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A Letter From Anna – Part 3

by Jan Maguire, 2010

Mercifully, the sea was calm so Anna’s voyage was bearable. By early 1921, the stream of Italian immigrants from southern Italy and Sicily had ebbed somewat. Many days during the voyage, Anna had been able to go up to the deck. There she chatted with the many young wives who were traveling to America to unite with their families.  Some spoke about what their husbands had told them about life in Boston. Others were wide-eyed about traveling even further across America. These young women – some younger than Anna – with toddlers in tow planned to get on a train in Boston and ride west for days and days to Chicago, to St Louis, or even the 3000 miles to San Francisco, California. Others showed Anna their train tickets to places named Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans.

Anna could not imagine how big America must be. Since most of the immigrants from Avellino and Montefalcione had relatives and village friends in Boston, Boston was where she would be. “Oh, the streets are paved in gold in America,” laughed the wives. We’ll see about that, thought Anna.

On February 21, 1921, the steamship finally made its way into Boston Harbor -18 days since their departure from Naples. The day dawned cold and clear. There was not a cloud in the sky as Anna scurried up to the deck when suddenly the shout “Land!” was heard.  She looked towards the city coming closer towards her: factory smokestacks; some tall buildings; and then the bustling seaport itself with warehouses, fishing boats and cargo ships galore. Her eyes were locked on the dock where throngs of men, women, children, horses, mules, carriages, and pushcarts crowded together. How would Raphael ever find her, she wondered?

Anna, of course, was a clever woman. For even before she left Montefalcione she had persuaded the nuns at St. Anthony’s to give her some English lessons. They had a Bible printed in English so they were able to translate some of the words and phrases.  So, Anna entered the immigration processing area armed with a few words of English.  She waited in line a very long time and when it was finally time for her to receive her papers, the Immigration Inspector barely looked up at her. “Name?” he asked gruffly. “Anna Anzelone,” Anna replied, not waiting for the translator to speak. She watched as the Inspector wrote her name on the document “A N N E”.

“No, No! My name is Anna, A N N A, no E,” she said.

The Inspector looked annoyed and, turning to the translator, said, “Tell this stupid guinea that either I spell her name the American way or she can just get on the next ship back”.

Of course Anna did not understand much of what the man said, but the two words “stupid guinea” stuck in her mind. The translator told Anna gently that “Anne” was the American form of “Anna” and that it would be best to not make a fuss.

The translator then made a gesture that any Italian knew meant: “This guy is crazy… take care.”  So Anna understood that this was not the time to make a fight.  She closed her mouth, took the papers from the Immigration Inspector, and walked out into the winter sunshine of Boston, Massachusetts. America!

The first thing that Anna heard was Carmella shouting her name.  Anna swirled around to see Raphael and Carmella running towards her down the dock with Giuseppe close behind helping the very pregnant Aurelia keep up. Her brother and sister swept Anna up in their embrace and for the first time in almost three weeks Anna exhaled. She was safe.

She looked at her sister, Carmella, thin and pale but obviously overjoyed at seeing her. Raphael looked wonderful. He was wearing a starched shirt and had a handsome hat on his head. The three women linked arms and marched down the dock as Ralph and Joe gathered up Anna’s bags and followed behind, smiling broadly.

The first stop would be at Thatcher Street where Ralph and Aurelia lived. There was so much to talk about. Anna had gifts for them all. Carolina and Mrs. Martignetti had packed up cheeses, hard biscuits, and sun-dried tomatoes for Aurelia and Carmella. The men groaned with delight as they ate some of the food that would always remind them of home. Carolina also sent a penknife for Raphael that had belonged to his father. The meal went on for hours.

Throughout the evening, friends came over to see Anna and wish her well. Anna was amazed at how many paesani lived in this neighborhood. It was like part of the village had sailed over with her.  She recognized friends of friends, cousins and neighbors from the village. Everyone wanted to hear the latest news from home.

“Isn’t it peculiar?” thought Ann. “Some of these Avellini had lived in America for 20 years. Yet, they still yearned for information about Montefalcione and Avellino. They always spoke about the places they had left behind as home.” Anna forced herself to not think about her village so as to ward off the homesickness she saw in some of their faces.

Anna stayed with her brother and Aurelia for two days and then took a short walk over to Boston’s West End neighborhood to Carmella and Joe’s apartment. This was to be her new home in Boston. She laughed at Joe and Ralph’s new American names and told them they sounded foolish. She also told her sister about what had happened at the Inspector’s table when the man misspelled her name on purpose. Joe told her she was lucky not to have been thrown in jail.

