I was four when I met Zio Tiudo, Uncle Ted, for the first time. He was a skinny man, with a bad leg, back from India where he spent many years as a prisoner of war. I was still sleeping in my crib, and he insisted I was too old to sleep there. He spent time painting, and telling stories of his captivity.
Mamma said he became corrupted by all those years in a foreign land, in a foreign climate. The year was 1946, and when I started pre-school at the convent where Mamma and Zia Adelina had attended at my age, he walked me there and talked to the sisters at length. They had him talk to our class too. He was funny,warm, handsome,engaging.
He and my Aunt Adelina left for America in 1947..
We were all supposed to go together. But, we couldn't obtain the proper visas. Uncle and Aunt traveled to Argentina first, and later emigrated to the United States. At that time, the quota for Italian immigrants was much smaller than for other immigrants from Northern Europe.
Our house went from being very crowded, people sleeping everywhere, to suddenly eerily empty. My mother cried from the moment we left the house, and through the next day after the departure. I remember Tony saluting the train goodbye by standing at attention, just as a soldier would.
Packages from America, big pillowcases full of clothes, shoes, food began to arrive as soon as my relatives reached California, about eighteen months later. Cans of strange sausages, salty and gelatinous were stuck in the middle of the pillowcases. Not exactly to our taste; but meat nevertheless. Mother sported a new coat that year, which fit her perfectly after alterations.
We began to wear American made clothes, and people talked to us as though we were already Americani. My dad, though, refused to wear anything the American relatives sent us. “Why do they bother sending this stuff when we are scheduled to join them? Maybe they have changed their minds. Maybe they want to shut us up.”
He was counting the days when they would send for us, not send their discards.
For years, Mother had been trading her sisters' trousseau linens for food or farm supplies. Finally, they were being replaced by the good fortune and generosity that made her sister arrive in America. When I began to write and was put in charge of responding to letters, I would add my own commentaries. Zia, I would say, it’s so good to know you are finding such abundance. It must feel as though you are in Paradise after the scarcity you left behind. Mother would hear the letters and question my round-about ways. “Tell her we need to leave now. Don’t beat around the bushes. Tell her that we sacrificed for her. She can't be selfish!”
Mother was always looking for ways to improve our lot. She had taken me to line ups at the American War Camps to receive shots of quinine to prevent malaria; a line up to get vitamin pills
or cans of DDT.
Dad grumbled, not trusting any medicine given out freely.
Once, she dragged me screaming and fussing to a louse-treatment line up, making sure my hair was deloused whether I liked it or not. A most- foul smell lingered around us for days. At nursery school, the nuns separated those of us with funny smells and made us stand in the back, away from everybody else.
One of my earliest memory was being held between Zia Adelina’s knees, squeezed so I wouldn’t escape, as she killed the lice and pulled the zits out of my hair with vigor and tenacity, one at a time, a task that tired us both. The pain and indignation, and the fear of being consumed by lice, made me cry the entire time.
Lice and other infestations were rampant during the war years. Many children died of malnutrition or parasitic infections.
I had intestinal problems as a child, pin worms, tape worms, and assorted stomach and digestive problems shared by many children in my town. Again, medications and treatments could be had at the American posts. We all depended on these make-shift generous medicinal dispensaries. If there was something that would make me and my brother get an advantage in life, Mother took us to that line-up.
Mother had enormous faith that her brother and sister would eventually find a way for all of us to join them in America. Every year, she started a novena on this pursuit, a novena that might go on longer than most, months on end, necessitating many prayers, additional visitations to the patron saint appropriate for such a miracle, and a special diet too. On this particular one, since it was such a big miracle, one that might take years to bring about, she gave up meat entirely. Giving up any food was difficult when one has so little to eat. But, giving up meat when one has meat just once or twice a week, and not enough to feel full and contented, but just enough to resuscitate the meat loving glands in your appetite apparatus, that was a major sacrifice. For this one, she prayed to Saint Christopher, not too well known in our parts.
She had given me the task to find the appropriate saint. Not San Rocco; he had the entire town praying to him; not the Madonna delle Grazie, way too many people occupied those pews every morning. She wanted an important figure, one with power and persuasion, one who would get an immediate audience with God Himself.
