One immigrant’s version of the American Dream that saw this country as a means to make enough money to return to the ‘real world’ of his motherland while pushing one of his sons into upward mobility.
Hunkered under the artillery barrage bracketing no-man’s land, Vito didn’t hear the shell before it hit. The one that lifted his barrel-shaped body up, out of the trench and under an avalanche of cold wet soil. Before he had a chance to worry about suffocation, to determine which way led to air and release, another shell hurled him out of his temporary grave. He lay still, fifteen yards from what had been the frontline a few moments before. Stunned, unfeeling, was this the blessed moment of anesthesia before the pain of an injury registers? He tentatively wiggled arms, then legs, toes, neck. All good, thank God. He could see open mouths but couldn’t hear screams, just yet, but he could feel the juddering shocks of artillery launched and landed. His body absorbed the penetrating jolts, but he was alive, still. He sobbed, lowered his head on wet, cold mud and cried.
How had he gotten to this place? Five months ago, he was in Sicily, pruning and tying grape vines in the glaring hot sun. He had a pregnant wife, two teenaged daughters, a five-year old son. Life was hard with barely enough to eat. And now, in the Austrian Alps, he was still hungry, cold instead of warm, and people were trying to kill him. More tears.
When the draft notice came, he had no delusions. No high-flown thoughts of patriotism and glory. Not when he was thirty-seven with family responsibilities. He needed to make it out of here in one piece. His tears turned to cold anger and a fist slammed into the yielding earth. He needed to get away from the front line. A man groaned near him. Surprised and relieved that he could hear again, he spotted a soldier lying on his back, a red patch staining his ribs. “Aiuta! Aiuta me!” the man cried. He scuttled over, careful to keep his head below the ceiling of bullets whistling overhead. He grabbed the man’s ankles and dragged him into a shell crater, its back edge sloping into a drop off. Once below ground level, Vito rolled the man onto his shoulder and hunched toward the hospital in the rear.
He didn’t feel particularly noble when he handed off his burden for triage in the long line of stretchers. It was expected—what you did for each other. “Morto,” the medic said, after a quick check for pulse. Well, I tried, he thought, then looked around at the mayhem of a field hospital in the middle of an offensive. Not all bad, he thought. At least I’m away from the worst of it. “E tu?” the medic said, pointing to the blood on Vito’s tunic—was he wounded? Vito shook his head and pointed to the dead soldier—his blood, then he bit his lip. Think fast, he told himself. Find some reason to stay longer, away from the front. “Aqua!” he called after the departing medic who jerked his head toward the large tent lined with bandaged men in cots.
Vito slowly made his way between rows of wounded. He had seen enough dead men to recognize one when he saw one…and the uneaten biscuit on his tray. He lifted three more biscuits on his leisurely stroll to the water bucket next to an empty cot in the back. After practically inhaling three ladles full of cool water, a wave of exhaustion toppled him onto the bed.
Sometime later he felt hands unbuttoning his bloody shirt. “Niente,” a medic snarled before shouting for the military police. It was time to leave. On his way out the tent, Vito stopped, arrested by the almost forgotten aroma of boiling broth drifting under all the other smells of the bed-ridden, unwashed, wounded. He vowed he would return soon to this place of dry, warm sleep and hot food—injured or not.
It took a while to get back. Despite short rations and lack of cold-weather gear in the mountains, Vito’s sturdy constitution wouldn’t allow him to get sick. So, he tried to make himself ill by drinking boiled tobacco. No luck. Finally, one day he got a fever and was sent behind the lines. After a night’s sleep in a warm bed and a couple of hot meals, he was good to go. Ever resourceful, when the nurse popped a thermometer in his mouth, he would wait till he turned his back and put his pipe in his armpit for a bit, then slide the thermometer there and watch the mercury rise to just above normal. So close, that checking by hand the nurse couldn’t detect the difference. That worked for a couple more day’s leave and offered a chance for reflection away from his moment-to-moment, live-or-die existence.
As he lay on his cot surrounded by soldiers from all over the country, he could hear different dialects. Strange. They were all Italians, wearing Italian military uniforms but some of the regional dialects were completely incomprehensible. If the doctors and nurses spoke in schoolbook Italian, they would generally be understood. But among themselves, around campfires, the soldiers might as well be speaking Swahili as far as Vito was concerned. In one way, it was interesting to find out that the only way he knew to speak Italian wasn’t the only way. He found that guys from the south—Naples and Calabria and Sicily could make themselves understood. But folks from Venice or Bergamo or Tuscany, impossible. The crack Alpine corps had their own songs and stories and style. People from up north ate polenta and pesto and cheeses that he had never tasted before. The houses were different in the mountains. Springtime was dramatic and so very welcome after four months of ice and snow. And surprisingly to him, he enjoyed the differences in food and climate and language not to mention his newfound ability to adapt to change, such as life in the army. If only he could use his wits to survive, home would never feel the same.1914, Paceco, Sicily
Margherita sat at the kitchen table, her cup of ersatz coffee cooling to tepid. Chicory weeds. They were reduced to drinking boiled weeds. She pushed on the corner of the crude, scarred table with one short leg. Rock, rock. Her two teenaged daughters were arguing in the bedroom they shared with their brother. The baby, Franco, slept with her. Lots of room in her bed now that Vito had marched off to play soldier somewhere, who knew where. No letters. Just her imagination to wonder and worry how he was…if he was…still. She had to tell him by letter that he had a second son. And then her milk dried up. Too much worry. Not enough to eat. Vito hadn’t earned much as vineyard help, but if they were careful they could just squeak by. But then he got her pregnant, again, and left for the war. So now, she had to rely on food from her father, grow what she could, and pass her son around to other nursing mothers. And the only free food in abundance were prickly pears that got her constipated and cursing as she squatted in the bushes out back.
Yesterday, she sat at the kitchen table and cried for the longest time. She went to crack the one egg she found in the hen house and it was empty. Examining the shell, she found a tiny hole on one end. Rocco must have done it. He made the hole so he could suck out the egg. She almost laughed before she started crying. If he had just taken the egg, she wouldn’t have known any better. But he thought he was being clever. She wanted to strangle him for being so stupid. Then she wanted to hug him because she, Vito, the war, this poor, sad place, all of it had gotten a kid so hungry he had to steal from his own mother. She cried all day.
Now, wondering what they would have for supper, she stood in the doorway peering past the sleepy village to the saline where windmills sucked ocean water into shallow ponds to evaporate into mountains of salt. Her youngest brother, Marco, worked there and came by her house on the way home from work every day. She spotted him and waved. O dio, what a handsome guy, she thought. My Vito was good looking too. But different. Craggy and thick like a big rock in a stream. Solid. While Marco was more tall and skinny, just a kid yet. He reached into a bag, pulled out a zucchini and waved it back and forth. She had to grin. Marco had that effect on her.
Zucchini. Reminded her of harvest time, the year she turned eighteen. That special, first time, she met Vito. They didn’t have dances in those days, certainly no dating. The only time girls and guys could even see each other was at church or the market. But Vito, like all his compare, worked in the vineyards on market days and seldom went to church. So, when the call went out to all the surrounding villages, young people eagerly gathered to see and be seen while gently fondling bunches of sun-warmed muscatel and zinfandel before freeing them from sagging vines.
What an eye-treat for a young woman—strapping, bare-chested young men heaving loaded baskets to bronze shoulders. And there was Vito with his barrel chest and quiet black eyes snagging hers through the long sun-drenched days and all through the meals they shared at a long plank table. Seems the owners would boil up a huge pot of pasta and a heap of sautéed zucchini and mix it all together with olive oil and garlic. And everyone was so hungry and excited to be together they thought it was delicious and even kind of fun to eat out of bowls carved right into the table top. So, grapes and harvest and good times…so far away right now.
At least she had a zucchini in hand that she could fry up and mix with a handful of pasta. Vito loved his pasta con zucchini. Whenever she made that stupid meal, he would get that look on his face, the look he gave her at the first harvest, and she would know what to expect in bed that night. She was never crazy about that food, especially now. It was Vito who made it special.
Marco brushed through the door and over to the water pitcher. The THUNK of bag-on-table told her it was bread, day-old bread. Her mother never let her family eat baking right out of the oven. It smelled and tasted too good, tempting them to eat more than they absolutely needed while day-old met needs not wants. Margherita cuddled the half loaf while she told her brother about the hollow egg incident. He laughed like crazy. She finally did too.
They got to talking about their brother, Nino, who had gone to America to avoid the draft. She wished her Vito had done that. He might yet…go to the States. After he comes home…knock on wood. Then she’d be alone again until he saved enough money to bring them all over. Madonna, she prayed, can’t we ever be a happy family together?
Antonino Maisano was among the many Sicilian men who sought their fortune in the Motor City in the early 1900s. There were not so many Sicilian women, however. And the few that were there, were in high demand. No American women could speak the language and cook the comfort food that those homesick men longed for. It was hard enough getting along in a strange country, with an unknown language, tough jobs and constant scorn from non-Italians. A man would want to come home to a bit of home away from home.
With marriageable Sicilian women in short supply, the fathers of these rare commodities were very protective of their treasures. Once a couple had secretly winked at each other a few times over the olive barrels in the local grocery, the boyfriend would tell the girl’s father they had an ‘understanding.’ And he and the girl would have to anxiously await permission to court.
And that’s where Nino was, having caught the eye of a sweet girl from Erice, the next village up the mountain from his home town. He never knew her, or any of her thirteen brothers and sisters, in the old country. Eight miles on a donkey-cart road might as well have been a continent away. But once they saw each other in the Eastside of Detroit, they bonded like next-door sweethearts. Unfortunately, right after Nino and Eva made their intentions known, a ‘connected’ guy from the old country put in his hand as well. Eva’s father didn’t like the mafioso. But, he knew, and Nino knew, what could happen when a request to court a daughter was turned down. A rejected suitor might kidnap the woman, spend the night with her, and once irretrievably dishonored and unsuitable for anyone else, offer to save the day by marrying her.
Actually, Nino and Eva had first-hand experience of this practice. Eva and her sisters Pina and Caterina were walking to the grocery store alongside a railroad track. Just as they got to a crossing, a model T pulled up in front of them. Two guys jumped out and grabbed Caterina who screamed and wailed, arms flailing, as they raced across a railroad track just ahead of the deafening whoosh of a speeding train and its blaring steam whistle. The next day, Caterina was married in a civil ceremony and Eva had to see a doctor for an outbreak of eczema caused by the traumatic drama. The Rizzo sisters spent many long evenings comparing notes about their father’s hesitation over the match, Caterina’s moon-struck infatuation, her over-the-top performance in the abduction scene and possible complicity in the plot. They begrudgingly wished her well in her new life.
Wanting none of that, Nino wrote home asking his brother, Marco, to appeal to the capo in Trapani to call-off his Detroit ‘soldier.’ Nino knew the guy from the streets back home, knew he and Eva would want nothing to do with the hood. Nino could only hope that a fervent personal appeal would remind the ‘boss’ that he had asked first and was a non-combatant in the mob structure.
