by Jan Maguire 2010
As with many of the Italian immigrants, the first stop would be with relatives or friends from the town who had immigrated earlier. Dominic Polcari was a cousin of Ralph’s mother Carolina. Dominic lived with his family in a second-floor apartment at 11 Thatcher Street in the North End. The Polcaris lived above a grocery store in which the whole family worked. It was Dominic’s dream to own the store someday. His wife made lovely pizza pies with fresh tomato and cheeses and the storeowner let her sell them from the shop every day.
Ralph and Joe were given a small room in the back that was actually a hallway. It would be fine for now as the most important thing was for the young men to find work. The Polcaris charged Ralph and Joe a small rent to cover food with the understanding that once they were employed, they would move to their own place.
Ralph and Joe walked around the neighborhood in amazement. It was noisy and crowded. The smells in the air were strong: meat cooking, bread baking, garbage rotting, horse dung in all the streets – it was sensory overload. But it was also exciting. Everyone they met on the street spoke Italian and looked physically and dressed like the folks back home in Italy. Women wore their aprons and headscarves. Men buttoned their shirts to the neck and covered their heads with a cap or hat.
Ralph and Joe went to Sunday Mass at St Leonard’s church and met some other men through the Polcari’s who had also left their wives behind in Italy. On Sunday there would be a card game and some wine drinking and occasionally on Friday evenings the Avellino Men’s Club would have a social night where entire families would share food and listen to music and gossip about things going on in the neighborhood and back home in Italy. America is a fine country thought Ralph. There is opportunity for me here, thought Joe. From that moment, the men began to experience what they thought would be their temporary American adventure.
Work was easy to get. Italian immigrants were known for their excellent work ethic and their strong bodies. They were not afraid of hard, dirty work. The more work the better. In 1897 the Massachusetts Transit Authority (or the MTA) was building the first urban subway system in America. A system that grew and grew as people did not have automobiles and horse transport was ending. The projects of the MTA employed thousands of Italian immigrants. Ralph and Joe were hired as laborers. Their job was to join the crews that were digging the first underground transportation tunnel in America – beneath Boston harbor – that connected Boston with East Boston.
Ralph and Joe worked with hundreds of other fellow immigrants digging, hauling rock and debris and pouring cement. They worked from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. each and every day, except Sunday. They earned $11 a week and felt like rich men. They dutifully sent most of their paychecks back home to their wives.
But something else started to happen to Ralph and Joe. They started to feel comfortable in their new home. Despite some poor treatment from non-Italians who did not think kindly of the immigrants, there was opportunity here. Ralph and Joe saw that schooling for children was free, that there were chances to work and make money. The North End neighborhood needed businesses and the church life was familiar.
The other factor was that Italy was embroiled in World War I. All of Europe was fighting. Germany against the French and the English. America had entered the war late but it was a bloody and terrible affair. If Ralph and Joe returned to Italy they would be drafted into a war in which they had no interest. What if, the men thought, instead of going home, Aurelia and Carmella joined them in America? It was a radical idea, but after much soul searching, Ralph wrote the letter, sent the ticket money, and told the women to pack up and come to Boston.
When the letter arrived in Montefalcione, it sent shock waves through the family. It had been almost 18 months since the men had left and Aurelia and Carmella had expected them to return very soon. Carmella had settled into a routine of caring for her mother and the house. Anna was good company and helped out also. Aurelia had moved back in with her family and siblings and was comfortable. But both women missed their husbands and wanted the normal village life that they knew so well. Carmella was stoic about the move and knew that her mother would not stand in her way, since a woman must always obey her husband. Secretly, however, Carmella was curious about America. Aurelia, on the other hand, was inconsolable. The thought of leaving her mother and her home pierced her heart. She ranted and raved, cried and complained. Finally, after a month of drama, Aurelia took a deep breath and packed. Aurelia’s father Mr. Martighetti took them by cart down the mountainside to Naples, to the very same dock, and put the women on the boat. As he watched the vessel steam out of the harbor, he prayed for their safety but also for their good fortune in America.
