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Monday, June 21, 2010

Coming to America

(This picture was taken in anticipation of our voyage to America. I'm the little girl, six years old. Next to me is my father, Mingu, Domenico, my mother, Dolora', Addolorata, and my big brother Tony, Antonio.  My little brother Luigi was not born yet.)

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.

The End.


  1. It is the end. I appreciate you all for following along, for your encouraging remarks, your astute questions.

    I will leave this up for a few weeks,making final corrections, here and there; then, I'll close the blog, purchase a digital copy from blogger, and give each of my children a copy.

    It has been a wonderful experience for me, thanks to you.

    If you are close to my age, it is time for you to write your own version, one chapter at a time. You see how this progressed, sometimes in fits, sometimes in slow motion. Make it your own. Tell the stories you want to tell, the ones only you can tell.

    Thank you, dearest readers. I have appreciated your company through this journey.

  2. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story with us! It has been a wonderful experience.

  3. This last installment brought me close to tears and I don't cry easily.

  4. Thanks, Eva, Paul. I too have cried as I wrote this last piece a few days ago. I shared it with my daughter( the one I am nursing in Eugene at this time) and we had a good cry together.

    My husband says that he never understood my complex set of feelings when we visited my brothers in Italy in 2002. Now, he does.

    Writing this, sorting out all the strands of my life helped me find a resolution.

    Paul, you shared many things about your father with us; I feel I know him as well. You can see through my story, that it is not an easy journey that of the immigrant. I lucked out in so many ways, married to a devoted man, blessed with brains and a good compass.

    My journey could be narrated here. Many times, we can't verbalize all the weight of those memories, the burden of explaining ourselves. People expect an abbreviated fixed story for all immigrants: 1. they arrived with nothing; 2, they worked hard; 3. they succeeded against all odds.

    That kind of script puts a big weight on the shoulder of many immigrants. Many do not have the education and the language to communicate easily; they do not have the resources to succeed.

    Here too, I was lucky. I have a natural aptitude for languages and learning English was not insurmountable.

    Thanks again for accompanying me on this journey.

  5. Oh Rosaria, this is the end. I had no idea that there would be an end. Isn't that funny? I thought this would keep going and going as life does...or seems to. I am working a great deal the next few days. I always wait to come so that I can sit at the table and enjoy, and so I will be back.

    Done. Done. Really? There is an The End? I don't believe it.


  6. 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.

    You have me in tears! TEARS! Beautifully written. School has left me so little time to read. It was lovely to sit down and read the end of this. So tenderly recalled and recorded.

    For my own reasons I know what it is to make home where I am. You have managed to pull the reader into your head and that is a perfect read to me!

  7. Yes, I can understand that you can go back, but you have changed forever in fundamental ways. That is a lovely picture.

  8. We have been away and when we came back I wrote a post and am now trying to read all my friends’ blogs. I’ll try to hurry up though so I can come and read this blog before you close it.
    I started my blog to write my recollections for my grand children but to also write about my travels. I am not even at my parents’ wedding, so it will take quite a while longer. Your last words are the type of words I could write myself. I miss Paris and France but when I go there so many things are new, even the language has new words so it is not the same country I left. Then here, as soon as I open my mouth people know I am not from the South because of my French accent – the culture is different too. It feels like I have two countries but belong to neither. My two daughters will not have these feelings, just like your children, and that is good. Please keep this blog open for a while. I did not know you could buy digital copies from Blogger.

  9. Vagabonde, welcome! Yes, I will keep it open for a while. I'm editing a few pages at a time, taking my time.

    You can use blog2print services or download your material to disk yourself and get it to a print outfit.

  10. Rosaria, a quiet Saturday morning and I've come back to read and I am crying. It feels like it comes from somewhere deep in me just beside my veins. It feels like that. Feels like a weeping willow. You write so deeply and with such great sensitivity. Each sentence I grasped like rungs in a ladder, each sentence solid and important, until I got to the next. Your mother's coat, "Mother sported a new coat that year, which fit her perfectly after alterations." How you say it didn't fit and yet it fit perfectly in the same sentence. You and the lice, how the nuns seperated you based on smell. Your mother and meat. You constructing the hope around Saint Christopher and how you suggested song. How your mother so willingly believed you, needed to believe you. How there was sausage in the pillow cases, how your father refused to wear the clothing. How you write, "The town continued to buzz with news of our imminent fortune." And then you introduce white space and say, "My family never emigrated." I cried so hard here, even though I already knew the facts beforehand. And then too, your own children and their shallow roots, your coming to your end... Rosaria, it has been a great pleasure and a meaningful to journey to read your memoires. I do believe I will carry much of this with me for years to come. (I will never forget your writing of a young girl's period and the shame associated with that.)

    thank you~



    voting time,

    short stories,

    thanks for the attention!

  12. BEAUTIUL! I can`t believe I haven`t come upon this sooner!
    What a treasure you have here..I do hope your family will appreciate every word and cherish it.
    What a heritage!
    Thank you for sharing!

  13. beautifully written. Thank you so much for sharing

  14. Rosaria, this is so much fun to read! I love the notion of looking for a saint who is not already over-subscribed.


  15. Rosaria...this is so beautifully written and comes from your very soul...I can feel it. It made me cry, for you, for your family left behind so many years ago, for your personal struggles that you still endure. You are a very strong, intelligent, amazing woman. You were forced to grow up so early in life and I as well. You write in such a way that I really can feel your pain, I can relate...this sentiment especially ...
    "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." and I as well.