Marco slammed his knuckles and his brother’s letter on Margherita’s table. “Putanna diavolo,” he swore. His older brother, Nino, always was a pain-in-the-ass, guy. Making a mess and leaving him and his sister to get him out of it. Older brothers were supposed to take care of things. But, no, not Nino. He bolted to America to avoid the draft. So, with no Nino around and his sister’s husband up at the front and his dad ailing, he was in charge of keeping things going. And in case it wasn’t hard enough to keep food on the table and look after the parents, now Nino wanted help with the cosa nostra. Margherita patted his hand while he fumed.
Marco knew all the local mafiosi. How could he not. Knew their families. Knew not to know too much. There was a strict line drawn. Yes or no. Belong or not. If you wanted to play it straight, no problem. Just look the other way and mind your own business. Still, it was hard not to crisscross once in a while over one thing or another. Like Nino did on the other side of the ocean.
While Marco fretted over the next few days, another letter arrived. This one came from Eva’s oldest brother, Gennaro, himself a lieutenant in the Detroit ‘family.’ There were two pages. The first was addressed to Marco telling him how to reach the capo. The second was to be presented to the Don himself. Under all the flowery, obsequious language, Gennaro’s message was simple: my sister is a nice kid, she’s interested in a nice guy, Nino Maisano. You might know the family from Paceco. Our guy came a little late to the party after Nino already asked the father. Could you please ask him to back off?
Marco didn’t need a road map to find the local Don. He knew where he had coffee every morning. ‘Nardo Batucci held court outside the only café in Piazza Garibaldi from 9 to 11 every day. Marco hung back in the doorway of a hardware store, cursing his brother one more time for putting him in this position. It never paid to draw attention to yourself when it came to the ‘black hand’. And worse yet, to be one-down—asking a favor and owing a favor in return. Muttering under his breath, he took his cap in hand and approached Batucci as he folded the morning paper.
‘Nardo raised his chin—yeah, what do you want?
“Kind sir,” Marco began. “I believe you know a certain, Gennaro Rizzo.”
“What if I do?”
“He asked me to present this letter to you.”
‘Nardo rocked back in the chair, eyed Marco for a half minute. Marco stood his ground, unflinching, eyes respectfully down. Damn Nino for making me go through this, he fumed.
“Read it to me,” ‘Nardo demanded.
Nothing for it but to see it through, Marco decided. He carefully unfolded the letter trembling from the surge of resentment at being made to simper and beg. That, plus a sense that a little show of spirit would be respected made him pull back a chair at the table. “May I?”
‘Nardo responded with a cold stare. Marco stayed on his feet, resisting the urge to shrug—no big deal, just asking—before reading the letter. When he finished, the capo held out his hand. Marco very deliberately folded the letter and carefully put it back in the envelope before dropping it in the outstretched hand. After ‘Nardo gave a dismissive wave, Marco put on his hat and briskly walked across the square keeping time with his racing heart rate. Replaying the scene, he decided, I showed just the right amount of respect but I didn’t grovel. And Nino, you owe me brother. If this war doesn’t end soon, I’ll be called up for the draft for sure. I’m counting on you to sponsor me, get me a job so I can come over there too.
1918, Paceco, Sicily
The First World War finally came to an end. Vito and his buddy, Aldo Spezia, could feel the Mediterranean sun thawing their blood as the transport ship chugged down the Adriatic to Palermo. They used the time to decompress and ease back into the pace of simpler, slower, safer living. Aldo spoke of an invite from his cousin in New York to come live there and work in the thriving construction trades. The idea didn’t register at first, as Vito anticipated the more immediate joy of seeing his wife and kids after a four-year absence.
A month later, after all the welcome home parties and luxurious sleep-ins disturbed by children’s footsteps instead of reveille, Vito was back on the job in a local vineyard. He inched down a row between the vines. Lift. Tie. Cut the twine. He wondered why he felt restless. Out of sorts. He wasn’t living in constant fear of being shot or bombed or, more commonly, dying from dysentery. He slept with his wife between clean sheets. Hugged his two girls and two sons. The little one, Franco, didn’t even know him and resented his taking over the spot next to mamma in the bed.
Lift. Tie. Cut. He used to enjoy giving himself over to the rhythm of the work. Now it just seemed tedious after living in watchful tension for years. Bored, he listened this time when Aldo came by for wine one evening and repeated the invitation from his cousin in Brooklyn. If they went to New York, the cousin would set them up in a boarding house with other Italians and get him a job with his crew building tenements. They needed all the workers they could get. And they made a lot of money. Maybe he could go with Aldo, make a bundle and come back. Buy his own farm. Become a ‘padrone’ and hire guys like himself. He had been away for four years already. What was a couple more doing basically the same thing he had been doing? Boarding house…barracks. Digging trenches…digging foundations. Living away from home. He just had to convince Margherita, then take a deep breath and make it happen. It was a chance to do better than subsist in dirt-poor Paceco. He had to try something and being in the Army had shown him he could handle challenging and new.
At four and a half, Franco was intimidated by the man who filled up their tiny house, sucked up all the attention of his mother and sisters, gave him a swat on the butt for crying one time. And it made him nervous when his parents were in what used to be his bedroom and he could hear them talking. Not the words so much as the feelings. Not nice smooth talking—a deep man’s voice and a sweet, mother’s voice one at a time. This was different. His mother’s voice seemed frightened, like she was begging, asking not to do something. His father sounded two ways. One was soft and low and slow. Like he was trying to be nice to his mother. But sometimes he would get loud and strong like a hand slapping a table hard. He just snuggled closer with his brother Rocco. But his sisters, Concetta and Angela, snuck out of the bedroom and listened right next to the parent’s door. When the bed started to squeak, the sisters came back into the kid’s room and began to talk.
Angela told me and Rocco, “Daddy thinks it best to go to America to make a lot of money and see what it’s like over there. He might have to stay for two years or so. Then we’ll decide if we should all move there.”
Older sister, Concetta, said, “I don’t want to go anywhere. I like it here. And besides, I like Luca and he likes me…and…and.”
Then Angela said, “He wants to go to Brookolini with Aldo.” Franco tried to imagine a place covered with tiny broccoli crowns. And he didn’t even like broccoli. Who would want to go there? It was all very confusing and sad. The only good thing would be getting his place back in bed with mamma. Before they all nodded off, Angela said, “I think the idea of going to America is fun and exciting.”
“Me too,” Rocco chimed in. But Franco just wanted to be together with everyone, no matter where they were.
Crossing the ocean was no worse for Vito than riding troop trains and naval troop carriers—hurry up and wait, boring, bad food, snoring farting men jammed too close for comfort, boring and more boring. At least he had Aldo for company and pinochle. Finally, after two weeks of transit from Palermo to Naples to Ellis Island, Vito settled into his new, temporary home. Turns out it was a fifth floor flat in a tenement run by a couple from Calabria who lived in an adjoining flat and created a boarding house by squeezing six bunkbeds into the front room and bedroom next door. An oversized table clogged the tiny kitchen but was able to seat twelve men and huge bowls of pasta with beans, pasta with cauliflower and pasta with meat once a week for a belly-filling if not nutritional daily diet. The only running water was at the kitchen sink forcing a long line, morning and evening for the perpetually exhausted manual laborers. Another line formed at the outhouse in the backyard.
Luckily, Vito was not fussy and Army life had lowered his standards of comfortable living. After handing over the last of his ready cash for the first week’s rent, Aldo’s cousin came by on the next morning and escorted both of them to his worksite. Handed a shovel, they got to diminishing a huge pile of rubble on one corner of the project and wheeling it to another for five straight days.
At the end of the day, Friday, Vito scooped up his pay packet and tucked it into his vest eager to hurry home and calculate what he had earned. He knew how much he was supposed to be earning per hour. But he wanted to count the bills and feel the change and most importantly figure how much a week’s work in America would be worth in Sicily. A lot, he decided as he spread the money on a corner of his bunk and translated it into Lire. He would have to work for a month to make this much money in the vineyard. If he was careful, he could pay his room and board, save some, send some home and even have a little extra for cigarettes. They had these extra-long cigarettes in America, Pall Mall’s in a red package. They were too good to smoke all at once so he cut them in half to make them last, even though he scorched his fingertips for the last drag. Another savings, a book of matches were two for a penny. He found that he could split a paper match by ripping it from the bottom and get two lights that way. He wasn’t going to waste his hard-earned cash on himself and take food out of the mouth of his kids.
But some needs were hard to ignore, selfish as they were. His need for a woman, for one. It wasn’t so bad in the war. Half the time he was scared out of his mind. The other half he was scrounging for food. But these days he was getting fed regularly and there were good looking women on every stoop. The longer he was away from home, the more women he saw and the better those ladies looked. And his fellow boarders in their bunks at night, would talk about a place above a bar where this Maria and that Giuseppina or Betta would do special things, besides the usual. Two months along, he finally asked, “What do they charge?”
One Saturday, washing out his socks and underwear in the basement sink next to his buddy, Aldo, Vito sighed deeply. Aldo stopped wringing his undershirt and said, “What?” Vito just shook his head. Aldo dropping his shirt in a willow basket for the trip to the clothesline strung from their dorm to the building next door, asked, “Miss the family?” Vito half-shrugged, intent on the scrub board and his soiled underpants. Basket on his hip, Aldo stopped at the foot of the stairs, “Look, my cousin invited me for dinner tomorrow. His wife’s making couscous with fish.” Vito looked up, eyebrows raised. “Let me ask him if you can come along.” Vito nodded several times, eyes closed. He grabbed the underpants, wrung them with all his might, snapped them out and studied them. “Do you know a good doctor?”
Aldo frowned, brows pulled together, “Oh, bedda madre! Didn’t you learn anything in the army, Vito. Use a condom.” His friend rubbed the tip of his thumb against his first two fingers. “Yeah, they cost. But so does a doctor…stupido.” At the top of the stairs, he said, “I’ll ask around…no names.”
The next afternoon, at Piero’s flat, three blocks away, Vito felt nervous as they climbed the stairs. He didn’t know why. The tenement smelled just like theirs—stale grease, garlic, and general, never-cleaned grimy. But going to see a family was different. Like when he came home from the war—the shock of chairs and tables and clean clothes and curtains and couches and children after living rough for so long. This would be stepping into another world. But as much as he anticipated the invitation, he was unprepared for the flood of emotion when Piero opened the door to the aroma of familiar food and the welcoming smile of an aproned woman. His normally stoic face almost broke into tears from missing his family, from self-pity for the barren, hard life he had to endure. But when Gabriella kissed him on both cheeks, hands gently touching his shoulders, he was overcome with guilt and loosed two tears. She stepped back, nodded very slowly as if acknowledging and absorbing all that he was feeling. That’s what he was missing. Then she pulled a boy, about the age of his Franco, from behind her skirt. “Mario,” she said, “meet Mr. d’Angelo.”
