The Celtic Spaghetti Knot of Martinez

Katarina Billecci DiMaggio (at left) who died of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Her husband, Vincenzo, is also pictured. It appears Katarina was pregnant at the time this photo was taken, circa 1910. (MARY GOODMAN COLLECTION / Courtesy)
Katarina Billecci DiMaggio (at left) who died of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Her husband, Vincenzo, is also pictured. It appears Katarina was pregnant at the time this photo was taken, circa 1910. (MARY GOODMAN COLLECTION / Courtesy)
Special to the Tribune

The Celtic Spaghetti Knot of Martinez. I call it that because the intertwining of time in Martinez is not linear. Time operates on a calculus of dimensions beyond the three we perceive and it often has delightful social consequences. I am forever resting my hand haphazardly somewhere that leads me to the ancestors and what they have to say about life.

My DNA carries everything from Norway to Spain but my last name is Henderson, which is Scottish, and I definitely am natured and identify with that part of my family. I much love the “Braveheart” story even though it has been said of it that “there is history and then there is truth.” Even the soundtrack used Irish pipes because they have a greater range. What is the point of all this? The history found in documents is what is rightfully reported to governments, libraries, and schools. But then there is history in the heart where love finds a place to hang its hat. To take off its work shoes. It is made of urban legends and family lore and imaginings that are not lies, just translations.

Italians are different than Scots and that is expressed in Martinez’s history. Think of Rankin and Muir and their independent natures and then think of these wonderfully woven Italian families that operated in large cells for their central good. It was Sarah Rankin that rented out shoreline property to the first pioneer fisherman cum broker: John Flores. That was 1910.

On Sept. 16, 2015, I had the delight of hearing Mary Goodman’s Sicilian family stories. Born 1949, Mary Patricia Goodman (Amato is her mother’s maiden name) Goodman (is Mary’s maiden name) is Pete and Mary Amato’s grand daughter.

Mary’s namesake grandmother, Mary DiMaggio Amato, never told Mary Goodman that her great grandmother, Katarina Billecci DiMaggio, was pregnant when Katarina died of the Spanish flu in 1918, but Davi-Collins wrote in Pioneer Italian Fishermen of Martinez: “nostri pescatori” that Katarina was pregnant, 40, and had six children. Mary Goodwin was told by her grandmother that Katarina was 35. Census records and death announcements indicate Katarina was 40 when she died. The census and Mary Goodwin both say Katarina and Vincenzo had eight children. Generally, Italian women were pregnant or lactating much of their adult lives. Recently, a Sicilian told me she knew of a woman who had 22 pregnancies (many still born, obviously) and I know living folks that are one of 12 Sicilian children.

Mary Goodman was told by her grandmother Mary Amato that when Katarina died Nov. 4, they placed her in a casket with many other caskets in a barn over winter because there were too many of them to bury. In the spring, they went to open the caskets to identify the bodies and when they opened Katarina’s casket, her hair disintegrated when the open air contacted it. Also in the casket was a bag of gold coins, and Mary DiMaggio (Amato) as a child took these coins and later dispersed them to her descendants. Mary Goodman has one of the five dollar coins in her possession, as does her sister.

Now, do not start robbing graves. Among other things which you can figure out for yourself, a newspaper reports that Katarina’s remains went to the Curry funeral parlor. Moreover, the 1918 newspapers (there were three newspapers in Martinez during this time!) report there were not as many that died in Martinez of the Spanish flu that would require stacking caskets in barns and less than 10 in the Shoreline Italian district. Although, the police were sent out to all the waterfronts in the county because people there were not wearing the masks all were ordered to wear.

According to Mary Goodman’s family history, a doctor in Martinez told the Sicilians that the only thing to be done was to sanitize the sheets. The women boiled sheets on the stove and hung them out to dry, and Mrs. Cardinali (Nancy Fahden’s mother and spelled “Cardinale” in the census) was the only lady who had an electric iron and she lent it out to each family to sanitize the sheets. I was told a few years ago that there was only one bathtub in all the Shoreline district. I did not believe it but that did not matter. It was the closeness, concern, and interdependence of the Sicilian people packed into that Shoreline that was symbolized by that bathtub. I can imagine a pregnant Sicilian woman cleaning it every time it was used, too! But on the other hand, it is quite possible there was only one bathtub, one iron, and a stack of caskets overwintered in a barn. Who can really say?

Speaking of Rankins and Italians and coffins … on the cover of my book “Capito!” is a photograph of the Pellegrini house. I gave this photograph to a Rankin descendant who gave it to a Pellegrini of that house. A Pellegrini uncle saw the photo on the mantle and loved it so much he was allowed to be buried with it. So I guess the moral of this story is, do not be afraid to use the Irish tape if you run out of Scotch!

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