Top Navigation

A Letter From Anna – Part 1

This is the start of a five part series by Jan Maguire, 2010

Michelangelo Anzelone was born with a song in his heart and music in his fingers. From his earliest days, the nuns from Saint Anthony’s Church recognized his talents and insisted that Michelangelo had been sent by God to fill the silent chapel with the organ music they loved. So Angelo, as he was called, played the organ each day at the stone church in his village of Montefalcione.

As Angelo grew older, he taught himself to play the mandolin,
the trumpet and the tuba. There was no instrument that Angelo
couldn’t play and before long he became known as the village Music
Man. Angelo earned his keep by giving music lessons, by directing the
choir, by playing at weddings and festivals and of course playing the
hymns for the good sisters at St Anthony’s. The nuns appreciated that
Angelo would always play the hymn Ave Marie for every Sunday
service. This hymn put to music by the Italian composer Verdi was
really a prayer to the Holy Mother. Angelo played it with such flourish
that the entire congregation would stand and sing.

Angelo’s village of Montefalcione was high up in the mountains
about 26 miles from the bustling seaport city of Naples. When Angelo
was born in 1870, Naples could have been a thousand miles away, as
few of the Anzelones had ever left their beautiful mountainside village.

For hundreds of years, the Anzelone ancestors had lived
peacefully on the mountain, where the air was fresh with the scent of
hay and wild flowers and the majestic volcano, Mount Vesuvius, could
be seen in the distance. It was a hard but simple life. The most
important thing was family, friends and the church. In 1870, less than
4000 people lived in Montefalcione – almost the same number who live
there today.

By the time Angelo turned 20 in 1890, his sisters teased him
with no mercy about not being able to find a wife.

“You spend too much time with the nuns, Angelo. Maybe you
should join the convent too,” the girls giggled loudly as they bent over
the vegetable garden.

What his sisters didn’t know is that a girl in the village had
caught his eye. Carolina Polcari went to church every day and though
Angelo saw her, she never saw him … she was blind. Because of this,
Carolina was considered a poor prospect for marriage. At 19, she was
already getting “old” and seemingly unable to do the hard work of
running a home by herself … how would a blind girl ever be able to
take care of babies?

Angelo knew that his parents would never approve of this match,
but all he could think about was how Carolina’s face lit up when he
played the organ in church. So, one day he went over to Carolina’s
house on the other side of the village and asked to speak with her
father. Mr. Polcari listened as Angelo stated his intentions and
requested permission to “visit” Carolina. Mr. Polcari agreed. And love
– as it so often does – took root and blossomed. Carolina and Angelo
were married at St Anthony’s church with their families and friends
gathered along with the nuns, of course, kneeling in the back, praying
for the good fortune of the young couple.

II

By 1893, Angelo and Carolina had welcomed their first child to
the family. Young Raphael was born after a long labor but he was
healthy and strong. Once the midwives delivered the child, the doctor
was called. He passed by Angelo in the kitchen who looked white as a
ghost. You see, in those days the father was the absolute last one to
see the baby: first the midwives, then the doctor, then the nuns, and
finally the father. As the doctor quietly entered the bedroom, the
midwives were clearing the bloody linens and swaddling the baby. The
doctor could see immediately that the howling child did not need his
attention.

It was Carolina, exhausted and pale in her bed, that worried
him. He was tempted to say something to Angelo about the
consequences of future pregnancies because he knew that Carolina
might not survive another labor. But he quickly put that medical
advice out of his head, as it was not his place to interfere with the will
of God. It was a strict rule of the church that every baby would be
welcomed as a gift from God, regardless of the mother’s health.

Carolina’s life was in God’s hands not his. Once the doctor
proclaimed that all was well, the sisters from St Anthony’s came to
pray over the child and give thanks to the angels and the saints that
Carolina had survived the labor.

At long last when the room cleared, Angelo was allowed to see
his new son. Young Raphael slept quietly in his mother’s arms and
Carolina nodded in and out of sleep. Angelo knew then that his life
had changed forever.

As Raphael grew into a chatty toddler, Angelo invented a number
of ways to keep the baby safe when he went to work. He braided a
soft leather strap that could be tied around the child’s waist and
attached to Carolina’s wrist so she could keep him close. Angelo built
a sturdy barrier to keep the child away from the fireplace and he
sewed a net to cover the well. He hung a heavy ship’s bell next to the
front door so if there was an emergency Carolina would strike the bell
with all her might and Mrs. Martignetti from next door would come
running.