The next two hours were such a blur of marvelous food and easy conversation in a cocoon of family togetherness, that Vito could hardly pull himself back to the spartan existence in his boarding house. As he lay in his bunk bed that night, he tallied a list of pros and cons to bringing his family to the States. Italians were looked down on. People called them names. Gave them the worst, hardest jobs. But at least there were jobs. And a person, a family, could make a lot of money if they lived frugally and pooled their earnings. His family certainly knew how to live with next to nothing. The afternoon in Piero’s apartment showed what it could be like. Nothing fancy. But it was a home with furniture and beds and space to relax and cook and afford a few extras. The only problem was, Gabriella had to work. But at least there was work for women in garment sweatshops. Nobody liked to have their wives work. But that was how it had to be. You had to adjust. The only alternative was continuing this bachelor existence, away from family, sending money and connecting every few years like sailors and soldiers and merchants. The visit with Piero and Gabriella showed another way it could be. And it looked good.
Before he fell asleep, he decided that he would work very hard to save as much as he could, send some to his wife every month and begin to look for apartments where he could set up his family like Piero did.
The following Sunday he and Aldo stopped into Morelli’s who sold the smells of home as much as the handful of ceci beans they could barely afford. Wandering under the bunches of oregano that lead to the cheese counter and the tongue tightening draw of pecorino and parmigiano Reggiano, Vito was lost in homesick reverie when he heard Morelli raise his voice. “But it was only two dollars last week.”
After a long pause, a deep threatening voice said, “Now it’s more.”
Peeking around the five-foot banana bunch, Vito took in two paisani. The one talking was cleaning his finger nails with a longish pocket knife. The other, more muscular of the two, was half-sitting on the counter riffling the stack of paper bags. Aldo was by the door, head down, suddenly interested in the wicker basket full of snails. Morelli finally reached into the cash box and slapped the money on the counter. The two heavies left.
Outside Vito confronted Aldo. “Porca miseria,” he moaned. “Here too? Come all this way and the same damn shit.”
“What do you think? You knew the mafia was here. Hell, you told me about your brother-in-law, Nino.”
“I…” Vito stuttered, “I thought it would be different here. It gets me so mad. Look, those bastards just went into the bakery. Let’s wait for them at the alley. Take care of them, like in the war. Huh? We were good—you and me. Give the money back to Morelli. What do you say?”
Aldo, lowered his brow, shook his head. “Let it go, Vito. You’d never win. They would jump on Morelli to make up the money and then come after you.”
“Go along to get along, amico meo. You didn’t see nothing. Just be glad they haven’t started at the worksite.”
Feeling sorry for Morelli, Vito bought three sanguine for Piero and Gabriella as thanks for their hospitality a week ago. He had to keep from eating one of the blood-oranges himself on the way to their flat. He saw Mario bouncing a pink Spaldeen on the front steps of the tenement.
“Is your Dad home?” Vito asked.
“No, he went somewhere.”
“Oh. Well, these are for you folks,” he said, holding the bag toward the boy.
“Just give them to my mom.”
After he considered the kid for a while, wondering why he didn’t know the rules, Vito explained, “A man should never visit another man’s wife when he’s not in the house.” Mario wrinkled his face, said, “Huh?” and went back to bouncing the ball.
Vito plopped the bag on the step and said, “You do it,” and walked away muttering, “smart ass kid. No respect.”
Back in his flat, a couple of the boarders were resting in bed, chatting…more like griping about a favorite theme—Damn America! The bread was soft. No crust. No taste. The cheese was soft. The lunch meat tasted terrible. And they had the nerve to call it Bologna…a great Italian city.
Vito quietly smoked his one half of a Pall Mall for the day and fought the urge to tell those guys to go back if they didn’t like it here. But they soon left and he played back the afternoon. Italians brought a lot with them when they came to the States—the low-lifes, the food, the rules about men and women. Maybe the kid, Mario, had the answer—learn the language, play the games, forget the old rules, make new ones, adapt.
1920, Bound for America
Franco was excited to be finally going to America. Sort of. The people around him, the only people he had known his first eight years, were sad and crying. His mother kept hugging his sister Concetta who was staying with their grandparents and admonishing her fiancé Luca to take good care of her daughter. His sister, Angela, sniffled a little, too, but he could tell she really wanted to get going. She kept glancing at Carlo, the butcher apprentice, who showed up at the train station. He didn’t look happy that she was leaving but at the last second, on the steps of the train, she shot him a smile. He dipped his chin in his quiet way. Big brother, Rocco, hefted the bag of buns and biscotti over his shoulder. “Just in case,” his grandmother had said, “you never know what you might need on a ten-day crossing.” Franco didn’t feel like crying until his grandfather kissed him three times on each cheek, scratching him with two-day whiskers and hugging him so hard that two tears squeezed out. He might never see any of them again. But then the train whistle blew and he scampered up the stairs for the trip to Palermo and the overnight boat to Naples.
Franco had seen ships along the wharf in Trapani, so he wasn’t particularly impressed with the Naples ferry. Still it was fun to actually be on one, exploring every stairwell, bathroom and lifeboat until dark. When Rocco finally lead him down to the men’s dorm and his place on the upper bunk, he couldn’t sleep. It was first time in all his eight years he was sleeping outside his house, away from his mother, surrounded by strange, snoring men while gently rolling with waves. After a time, he snuck up the gangway to the open foredeck. The cool breeze felt good after the sounds and smells of the airless sleeping quarters.
Near the front of the ship, three men leaned against the rail smoking and talking softly. On a bench nearby a woman held a baby under her shawl, nursing the child. A soldier slept on another bench. His mother, arms crossed stood by another rail, facing the void of the cloud covered, moonless night. His first impulse was to run up and hug her. Something stopped him. She looked like she wanted to be alone. Needed to be alone. Something else. Like maybe she was holding onto a long string tied to their front gate. And then, for the first time, he felt a distance from his mother. He was looking forward to…he didn’t exactly know. But what was coming was exciting, not sad. He watched his mother for another long moment, sad but determined at suddenly feeling the responsibility to take point for the next part of their lives. He set his chin, marched down the gangway to his bunk but this time crawled in with his brother Rocco.
Margherita welcomed the enveloping darkness. Soothed by the waves purling along the hull, she lets thoughts and feelings of the past months bubble up as they would. She missed Vito. Making love with him. His quiet, solid presence. Her rock. Two years was a long time. Would he be different? Would they be different? How could he do this…make them break up their family? She missed her daughter Connie already. And what about her wedding? Being there for her first baby? And now she would be living in a big city. What would that be like after living in the country? People. Noise. It’s supposed to snow there in the winter. Vito said the Italian wives he knows go to work. Cooking, cleaning, washing…that’s work too. If I have to work all day, how does that get done? And what kind of work? Vito says they sew in a place full of Italian women. I can sew, but never like it was a job, like work. Will I be able to do it? And Angela, how do you raise a girl in New York? She’s too old to go to their schools. Will she work too? Will she get tired of living there and want to go back to her ragazzo, Carlo. Might be just as well. We know what to expect back home, how things get done. And what’s going to happen to my boys? Vito says he wants to save money and later on go back to Sicily, to what we know and love and are used to. I wonder if it will happen. We might change. The boys are young. They might change us. And who says Paceco will stay the same as we remember it. “O Dio,” Margherita moaned, “what are we getting into?”
Two days into the Atlantic crossing, Margherita was moaning again. This time she was confined to her bunk in the pitching and rolling tangle of families and baggage amid the stink of diesel and vomit in steerage. Franco was the angel who flitted here and there bringing water, emptying pots and snatching crackers from the galley for any who could hold them down.
As far as he was concerned, he was on a mission, for the next ten days, to discover all there was to know about the tossing and creaking rust bucket. Since everyone else was laid up, he appointed himself to take care of things. He climbed ladders and stairs that lead to doors which opened on engine room or wheelhouse, closet or head. The cook offered him treats and leftovers for the others who couldn’t make it to the chow line. The crew liked it when he stopped by their quarters to watch them playing cards. He seemed to catch on to their games and they let him play a hand once in a while.
At the end of the trip, one day out of New York, Franco strolled around his ship inspecting the life boats, checking on the crew, looking into the pilot house. When he got to the galley the cook’s helper motioned him into a corner. “You like chocolate?” he asked.
“Ciocolatto?” Franco answered. “Si.”
The man offered him a piece of brown, Fels-Naptha soap. Franco popped it into his mouth chewed once and swallowed before registering the taste. He gagged and spit while the man and his buddies laughed long and loud. Not long after, he got seriously ill from both ends.
Of course, Margherita was delighted to see her husband waving outside the Ellis Island processing center. Aldo was there—a familiar face from home. She fussed with her hair, concerned that she looked gaunt and wan from ten days in steerage. But Vito didn’t seem to mind. He hugged her so hard she could barely breathe. And when she finally inhaled, she drew in the familiar, welcome smells of her man, felt his smooth morning-shaved cheeks, his tight, strong muscled back and his hands in the small of her back sending an urgent message that would have to wait a little longer to be answered.
Frowning, flustered, “Where’s Franco?” Vito asked.
Tumbling over each other with explanations, Angela, Rocco, and Margherita explained that the doctors decided that Franco needed to be quarantined in case he had a contagious disease. As Rocco described the cruel prank played on his brother, Vito’s face tensed and hardened. “But don’t worry,” Angela hastened to add. “They told us we could check in two days.”
“He’ll be fine,” Margherita reassured her glowering husband. “It’s like he took a laxative.”
Vito huffed quietly, wishing he could catch the sailor in a dark alley.
Meanwhile, confined to a hospital ward, Franco was bitterly disappointed that he couldn’t enjoy the reunion with his father and family. The first day, he was as much sick with himself for being made a fool, as from the soap. The next day, he was back on his feet with nowhere to go and time to think. He scanned the surrounding land beyond the barred windows. No broccoli in Brookolini. How stupid could he be? Okay, Franco, he told himself, time to wise up. Stop believing everything grownups tell you. Be careful. Not everyone is your friend. They might want to hurt you. You have to learn as much as you can about this new place, as fast as you can, for your sake and the family’s.
Margherita was stunned and oppressed by the waves of people, the towering buildings, clanging trolley bells, cobblestone and cement on the way to their home. The cab stopped in front of a four-story brick building. Two men leaned on a light pole, smoking. Two women in aprons lounged on the five-stair stoop. One rocked an infant and winked at the one next to her before calling, “Hey, Vito, what’s this one’s name?”
Vito marched past them, muttering, “Ignorante.”
Margherita had other ideas. She stopped at the foot of the stairs, made eye contact with both women. Then she smiled and spoke in Sicilian, “I’m Mrs. d’Angelo. I just got off the boat from Naples and I could stand a good cup of coffee.” Names, hugs, introductions to babies and kids in the street was followed by two strong cups of espresso and a homemade biscotto while Vito took Angela and Rocco to their apartment. A half-hour later, Mirella and Maria escorted Margherita to the second floor flat.
She wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but the two-bedroom unit was dingy, drab and smelled of stale grease. There was a table and chairs in the kitchen, a stove, sink and running water. That much was good…better than home. There was a living room with a sofa and a wooden rocking chair. “They came with the apartment,” Vito explained as she wrinkled her nose at the cotton bulging from the arm rests of the worn scarlet couch. “And the stuffed pheasant,” he added, pointing to the only décor to be found in the spartan quarters. In their bedroom, Margherita paused to sit on the edge and pat the mattress. Smiling to herself, then up at Vito, this much will be familiar, she thought.
Angela was emptying the content of her suitcase on the bed in her tiny room, sorting the dirty clothes from two week’s travel when Mirella’s daughter, Trina, poked her head in and offered to show her the wash sink in the basement. “Wait, wait,” Margherita called, “take all my things, too.”
“Your night gown won’t dry by tonight,” Angela reminded.
Margherita, tossed her chin and sucked her teeth loudly—so?
“Ma!” Angela called in shock.
Vito grinned and directed Margherita to the bathroom explaining how he had searched to find a place with an indoor toilet and a tub with a circle curtain for a shower. She was impressed and couldn’t wait for a long soak while Rocco squeezed in to show her how the knobs and plugs and pull-chain worked.
“But where will the boys sleep?” she finally asked as she lay out, exhausted, on the sofa. “Rocco here,” Vito pointed to the couch. “Franco, on the floor with blankets.”
“Uhm,” she managed before falling deeply asleep. The smell of spaghetti sauce woke both her and her appetite now that she had been on solid ground for a few hours. Angela was setting the table with mismatched dishes and bent forks. “Mirella gave us some sauce and Pa had spaghetti. Let’s eat.” They all sat at the table, bowed their heads and thanked God to be all together again…almost all.
After dinner, Margherita ran her first-ever bath in a full-sized tub of hot water. After soaking for a half-hour, she called to Vito to wash her back. Her let her know he would be waiting in bed. It was a marvelous reunion. He was so eager, but gentle and caring. He even cried after the second time. But it was strange that he used a condom. He never had before. But then, they really didn’t want any more children, did they?
Vito stomped up the stairs to their flat banged the door shut and yelled at Franco on his way to the bathroom, “Put water on.” By the time he emerged, face washed, shaved and in a clean shirt, the pot on the stove was just beginning to bubble. Ravenous from a long day of humping hods of brick up sky scrapers, he grabbed a fistful of spaghetti from the cupboard and tossed it into the pot. He looked in the icebox and finally settled on a bowl of leftover beans. He flopped in a chair by the window, exhausted. Living in the boarding house, at least they had supper ready when he got home from work. Now, he beat his wife and daughter home by an hour and had to cook for himself…and wait for it to be ready. His wife working. What a disgrace that a man couldn’t earn enough to let a woman do the woman’s work in the home. So many changes. And my daughter works too. The only consolation is that the other guys in the building and on the job face the same thing. The women need to work to just get by. And now Angela wants to go back home, to Carlo. I’ll miss her and the extra money she used to bring home. But I had to tell her, if you want to go back, you have to earn the money. So, she’s been putting most of it away for her ticket and her trousseau. One good thing, the boys can use her bedroom. Why is it always so hard? And Margherita comes home so exhausted and angry and it takes her all evening to calm down from the boss pushing her and all the ladies to sew faster and faster. I wish she didn’t have to work and could have my supper ready.
He jumped up to check on the pasta that had just barely softened enough to slide down the sides of the pot and under the water. “Basta,” he announced before draining the pasta in a colander and returning the noodles to the pot where he dumped yesterday’s beans into the mix with a dollop of olive oil. He didn’t bother to call Franco, ripped off a hunk of bread and ate straight out of the pot. Franco came into the kitchen and listened to the crunch of the al dente pasta as his father assuaged the worst pangs of his hunger. When his father paused to reach for the bottle of his homemade muscatel, the boy scooped a portion onto his plate. He knew not to engage his father in conversation at this point, at least not until he calmly spooned a second helping onto his plate. He chewed slowly, taking sips of water to continue the process of hydration of the crunchy pasta.
Rocco broke into the feeding frenzy, throwing his book bag into a corner and wincing at the sight of the pasta fagiole. He shrugged, grabbed a plate and sat at the table. He suddenly laughed. “You gotta hear this. At the barber shop, I had to stop right in the middle of sweeping up hair I was laughing so hard. This Calabrese guy was telling everyone about his neighbor who strained his back at work. So, he asked his wife to put some liniment into the bathtub. But she put too much in and went he went to sit down it scalded his balls. The guy in the chair said he could hear him scream for two floors away.” Rocco paused to take another mouthful, chewed quickly, swallowed with difficulty and continued. “But here’s the best part. Turns out his wife told the other women in the tenement that she had to whip up some egg white and pat it on his balls.”
As stolid as Vito usually was, even he let out a snort of amusement at this extraordinary use of meringue. All three guys were laughing when Margherita came in the door.
“What’s so funny?” she asked. The guys laughed all the harder.
“When I complain of sore muscles,” Vito said, “let me be the one to put liniment in the bath water.”
After supper, Margherita, Angela, Vito and Rocco dumped their pay packets on the kitchen table. It was understood that everyone shared in family expenses. Vito took a small amount out of Angela’s earnings and shoved the rest back to her as savings for her return trip to Italy. He cut out a small amount for Rocco to cover trolley fare. Margherita set aside grocery money from her earnings. Vito portioned out rent. The rest went into savings. Even Franco, at nine, pitched in the spare change he got for delivering groceries for Morelli. The one time he objected, “But that’s my money,” the whole family glowered at him. “There’s no ‘my money’ in this family,” Vito said. “If you want to keep ‘your money’ then you owe room and board like a boarding house. This is different. This is family.”
Finally, the first day of school came. The towering brick building. Hundreds of kids running and shouting. But Franco wasn’t nervous—just one more thing to get used to, to figure out. After all, he had crossed the ocean and when everyone else got sick, he was the one they counted on to work the system. By lunch time, he reevaluated the situation. School was going to be harder than he had anticipated. There was the language issue. He knew not a word of English. They put him in first grade with six-year old’s—as if he didn’t know how to read. He knew how to read, just not in English. And he could do the numbers. And the teacher didn’t like him. Called him a name that made the other children snicker at him. What did dago mean, anyway? Don’t worry, he told himself, I’ll catch up soon and get in a room with kids my own age.
And then it was lunch. A big boy with red hair and brown little spots on his face snatched his bag. “Whatcha, got in here, punk,” he snarled. Some other kids in the playground gathered around. The boy opened the crumpled bag “Pee…uw,” he twisted his face, scrunching his nose and threw the bag into a puddle.
What’s wrong with a crust of bread and a nice piece of cheese, Franco wondered, as he bent to retrieve the food. The boy kicked him in the butt and sent him splashing in the muddy water. The rest of the kids laughed while Franco retreated to a bench on the far side of the teeter-totter. The bread was soaked but the cheese was still good, he munched and pondered revenge.
“Hey,” Rocco called as he jogged to Franco’s side, “I heard some guys were messing with you.”
“Good thing, you’re late. You couldn’t have done anything. Too many of them.”
“Still, look for me at lunch time. We’ll eat together.”
Franco looked at his wet socks, flicked some mud off and shook his head. He was small for his age, and skinny, and his butt still hurt. But he was sure he would think of something on his own.
That night his mother scolded him for getting his clothes muddy. He caught Rocco’s eye and shook his head almost imperceptibly. “And besides,” she added, “you need a haircut. Vito, the boy needs a haircut.”
“Can’t afford it,” his father said.
“I know,” Rocco chimed in. “I can cut it for him. I watch the barbers while I sweep. And yesterday, Mario dropped his scissors on the floor and the tip bent. Said I could have them. I can pound it straight with a hammer.”
Franco shook his head. “Practice on someone else.”
“Let him try,” Vito said. “He’s got to learn some time.”
Before he could object further, Franco was on a stool with a towel around his neck and Rocco was snipping with his mangled scissors that snagged and pulled with every snip.
“Aah! Managgia!” Rocco shouted, jumping back. “Verme, he has lice. Head lice.”
“No wonder…from that miserable boat,” his mother said.
“Or the hospital,” Angela added.
Rocco stood back, “Good thing we don’t sleep together.”
“Angela, take his sheets and pillow case and clothes to the basement. Boil them.” To Rocco, she said, “Cut off all his hair. Vito shave his head and I’ll sweep it up.”
Franco itched and rubbed the ticklish hair clinging to his tears. He was already different enough at school, now he would be bald. He watched his father strop his straight razor then test the edge on his thumb while Rocco proudly whisked his father’s shaving brush in the soap mug. Franco ducked, sneered and thoroughly resented his brother’s pleasure in slathering his head in shaving cream.
He stared in the mirror when it was all done. How much more embarrassment could he suffer in one day? He bit his cheeks to keep from crying when his mother handed him the bag of hair to take out to the trash. On the way out, he automatically popped on his hat. What if it has some lice, too, he wondered. It won’t matter to me. I don’t have any more hair. But someone else could get it, if they wore it. Then he thought of the red-haired bully. He tucked the bag next to the steps inside the tenement front door.
The next morning, his hat drooped to his ears without the hair mass to buoy it up. Just as well, he thought. Maybe no one will notice…but if they do. He smiled to himself.
At lunch, the bully trudged over to him. “Whatcha got today? More stinkin’ cheese?” He grabbed the bag and opened it. “What the hell!” he cried. Turning to the gang that followed him dropped the bag, shouting, “It’s full of hair!”
Franco didn’t know how to explain himself in English, so he snatched the bag back and said, “Verme,” while lifting his hat to show his bald head.
“What’s that mean?” the boy roared.
“Aw, shit,” an Italian boy said. “He’s got cooties. And that’s why his head is shaved.”
Franco opened the sack and pushed it toward the Irish boy, thrusting it toward his head forcing him to walk backwards across the playground and up the school steps. Then he turned and waved it at all the followers who carefully retreated. He waited for a moment’s emphasis before bobbing his chin as if to say, ‘so there, leave me alone.’
It wasn’t perfect, but the rest of the kids left him alone for the rest of the semester and by the end of the year, he was double promoted into third grade where he progressed steadily.
At home, Franco and Rocco quickly became the connection to the new world for their parents. They would read letters, bills, and newspaper out loud, translating as they went. “See, Ma,” Rocco used to say, “you gotta learn to talk American so you can get your citizenship.”
“I’m not American. I’m Italian,” she would respond. “I don’t want to be American. I want to go back to Italy. To my home.”
Rocco and Franco would exchange glances. “Sure, Ma.”
