One of my favorite subjects in life has been my vivacious grandmother, Antonietta Ajello Montin who I have blogged about on a few occasions. On May 29, 2011, she became a Centenerian. On May 29, 2016, she turned 105. But sadly On October 19, 2018, at 107+, her body and soul departed this earth.
Before she left, she definitely made her mark! Even at 106 when she finally had to give up her 2 bedroom 2 bath apartment in her independent apartment for a room at a rehab center, she was making waves. She made new friends, impressed all the staff, and even snagged herself a younger man, he was 95. I’m so sad to see her go, and I will miss our visits and telephone calls. I used to think I was her special granddaughter because she would end every chat and phone call with a “Ciao Bella.” No matter who it was, she made everyone feel special, I was not unique in her world.
Her eccentricities and uniqueness caught my attention at a very young age. Although this is just a smidge of her life that I write about, it’s fun to put it out there one more time. I hope that you all feel the “fun” that I felt growing up as the Contessa’s granddaughter.
One day, when I was about fourteen years old, my grandmother came to town to visit. She would come through Dallas from time to time during her world travels. This particular visit I couldn’t wait to get home from school to see her. She always came bearing gifts and outlandish stories from various countries she had just visited. Not only that, I loved looking at all of her jewelry, and there was a lot. She was always dressed nice, wore lots of gold necklaces, bracelets and rings, all at one time, and her hair was always stacked high on top of her head. (Ann Montin, pictured here from March of 2015).
On this particular visit, when I arrived home from school, we hugged and kissed, and as usual, I ran upstairs to my bedroom to change my clothes. As soon as I walked into my bedroom, I let out a scream that made everyone run. On my dresser sat a large circle of thick, braided hair in a dressy hair net. I couldn’t believe it! After the initial shock of finding my grandmother’s hair in my bedroom and not on her head, she explained to me how she had grown her hair long, cut it off, and made a braid out of it. The hair on her head was still down her back, except she would put it in a bun, and then add the braid on top. No wonder she wore so many hair clips. That was my first real insight into the unique style that is my grandmother.
My grandmother was born in 1911 in New York City, during a time of building and innovation in America. She exhibits the excitement that was part of the American culture during the beginning of the 20th century with her unique and vivacious personality, intellect and style. She was the middle child of eleven to Adelina Vaccaro and Antonino Ajello, and her nickname was “elephant.” Not very nice, but she would joke about it later. She grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx, and attended an all-girl catholic school, St. Francis Cabrini. She also worked as a young woman for the family business, Ajello Candles, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
On April 23, 1933, she married Vincent Anthony Minchillo (my great grandfather), whose family was from Foggia, Italy. They had two sons, Joseph and Vincent. When her two sons were very young, her husband, Vincent, passed away unexpectedly. She eventually was remarried to John Fusco, from Italy, and they moved to Vermont. She expanded her family with a third son, Mario.
In the 1950’s, she decided to leave Vermont and returned to New York to start a new chapter in her life. She began working for an executive assisting him with travel arrangements to support herself and her family. It was this job that gave her a peek into the world of travel, and from there, she took a keen interest in working for a travel agency. She got her first passport in 1958 after starting her new career as a travel agent for an agency in the Federal Building in New York City.
Over the next 40 years, she took off, literally. She traveled around the world several times over. Her travels extended up and down the Ivory Coast, took her to China after the Chinese borders were opened, flew her to many parts of Persia including Iran and Afghanistan, all over Asia, south to Australia and New Zealand, and all over warm and friendly South America. One of her favorite places to visit was Indonesia. During every trip, she made it a point to attend a funeral, a wedding, and a fiesta, and all of these events combined reminded her of all the beautiful traditions and things life had to offer. She has fond memories of wonder and amazement from visiting many countries that are now experiencing natural disasters, strife and war. She took hundreds of photographs and Super 8 film recording her discoveries and stories that were beyond belief. She brought her children and grandchildren back mementos from each trip representing the indigenous people and culture of each country. Thus, one of many reasons I couldn’t wait for her to make a trip through Texas and visit. Of course, she would amuse us with card games as well!
My grandmother married Joseph “Nino” Montin in 1982 at the age of 71 in New Jersey. He was my father (Vinny’s) godfather. Together, they moved to Florida and lived happily in love in Cape Coral for many years. She was heartbroken when she lost Nino many years ago.
In 2003, she moved to Denton, Texas to be close to our family, mainly her son Vincent. Her arrival into the Dallas/Fort Worth area was like a Lucille Ball episode, and I will never forget it. My ex and I went to the airport to pick her up. Her plane was very late, and then we had about a 45 minute drive to Denton. The place she was moving into had a temporary apartment set up for her until her place was ready, but we wanted to make sure she was comfortable before we left. As we were helping her with her bags, she decided to open one of her massive suitcases (forget these roller jobs we all have today, that would only fit one pair of gold shoes and some of her hair). We stared in amazement as she started pulling necessities out of her suitcase. First, there was a telephone, a regular push button telephone with a cord, because you never know when you are going to need to plug it in and use it. Next, there was a block of cheese. No I’m not kidding. Then there was a sauce pan, garlic, and olive oil just in case the opportunity to saute garlic presented itself. And last, there was orange juice, which had leaked all over her suitcase, but was meant to sip on if your sugar dropped too low. It was quite amazing to see the thought she put into packing her suitcase for the long journey and big change taking place in her life. Granted, she was around 90 years old at the time, but still thought of everything!
