Sunday, June 27, 2010

The American Mitfords

I have been intrigued for some time by the six English Mitford sisters, the darling and energetic sisters who caused so much controversary and interest in the 1930's and 1940's. Sister Nancy Mitford wrote novels that recall a lost world of elegance and endearing eccentricity. Her book, "Love in a Cold Climate", is my favorite story of sisterly love and friendship and I reach for it again and again. By the way, the film is terrific too and I was charmed to see Carrie Bradshaw reading "Love in a Cold Climate" in a scene from the latest Sex in the City movie.

Now allow me to introduce the American Mitfords, more commonly known as the Cavallo girls. They are American because they grew up here in the USA but were a collection of Italian sisters who lived and loved near Boston Massachusetts during the same time period as the Mitfords. My grandmother Anne was born in 1904, the same year as Nancy Mitford and both had a sense of high spirits and gaity about them that infected the other sisters. As the oldest, my grandmother led the way in marriage, motherhood and a life well-lived.

My comparison of the two sister groups does not imply that the Cavallo sisters were as prolific as the Mitfords. None of them wrote books, (Nancy and Jessica Mitford), were friends of Adolf Hitler (Unity and Diana Mitford) or married wealthy aristocrats (Debora and Diana Mitford). But the Mitfords and Cavallo's were groups of sisters that were passionate about each other and they had long enduring relationships with one another that served as a bulwart against life's hardship.

There were six Cavallo girls. One lives still, Laura Cavallo Russo; age 94 today. It amazes me constantly that these sisters remained close and loving all their lives, visiting with one another, helping to raise one anothers' children, traveling as a group, and generally cavorting through life together. It is a tribute to their immigrant mother, Rosa Cavallo, who must have kept her girls in line and taught them to love and lean on each other.

The sisters, Anne, Perry, Helen, Meme, Laura, and Flossie grew up in a large wooden house in West Newton, Massachusetts. Several years spanned between my grandmother, Anne, and the youngest sister, Flossie (and who wouldn't want a baby sister named "Flossie"?). Their lives were not always easy as this was a first generation brood of children (there were also five boys) whose parents did not speak English.

My grandmother told me her mother, Rosa, baked 34 loaves of bread each Monday morning in a cast iron oven. This began a grueling week of cooking, baking, knitting, sewing and cleaning for a family which totaled 13. The sisters, upon necessity, were taught many domestic skills to help out as best they could. Anne (my grandmother) became a gifted seamstress and knitter and while she lived, I was a happy beneficiary of many of her creations. All the sisters could cook and bake and their recipes survive in the hands of granddaughters and greatneices now.

I marvel at the closeness of the Cavallo girls throughout their long lives. None really moved away, and as far as I could tell, they respected and enjoyed one another with no drama, fighting, or cattiness between them. For further clues to my belief, I recently asked Aunt Laura about their early life together in West Newton.

Since the sisters were separated by several years, the older ones often found themselves taking care of the younger ones. According to Aunt Laura, this created a bond similar to what a mother would feel for her own children. Also, without much money, the family had to rely on its own members for fun and games and the sisters pulled from memories of family closeness to fuel their later relationships with one another. They spun a thread of connection and love.

For the most part, the sisters resembled one another but each had their own special "look". All the Cavallo girls were interested in fashion and in the family archives, there are many photographs of chic young women, stepping out in handmade dresses and coats, peep toed pumps, scarves, and sunglasses. I remember Aunt Laura's perfume, Guerlain's L'Eau Bleu, Aunt Helen's butter soft cream leather jacket, Aunt Meme's signature rings and bracelets and my grandmother's leopard scarf that I proudly wear nearly once a week. They were feminine and lovely women. Each sister was unique in her wardrobe choices but all loved unusual jewelry, well-made leather handbags, pearls, and cardigans tossed elegantly about their shoulders.

The sisters also loved children and delighted in one anothers. I am so lucky that Aunts Laura, Meme, and Perry were able to meet my own child and revel in her. I love the picture I have of my daughter on Aunt Meme's lap at 6 months with Aunt Laura smiling in the background. Nothing gave the sisters a charge like a new baby in the family.

Every year, the sisters would meet on Cape Cod for a weekend of togetherness. They would celebrate their birthdays, cook together, have evening tea and even play dress-up well into their 70's. I've learned from Aunt Laura that playing dress up was a common activity among the sisters when they were small. They developed great funny bones and played tricks on one another; my grandmother never wore pants but surprised her sisters on one of these weekends by wearing her nephew's clothes to dinner. Aunt Laura said their laughter rang out!

Aunt Helen was the first sister to go; sadly, in a tragic car accident. My grandmother said "We are apples falling from a tree, one by one" and she was right. Now there is only spry, lovely and ever fashionable Aunt Laura. We are so lucky to still have her and lucky that she doesn't mind talking about the six sisters who enjoyed playing dress-up and entertaining each other nearly a century ago. They were never famous but grew up hand in hand long into the twilight of their lives, playing and supporting one another.... very much like the other group of sisters, the just as intertwined and faithful-to-each-other, Mitford ones!

(Above photo, l to r, Aunt Laura, brother Jimmy, sister-in-law Belle, my grandmother Anne, brother Albert, Aunt Helen with Aunt Flossie in front of her, Aunt Meme, brother Tony, and Aunt Perry. All the sisters are here and missing are brothers Russell and Charlie).


  1. What a fascinating story of sisterly love and energy! My own mother grew up in a family of four girls, but the first two and the second two were separated by a decade and a half, and thus were not close until adulthood, and then, barely.

  2. Mimi, It's funny about sisters. Some stay close, some don't and some find one another again. I have one sister - a twin and we are very close and I often wonder what it would have been like had there been one more sister. How would the dynamics have changed? I've missed you! Thank you for your comment.

  3. Emily, this is such a nice story to read. It is so sad how time has taken all but one....but that's life. What a great remembrance of these sisters, and what great photos!