At fifteen, Rocco started announcing that he was about done with school and planned to drop out at the end of the year. He now knew English as good as any of the customers he served and with his knack for barbering, was on his way to a respectable profession. Angela, however, was not about to sink roots. She hated life in New York and sweatshop work. One night at the dinner table she held up a letter from Carlo and broke into tears. “I don’t want to stay here. I want to go back home. Be with Carlo and Connie and Gramma.”
Vito silently pounded his clenched fists on the table. “Managgia la miseria,” he rasped. “I’m working as hard as I can and nobody’s happy. What more can I do?”
“I know, caro,” Margherita cried. “I’m trying too. But look at us in this smelly, crowded place. Cold in the winter. Hot in the summer.”
“It was hot in Paceco, too,” Rocco reminded. “And I was cold, most of the time, in winter.”
“But it was different,” Angela countered. “We were used to it, to the way things were. And I miss it.”
Vito puffed out his cheeks, slowly exhaling, shaking his head.
“If you go back,” Margherita whined, “we’ll have half the family here, half there.”
“Look,” Vito reasoned. “Life goes on, no matter where we live. If we were home, our daughters would be marrying anyhow and be out of the house…”
“But not across the ocean.”
“Yes, but what if their husbands were sailors or soldiers and had to be away much of the time?”
“They would still be near us,” she cried. “I miss my daughters.”
Angela came over to hug her mother. “I would miss you too, Mama.”
“We can’t afford it, just yet,” Vito said. “She has to keep working a while longer.”
Margherita firmed her chin and glanced at Angela who, knowing what was coming next, shook her head. “That’s the problem, Vito,” Margherita explained. “Angela may not be able to keep working at the shop much longer.”
Vito shot a questioning look at Angela stiffly sitting across the table like a witness about to be cross-examined. After a pause to gather her thoughts and courage, Angela began. “Alfredo, our boss…he’s from Trapani and calls me paisana. There’s a lot of other Sicilian ladies sewing for him, but he calls me his neighbor. There’s lots of young ladies in the shop, but he’s always coming around me every chance he gets.”
“But, what?” Vito’s face set into a hard mask. “What is he doing?”
“Well…” Angela hesitated, looking to her mother to help explain.
“He comes over to her when she’s working. Leans over her shoulder. Gets close to her at lunch. And the other women notice the special attention.”
Vito waved his hand disgustedly, “But, does he touch her?”
“Well, no. Not yet,” Angela said. “And besides he has onion breath.”
“I’ll have to talk to the bastard…behind the shop.”
Margherita raised her chin and sucked her teeth for a loud, ‘tsk.’ “The problem, both of you don’t get, is that pretty soon he’s going to want more. By force…or permission. Tell me Vito, do you want that disgraziato sitting at our table every Sunday dinner as your son-in-law just so we can work?”
“Aii!” Angela cringed at the thought.
“Somethings going to happen,” Margherita continued, “and if we don’t do it right, Angela will be out of a job and so will I. No more boat ticket. No more Sicily. And one more son-in-law. Capisce?”
Franco followed the discussion, calculating.
“I know,” Rocco jumped in. “Why not get Carlo to send some money if he’s so interested? She quits. Problem solved.” Under the barrage of scornful looks, he muttered, “Well, I just thought…”
Everyone sat in silence for the longest time studying their dirty plates crusting with cold spaghetti sauce. Finally, when everyone retired to the front room, Franco edged close to Angela at the sink. “I got an idea,” he said.
“You?” she said disdainfully.
“Okay, if that’s the way you feel. You figure it out.”
Later that evening she called to Franco on his way to the bathroom, “What’re you thinking?”
“Just a minute,” he said as he took his time doing his business and slowly washing his hands. Sometimes it was important to get respect. He came out and sat on her bed, ran his hand over his just starting to fuzz-over scalp. “Okay, here’s the thing. People hate head lice. Right?” Angela flinched and inched away. “Okay,” Franco continued, “the next time that creep gets too close and starts crowding you, just scratch your head and say, ‘Man I hope I don’t have my brother’s cooties.”
The next evening, after supper, Angela slipped Franco two cannoli she picked up on the way home. You have to stay on your toes, all the time, Franco reflected, savoring his solitary treat on the tenement rooftop.
Nino and Eva were both exhausted. He from a long day on the line at the Ford Rouge plant. She from caring for their five girls under seven. After dinner, they sat at the table in no hurry to open the rare surprise of a letter. Tina had told them it was from Margherita. She could read now, after two years in school. Smart girl. Helpful, too. She stood on a step stool, elbow deep in the soapy water, washing dishes. As the eldest child, she was expected to help her mother more than her younger sisters. And in the case of dishes, it was a necessity, as her mother’s eczema flared up in soapy hot water—the very rash triggered by Aunt Caterina’s abduction. She wished she knew more of that story. Like if one of the Baretta’s would write a letter from California. It would sure be more exciting than boring Aunt Margherita with boring family nothings.
Instead, Tina had to use her imagination to fill in the blanks between her aunt’s whispered snippets: “Pete Baretta got trapped inside a store he was supposed to burn because the owner wouldn’t pay for protection”…whatever that meant. “He barely got away in time to throw Aunt Caterina and her kids into the back of his dump truck and head out West”…where the cowboys and Indians are? “They all almost died in the desert when they ran out of gas and water on the way to the coast” “The boxes for her father’s grapes had pretty pictures of California on the side.” big deal, her father fished in the ocean in Sicily and now he makes gin in the attic and has to give a cop $2 every week. “Caterina made her bed now she has to lay in it”…whatever that meant.
Wrist deep in suds, Tina smiled to herself waiting to be asked to read the letters as she knew she would. “Pina,” Nino ordered his third daughter, “go tell Zio Marco we have a letter from our sister and he should come over.”
Learning to read had been a painful process. For five years she watched hordes of children shouting and screaming to each other in an incomprehensible language as they entered and left the grade school across the street. When it was her turn Trina eagerly trotted over to absorb all she could, starting with the English language. Total immersion was hard and made more difficult by Mrs. Murphy who made her sit in front of the class and lined up the other kids to spit in her hand when she couldn’t answer a question. The playground was no easier. One day at recess, she and another timid girl, hovering near the fence, drew the attention of some rowdies who piled on top of them dislocating Tina’s shoulder. Fearful that her mother would remove her from school if she knew the truth, she let her Uncle Tony, storyteller and amateur massage therapist, squeeze out a fib along with her laughing and groaning as his knowing hands worked muscle and joint under a layer of oil. Undaunted, she marched back to the schoolroom the next day, determined to learn. Before long she was up to grade level and tutoring her mother, who shared her drive to know.
Without being asked, Tina dried her hands and sat at the head of the table. Eva got up to make coffee and open a tin of homemade biscotti. Her father stayed in place fidgeting with the unopened letter while waiting for his brother and sister-in-law to arrive. As the eldest and first of the Maisano siblings to emigrate, he had paved the way for his brother, Marco, to find work and move next door with his wife Stella. Snug in an Italian enclave in Detroit’s eastside, the brothers enjoyed a cushioned transition into American life. They had quickly felt at home with Eva and her large family of brothers and sisters scattered throughout the neighborhood. The Rizzo brothers were involved in transportation, some in trucking and excavating, others in freelance bootlegging of Canadian booze smuggled across the Detroit River. In all, they were a lively, loving bunch, mingling and crossing paths as often as possible. Nino and Marco felt bad that their sister, stuck in New York, missed out on the togetherness they enjoyed. Any news from her was welcome.
Five minutes later, Marco and his wife, Stella, were seated at the kitchen table expectantly waiting for Tina to open the letter and begin reading. She began the laborious task of reading Italian cursive writing while barely proficient in printed English text. Syllable-by-syllable, she sounded out words her elders sometimes helped her complete.
“Good wishes and kisses to everyone. I hope you are all well. My son, Franco, who is now ten-years old is writing this letter for me and Vito.” Looking at her father, Tina asked, “Will I meet him someday?”
“Someday. They will come here or we will go there. Someday. Avanti!”
“Everybody is healthy. Vito is working very hard. I sew ten hours a day but I make good money. I am sad because my daughter Angela went back to Sicily last week. My family is now in two parts. My daughters in Sicily. My sons in America. My daughter Connie had a baby boy, called Piero. And Angela plans to marry Carlo. I wish I was there.”
“He’s a good kid, that Carlo,” Marco remarked. “I always liked him. They should be happy together.”
“But the poor mother,” Stella commiserated. “Imagine being separated from your kids.”
“I thought you were just complaining about our two being on top of you all the time,” Marco teased.
Stella swatted her husband while Tina continued with the closing remarks, good wishes and kisses for all.
“Do you ever wish you could go back?” Eva asked. Stella hugged Marco’s arm, shaking her head. “Oh, I get homesick. Miss my mother and cousins. But I’m here. This is where I had my children. This is where I live.”
Eva sighed deeply. “Yes. Me too, I guess.”
As soon as Angela left, Rocco and Franco abandoned their front-room sleeping arrangements and installed a bunkbed and dresser in her bedroom. At nineteen, Rocco was fully employed as the fourth chair in the neighborhood barber shop while fifteen-year old Franco, a sophomore in high school, would stop by Morelli’s grocery after school, helping with the after-work rush. He knew all the customer’s names, told jokes, teased, and to Morelli’s delight often pushed sales by suggesting one or another item they hadn’t realized they needed.
As an elective, Franco took voc-ed classes in automotive repair where the boys worked on city vehicles under the supervision of their teacher. One day he forgot his lunch at home and Rocco took advantage of a morning lull to run it by the school. Told that his brother was in the garage, he paused at the doorway to observe the class in progress. He was conscious of the contrast between his workplace and this. The smell of pomade and rose water, quiet conversation, and dancing fingers snapping shears and combs with clean hands versus the clang and bang, grease and oil on filthy hands and clothes.
It took a moment to spot his 110-pound brother in the middle of several burly types hoisting engine blocks and transmissions with chain pulleys or sliding from under cars. Franco was trying to remove a flat tire from a garbage truck. He had added a three-foot piece of pipe on the end of the tire wrench to provide the leverage he needed to crack the rusted nuts on the rim. Once loosed, he wedged a plank at an incline under the raised wheel. Then he carefully wiggled the heavy rim off the hub and rolled the tire down the ramp. Rocco took in the scene and pondered.
That night, as they lay in bed, he queried his brother. “Franky, I watched you working on the truck tire.”
“You shouldn’t be doing that kind of work. You’re too damn small.”
“Up yours, Rocco,” Franco said, offering a silent and unseen Italian salute from the upper bunk. “I’m getting the job done.”
“Barely. But I like how you figured out to do it…with the pipe and the ramp. Makes me think you should work with your brain and not with muscles.”
“What’s it to you…one way or the other?”
“We all got to work around here. You may be the baby in the family but you got to pull your weight, too.”
“Pa’s not complaining.”
“It’s not about Pa. It’s about you. You can’t be serious about working in a garage all your life. Or squeezing tomatoes at Morelli’s. C’mon you’re better than that.”
