Monday, July 1, 2013

Crostoli, Mrs. Leto and First Grade

When Denny and I were married in May of 1968 he was living in Des Moines and I was living in Cedar Rapids. Doug was in kindergarten at Garfield School (pictured above) which was directly across the street from our house. I worked during the day and attended classes at Kirkwood Community College two nights a week. Consequently Douglas and I didn't move to Des Moines until school was out - about three weeks.

Neither Denny nor I had much furniture or money. We found a furnished apartment with reasonable rent at 710 Davis Avenue - south of downtown Des Moines - just up a hill from MacRae Park which is where Doug learned to ride his first bicycle. Our apartment was the upstairs of this large house. I got a job in the accounting department of a manufacturing company - close enough that I could walk to work.

Closer than Doug had to walk to Park Avenue school for first grade which was about a mile away. No more walking across the street to school. He walked it alone each morning and back home each afternoon. I didn't get off work until 5:00, so Doug was left on his own when he got home.

Well, home alone except for our wonderful landlady, Josephine Leto, who lived downstairs. Mrs. Leto's husband, Ignazio, had died some years earlier. They were both natives of Italy and Josephine spoke very little English. She had an impeccably kept small garden in the back where she raised tomatoes, peppers, onions, pole beans, zucchini and herbs - everything an Italian cook needed. She would often yell at the birds and rabbits that thought the garden was for them. I remember how funny I thought it was when I heard my little boy yelling in Italian.

It was awhile before we realized how much time Douglas spent with Mrs. Leto. Most afternoons when he got home from school she would invite him into her kitchen for crostoli (also known as angel wings) and milk. We had trouble understanding Josephine's broken English, but not Doug. He could translate for us. Not only did she spoil him, but two or three times a month when I got home tired from work, she would ring our front door bell and when I went to see who it was she would be in the hallway with some mannicotti or stuffed peppers for our dinner. (I made stuffed peppers for lunch today which is what made me think of Mrs. Leto.)

We met several of her children, but Father Nelo Leto was the one we got to know best. He was the one who helped her with household maintenance and errands. They were both kind, thoughtful people. I hated moving from there but with a baby on the way we needed more space. (If Kari had been born on her due date, that would have been her first home. She was born the day after we moved.)

I don't have a picture of Mrs. Leto but I found this one of her daughter Rosalie in an online obituary. She looks very much like her mother looked when we knew her.

There is no way parents today could or would let a little six-year-old walk to and from school by himself along a busy street in the city. I cringe just thinking about it. But then it was just a fact of life. Doug even went to the dentist by himself a time or two. It was on his way home from school. I'm sure having to take so much responsibility at a young age helped shape the adult he became. I wonder if he ever had crostoli after we moved - or if he has ever made it himself.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Donna. Isn't it funny what jogs our memories? (Stuffed peppers in this instance.) I haven't thought about Mrs. Leto for years.

  2. In one of those strange coincidences, after not thinking about Mrs. Leto for years, I read in the DM Register of the passing of another of her children. Joseph Carl Leto died July 3 in Moline, IL. He enlisted in the US Navy the year I was born, 1943. His obituary was in the Register on Sunday, July 14.