nights, I’d curl into Nanny for an hour of Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters. We were devoted to the golden era of 20/20, and to each other. “You’re my shadow,” Nanny would say.
Our bedtime routine was an exercise in role reversal: I tucked Nanny in with many kisses and traced the sign of the cross on her papery forehead, smoothing the wrinkles up, down, left, right, with my thumb. She smelled of Noxzema and hair spray. After I lay down in my bed in the windowless nook next to the den, I often snuck back into Nanny’s room, drawing close to check that she was still breathing. She was a generation older than my friends’ grandmothers. My copy of Claudia and the Sad Good-bye, the Baby-Sitters Club book about the death of the protagonist’s beloved grandmother, Mimi, was my only guide for navigating the inevitable.
My parents and I moved to New Jersey in 1998, and Nanny took over the sofa bed in our new house about five years later. We both had senioritis: I was 18, and she was 86. I was filling out college applications as her health was declining, due largely to congestive heart failure. Claudia and the Sad Good-bye was still wedged between the more mature literature on my bookshelf the night an ambulance arrived at our house. Something was wrong with Nanny. “Bring the living will!” she yelled at Dad as the medics prepared to take her to the hospital. Mom stayed behind and tried to prepare me for the worst. In a big teenage mood, I sobbed as much to drown her out as from sadness. Nanny was not going to die that night if I had anything to do with it.
I didn’t, of course, but she lived anyway. My teenage hubris validated, I made a deal with Nanny: She just had to make it to my college graduation. In retrospect, it was a cringeworthy framing her chronic illness as a battle to be won or lost. Yet Nanny’s health improved. We had four more years of summer vacations, secrets, and frank discussions about politics and sexuality. Nanny watched me take my first dose of birth control, and she opposed the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion teachings long before I rejected them. She was the most open-minded adult in my culturally conservative young life, which isn’t to say she was perfect. Though she never used the N-word or its Italian-American stand-in, derived from the word for eggplant, she occasionally toggled between color-blind and coded racism, which I in turn absorbed. She believed that in his twenties my father had lost out on a job because of affirmative action, though in truth Dad probably wasn’t qualified for the position, with his two semesters of college and a life that revolved around hanging out in bars and on street corners, where the police never bothered him and his friends.
I wish Nanny and I had discussed the things we were wrong about and why. But there wouldn’t be time. Nanny’s lungs started filling with liquid during the last semester of my senior year of college. I brought my cap and gown home so we could re-create the graduation ceremony she was too weak to attend. She died five months later, on October 14, 2008.
I had dreaded Nanny’s death for so long that when it happened, it didn’t seem real. I never cried. Tears flowed from small disappointments in newsroom jobs and from bigger ones I dated in my early twenties. It was easier to feel gutted over someone I thought was my soul mate than to recognize that my soul mate had come and gone.
I knew that Nanny and her younger siblings shared secrets. I had caught the occasional whisper about abuse: physical, emotional, spiritual. Then, a few years after Nanny died, I learned that these dark memories had been committed to paper.
At my great-uncle Joey’s urging, his three sisters had joined him in writing testimonials about their childhood. Late in life, Joey left Catholicism for an evangelical church and gave the testimonials to a fellow parishioner, who in turn produced a short, spiral-bound book called “Bazaar [sic] but True.” Apparently, Joey believed I could do a better job with the story the book told. He approached my mom about it before I left for college. She told him it was too much for me then, but I’d tell the story eventually. Later, when I started a graduate program in creative nonfiction, my dad’s cousin Patricia gave me copies of the testimonials.
In looping, spindly script, the documents revealed that, while I may have been Nanny’s shadow, she also had a ghost. Nanny, whose real name was Genevieve “Jennie” Grimaldi, née Otranto, was haunted her whole life by the specter of Josephine Carbone, a woman as cruel as she was charismatic. Carbone was better known, to both her followers and her critics, as Reverend Mother.
Nanny and I had talked about everything else—why not this? I summoned a memory, a Turkish towel soaked with blood, an echo from a phone conversation in a nearby room. My childhood instinct had been to file away such things instead of asking Nanny about them. But even if I had asked, I don’t know that she would have had the heart to tell me the truth.
A decade after Nanny died, I quit my latest journalism job, in no small part to investigate what happened to the love of my life. The testimonials were the starting point. With government records and newspaper clippings, the memories of the few churchgoers who are still alive and the descendants of those who aren’t, I pieced together the narrative of Reverend Mother’s rise to power and her eventual downfall. I learned the stories of families who, like the Otrantos, were all but destroyed by La Cappella dei Miracoli. In studying the one chapter of my grandmother’s life she never shared with me, I found a sense of purpose.
Nanny may have been shielding me from her pain, but in doing so she also gave me a final gift. Her secret was my inheritance.