“Mind your own business, brother.”
“In this family, we’re all each other’s business.”
Sunday dinner was relaxed compared to weekday feeding frenzies. In the middle of a leisurely meal of roast chicken and potatoes al forno, Rocco said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about Franco.”
Franco stopped mid-chew. “Why don’t you think about something else, frate meo.”
Rocco shot him a determined look before continuing. “I watched my little brother trying to lift a heavy tire and use a heavy wrench. He’s not a muscle man. But he used his head and figured out how to do it. I says to myself, ‘Bravo. The kid is smart. He can use his brains instead of his muscles.’ Then in the barber shop, I get this customer. Ingegnere DiMarco. I asked him how he became an engineer. He said he went to a college here in Brooklyn. After four years he graduated. He got a job at this company. Works at a desk. Makes good money. I think Franco should do that.”
Franco dropped his fork on the plate. His mother and father focused on him as if looking for something they had never seen before. He could hear the wheels in their brain turning: Franco an engineer? Someone in our family going to college? We could say, ‘our son the engineer.’
“So, I asked Mr. Di Marco what it might cost for a year in college. He said, living at home, about $100, and maybe some more for books. We could do that. I could do that for my brother. Throw in $1 a week. You guys take care of the rest. And he could work during the summer.”
“Hey!” Franco shouted, stood. “Who said I wanted any part of this plan? I’m just a kid in high school.”
“Well, you got time to think about it,” Rocco said, “talk to somebody at school, save some money, maybe take some classes you’ll need instead of rupturing yourself lifting truck tires.”
“You got it all figured out, huh? Who says I want to do that, huh?”
Vito folded his napkin, locked eyes with his youngest son and said, “I do.” He turned to his wife, “That’s why I came here. To give us a chance to do better.” Tipping his head to Rocco, he added, “I just never thought of this. Good idea.”
Franco grabbed his coat and shouted on his way out the door, “Did anyone think to ask what I think about the idea? As if it matters around here.”
August, on a breathless, humid Sunday afternoon the grownups sat under the plum tree groaning with ripe purple fruit in Marco’s backyard. When her brother Tony dropped by, Eva called out, “Tina make another pitcher of lemonade.” Ten minutes later, as Tina carried the pitcher with two hands, walking carefully to avoid spilling, all the adults watched her negotiate the gate between the yards. As she filled his glass, her uncle Tony smiled, and said, “Grazie”. Then to his sister, “She’s getting to be a big girl, now. What is she? Thirteen? I bet she’s a big help to you with all your kids.”
“She sure is. But in a couple weeks she goes back to school. It’s hard without her.”
“The oldest girl, that’s her job…to help the mother,” Stella said. “How much school does she need anymore?”
Tina stopped, squeezed the pitcher to her chest, as all the adults sized her up. Why did she feel that her future was about to be decided by this jury of elders? She held her breath as Uncle Marco asked, “How much education does a girl need? She can read and write. That’s a lot for the women we know. Besides, her mother needs her more.”
Tina didn’t dare to look at her father, afraid he might agree with his brother. That’s when Uncle Tony said, “Well, maybe she’s got enough book learning. But why not have her learn to sew or something? Don’t they have classes at that trade school? Burroughs is it? Over on Van Dyke?”
Eager to salvage at least a couple more years of schooling, Tina spoke up. “Yes, they do. My friend Teresa goes there.” Registering the thoughtful frowns, she hurried to add, “And if I knew how to sew, I could make clothes for my sisters.” Still picking up reluctance she improvised, “And who knows, I might even get a job. Like at your factory, right Pa?” She then remembered the pitcher in her hands and rushed to top off glasses all around.
Sixteen-year old Tina was part excited, part frightened and part infuriated that she was on a train to New York after the ‘uncles’ decided not only that she was plenty old enough to leave school but needed to supplement her father’s wages to help the family. She wished she were a man. They got to decide everything.
She had never met Aunt Margherita, Uncle Vito, cousins Rocco and Franco and now she was going to move in with them. In a tenement—whatever that was. And she would do sewing with her aunt in a sweatshop. Well at least all the workers would be Italian women and not the tough girls at Burroughs—although she was able to hold her own by the time she left.
Tina walked down the ramp into Grand Central Terminal. At the entryway to the monumental building she stopped to drink-in the moment. She may have been born in the United States but this was like getting off the boat in another country—crowds, noise, buildings on a scale she hadn’t imagined. It took a moment before she registered a voice calling her name. A young man waved as he walked toward her. It had to be her cousin, Franco. She had seen a First Communion picture of him and appropriately aged him in her mind. She waved back.
Up close, he looked familiar, reminded her of her father around the nose and mouth. He stopped, suddenly shy, after running toward her so eagerly. He studied her a bit overlong causing her to touch her hair and wonder if she needed fresh lipstick. Having satisfied his curiosity, he nodded briskly to himself. “So, Tina. Franco, here. I’m supposed to get you home,” he announced, reaching for her valise.
“Oh, good. Thanks. Nice meeting you,” she said to his departing back and followed him to a trolley stop. They never said another word between the noise and press of passengers. Just as well, Tina thought. There’s so much to take in. Like I can’t even see the tops of the building we’re riding by.
Franco tugged her sleeve at a stop and they climbed down. Walking next to her cousin, she began, “I’ve never met your mother and father…or brother either. But I read all the letters she wrote to my father. So, I think I kind of know her.”
“Actually, I wrote them. Ma can’t write…or read either. She tells me what to say. I write it down.”
“Same for me…with my parents.”
“Huh,” Franco remarked as he set the valise down at the foot of his stoop. “Dino,” he called to a guy chatting up a girl in a basement stairwell, “gimme a cigarette.” While he lit up, Tina scanned the block—four boys playing stickball in the street, a mother dragging her crying son by the ear while scolding him in Italian, a vendor selling green beans from a pushcart by the curb, and a horse hitched to a delivery wagon plopping manure in front of a grocery store across the street. Busy. Fascinating. But she already missed her white house on her quiet street where the only noise came from school kids coming in the morning and going in the afternoon. Absorbed as she was, Franco had to call from the doorway, “Hey, cuz. Let’s go.”
She hurried up the dingy stairway trying not to notice the trash and cat smell and the way her shoes stuck, just a little, to each step.
“Benvenuta, Tina,” her Aunt Margherita crooned during a long, strong hug. As they separated, the aunt kept one hand on Tina’s shoulder, nodding as if pleased with her niece, then fingering a curl she uttered, “bedda,” and planted a kiss on the girl’s cheek. Her Uncle Vito rose from the rocker by the window to give Tina a beard-scratch, double kiss on each cheek and a whiff of stale cigarette smoke. Rocco emerged from the bedroom to give her a peck on the cheek. “Hi. I’m Rocco. Make yourself at home,” he said pointing to a three-panel screen in a corner of the living room. Tina could make out the head of a cot and pillow sticking out at one end and a dresser at the other. “Thanks,” she said and after a moment’s hesitation, grabbed her valise and began unpacking. It wasn’t much but at least it was her own bed and she wouldn’t have to share it with her sisters.
Tina was sitting on the cot, eyes closed, collecting herself when she heard the sounds of chopping and the smell of onions coming from the kitchen. Sunday dinner. She rose, donned an apron and joined her aunt cutting up carrots for the roast. Margherita smiled warmly. “It’s so nice to have a woman in the house. I miss my daughters.”
“Thanks for having me,” Tina replied. “I feel welcome.”
Her cousin Franco sat at the kitchen table reading a textbook and making notes in a tablet. Unasked, her aunt brought a dish of grapes and a couple pieces of cheese to her son. Tina watched for a sign of thanks from the eighteen-year old. Nothing. She peeled potatoes, glancing occasionally at her cousin, nose in his book all the while wishing she had his opportunity to still be in school. At one point, her aunt out of the room, Franco held out his glass without looking up. “Get me some water, would you”
Tina closed her eyes; took a deep breath, deciding. My dad, my uncles…yes, because that’s the way it is. My mom, my aunt…yes, because I should. My cousin—nuh-uh. “Get it yourself,” she said. Franco looked up, locked eyes with her. She could read his thoughts: So that’s the way it’s going to be? See if I help you anymore, cuz.
Fine, she said back with her unblinking black eyes, I’m not your servant. Her aunt walked back in the room, noted her son’s empty glass, filled it and set it next to him.
The next morning, Margherita took Tina to the sewing factory set up in a nearby tenement flat. On the way up the stairs, she counseled her niece, “Alfredo, the boss, can be a problem. He pays special attention to all the young girls. Don’t encourage him. Just be polite and do your job.” Tina nodded curtly. Here goes, she thought as they faced a long room with twenty sewing machines and women getting ready to start a long day at each one. A couple of the ladies waved to Margherita. One said, “Your niece from Detroit?”
Tina sat at a free machine and closed her eyes for a moment absorbing the stop-start clatter and whirr, so familiar from her sewing classes. A strong smell of onions at her shoulder brought those memories to an abrupt halt. Alfredo was over her shoulder explaining pay-by-the-piece and expected production rates and a fifteen-minute lunch and no more than two breaks. As soon as he left, she paused one more time, No, this was not school. And she sighed with the vision of the next two years on the job and the flat.
Franco had just finished his first semester at Brooklyn Polytechnic. His stomach was in knots. It wasn’t that the classes were so hard, although trigonometry was giving him fits. He liked shop class and the hands-on experiments and projects. English class, reading poems, was a joke. Why did engineers need that crap? He even made the wrestling team. At 112 pounds the coach was glad to get someone for the flyweight division which often meant a forfeit at their collegiate meets when challengers had no one in his weight class. Overall, college was going better than he had imagined. Except for fitting in. He fit in the classroom, but was out-classed everywhere else. He wore a suit and tie just like they did. But it was the same suit. His only suit. He could speak English correctly. But he didn’t speak the language of his upper-class colleagues. How could he? Only he and his brother and his cousin Tina spoke English at home, if they thought about it. Many fellow students knew each other from their boarding schools or prep academies. There was no one from PS 106 joining him. He had nothing to say at lunch when they talked about their summer place on Long Island or dinner at ‘the club’ or where they were going over break. And when the school hosted a holiday party he was depressed by the dazzling, stylish women he could never imagine dating, clinging to the arms of his classmates.
He sat at the table, staring at tickets to a neighborhood dance that his buddy Dino had given him. He didn’t know any girl he could ask to the dance. Actually, he did know several girls that his mother wanted him to date. ‘Nice’ Italian girls who were over-impressed by the fact he was such a hot prospect going to college and all. If he asked one of them out, it would be the talk of the neighborhood and he would be practically engaged.
Tina walked into the kitchen, picked the coffee pot off the stove and shook it. “There’s enough for two cups,” she said. “Want some?”
