In 1989 Josephine Baldizzi Esposito returned to her childhood home at 97 Orchard Street. As Josephine entered the apartment, a cabinet wedged in the corner of the kitchen caught her eye. The cabinet, which her father had built, reminded her of a long-forgotten Italian opera song. Slowly, a chain of memories unraveled and Josephine was transported back to her childhood.

As a little girl, 97 Orchard Street was Josephine Baldizzi's world. She rarely ventured beyond the stoop where she watched her favorite peddler load pots and pans into his cart singing "a nickel, a dime, rain or shine!" In the evenings, the Baldizzis would sit around the kitchen table to eat and talk. Sometimes, the conversation would drift to far away Sicily.

Josephine wasn't quite sure how her parents made the journey from Italy to America. According to family lore, Adolfo and Rosaria may have entered America as illegal immigrants.

When they finally settled in America, the Baldizzis, like many Sicilians, made their first home on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. It was here that Josephine was born in 1926, followed a year later by her brother, Johnny. Some time around 1928, the family moved to 97 Orchard Street.

Describing her depression-era childhood on the Lower East Side, Josephine joked that she felt more like a "little old lady" than a young girl. She was sensitive to the anxiety that surrounded her, whether it was the fretful looks worn by the people in the bread lines or her father's struggles to find work.

Though he was trained as a fine woodworker in Italy, Adolfo was forced to patrol Orchard Street, toolbox in tow, in hopes of securing odd jobs. The family's finances improved when Rosaria found work lining coats in a garment factory. She later quit when the job threatened her family's Home Relief benefits.

Though Josephine spent most of her time at home, she was hardly an idle child. "When I was born," Josephine joked, "my mother handed me a dust rag," A zealous cleaner, Rosaria Baldizzi loved to iron and scrubbed her pots and pans with such zeal that she was known as "Shine 'Em Up Sadie".

On the weekends, Adolfo would gather the children around the kitchen table and entertain them with card games and riddles. Rosaria bustled about, cooking scrambled eggs with ketchup while listening to Italian soap operas and singers on the radio.

During the mid-1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia embarked on a crusade to clean-up New York's slums and tenement buildings. Faced with costly renovations, many landlords, including the owner of 97 Orchard Street, evicted their tenants. The apartments at 97 Orchard Street were shuttered in 1935. The Baldizzis found a temporary home, again located on the Lower East Side. They eventually landed in Brooklyn.

Josephine married and gave birth to two children. Though she still lived in Brooklyn, Josephine often returned to the Lower East Side to shop on Orchard Street. As she strolled up her old block, Josephine never dreamed that she would re-enter the building she left as a girl, let alone gaze into her old home and see the cabinet her father made, sitting untouched in the corner of the kitchen.

Close window