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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chapter Five: Coming to America

Every letter from America from Zia Adelina was read time and time again, examining each word and its position, guessing all its possibilities. Words had magic qualities, flying across time and space, in envelopes as ethereal a  butterfly wings, fueling hope and imagination, helping us endure all kinds of discomforts. We waited for the words that would turn our luck around.

We took an  official picture anticipating the trip to America. On the left is my brother Antonio, To`ni, Mother Addolorata, Dolo`ra, Father Domenico, Mingu, and me, Rosaria, nicknamed Ninetta. I was five or six, always wearing a big bow,  hopefully shy. That big bow became my signature at school.

Uncle Jo, Giuseppe Rapolla, had always intended to send for the entire family. In the end, only Teodoro and Adelina were able to obtain visas.

Eight years after the two of them went to America, a few months after the death of Uncle Jo, Zio arrived on a warm summer afternoon. Cicadas deafened Mother's squeals, as she kept scrubbingt her hands on her apron, hands that were stiff and gooey from making fresh pasta. She hugged her brother and kept rubbing her hands as she watched him for a good half hour greeting onlookers, neighbors who dropped in to see the confusion building around our front door.

She knew in that moment that our lives had just changed. Within days, household routines had to be modified. We no longer baked on Mondays and did laundry on Tuesdays. Our bread began to be purchased at the grocery store;  the laundry was shipped to a neighbor’s;  and the menu  changed to please this important visitor.

Every afternoon, after the siesta, Mother frequented the pasticceria. Zio's wishes were to impress his guests with store-bought delicacies that would be appreciated and remembered. Wearing gray gabardine pants and silk shirts, he received visitors after his afternoon siesta. Mother attended to his needs in one part of the house, while I kept busy with the baby and household chores. I kept looking for excuses to drop in on these visits.

Zio greeted each visitor with something from one of his suitcases, cigarettes for men, chocolates for ladies, and chewing gum for young children.  “Say hello to your wonderful parents. Tell them I shall dry to visit at length one of these days.” His tanned skin, white straight teeth, filtered cigarettes, chewing gum, and an easy way with everyone, exuded wealth and position.

One afternoon, Mother dropped a hint that this manner of entertaining was expensive.

“Don’t worry.” He stated, reminding her that she was going to receive her inheritance as soon as the lawyers had settled Uncle Jo's estate.  Mother was diffident of things being promised and not delivered. Then, he'd compliment her food, adding,“You are lucky to have these good tasting meals. In America the bread tastes like sponge.”

“But, Tiu‘do,” Mother started out begging for his attention, and when he didn't get the hint she exclaimed, “the merchants expect us to settle the accounts. Everyone knows you are in town, talking about how rich you are.”

Uncle dismissed her worries with a big hug. He took his daily passegiata day after day,stopped at the same stores that Mother had established credit, and assured them that his inheritance was being settled shortly.

Pa`pa was busy with the vineyards and Mother didn't know how to explain the situation her brother was causing, nor did she want to believe the worst of the situation. She fixed him lunch before Father left at dawn and didn't think about him or dinner until he returned home after the sun had set. At times, with all the entertainment in the afternoons  supper was late and not things Father would anticipate. Instead of complaining or getting angry, he retired to a corner  to listen to the radio, and play with the baby who was now beginning to walk and talk.   

“Everything will work out.” Mother would say out loud, hoping Zio’s visit and the burden it was causing would be resolved soon with a big chunk of cash.

A month later into this situation, she decided to address Uncle directly.

“Tiudo', I don’t want people to talk behind our back. I am running out of excuses. Our good name will be ruined if we are not able to meet our expenses.”

“Woman!” Zio pounded the table angrily, “what are you worried about? You would think after all these years you’d be happy to see me. Can’t you see that your luck has changed? What do you need? You need money? Here, take this ten dollar bill. Is that going to please you?”

“For one thing, ten dollars can barely cover the bills at the pasticceria. What is your plan? How long is this entertaining going to go on? It’s impossible to get my family fed and my house cleaned with all the people coming and going. Besides, Mingu needs my help in the vineyards."

“The money will arrive shortly." Zio explained his situation without giving too many details. Right after the death of Great Uncle Jo, Zio packed his suitcases and decided to return to Italy to live in comfort with the proceeds of his inheritance.  He had figured that now he could do just what he had hoped all along. He wanted to paint, at his leisure, without worrying about managing the properties of his uncle.  For the last eight years, he had been sent here and there, taking care of Uncle Jo's businesses, and had no time to enjoy his life, to just paint when he wanted to.