“Yeah. Okay.” He watched her turn on the gas, reach on the shelf for two mismatched, chipped cups, then stand, arms crossed, lost in thought. Tina, he thought. Tina’s a girl. Hell yeah. I bet she would be glad to get out of the house for a change. And the best part is no complications. No expectations beyond having fun dancing. And I don’t need to pretend I’m some ‘swell’ trying to impress her. She’s seen me in my underwear and I her, more than once. We’re even.
By the end of spring semester, Margherita noticed that Franco was taking Tina out to dances most weekends with long walks in the evening and smiling eyes over the dinner table. This couldn’t be happening…could it? First cousin romance wasn’t typical in Sicilian culture. But it wasn’t uncommon. No, this wouldn’t do. She and Vito and Rocco hadn’t struggled to put Franco through college just so he could marry his cousin. He could have done that without going to college. Corsi, with his olive oil business, has a sweet daughter. And the Ambrosi’s with their bakery and delivery trucks have a daughter…what’s her name? But no, he’s getting interested in my niece. Damn, that Nino. Making trouble again. Sending his daughter to live with us and now look. Well, he sent her here and I can send her back…sooner rather than later. Besides, my son needs to focus on school, get his degree.
In a discreet letter to her brother Marco, Margherita asked him to see if any factories in Detroit were hiring seamstresses. The word, two weeks later, was yes. Chrysler had started ramping up production on a new line of Plymouths and was paying top dollar. In no time, Tina was on the train. Back home, she was wedged in a crowded bed with three of her five sisters and turning over her paycheck to her father with a little kept out for carfare and lipstick. Something new, however, was the weekly, florid and sometimes torrid letter from her cousin Franco.
Nino stood in front of the shoe store at Harper and Van Dyke longingly eyeing a pair of French-toe Florsheims tagged at $25. Three times the cost of clunky Thom McAnns in the store down the block. Scotch-buttery brown, delicately stitched, fine-grained leather, made for the kind of light, elegant footwear a shoe-proud Italian could admire. And now that Tina and Franco seemed closer to marriage, he should soon have an excuse to indulge his vanity. After all, if a man can’t get a new pair of shoes for his daughter’s wedding, when can he? It would feel like a kind of blessing for what should prove a happy union.
With the college degree his nephew would be earning in June, he should have a lot of job prospects, if not immediately because of the Depression, at least in the long run. There had to be jobs for an engineer in the Motor City. And if worse came to worse, there was no shame in driving a truck for a while like Eva’s brothers. He chuckled to himself thinking, and I guess we know he comes from a good family, right? There’s that. But he would miss Tina’s regular paychecks while she saved for her trousseau. Somebody had to. Franco sure wouldn’t have any spare change, just now. Come to think of it, she should probably hold onto her job till they get on their feet. I guess I better get used to my girls leaving. The next ones are all lined up for graduation, work and then marriage. Well at least I can look forward to getting a new pair of Florsheims every few years.
“Ma,” Rocco called as he folded the paper. “I’m reading about this pension you can get with the new Social Security. Your boss has to pay some and you pay some but when you get sixty-five you can get money every month till you die.”
“Pfft! Nobody gives you nothing.”
“No, Margherita,” Vito interrupted. “I been talking to Aldo and Piero. It’s a good thing.”
“So, I bring home less money. This is good?”
“But you get it back later when you retire,” Rocco said. “The only thing is, you have to be a citizen.”
“I don’t want to be American. Anyhow, I’m going back to Italy to be with my daughters.” She paused, thinking, “…some time. And they will take care of me.”
“We’ll both go, cara, after we’re sixty-five. And with both our pensions we can live comfortably and won’t have to bother our children. Everything’s cheaper in the old country and we know how to live simply.”
“I don’t even know how to talk English. You have to talk American to be an American citizen. Marta at work, told me.”
“Look, Ma. Think about it. In the meantime, let me work on it. Maybe I can sit it on some of the ceremonies and see how they test you for English speaking.”
A week later, Rocco drilled his mother after dinner. “Okay, look. I sat in on the process. Turns out the judge asks the same three questions to see if you can understand and speak English. We’re going to practice answering these questions every night for a week. 1. Who is the mayor of New York? You answer, La Guardia. 2. Who is the first president of the United States? George Washington. 3. Who is the president of the United States? Roosevelt.”
“I can’t remember all that,” Margherita complained.
“You just have to remember three words—LaGuardia, Washington and Roosevelt. So, let’s practice. The judge talks: blah, blah, blah: when he stops you say—La Guardia. When he talks again: blah, blah, blah and stops you say—Washington. Blah, blah, blah— Roosevelt. Again…”
Two weeks later, after filling out the naturalization form for his mother, Rocco took her for her scheduled interview. All the way to the USCIS office he grilled his mother on her three answers until she was perfect. Sure enough, she answered each question on cue. But when the examiner asked how many States made up the United States, Margherita could only stare blankly. The examiner addressed Rocco. “Your forms show your mother has lived and worked in this country as a productive member of society. Despite her language limitations, she has found a way to belong and contribute to our society. I see no reason to deny her request for citizenship.”
“Che cosa ha detto?” Margherita asked her son.
“He says you’re a citizen. Say thank you, Ma.”
A light breeze fluttered the sun-brightened plaid curtains Tina had sewn for their cozy starter apartment. She hummed to herself while frying chicken for their supper. Now that she was in her second trimester her appetite was returning with a vengeance. Franco was due home from Ford’s soon and after supper she would take a nap before her midnight shift. She wouldn’t be able to work too much longer but for the moment the double income was much appreciated.
She heard the front door slam and Franco’s heavy steps pounding up the stairs. When he slumped in without looking at her, slammed his briefcase and drafting pencils on the kitchen table on the way to the front room and flopped on the couch, she felt her pulse quicken. She turned off the gas, deliberately made her way to the love chair opposite her husband and perched on the edge. “What?” she asked.
“I got canned.”
“But you were set to get promoted to the lab. To run it. That’s what you said.”
“Well, I didn’t want to go there.”
“I don’t know chemistry…not that much and I would have to manage a different department. Twenty people. There’s twenty people there. And since they were eliminating my department, they let me go.” He looked at his wife’s stricken face and hurried to add, “But don’t worry. I’ll find something. I’ll keep us going so you don’t have to work. I’ll do anything. I’m not afraid to work. Not ashamed.”
Tina rose, turned her back, fists clenched. When she turned back her face was taut with anger. “Dammit, Franco. You got to push to get ahead. Take a chance. If you don’t know…you learn.”
“Easy for you to say. You think work is just doing production. Chugging out pieces. Sewing seat cushions and arm rests all day long. There are all kinds of people knowing people and knowing who to ask and how to brown-nose them. It’s not just knowing what has to be done…”
“You’re scared, aren’t you? You don’t have the guts to stand up for yourself.”
Franco sat up. “You don’t understand. I don’t like to be told what to do. To be pussy-footing around going ‘yes-sir, whatever you say sir,’ kissing ass, plotting to make a move, hob-nobbing on the golf-course, joining the country club.”
“Excuses. If I had your education I wouldn’t hold back.”
Franco shook his head.
“So, I guess I have to keep working,” Tina said as she cupped her hands around her belly, “and you’ll stay at home.”
“That’s not going to happen. I’ll find work. I’ll take care of you…of us.”
Tina half-looked away, corners of her mouth tensed.
“Look, maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of work, in big business…” Franco pleaded. “Did you ever think of that?”
“No, you’re content to play pinochle with my dad and uncles. That’s your speed. Maybe if you had to be the oldest child and take care of everyone else like I did…do what you were told whether you wanted to or not…you would be used to taking charge and doing what has to be done because someone had to do it instead of having mamma wipe your nose all the time.”
Franco and Tina glared at each while their breathing slowed. Finally, Franco went to the door, said, “Later,” and left to the sound of his wife’s sob.
He never went to bars. But that evening he did. The ball game was on the radio. Tigers were playing the Indians. He didn’t particularly like beer but he ordered a Goebles at the suggestion of a between-innings commercial. Chatter stopped at one point when the Tigers had a man on third, two outs. The manager called for a suicide bunt. The runner was tagged out at the plate. “See,” a man at the bar said, “Cochrane shoulda never called for the bunt. If I was the manager, I woulda let Greenberg swing away.”
“You sound like my wife,” Franco lamented.
“She’s a manager?”
Vito and Margherita eased into Franco’s new Ford Custom 4-door sedan outside the train station. They felt like rich people riding in the back with their own chauffeur at the wheel. That was nice. They never needed a car in New York but it certainly was convenient and worthy of their son, ‘the engineer’ they had helped produce.
Nine-year old Roy sat in the front seat and would turn every-so-often to stare at his grandparents and smile. He chattered in English with Franco. Once he looked over the seat and announced, “I can talk Italian…pane burro.” Margherita smiled. That’s it? she wondered. Our Italian son married to an Italian woman and the only Italian their kid can say is ‘bread and butter.’ Hold your tongue, Margherita, she told herself. You haven’t seen your son or family…it’s four now with one on the way, o Dio… in ten years. I’ve got to talk to that niece of
mine. She can’t keep making babies like this, confusing my son.
They drove through a pleasant neighborhood of brick colonials facing a boulevard with trees, shrubs and flowers. “This is nice, Franco. Is this where you live?”
Franco’s hands clutched the steering wheel. “No. Not here Ma.” He could tell his son was looking at him. The kid felt his pain at the disappointment they both knew was coming when they drove into their working-class neighborhood.
Standing at the curb, Margherita took in the two-story frame house with gray asbestos siding snugged between two similar homes and their postage stamp lawns. Well, at least there is grass in front of the houses…more than in Brooklyn, she thought. But this is it, huh? All that work to put him through college and this is the best he can do.
Her first impressions were interrupted by Tina showing up on the porch in her seven-month pregnant self. Three other children crowded around her. Hugs and kisses prevailed for next five minutes. A walk through the house did not change first impressions. Two tiny bedrooms downstairs—one jammed full with a crib and two single beds. Then a small kitchen that lead to a bathroom with stairs to the attic where, it turned out there was a bedroom. The grandparents would be sharing the loft room with Roy and would have to be conscious of rude noises, snoring and Vito’s nighttime startles.
In bed that night, with the boy sleeping soundly nearby, Margherita unloaded. “Look at this, would you? Here I was thinking we might want to live with them for a few years instead of that nasty old tenement and they hardly have enough room for a cat let alone us. The basement might do. But when I mentioned that, my niece wrinkled her nose and said she wouldn’t keep a dog down there. What does she know? If she grew up in the old country, she wouldn’t be so fussy. She doesn’t know what we’ve been through and what we can get used to.” Vito grunted assent.
“And look at Rocco. All right, he lives in a tiny flat like us and doesn’t have room for us either. But, at least he has a lot of money with his barber shop in Greenwich Village and his house by Long Island.”
“And his one son,” Vito added. “Franco makes kids, not money.”
“For this we sent him to college?”
“Boh! we each follow our own path.”
