This week I attended the funeral of my step-mother Elisa. Born in my father’s hometown (Gaeta) in Italy, Elisa came to America in the 1950s when I was about ten years old. My parents were divorced and I visited my father every two weeks in Brooklyn. Elisa was Old World in the kitchen – cooking and cleaning up – and very intelligent (learning English quite readily), skilled as a dressmaker, and up on current events.
Even at 95 years old, “Zi’Elisa” always asked me how the Italic Institute was doing and lamented the end of our Italic Way Magazine. Little did she know how influential she was in my love of things Italic.
From age ten, my visits to my father and Elisa gave another dimension to the history I was learning in school. Though my father served in World War II in the U.S. Navy, he grew up in Fascist Italy. Elisa came of age in that war-torn country. From them and my actual Italian aunt and cousins I learned rare eyewitness history. As you, I had an intense interest in discussing history with these eyewitnesses which sets us apart from most Italian Americans. After all, how many of our contemporaries saw heavily accented relatives as fonts of knowledge?
I have come to revere the immigrant generation. I find their stories fascinating and relevant to our values and expectations for America.
From this first generation I saw firsthand the difference in pre- and post-Mussolini immigrants. How a provincial perspective among earlier immigrants became a national one later. My maternal grandfather, who came before the First World War, had a different and negative image of his homeland than my father who came in 1930.
I was always enthralled by the stories of the old country and asked lots of questions. I learned that my aunt’s husband was in the Italian Merchant Marine during WW I and was torpedoed twice. I learned that Elisa, my aunt, and cousins were evacuated from Gaeta in 1943 and interned at Cinecitta` outside Rome by the Fascists and Germans for fear of an Allied invasion. (That invasion later took place at Anzio, up the coast.) I learned how townspeople returned to Gaeta amid wartime scarcity to make salt from seawater, using furniture as fuel, so they could trade it with inland farmers for food.
Surprisingly, I’ve even heard differing perspectives of the German occupation. Institute associate Anthony D’Urso (first generation American) recounts how his family hid a Jewish family from the Nazis – young Anthony often being a lookout. Institute Senior Analyst Alfred Cardone’s father (first generation, in his nineties) still recalls the German occupation of his village in the Abruzzo region with positive memories of band concerts and his employment servicing military vehicles.
Here in the United States, those of us who listened found out how the first generation coped economically with little English and meager capital. My maternal great-grandfather sold vegetables, saving enough to buy three Brooklyn apartment houses for his children. My maternal grandfather owned a soda business. His brother was drafted in 1917 and was killed on the Western Front the following year. My paternal grandfather was injured on an Italian ship and left to recover in Brooklyn. He stayed and started an ice/coal business and returned to Italy to retire early.
These verbal tales are not just family history. They are embedded in different epochs and different worlds. They make history not only come alive but deepen our understanding of how we came to be. One common detail shared by all those first generation stories, perhaps unique to our people, is the lack of complaint. No sob stories, no whining, no discrimination, no failure. They put in the sweat and sacrifice but never asked for pity.
If only our children and grandchildren will be interested in their stories…and ours. -JLM