It was a sweet time in the life of Angelo, Carolina and Raphael
Anzalone. At harvest time, their garden produced vegetables, their
chickens laid all the eggs they could possibly eat, the pigs grew fat and
the milk cow never failed them.

In 1897, Carolina’s prayers were answered when she delivered a
healthy baby girl; she named Carmella. Just as with Raphael, the
delivery was long and arduous but the baby was strong. It took
Carolina longer to recover what was left of her strength and was
thankful that one of the nuns from St Anthony’s came to the house
each morning to help. Again, the garden was planted, the pigs grew
fat and the Anzalone family walked to the church to listen to Angelo
play the hymns on the organ. As the new century began, a final baby
was born to the Anzalones on July 17, 1900 – a small blue-eyed girl
arrived. She was named Anna. Just Anna.

III

Life for many in Montefalcione was challenging but the Anzalones
thrived. The older children took care of baby Anna and handled chores
while Carolina worked in the garden and kept the house as best she
could. Angelo continued giving lessons and playing the organ for Saint
Anthony’s and sometimes a local farmer would hire him on as a day
laborer. In time, all three Anzalone children would attend the small
village school run by the nuns. By 1910, Carmella and Anna were in
school, learning to read and write. They also took religious instruction
so that they knew all the prayers and Latin rituals of the church.
Raphael was 17 that year and he had left school at age 13 to work as
an apprentice to Mr. Bellafatto, the barber. At first, Raphael swept the
shop, washed the towels and cleaned the cutting tools, but in time Mr.
Bellafatto showed him how to use the clippers. Only men went to the
barbershop. Women kept their hair long and tied up in kerchiefs. Men
would come in for a shave or a haircut and of course, to trade the local
gossip. Raphael would learn about things that went well beyond the
mountainous borders of Montefalcione. He heard the stories of the
men’s cousins and brothers who had made the long ocean trip to
America. To Raphael it seemed like a fairy tale. Were the streets in
America really paved with gold?

Raphael gave Angelo all of his paycheck each week. It was the
custom that everyone in the family who could work did work and
contributed to the household expenses. Carmella left school at age
14, as it was time for her to begin thinking about marriage. The
deeper truth was that Carolina’s health was not good. Her eyesight
was completely gone and Carmella was needed at home to work.
Anna who loved the gentle nuns was happy to stay in the school for a
while longer.

Life was a struggle for many of the villagers in Montefalcione,
but life for the farmers was especially hard: taxes levied by the
government in the North were high and the climate in the south was
harsh – six months of rainy cool temperatures followed by six months
of baking-hot sunny weather. This weather was perfect if you were a
grape or a stalk of wheat.

Luckily for Angelo, not being a farmer, he was able to avoid
some of this misery. When there were neither droughts nor floods,
the farmers pulled in good harvests. Sometimes Angelo would travel
down the mountain about ten miles to the larger town of Avellino and
work as a day-laborer on a farm. The work was very strenuous but
the money was good. Angelo could earn as much as $1.70 a day. The
Anzalones lived a peasant life, uninterrupted as the peasants in
Montefalcione had for hundreds of years. But in 1915, disaster struck
the family and no one would ever have predicted what happened next.

IV

By 1915, Angelo Anzalone had some steady work in the wheat
fields outside of Avellino. Raphael was engaged to marry Aurelia
Martignetti whose parents lived next door to the Anzalones. Raphael
was 22 and had a good job at the barbershop and was saving to buy
the business when Mr. Bellafatto retired. Aurelia Martignetti was 17.
Carmella was 19 and a young man, named Giuseppe Paoletta, from
the neighboring province of Puleo had spoken to Angelo asking
permission to visit Carmella after church on Sundays.

Angelo decided that this Giuseppe was a decent man who
worked hard as a ditch-digger. Carolina whose only fear was that
Puleo was such a long distance from Montefalcione. She hoped
Giuseppe would find permanent work in their village. Anna at age 15
was still in school. Her education was advanced enough that
sometimes she helped the nuns teach the younger children. Angelo
knew that once Raphael and Carmella were married and responsible
for their own families, Anna would have to leave the school and come
home to care for her mother and run the household. Education was a
luxury that no peasant could afford.

So in the dawn hours of that fall day in 1915, Angelo hoisted his
pack onto his shoulder and began the hike down the mountain.
Stirring in her bed, Anna woke to the song her father always sang on
his way down the mountain. It would be the last time she heard
Angelo’s voice.