During the night, Vito yelled loud and long. Once it was clear that nothing was wrong, Roy finally fell back asleep. The next morning, he reported to his dad. ‘Yeah, he does that sometimes. If you ask him, he says he is getting hard of hearing and sometimes dreams he’s deaf and end up shouting to prove he can still hear.”
“But I think he has nightmares from being in the war.”
Two days later, Margherita watched Roy opening a can of Campbell’s vegetable soup and emptying it into a pan. When he saw his grandmother watching, he put the pan on the stove, turned on the gas and made rolling gestures with his hands and mimed turning off the gas. Margherita started giggling at the thought of teaching a grandmother to boil soup. Soon Tina joined her and after an exchange in Italian they both laughed to the boy’s consternation and puzzlement.
1961, Harper Woods
Franco pulled into his driveway, station wagon packed solid, suitcases strapped to the roof and Vito in the passenger seat. Roy came out of the house to greet his recently widowed grandfather who quietly shook with grief as they embraced. Vito muttered something in Italian. The young man looked to his father for translation. Franco’s brow gnarled in sorrow. “He said, grandma never made it back to Italy and their daughters.”
To break the ensuing awkward pause, Roy patted his grandfather on the shoulder and offered to help unload. As he reached to untie the intricate web of ropes holding the rooftop baggage, he stopped to admire the handiwork. Franco explained that his father tied vines as a youth. The grandson tugged on one of the knots and shot a thumbs-up to his eighty-four year old grampa. Vito gently smiled acceptance of the compliment.
Just before the last trip into the house, Vito grabbed his son’s arm and said. “Bedda casa. You’ve done good. Your mother would have been proud. Too bad she never saw it.”
Vito, familiar with change over a long life of adaptation, soon made himself at home. He slept on a fold-out couch in the family room that had storage underneath for his limited wardrobe. The seven children, three more since the last visit, had plenty of room in the rambling ranch home and quickly adjusted to his presence.
The grandchildren were taken by surprise with some of his habits like the first morning he made toast from half a loaf of bread which they thought would be shared. Instead, Vito proceeded to fold and dunk each slice in an oversized bowl of coffee and milk. Tina, on the other hand, left alone with the old timer all day was less amused by his habits and had to ask Franco to ‘talk’ to his dad about spitting in the sink, and smoking in the house, and sitting at the front room window mumbling when the mailman was a day late with his social security check.
One evening, six months later, Vito, apparently past the grieving process, announced over pinochle with his brother-in-law Nino, Franco and Tina that he wanted to return to Sicily, finally. And that he wanted to live apart from his daughters. And that he wanted to re-marry. The game stopped cold and a heated discussion followed. Soon it became clear that Vito had thought it all through and was determined. A month later he was on his way. This time by plane instead of ship.
1965, Paceco, Sicily
“Hey, Ma and Pa and the rest of you guys. Turns out cousin Peppe has a recorder and I thought I could do a live broadcast instead of writing a letter and all the folks here can say hello when I’m done. We just finished dinner at Aunt Angela’s and they’re all…well, the guys anyhow…watching soccer on TV. And I’m snugged in a corner with a microphone and none of them know what I’m saying.
“Oh, look, Pina just walked by with the pile of leftover boiled chicken and carrots and onions from the chicken soup. I gotta tell you about that. You know how boiled chicken looks all grey? Well, while we were eating I kept staring at the platter and I couldn’t make out what I was seeing. Then, Grampa Vito grabs a chunk of breast and I suddenly recognize chicken feet sticking out. Not so bad. I guess they can add flavor too. Then I keep staring and there’s the chicken’s head…feathers, comb and eye lids closed. I guess every little bit counts around here.
“Your sister Connie just hugged me, Pa. She looks so much like your mother, Margherita. Reminds me of her. I overheard Connie and Angela chatting in Sicilian the other day. Man, that takes me back to gramma Eva and her sisters and brothers in Detroit. I could follow what they were saying. I guess I can recognize some words from when I was a kid. But I can’t speak a lick. It’s like smells, right? Language and words can beam you back to another time and place. And now they’re giving me a slice of tiramisu. Great cake. I’ll get to it soon as I’m done.
“Let’s see. Where to start? The trip here. The flight was fine. I took the train from Rome to Naples. Then I got the overnight ferry to Sicily. The men’s quarters—I remembered you talking about crossing the ocean as a kid, Dad—I bet it was like that. We were all jammed into this room—guys snoring in bunk beds, farting, smoking, tossing and turning. Good thing it was a nice night on deck.
“Next morning, cousin Peppe met me at the dock. He’s a year older than me. ‘Call me Joe’ he said. But turns out that’s all the English he knows and that made the hour trip feel like forever. But as soon as I got to grampa’s place, I got the usual face scrub with his three-day whiskers on both cheeks. He and Zia Teresa live in this small, stone-block walk-up. It’s really tiny—one bedroom, kitchen, john and a hallway with a couch where I sleep.
“Your dad’s happy, Pa. Much as you can tell by him. Every morning, he toddles off to church. I don’t remember him being religious. Do you? Then he gets his grocery list…they buy food every day, for that day, around here. And you should hear Zia Teresa harp at him to buy good fish for supper not like the cheap crap he bought two days ago and gave them both a stomach ache. That lady…she’s like a live-in housekeeper with a sense of humor. You know what she reminds me of…Ann Scarlatti next door. They’re both serious, solid women you gotta like. She even had the good grace to laugh at herself when I stopped her from scrubbing my nylon golf shirt on a washboard when she has a perfectly good mini-washing machine. The shirt’s a little stretched and pilled on one shoulder.
“So, yeah, Nonno Vito seems happy away from the noise and congestion of New York. He’s mellow on his home turf. At last. And even though his daughters protest that he should have moved in with them…like it’s their dovere, their duty, right?…I think they’re glad that he’s living on his own. No burden on them. More power to him, I say.
“But you should see the things they do to save money. Gramps cuts his cigarettes in half to get more tokes. I think you told me about that. And thanks for the tip. His eyes really lit up when I gave him the carton of Pall Malls. Oh, and here’s another thing. Some nights, Zia goes to the bedroom to watch ‘her’ 10” black and white TV, that she apparently brought to the marriage, while Gramps sits in the kitchen watching the electric meter spin. I love those two.
“Holy shit. I just saw Zia Teresa in the kitchen doorway giving me a Mona Lisa smile. Oh, man, I just remembered she lived in Detroit for ten years in the 50s. She and her husband ran a corner grocery store in Ma’s old neighborhood. She told me they sold ‘Silvercuppa bread.’ I think she understands enough English to know what I’m saying…oh, good she ducked back into the kitchen. I don’t think I said anything to offend her.
“So, what else? Language. So far, I’m getting by with my college Italian and from watching La Strada ten times. Pina, Angela’s oldest daughter is a teacher and she tutors me most nights. Uhm, you know, she’s really very pretty. And besides that, I think she likes me. Or maybe, that’s just how she treats relatives and guests. And I’m both. But she does hang all over me. Like she brings me a glass of water without my even asking and puts biscotti and coffee in front of me every time I sit down. Yesterday she shined my shoes. When I say ‘No-no I can do it,’ and try to help myself, she gets this hurt look on her face. Are all Italian women this way with men? Never mind, I know what you’re going to say, Ma. But, don’t worry I’m not going to marry my cousin even if she waits on me hand and foot.
“It feels so familiar around here even though it’s so different. Like yesterday, we all went on a picnic but instead of watermelon and salsiccia at Chandler Park, we went to a deserted stretch of beach and ate sea urchins. Did you do that when you lived here, Pa? The women sit on chairs on the beach and the guys go snorkeling with a knife and net bag to pry the ricci off the rocks. Then we bring the catch to the ladies who cut them open with tiny sewing scissors. You take a piece of crusty bread and scoop out the bright orange roe inside. I can’t say I was knocked out by it. Like I’d order it at a restaurant. But out there, after swimming in saltwater and with a squirt of lemon. Hmm.
“So, what I’m trying to say is, I feel like I’m with family…which I am. They’re just talking in code. But all the rest is the same. Pina reminds me of Uncle Tony’s Betty. And Aunt Angela could be Aunt Josie if she had stayed in the States all these years. The men don’t play cards so much but there’s the same kind of ‘easy living’ feeling…that you don’t live to work—you work to live. And the rest of the time can be spent in small talk and togetherness.
“And I get a kick out of the guys my age. They aren’t into sports, so much. But boy do they love their cars. Peppe’s buddy, Paolo, has a souped-up Fiat Cinquecento. He took me on the highway and pulled a u-turn at 50 miles an hour with that hot-rod go-cart. Turns out they do mountain acceleration races. Peppe rides tachometer for Paolo as they slam up the grades. But underneath all that, they are really hurting for a job. Paolo, for instance, has a fiancé and as soon as he can get a job they can get married. So, you can imagine the excitement when the government announced a civil service exam in Palermo for 300 Post Office jobs. Seven of us piled into three cars and raced up north. All those guys were hoping to get what they called, sistemato…to get settled with a job so they could get on with the rest of their lives.
“Well, nobody said it couldn’t be fun to drive to Palermo. And you should have seen when they spotted a poor young woman driving alone. They took turns leap frogging around her, bracketing her front and back and making her slow down or speed up. She knew they were teasing and showing off and I guess she didn’t mind the attention because I caught her smiling when we cut her off for the third time.
“So, anyhow this is a great place filled with beautiful people and they treat me like a king. You should come here Pop. Come back to your home for a visit. Well, I’ve talked long enough let me give your family a chance to say hello. Zia Concetta, viene parlare con tuo fratello.”
1970, Phone call between Brooklyn and Harper Woods
Franco: Angela sent word the old man is sick. Might be serious. I mean, he is ninety.
Rocco: Yeah. You think we should go see him…in case.
Franco: Mmm. What if he gets better?
Rocco: And we waste a trip…
Franco: Ah, what the hell. Let him get better. He doesn’t need to die just to justify our trip.
Rocco: (laughs) Yeah. It might even do him good to see us. I wouldn’t mind seeing my sisters. Haven’t seen Connie since I was twelve and Angela and her girls. It would be good to see them all.
Franco: And the places I vaguely remember…like our house in Paceco.
Rocco: Where would we stay? Do you know what his place is like?
Franco: My Roy went to see him five years ago. Remember?
Rocco: Yeah. Heard it was a good trip.
Franco: Pa lives with Teresa…
Rocco: The old dog. Just had to get married again, didn’t he? Heard he put out the word to all the eligible women interested in a paisano with an American pension.
Franco: At least that way he didn’t have to move in with our sisters. And Roy says Teresa is nice and he liked her a lot. But where they live now is real simple and small.
Rocco: Figures. The old man never splurged.
Franco: Always the same. Roy said he still splits matches in half. So, their place is tiny, up a flight of outside steps. We wouldn’t be able to stay there. But I understand Pina and her husband have a big apartment in downtown Trapani. We could stay with them.
Rocco: Hmm, I guess. When you wanna go?
Franco: The sooner the better. How about next week?