There were plenty of people in Boston who thought lowly of the immigrants and went out of their way to make trouble. When Anna told Joe about the “stupid guinea” comment, his face went red at the insult. “You are far from stupid Anna and from Guinea in Africa we did not come. It’s these white Bostonians who don’t know their geography!”

After awhile, Anna and Carmella fell into a routine of housekeeping, which delighted them both. They shopped for food in the North End, did laundry, cooked, ironed, sewed and cleaned. Carmella took Anna around to meet some of the older ladies who knew their mother Carolina way back when. As spring came, tomato, zucchini and bean seeds were planted. Joe hung a high arbor up in the backyard and gently tried to get his grape vines to produce fruit. And then, oh yes, something else happened – much to Anna’s delight.

In March, Aurelia and Ralph delivered their first child, a little girl they named Anna in honor of her Tia.  The child was born at home as was the custom. This child would be the first of five children for Ralph and Aurelia. How significant it was that these children born on American soil were now by birthright American citizens. Their parents were still not naturalized citizens, but the children would be fully privileged Americans. In April of 1921, Carmella announced her pregnancy and Joe, laughing out loud, attributed the good news to all the special cheese that Carolina had sent from Montefalcione.

It was always a happy occasion for the Italians when a young family started to grow and this was no exception. Carmella was teased by Anna about her prodigious consumption of cheese and announced that the new baby would probably be a goat. As Carmella grew rounder and rounder, Anna wrote letters home to Carolina describing the news in great detail. The Martignetti’s and Carolina shared the letters written on gossamer thin blue paper enclosed in envelopes with beautiful red, white and blue postage stamps. Carolina, in dictating her letters back to Anna, never once mentioned her return to Italy. Though she longed to see her children and to meet her granddaughter, this was a sacrifice she knew she had to endure. There was no opportunity for a peasant family to aspire to a better life in Italy.

Two days after Christmas in 1921, a beautiful baby girl was born to Carmella and Joe. The delivery went smoothly and Carmella was up and about in one day. Joe made some loud noises about needing some sons to help him and carry on the Paoletta name. But it was all so much hot air, since Joe adored his daughter who he named Esther after his mother back in Puleo.

So to say that 1921 was a productive year for Anna and her family is only half of the story.  Because Anna was an excellent seamstress and could read and write Italian along with picking up more and more English, she applied for and got a new job as a dressmaker in a small textile factory in the North End. These factories were not unlike those that lined the Merrimac River in Lowell 40 or 50 years earlier. Most of the workforce was comprised of young single women. The floor bosses were men and the sewing machines rarely stopped. What was different was that conditions had improved somewhat. The women had a few breaks during the day. There was a little extra pay for Saturday work and a nurse was on site in the event of injuries.  The floor bosses were almost exclusively Italian immigrants, so there was some degree of fellowship amongst the workers. The big bosses and the owners were often Jewish, who had immigrated from Poland or Russia, part of an earlier wave of newcomers in the 1890s.

Anna walked to work every morning and enjoyed her new friendships with the other women immigrants. She also made about $5.00 a week – which seemed to her a huge sum of money. Some she gave to Carmella to help with household expenses, some she sent back home to Carolina, and the rest she put in a small tin box under the mattress of her bed. Anna’s days were full. She worked hard at the factory, helped her sister at home with chores and childcare, and went to St Leonard’s church with her sister-in-law Aurelia and baby Anna. She went to picnics and weddings, christenings and funerals. It was reminiscent of her life back home in the village of Montefalcione, except that everything was soon about to change once again!

Anna, who was an independent spirit, knew that she was lucky to have her close family ties to both protect and guide her. What she had forgotten, however, was what schemers Aurelia and Carmella could be. The two young mothers loved to gossip and to try to outfox their husbands and friends. And so, by the end of 1921, the women had turned their attention to their little sister, Anna.

“This is ridiculous,” stated Aurelia. “Anna is 21 years old with no husband and no home and no children of her own!”

“It is a sin,” Carmella agreed. “She is a pretty enough girl, and certainly strong and smart and able to handle a home”  “She’s very loving to Esther and when I am ready for bed, she will take the baby happily.”

“She certainly is too high-minded herself to look beyond her nose at the men who are out the street corners dying for a woman,” said Aurelia.

“It’s true,” agreed Carmella. “She seems to have no interest in men.”

“Well,” said Aurelia in her most dangerous voice. “We’ll see about that.” With that, the women set off on a mission to find Anna a husband.