The crossing was frightful but when Aurelia and Carmella landed in Boston that January day in 1918, Ralph and Joe were on the dock to greet them. The men’s complexions were ruddy from working outside and they were skinny. As was the tradition, the Italian workers skimped and saved so that most of their paycheck would be sent home. Being a good provider for one’s family was a very important value in Italian families. The father was the protector and the provider, period. Sometimes Ralph and Joe would go without food in order to send money home. And just before their wives arrived, Ralph and Joe had made living arrangement to suit their new circumstances.
Ralph rented a small apartment on Thatcher Street near the Polcari cousins, who were thrilled that Aurelia was coming. The apartment had three rooms: a bedroom, a large kitchen and a small sitting room. The bathroom was down the hallway. They shared it with the other apartment on the floor. The rent was $8 a month.
Joe – who you might remember – was from the province on Puleo not Avellino. He had made contact with an old friend from his village who lived in a triple-decker house in the West End near the Charles River. The triple-decker was owned by Mr. Saul Rosenberg, who owned and rented a few houses in the neighborhood. And unlike some of the native Bostonians, he would rent to Italians. Joe rented the attic apartment for himself and Carmella. It had two rooms and a slanted ceiling. The bathroom was an outhouse down three flights in the back yard. But there was enough space between the buildings for an outside clothesline and for a patch of garden. Carmella loved looking at the river from her window.
Joe continued to work as a laborer for construction projects in and around Boston. For many years, his crews were made up of Italian immigrants who knew how to put in a good day’s work. Ralph, meanwhile, stayed in the North End as the neighborhood was bustling with activity. There were now five barbershops in the North End and Ralph was able to put down his shovel, pick up his scissors, and return to his trade. Every morning, except Sundays, he would wake up early and walk two blocks to Salem Street, cut hair all day, as the red-and- white striped barber’s pole spun slowly on the front of his barbershop.
By 1920, the young couples were settled in their new homes. Ralph still sent money home to Montefalcione on a regular basis to support his mother Carolina and sister Anna. Letters crossed the Atlantic to and from the siblings and although she missed terribly her children and family life, Carolina knew that they had made a good decision. But, what of Anna? Her life was very different from the lives of her brother’s and sister’s.
Anna was 20 years-old in 1920. She had taken over from her sister Carmella and now ran the household and cared for Carolina. Of course, Carolina approaching her 50’s was still able to manage a share of the chores. Their lives had taken on the rhythms of the seasons. They planted the garden, raised the chickens and pigs, chopped and hauled wood for the fire. And they chatted with the neighbors, went to village weddings, funerals and baptisms and, of course, attended church at St Anthony’s every single Sunday. One of Angelo’s former students was now the church organist. And hearing the old hymns – like the Ave Maria being played – made everyone happy.
In her own free time, Anna read and wrote letters to her siblings and she would visit with the nuns at the convent. All her girlfriends were married by now and busy with their new lives. The war had ended and, sadly, many of the young men from Montefalcione who had been drafted – they never returned.
Many had died, others who had survived scattered to Naples or to northern cities. The handful of soldiers who did return to the mountain village were no longer the same young men who had once marched off gaily arm-in-arm off to the Great War. They returned with crippling head injuries or missing limbs. If their bodies were whole, their minds certainly were not: the horrors of war, the death and suffering they had witnessed left them brutally tormented. Some of these men drank heavily to dull the pain. Some became enraged at the sound of hand clap. The prospect of a decent marriage for Anna was slipping away. There were so few young men in the village and Anna was already 20. Though Anna and her mother did not speak of it, Anna realized what was happening.