With his income, he was going to live like a king in his home town.

"What about us?" Mother asked.

"You're getting a thousand dollars." He said, "more cash than you have ever seen in a life time."

"Tiu`do, you are forgetting that things have changed here. Yes, this is good money, when it comes. But I need to pay for groceries today."

One afternoon, just before his daily passeggiata, Uncle saw Mother in tears, and when he asked her what was the matter, she lost all composure: “The two of you forgot us. We have debts we can't pay back,  and you, you just so you walk about town acting rich. Mingu is not going to like it when he finds out you have no money either".

She ran out slamming the door, looking taller and lighter than I ever saw her.  Zio turned toward me, smiled, and told me he was having coffee with Signor Fioretti, and I was welcome to join him. I told him that I had chores to do.

The Fioretti family had known me for years. He had been my tutor for the last couple of years, paid only by a couple of wine bottles from our cellar.  I babysat their children, and had joined the family on extended outings. Their house was my window to the bigger world. I was always encouraged to take home books and other reading material.

Pa‘pa grew Muscatel, Malvasia and Aglianico del Vulture grapes, knowing what to blend and how much of each grape variety to use for sweetness and acidity. Tasting and smelling the crushed grapes, he had perfected the timing of fermentation to achieve the perfect blend. His reds were full bodied, his whites, gentle and crisp with touches of apples, cherry and apricots. He timed the harvest to maximize the sugar content, and achieve a liquid with voluptuous hints of fruit and herbs. Our basement contained vats of crushed grapes, barrels for fermentation, and jugs for bottling. This aroma permeated the entire house starting in late October.  We could tell if Malvasia or Aglianica grapes were beginning to arrive at the moment of fermentation. All houses had smelled of the work done there, and the food that people prepared.

A couple of days later, Mother was at the grocery store when she ran into Pina Fioretti, my teacher’s wife, who related a conversation her husband had with Zio.

“Dolo‘ra, you are lucky. Your brother is wealthy. Rochetto, (her husband) talked to him about Ninetta. You know that he wants to take her to America, to finish her studies.”

Mother, confused about a situation her brother had not broached with her,  related the conversation to my father.

“Imagine, Mingu. My brother has offered to help. Imagine!”

“Did he say that to you? Who did he talk to about this? He didn’t talk to me? Why did he not talk to me? Why has he not sponsored us all these years? “

“Mingu, it came up in a conversation with Signor Fioretti.”

“Yeah? Another one of his stories.Let’s face it, your brother shows up and he goes on promising.”

“All I know is what Pina overheard. I am sure Teu`do means well.”

I overheard the conversation and somehow I knew everything would work out o.k.


  1. Another interesting installment - I'm looking forwards to reading more soon :) Fascinating to know you could tell the different kinds of grape apart.

  2. cliffhanger! can't wait for the next installment!

  3. How many beautiful memories, dear Lakeviewer.
    I too am an expat and I can well imagine the emotion when evoking those images from your young age where everything was so reassuring and familiar ...
    What a beautiful story.

    Cara Ninetta, quanti bei ricordi!
    Anch’io sono un’espatriata e posso ben immaginare l’emozione nell’evocare quelle immagini legate alla gioventù dove tutto era così rassicurante e familiare ...
    Che bella storia.

  4. It is impssoble for me to imagine a big family like yours! Like a movie.

  5. I'm hooked - now I have to come back and catch up!

  6. This is top notch. Really. I worry about you posting it on a blog. This is publishable, doesn't even need editing. I love your description of the wine, and the dialogue is seamless. Truly enjoyed reading every word.

  7. Perfect way to get a life story down. Your family will never regret having these stories.

  8. Wonderful tale. I feel as if I was there with you all.

  9. I agree with Nancy and Elizabeth! Fabulous story and writing!

  10. I'm so glad you are writing this all down - and so beautifully.

  11. Wonderful story telling. The images are so rich with details and emotion. It's fantastic I hope you will stick with it.

  12. Great story! I love the images, too. I do a lot of family genealogy and this I can relate too. Wonderfully written.

  13. I'm very much enjoying all that you are sharing.

    I hope that you are enjoying visiting these memories.

    x Ribbon

  14. What incredible memories and we all follow them with such anticipation to hear more!