Anna was naturally quite aware of here sisters’ antics. She angrily denounced all the men that “just happened” to come by Ralph and Joe’s home.

“That one is a beggar from Sicily. I know that one, too. He never goes to church. And the last one, he’s a lazy bum and does nothing but complain about his boss,” was Anna’s ready reply. She glared at her sister and sister-in-law, demanding that they leave her in peace.

“Basta!” she said. “Enough of your foolishness! I’m fine with things just the way they are and, besides, I’ll be going back home to Montefalcione soon. This is your life in America, not mine!”

Anna’s firm announcement shocked both Carmella and Aurelia.  The very thought that Anna would actually be leaving was a total surprise to them. And it also led them to redouble their efforts to find Anna a husband who would make her stay.

But their match-making efforts continued to flounder. Aurelia and Carmella were discouraged. There were plenty of single, able- bodied Italian men looking for young women to marry, but none seemed to measure up. Anna was in a constant state of silent aggravation at this invasion of her privacy. But because Aurelia and Carmella were her family, “family” is always forgiven.

Joe and Ralph were quite sick of all this scheming and yelling. So much so that they often just left the drama behind and went outside to smoke their cigars. Until one day …

Joe’s grapevines had grown thick and heavy until a late snowfall toppled his arbor. On a Sunday morning in early March, he decided to repair the jumble of wood and vines in preparation for the spring season. He asked a paesan friend of his from the same village in Puleo to come over and help him with the labor. Michael Pelosi, 28, who had immigrated to Boston a few years back, joined Joe in the backyard. They spent an hour sawing and hammering, laboring and laughing as they spit the tobacco from the little cigars clenched in their teeth.

Carmella heard the racket outside and opened the kitchen window, calling down to Joe to have his friend, Michael, come up for a plate of food when the work was done.

When Carmella was out of earshot, Joe leaned over to Michael, “Let me warn you! I live in a henhouse upstairs. Between my wife, my sister-in-law and the baby, there’s not a moment of peace for a man.”

Michael smiled. He had come from a large farming family in Puleo and knew that henhouses could be hard on roosters. Nevertheless, he accepted the invitation – grateful for the company. He had lived alone in a single-room apartment for six years now. Although his younger brother, Achilles, was due to come over soon, Michael’s loneliness was deep. He missed the family life he once knew. He worked as a cobbler in a downtown Boston shoe store. He made a decent wage and he, too, like so many other Italian immigrants, sent money home to his mother and sisters in Puleo. The opportunity to have a family meal with a paesan was a real treat.

So, when the two men had finished erecting the restored grape arbor, they dusted off their jackets and climbed the three flights of stairs to the Paoletta apartment. Just as they entered, Carmella shushed them, as baby Esther was still asleep. Joe made introductions and instructed Michael to take a seat.  Joe poured some of his homemade wine into two glasses.

As he raised up his glass to make a toast: “Here’s to America, and to her streets paved with gold!”

Not skipping a beat, Michael raised his own glass and said, “Yes! Here’s to America who needed the Italians to pave her streets!”

Carmella and Joe laughed aloud. Anna moved from the stove to the table, looking down more fully at Michael. He smiled and lifted his glass to Anna. She turned her face away, but not without noticing carefully that this tall man with large, rough hands had a twinkle in his blue eyes.

So at the advanced age of 22, Anna Anzalone married 28-year- old Michael Pelosi from Puleo on September 10 1922. They exchanged marriage vows before Father Virgilio Luisi at St Leonard’s. Aurelia was Anna’s matron-of-honor since Carmella who would normally have had the prized honor was eight-months pregnant with her and Joe’s second child.

After a celebratory dinner, the young newlyweds escaped to the small third-floor apartment that they had rented earlier on Cottage Street in East Boston. Though separated by a mile – as the crow flies – from Boston proper across the harbor, East Boston was now firmly connected to the North End – thanks to the tunnel that the Italian immigrants had finished digging a few years before.

Anna and Michael’s one-bedroom apartment had a porch in the back where tomatoes and geraniums were planted in wooden crates. They shared a bathroom that was down the hall.  Anna stopped work at the textile factory and began to keep house for her new husband.  She would often take the ferry across Boston harbor to see her relatives, visit with old friends, shop and chat. Because she was more educated than most of the Italian immigrants in her circle, she was often called upon to help people read and write their letters to and from Italy. As time went on, Anna slowly released the idea of returning home to Montefalcione; she let it go, as Michael was determined to live his life as an American.  She missed her mother, Carolina, but she was also coming to terms with the reality that her life, her home, her future – too – was in America.

To be Continued

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