This article was originally published as part of a five-part series on Slate.com. The original Slate version is undergoing technical difficulties, so the Slate editors have given me permission to republish the article here.
The first article in the series is functioning reasonably well on Slate -- you can access it here. The third, fourth, and fifth installments are available here, here, and here.
"Hi," I say to the voice mail robot. "I'm trying to reach Doretta LaPorta."
"Ms. LaPorta, my name is Paul Lukas. I'm a journalist and historian based in Brooklyn, and I'm researching some old report cards from a school called the Manhattan Trade School for Girls. One of the report cards is for a student named Marie Garaventa, who later married and became Marie Repetti, and who, if I'm not mistaken, was your mother."
After a fair amount of research based on my collection of old Manhattan Trade report cards, this is my first attempt to contact one of the students' family members. I'm a reporter, so I'm used to cold-calling people, but this call still makes me a bit nervous. Family histories can be touchy. What if Marie and Doretta didn't have a good relationship? What if I'm reopening old wounds? What if Doretta is offended by the notion of a stranger asking questions about her family?
I finish my spiel, leave my number and email address, and hang up, hoping I haven't stirred up any trouble.
A day later, the phone rings. I pick it up and hear a strong, declarative voice on the other end of the line. "My name is Doretta Repetti LaPorta. Is this Paul?"
Even in the age of LexisNexis and other internet databases, researching a bunch of female students from the early 1900s is no easy task. The biggest problem is that most of the students presumably got married and changed their surnames, making them difficult to track. Most of them probably never had Social Security numbers under their maiden names, since the Social Security Act wasn't signed into law until 1935.
I'm extremely fortunate to have received research help from a small cadre of friends and volunteers, several of whose research skills are much stronger than my own. But even with their assistance, a year-plus of digging has yielded paydirt on fewer than 20 of the 395 students in my collection.
Marie Garaventa’s report card was one of several that I had singled out as good candidates for my first round of research. She had maintained a perfect attendance record at Manhattan Trade, so she clearly took her schooling seriously. In addition, the school’s job placement office had kept tabs on her employment history for more than a decade after she graduated, so she had a strong connection to the school. Best of all, her card included a tiny notation that made her much easier to research: "Mrs. John Repetti." Only a handful of the cards in my collection included a mention of the student’s married name, so this was a particularly valuable nugget of information.
Assuming I was able to connect enough dots to lead me to Marie, was there any chance she might still be alive? She would have been 83 when I first discovered the report cards in 1996. But I didn't decide to start investigating the students until late in 2009 and didn't begin researching in earnest until several months after that. By that time, Marie would have been 96—not out of the question, but a long shot.
If you've ever done genealogical research, you may be familiar with the seeming paradox that finding a deceased person is often easier than finding a living one, because death creates a paper trail. In Marie's case, knowing her date of birth, married surname, and husband's first name made it relatively easy to locate her on the Social Security Death Index, where she was listed as having passed away on Jan. 31, 1999, a few weeks shy of her 86th birthday. This prompted the first of many times when I've kicked myself for not having started this project sooner. If I had moved more quickly, I might have found Marie while she was still alive.
(As of this writing, I have yet to find a living student from my collection of report cards. The "youngest" one would now be 89 years old, and most would be well over 100. I assume the vast majority of them—maybe all of them—are deceased. Of course, thousands of other students who attended the school over the years are still alive, but I don't have their report cards.)
Marie's place of death was listed as the Long Island town of Huntington Station. Was her husband still alive? Some additional research revealed that he had died soon after Marie. But since I knew they'd been living on Long Island, it didn't take much more work to find the woman whom I believed to be Marie's daughter.
That's how I found myself talking to Doretta LaPorta after leaving her that voice mail message. As it turned out, I needn't have worried about upsetting her. She said she'd always been close to her mother and loved talking about her. The more I explained my project to her, the more interested in it she became.
"I must see this report card," she said. "When can we meet?"
About a week later, I took Marie's report card with me and drove out to the comfortable Long Island neighborhood where Doretta lives with her husband, Robert. Judging by their impressive Southwestern-style house, Doretta had come a long way from the modest means her mother had grown up in. I rang the bell and was greeted by a smiling, poised-looking woman -- Doretta.
I had made scans of Marie's student record and emailed them to Doretta shortly after our first phone conversation, so she was already familiar with the information and commentary on the cards. But when I presented her with the actual card packet—a tangible connection to her mother's life—it had a palpable effect on her. We sat together at a table while she took a few minutes to examine the cards. Eventually she looked up at me, and I wondered again if perhaps I had touched a raw nerve.
"I was very close to my mother," she said. "When she died, it was very hard. I went through—a lot. A lot. It's only in the past year or so that I've finally started to feel better." She paused, then smiled. "So to see all of this now—wow, it's just so amazing. It's like having her here with me again."
We spent the next several hours talking about Marie, who turned out to have had an inspiring life. Her report card noted that her father was deceased and that she had three older siblings, but I hadn't fully grasped the implications of this until Doretta explained it to me.
"My mother's father passed away when she was 6 months old," she said. "Mommy never knew him. So her mother—my grandmother, who unfortunately I never knew—was a single parent, a widow, with four children and very little education, working as a house cleaner and office cleaner at the age of 27."
