Education stopped at fifth grade or sooner if your folks needed you to help at home or in the fields. Boys followed in their fathers’ footsteps, or encouraged to be apprenticed, working many years for free, before they became competent enough and resourceful enough to open their own shops. My brother had finished the eight grade at the local seminary before he apprenticed to a local tailor.
Girls expected to be mothers and wives, learned to sew, cook, take care of household chores. Very few of them were encouraged to continue their schooling past the fifth grade.
When Tonino was fifteen, he knew of a friend who had moved to Torino, in the North. The friend encouraged him to move there where he could get paid for his work, and learn all about the trade. He left after he turned fifteen.
By August, when cities emptied out for the summer holiday, he returned home with a wallet full of savings, a new suit he made for himself modeled after the latest fashion, and enough swagger and pride to attract a bevy of young girls.
A migration like this, from March to August, five, six months in one place, five, six months back at home looking for another job, created tension. When will he return? Is this time a permanent position? When he left the first time, I had just started elementary school. He continued this migration for years. After I finished elementary school, he sent money for me to go to secondary school out of town.
Most folks worked as their parents did; few left town with a flimsy suitcase to look for any opportunity to improve their lot; and even fewer, those with American connections and assistance hoped to emigrate soon and leave their lot behind.
Our family was a combination of the last two. My mother’s sister and brother had emigrated to America in 1947, before I even started school. They sent us package after package of clothing and canned food, with the promise that they would soon send for the rest of us.
By the time To`ni left for Torino, our hope for going to America had dried up.
The year was 1955, and rock and roll was replacing jazz on the radio. I was a teen, dancing and singing as Elvis and The Platters were played on the radio. Television and telephones were appearing in more and more homes. Italy was showing signs of modernization as America subsidized post-war reconstruction. I had continued my studies with a private tutor, a friend of the family. As soon as I turned sixteen, I would be joining my brother in Torino.
Piazza Orazio Flacco outfitted with outdoor speakers staged events where politicians sold promises of a brighter future with each oration. There was another election coming up, and everywhere brochures and signs popped up to inform every corner of the land. Pa`pa insisted the radio be turned to news every night. He was no longer repairing cane seats, or making barrels during winter months. Listening to the radio, the only light in the house emitted by the station dial, had become his main addiction.
While people were resigned to their lot in life and “Porca Miseria” was the national curse, the War had changed things; ancestral lands had been divided and distributed to become smaller farms for those young enough and brave enough to start something new.
There was a smell of new possibilities all over the land.
I took lessons at Professor Fioretti’s and took exams at the end of the year in Melfi. This way, I had covered three additional grades, and soon, when it was time to go to the Liceo, I could go live with To`ni in Torino.
I spent hours among stacks of glossy magazines and newspapers, at the Fioretti's between lessons and babysitting, reading about the famous and the infamous, the crimes and the accomplishments of ordinary and extraordinary people. I knew one day I would be living in that bigger world.
I wondered about the exciting lives portrayed in the magazines, about people living in Paris, London or New York. Some were movie stars, with radiant skin and sparkling personalities. Others were world leaders, calling the world’s attention to the plight of the poor and the forgotten. Many stories were about entertainment personalities in Hollywood.
My Uncle Ted, Zio Tiu`do, was living in a Hollywood mansion. The few pictures and letters we had received from him showed a life similar to the stories in magazines.
On a warm summer evening, when I was thirteen, Zio returned to Venosa after eight years of absence.
When the taxi stopped in front of our house, and a man stood there looking like Clark Gable surrounded by five suitcases, children and adults had been running after that taxi for miles. Now, they all stood there to see who this person was. Mother rushed out of the house to see what the commotion was all about. She was preparing home-made pasta, and stood at the front door trying to clean her sticky hands on the apron not fully understanding who or what was happening.
She looked at the crowd and at her handsome brother in the middle of them all. She took it all in, and then tears began washing her face before she jumped through the crowd and hugged her brother. He had the biggest smile I ever saw.
The crowd stood at the door for a long time. Pa‘pa came in from a long day at the farm, and he too stood and watched incredulously for a time. He finally dropped his tools and baskets down, and walked toward Mother. I kept a strong grip on my little brother, though I would have preferred to rush out and meet my uncle.
It was Monday. For dinner, we'd be eating pasta and fagioli, with lots of olive oil seasoned with garlic and fiery chili peppers. Each day had its own seasonal menu. Meat was a luxury, appearing once or twice a week. Putting the pasta together wasn't difficult, and I could do it. But, the baby needed watching constantly.
That morning we had made bread, and at noon, it was returned freshly baked in the communal ovens. Seven loaves for seven days. That fresh bread smell made people linger longer. If everybody walked in with Zio, all our bread would be passed around with cheese and salami and bottles of wine. By the end of the visit all seven loaves would be gone.
I finally walked out and soon Luigi jumped in Pa`pa's arm, cooing and happy. Crowds and confusion usually caused him to holler and cry in despair. Not this time. Everyone kept passing the child around until he was in Zio's arms. Luigi was happy and excited. I returned inside and tore a piece of fresh bread, smashed a ripe tomato over it and took a bite, my eyes on the action going on outside. It was then that my uncle saw me and walked in leaving everyone outside.
“Mannaggia!” I could hear Pa`pa swearing under his breath. He didn't like waiting for dinner after a long day of work in the hot sun. Baby was beginning to wail.
Zio talked non-stop about this and that. Mother gestured for people to come in the house and placed loaves of bread on the table and a bottle of wine. I was sent down to the cellar for salami and cheese to add to the table.
Wine was passed around and people visited for hours.
“Can you believe this?” Pa‘pa kept saying, to no one in particular, looking incredulously at his brother-in-law, bouncing the baby, tickling him, giving him a thumb to suck on.
Later, much later, we sat down to eat the pasta meal mother had been preparing.
(to be continued)