It was the letter from Carmella that arrived in November of 1920 that changed Anna’s life forever. The letter from her sister spoke solemnly of losing a pregnancy to miscarriage. Carmella and Joe were devastated. In page after page of her tear-stained writing, Carmella mourned. Anna could tell that a deep sadness had taken hold of her sister. In reading the letter aloud to her mother, Carolina felt the grief at losing what would have been her first grandchild. How she wanted to be able to comfort her daughter who now lived so far away in America. It was at that moment that Carolina decided she had to act.
During the next two days, Carolina had several talks with her close neighbor, Mrs. Martignetti next door. The Martignetti’s eldest daughter, Lucia, had been born with mental challenges and was now 30-years-old. She would most likely never marry and had lived with her parents her entire life. The two mothers arranged for Lucia to move into Carolina’s house as a boarder. She would take care of all the household tasks and also care for Carolina. For this work, she would receive a small weekly salary.
Carolina had known Lucia from birth and although she was slow-witted, she was pleasant and knew how to keep house. The Martignettis were delighted since this gave their daughter an opportunity to widen her world, even if it was just a few meters down the road. With these arrangements in place, Carolina was ready to put into motion an event that seemed unimaginable. She was about to send her last and only remaining child, Anna, to America.
“No, No. No!” screamed Anna, pounding her fist on the table with each “No”. “I will not leave you, my life, my home – I will not!”
“Besides, who will cook? Who will clean? Who will plant? Who will get the water from the well? Who will wash the clothes? Who? Who? Who?”
Carolina wisely let Anna vent her anger. Where did all this fury come from, she thought? Once Anna’s indignant rage depleted, Carolina spoke: “Your sister needs you. She is not well and I cannot help her. But you can and you must! You’re healthy enough to make the voyage and you are strong enough to help her heal. You will go in my place,” she concluded.
Carolina went on to explain the arrangement with Lucia and told Anna that her next task was to write to Carmella and tell her. She allowed Anna one small concession: “Yes,” she said to Anna, “and we will plan for this to be just a temporary arrangement. Once your sister is well, you will return home to Montefalcione.”
This placated Anna who, over the next days and weeks, came to accept her duty. But Carolina knew deep in her heart that Anna’s returning to Italy was not a sure thing. She knew that the simple life in Montefalcione would do well somehow for poor Lucia Martignetti, but she also recognized that her daughter, Anna, would be able to handle a much bolder life.
In February 1921, Mr. Martighetti readied his cart for still another trip down the mountainside to Naples. Carolina had decided to accompany her daughter to the docks. This leave-taking was the most sorrowful for her. All her children would now be thousands of miles away. For any mother, no matter how reasonable the decision, the pain would always be there.
Carolina helped Anna load the cart with her two large sacks that included clothing, bedding, food for the voyage and some local medicines for Carmella. Anna was dressed in her everyday dress, her best shoes and a long coat. Her hair was tied up in a kerchief and she wore a small gold crucifix around her neck.
When they reached Naples that morning, the docks were already streaming with people. Husbands and wives hugged. Children raced about unaware of the great emotional turmoil that swirled around them. The elders were mostly silent in their sadness, or perhaps even slightly jealous that the youth, optimism and bravery it took to make such a journey no longer resided within them.
Carolina and Anna walked arm-in-arm to the gangplank leading up to the huge ship, “The Conopic.” Mother and daughter hugged for what seemed like a long time. Carolina finally gently pushed Anna away. She reached into her satchel and pulled out a ball of yarn. As was the tradition, Anna took the end of the yarn and walked up the gangplank to her place on the deck. Carolina held the yarn tightly in her hand and lifted her face towards the sound of her daughter’s voice. There were many strings of yarn now stretched from the ship.
As the horns blasted and the vessel slowly moved out into the harbor, the strings of yarn unraveled. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives and, most certainly, Carolina and Anna held onto that last thread of connection for as long as they could. Anna saw her mother holding the ball of yarn and Mr. Martignetti waving his handkerchief as the ship moved away from the pier. The string in her hand suddenly snapped and fluttered away. These would be the last and final memories Anna would have of her mother. She would never return to Italy. She would never see her mother again.