V

The next days were a blur for Anna. At noontime something
unimaginable happened. Raphael rushed home from work with old Mr.
Martighetti at his side. Carmella stood upright from the laundry tub
where she was scrubbing clothes and let out a startled gasp. It was
this noise that alerted Carolina that something was wrong.

Raphael went to his mother and took her hands in his. “Mamma,
there has been an accident!”

Carolina immediately thought of Anna. “What happened? Is she
alright? Where is my girl,” Carolina asked.

“No Mamma, it’s Papa,” Raphael said, his voice cracking.

“Angelo? No, not Angelo!” she cried out as her knees gave out.
She started to fall to the floor, but the strong arms of Mr. Martighetti,
held her.

Carmella went to her mother helping her into a chair. Raphael
told her what he had learned from the panting boy who had been sent
running from the fields up the mountain to the barbershop.

Angelo had arrived at the wheat fields and began the work of
threshing the stalks. The machinery was old and the sun bright and
Angelo’s sleeve had become caught in the gears. Before the motor
could be shut down, Angelo had been pulled into the grinding
machinery and suffered a terrible injury to his hand, arm and
shoulder.

The men were bringing him up the mountain in a cart. At that
moment the village doctor, who had been in and out of Angelo’s house
for the births of the babies, swept into the kitchen barking orders.

“Boil the water, tear clean cloths, and drag the bed closer to the
fire,” the doctor ordered. He immediately set to work organizing the
iodine bottles, the gauze pads and sterilizing needles threaded with
very thin fishing line. He stretched some rubber tubing that he would
use as a tourniquet if need be. Medical care, especially on this
mountain at this time, was primitive. There were no antibiotics to fight
infection, no aesthesia to help with pain. Surgery was a brutal thing.
The doctor knew that Angelo would be in shock, probably unconscious.

The noise from the cart could be heard a hundred meters
distance the house. Men were shouting while whipping the mule to go
faster, old women wailing and crossing themselves as the cart rumbled
by. Six men carried Angelo into the house and laid him on the bed.

The doctor knew immediately that the injury was horrendous.
He sent everyone out of the room except for Carolina and two of the
midwives who had come to offer assistance. He knew that Carolina
being blind would not focus on the grievous wound and would be
calmer if she could hold Angelo’s hand – his remaining hand, that is.

As the doctor peeled away the torn cloth the men had used to
staunch the bleeding, the extent of the injury became clear. Angelo’s
hand and forearm were completely gone; his upper arm to his
shoulder was a shredded bloody mess. With the tourniquet removed
the blood started to pulse from the wound.

The doctor tied the rubber tubing around the stump of the arm
while the women cleaned the dirt and plant debris from the wound. All
the while Carolina sat at Angelo’s head stroking his face and praying
into his ear. The doctor applied iodine as a disinfectant and then used
what seemed to be a mile of gauze to wrap the entire area. He took
clean cloth and bandaged the arm and shoulder. The doctor knew that
Angelo’s chances were poor. He had lost so much blood.

The women tried unsuccessfully to get Angelo to swallow some
water as the doctor whispered to one, “Go to the church and get the
priest. I have done everything that I can do for this poor man.”

Anna raced home from school accompanied by one of the nuns.
But she did not know what awaited her. Her sister, Carmella, was
weeping hysterically. Raphael was standing with Carolina trying to
console her. The priest arrived soon after and sat with the family as
day turned to night. The entire neighborhood clustered around the
house, lighting candles and hoping for better news.

There would be no good news that night. Angelo spiked a high
fever and never regained consciousness. He was given the last rites of
the church, which would ensure his entry into Heaven. Members of
Angelo’s family, his sisters, and his cousins came, bent to kiss him and
say a prayer for his soul. Just before dawn, when the songbirds first
awakened, Angelo Anzalone died. Anna sat silently by his side in
disbelief. Angelo was 45 years old.

The only hymn played on the organ at Angelo’s funeral was the
Ave Maria. The entire village came to mourn. Angelo was buried in the
church burial ground and for years to come the nuns took special care
of the gravesite in honor of their music man. Raphael went back to
work at the barbershop. Carmella took care of the house and Anna…
Anna immediately left school at age 15

The shock of Angelo’s death caused his family great sadness but
also caused them to rethink their futures. Carmella was dispirited. And
so Giuseppe, with Carolina’s permission, stepped forward and formally
proposed marriage. Carmella smiled for the first time in months and
said, simply, “Yes.”