And Marie faced an additional challenge: As noted on her report card, she was hard of hearing. "My mother was born with a perforated eardrum," Doretta explained. "So she was basically deaf in one ear until she could afford to get a hearing aid, which wasn't until much later, in the 1940s. I think that's a big part of why she went to the Manhattan Trade School to learn dressmaking, instead of learning secretarial work or something like that. With sewing, she could just focus on the work, without too much talking involved."
Marie's card packet, like any student record, includes some negative comments. I'd been dreading how Doretta would react to these, especially the part where Marie was called cowardly for not returning to a job after lunch. But Doretta wasn't fazed by any of the criticisms. For the most part she just smiled, shook her head, and said, "Well, whoever wrote that just didn't know my mother."
I was hoping Doretta could provide details about some of the employers Marie had worked for during the 1930s. But except for the department store Bonwit Teller, the names were unfamiliar to her. Most were presumably small, now-defunct garment operations or wealthy individual clients. "She used to say that some of the people wanted so much from her," said Doretta. "Like there was one who didn't just want her to sew—they wanted her to clean. And she said, 'That's not my job. I'm not a house cleaner; I'm a dressmaker.' And she'd sometimes say that she'd go to work for someone—for a man—and it didn't feel right, if you know what I mean."
Doretta explained that Marie stopped working outside the home shortly after her 1939 marriage to John Repetti, a Brooklyn construction and concrete contractor whom she met through a mutual friend. In 1947, with John's business doing well, they became part of New York City's great postwar suburban migration, moving into a home on Long Island that John built himself for $9,000. As John's business continued to thrive (among other projects, he did a lot of the concrete and finishing around the World Trade Center), he and Marie settled into a comfortable middle-class existence.
But one thing was missing: a child. They'd been married for nearly 20 years before Doretta came into their lives in 1958. Here's how Doretta described the situation to me:
My mother could not have children. She had a stillborn child in 1943, but that was it. So they had to adopt, and that's how I came along—they adopted me in 1958, from Italy, from the old country. I was born there to a peasant family. My biological mother passed away when I was 5 years old, so I went into an orphanage and was adopted when I was almost 9.Doretta explained that a friend of John's with ties to an Italian orphanage managed to pull some strings, and that's how the adoption was arranged. At this point she stopped and reached over to an album of old photos that she'd brought out for me to see. She directed my attention to an old newspaper photo showing four young Italian orphans who'd just arrived in New York from Naples. In the background was a woman who I recognized as Marie.
It was a tricky adoption. Number one, my parents were older [by 1958, Marie was 45]. Number two, to give you some skeletons in the closet, my dad was divorced, and I was in a Roman Catholic orphanage. His first marriage had lasted only six months. So basically Mommy and Daddy got married through the courts, not through the church. And when Mommy couldn't have children, there were days when she thought God was punishing her, because technically she was living in sin.
"See that little girl?" said Doretta, pointing to one of the children in the photo. "That's me! It's 1958, I've just gotten off the plane, and there's Mommy, waiting to meet me." She reached for more photos. "And then here I am at the airport, and here's Mommy and me just a few days later."
As Doretta told me this, I was struck by the common bonds between this mother and daughter, both born into poor Italian families, one orphaned and the other who never knew her father, both overcoming early difficulties, each in her own way an embodiment of the American dream.
Later in the day we spent some time taking a closer look at Marie's old photo album, which had lots of shots of her from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. Here was Marie on the beach at Coney Island, Marie with her best friend, Marie holding a tennis racket, a young Marie on the roof of her family's apartment building ("That's 92 Baxter St., the first address listed on the report card," noted Doretta), and so on.
"A lot of the clothes in those photos, she made them herself, and the training she got at the school definitely played a part in that," said Doretta. "She loved dressmaking, and even after she stopped working, she always sewed. That's how I learned to sew—from her. In fact, I still have her old Singer sewing machine."
And did the school leave a big impression on her? “She would talk about it, yes,” said Doretta. “She said it gave her the opportunity to work, and that they never went hungry during the Depression, even after her mother had a stroke and they had to take care of her. She used to say the school was like a family type of thing, and that the people at the school really cared about the students. Here, look, she even saved this…”
She reached over and unfolded a large document that had been sitting on the table. It was Marie's trade school diploma (by that time the school had just been renamed Manhattan Industrial High School), rendered in fancy calligraphy and stamped with a gold seal. After poring over hundreds of report cards, this was the first time I’d seen one of the school’s diplomas. Sitting on the table together, the report card and diploma looked like long-lost siblings who’d been reunited.
It wasn't so surprising that Marie had saved her diploma. After all, Manhattan Trade helped arrange employment for her for more than a decade, helped her support her family during hard times, and taught her skills that she used for most of her life and passed on to her daughter. Not bad for a school she attended for only two years.
How did a vocational school manage to forge such a connection with its students? We'll take a closer look at that—and at the larger story behind the Manhattan Trade School for Girls—tomorrow.
As an aside, here's a short video I shot of Doretta talking about her mother and her report card. Enjoy. — Paul
Read the entire five-part Permanent Record series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.