Unfortunately, it turned out that my father was very ill, and he passed away soon after her arrival to Texas. So, my grandmother moved back to Florida, and this time to Largo to be close to her son Joseph, where once again, she brightened so many lives.
Many people refer to her as the Contessa (an Italian Countess). She is truly a Contessa, and certainly treated her sisters, friends and granddaughters as such. But I had to ask her how she got the nickname, and this is what I learned. On one of her many visits to Italy, she and her sister, Eleanor, were boarding a train in Palermo. They boarded the dining car in hopes to be served lunch on their trip back to Rome. However, they were told they could not sit in the dining car since it was not time for dinner, but she was hungry and refused to move. The waiter had no choice but to relent and grant her the wish to dine. As the train started, the dining car doors were locked, the curtains were drawn, music began, and six men entered the back of the dining car. The waiter went straight to the six men and took their order first. When he returned to her dining table to take her order, she lectured the waiter on the American custom of women first. But that didn’t matter, as the waiter explained that one of the six men was the current Italian Premier, Amintore Fanfani. Not to be outdone, my grandmother announced to the waiter that she was the Contessa Anna Maria. He was astonished, and informed the Premier that he was sharing the dining car with a Contessa. Once the six men learned there was a Contessa on the train, the mood changed. Prime Minister Fanfani and the other men stood up and bowed at her and her sister. They sent over a bowl of cherries and tasty liquors. And finally, when she and her sister got up to leave the dining car, all six men greeted them and kissed their hands. She was an Italian Contessa for a day, but has lived her life as if she really is a Contessa.
The Ajello family is originally from Sorrento, Italy, where in 1775 The Ajello Candle Company was created. In 1785, Ajello candles were recognized by the Catholic Church, and The Ajello Candle Company was commissioned to make all of the candles for the Vatican. From there, Ajello candles spread to be sold to Europe’s elite including kings, queens and the Pope. In 1862, the creator’s grandson, Rafael Ajello, and his two sons, came to America and opened a candle shop in Manhattan. Antonino, one of the sons and great grandfather, took special care to make sure the business was a success. It was in New York that Antonino began producing candles for people like President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the company grew in popularity, it helped to celebrate grand events all over the United States and Europe and eventually expanded west to Beverly Hills. In 1935, the Ajello family opened a candle shop in the famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, and celebrated a new generation of elite customers for the next 40 years. Today the Ajello family still operates candle shops in California and New York.
It was fun to listen to her reminisce about the horse and buggies on Pleasant Avenue in New York City, the five cent subway fares, and her days as a young school girl at a Catholic school started by Saint Francis Cabrini (1850-1917). Even more interesting are the facts that she never had a driver’s license and never drove a car, but managed to travel all over the world. More amazing, she has never worn pants! She is too stylish and always dresses like a lady with her hair beautifully pinned up. When I would see her, she would get upset with me for not putting my hair up.
My grandmother lived through numerous wars including WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Dessert Storm, etc. She watched the first cars driving in Manhattan. She survived the Great Depression and the Great Recession and everything in between. Of course some of these traumatic events caused her to lift things from restaurant tables. I remember visiting her on her 104th birthday, and couldn’t believe my eyes when she opened her refrigerator. It was packed so full it appeared she was readying herself for WWIII. After staying with her for a few days and watching her, I realized that everything in her refrigerator was transported from the dining room to her refrigerator via her purse or bags hanging off of her walker (which included mason jars of Johnny Walker!)
She was lucid until the day she left us, or as family members would describe her, “sharp as a tack”. When asked what her secret to longevity was, her answer always included sex, but in reality it was garlic, red wine (which evolved into whiskey), olive oil, laughing, watching game shows like the Wheel of Fortune to keep her mind sharp, watching The Bachelor for fun, and treating others the way she wants to be treated. And she had a lot to smile and laugh about. She would brag about her teeth and long hair, especially because they were all hers.
For her 100th birthday party, with the help of friends and family, she planned a lavish party. She was still dancing when I left to go to bed. Granted, I had been stung by a stingray in the foot that day and it was late. On her 105th birthday, I helped plan a party, not quite as lavish, but again there was dinner, drinks, live music and dancing. Walker? What walker? She danced.
She is the mother of three boys, six grandsons, two granddaughters, and twelve great grandchildren. She truly brings inspiration and joy every day to people around her whether family, friends, neighbors or complete strangers. She is a daughter, sister, mother, aunt, grandmother, great aunt, friend, neighbor and Contessa!
She will be missed.