I found Saint Christopher, patron saints of travelers. Great! She had never heard of him, but trusted my reading and researching abilities. We were going to be great travelers if Saint Christopher took us as clients. How do we do the novenas for this saint? I made up the rest, since no book in the archdiocese specified this stage. “A saint for travelers,” I told her, “needs plenty of songs to help pass the time.”
“Songs?” She inquired, incredulously. The songs we sang in Church were hymns intermixed with recitations.
“Yeah. Songs like O Sole Mio, Mamma, Santa Lucia. As a matter of fact, there is probably a town dedicated to him; we should visit the town, attend the Feast in his name, and get on his good side. Don’t we attend special feast days and give our thanks to special saints?”
“You are right!” She said.
I expected Father to object. What is this? He might say. Where does she get these ideas? We don’t send her to school to come up with these money spending thoughts. We have no business traveling somewhere just to pray.
But he didn’t. And he would have gone along with the idea until something else happened. He got a job, the first Thank-God job that kept him out of the house for months at a time. He became a guard for the Agrarian Reform Movement, a land redistribution program that occurred after the war, splitting up big land holdings and allowing people to homestead/purchase in time/mortgage in labor kind of program. Farm residences were being built on five acres of land each. Some places were kilometers apart. Father’s job was to travel to each one, unexpectedly, spend the night with the shepherds or whoever camped there, and try to keep a presence in the field.
When Zia Adelina wrote that roses had thorns, her code phrase for things are complicated and painful, Mother knew in her heart that only a miracle could precipitate the right action. She didn't know what was troubling her sister; but whatever it was, Mother was going to pray for it to dissipate.
The promise that was America stood on an altar in our house, right next to the Madonna Delle Grazie, Mother’s patroness, and the added Saint Christopher. America was the same as heaven. When I argued with her that we needed to learn English to have a chance at surviving in America, she dismissed my worries. "What? How did my sister manage? She didn't speak English?"
"Mamma, that's one reason she might be having trouble. They speak English, not Italian."
Mother thought that people all over the world were the same, speaking basically the same, with just a few variations, as in the dialect she heard from people who visited the town on Saint Rocco's Feast Day. Dialects are not different languages, but different inflections, even different expressions. She thought everyone in the world spoke a form of Italian. Didn't the Romans occupy the known world?
We took official sets of pictures, and got ready to go at a moment's notice. The town continued to buzz with news of our imminent fortune.
My family never emigrated.
Uncle returned to Italy eight years later, in 1955, after Uncle Giuseppe died and the property was divided. My big brother Tony had left for work in Milano, Mother had a new toddler to care for. By now, all our hopes had dried up. America was no longer our destination.,
I was the only one who emigrated for America in 1959. My experience was not an easy one. But, I completed my studies, obtained a teaching job, and got married.
My mother, and my younger brother Luigi, visited me, each for an extended amount of time when I lived in Los Angeles. They saw first hand how we lived, how we too struggled to attain the dream.
Their lives had been enriched because Americans were generous. The Marshall plan had helped Italy recover from the war in many ways. The Land Reform allowed many people the opportunity to work the land and own it after a while. Houses were built, loans were made, opportunities handed out generously. Father’s job provided steady cash income that helped me continue with my studies past the fifth grade.
My parents always looked to the future, when times would get easier, when their children would break the cycle of poverty. Whatever strength they had, they poured it into making sure each of us had opportunities and education.
My journey is coming to an end. I will never feel totally at home anywhere. Italy is my first home. Italy is a mother’s hug, and a father’s praise. But Italy feels foreign now. Through sheer willpower, I make my home where I find myself.
I think of all who emigrated, who left what and whom they loved, what they knew. We can return; but we have changed in a fundamental way. We are saddened by the change; saddened that we lost our connections to our past. Nothing is the same. We are the outsiders now, the Americani. We take comfort in the fact that our children will not have to feel this loss.
My children will not understand these feelings. I am two-three hours away from each of them, by car or by plane. They get to come back home anytime they wish. We get together anytime we need to be. But their roots are shallow and their branches are not truncated. They only know what is in front of them.
In my dreams, I’m back home, in the same little house, everyone around me, having a big Sunday meal. Only then, I feel whole.