Within a year, Raphael married Aurelia Martignetti and Carmella
and Giuseppe exchanged their vows. Raphael was now the head of
his own household and also had to provide for Anna and his mother.
It was a burden that he readily accepted as Italian men of this culture
viewed their primary responsibility as providing for their families. No
matter what the job, no matter the number of hours or how low the
pay, men worked to take care of their family.

Most Sundays, Carolina would have her son and two daughters
with their spouses around the table for the mid day meal. Anna,
Carmella and Aurelia would cook. Carolina would sit by the fireplace
and the two men would lounge outside and smoke a cigarette. Anna
loved this time of the week as it was when the family was all together
and they could relax and enjoy a few hours of leisure time.

Anna glanced outside and noticed that Raphael and Giuseppe
were in a heated discussion. They spoke intensely, gesturing with their
hands. Finally, Raphael spit out the words, “Giuseppe it is time, today
we tell Mamma.” Anna looked up sharply, thinking “Tell Mamma? Tell
Mamma what?” Anna held her tongue as the meal progressed.

Then, as the last of the wine was poured, Raphael said, looking
over at Giuseppe, “Mamma, I have come to a decision. It’s time you
know.” Both Carmella and Aurelia stopped chatting and took on silent
but knowing looks. “They know, they know!” Anna thought to herself
angrily. Carolina looked towards her son and waited.

“Mamma, Giuseppe and I are going to America. There is much
work to offer and with our trades we can earn $10 a week. I can’t
make $10 in a month in Montefalcione. Our plan is this: Giuseppe and
I will make the boat passage to Boston in a month. Our cousin
Domenic Polcari will meet us there and let us board at his apartment.
Giuseppe and I will work and send money home. In time we will
return. For now Aurelia will move back to her parents house and
Carmella will move back with you and Anna. There is no other way.

Needless to say, Carolina and Anna were shocked by the news.
They knew that there would be no negotiation since Raphael and
Giuseppe were the men of the family and their word was law. Carolina
accepted the news and prayed fervently for their safe return.

A month later, Carmella and Aurelia traveled with their husbands
by cart down the mountain to the port city of Naples, 26 miles away.
It was a hard trip for the women, made even more annoying since
Raphael and Giuseppe were in high spirits, boasting away as if they
were looking forward to this adventure to America. A cousin of
Giuseppe’s who lived in Naples let them sleep at his apartment that
evening. Raphael and Giuseppe paid $25 each for a third-class one-
way ticket from Naples to Boston in America. The journey would take
two to three weeks depending on the weather.

Early the next morning, the two couples walked to the docks.
Raphael and Giuseppe had two large packs filled with clothes, linen,
tools and food. They carried their tickets, their Italian citizenship
papers, and a letter from cousin Domenic in Boston confirming that he
would house them.

There was great noise and chaos on the docks. Two huge ships
were boarding. One was headed to New York City, the other to Boston.
Aurelia and Carmella clutched at their husbands and were overcome
with fear. So many people, so much noise, so much confusion. “Just
look at that ship! How does it float? We will never see our husbands
again,” they must have thought. Needless to say, there were many
tears on the dock that day, but Raphael and Giuseppe boarded and
stayed on the deck for a long time until their wives were no more than
small specks on the horizon.

Eighteen days later, the steam ship carrying Raphael and
Giuseppe debarked in Boston. The men had had a hard time of it.
Their third-class tickets gave them two small bunkbeds and a thin
blanket down in the deepest bowels of the ship. Babies screeching
and women crying was the noisy backdrop twentyfour hours-a-day as
the ship lurched westward. Seasickness, diarrhea and conjunctivitis
ran rampant among the crowded passengers. Two children died during
the crossing and were buried at sea. The steamship company provided
minimal food and the decks were always overcrowded and filthy.

When Raphael and Giuseppe disembarked, they looked like a
couple of dirty, skinny beggars. To be sure, they were not diseased or
disabled. When the American doctors examined them, they found both
men healthy and they made a big ‘X’ with chalk on the shoulder of
each of their jackets, allowing them to pass through. Then the
immigration inspectors carefully checked their paperwork and asked
them questions, with the help of a translator, about work and lodging.

As the final entrance certificate was being written out, Raphael
noticed a curious thing. On the official paperwork, Raphael was now
“Ralph” Anzalone and Giuseppe’s name had been changed to “Joseph”
Paoletta. As the two friends moved quickly from the inspection offices
in search of their cousin Domenic Polcari, Raphael slapped Giuseppe
on the back saying, “Well, Joseph, we are now Americans, let’s go find
those streets paved with gold.”

© Jan Maguire 2010


, , ,