by Jan Maguire, 2010
In 1944, on a quiet Saturday morning, a tragedy that Anna was never to recover from, happened.
Michael Pelosi was already up and gone to work at the cobbler shop. Frances had the day off and 11 year old Anthony did what he always did on a day with no school: he wolfed down his breakfast and raced outside to the street to meet up with his gang of friends. Anna often went to church in the mornings at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, which was right on their block.
The neighborhood of East Boston was growing. Apartment buildings, stores, warehouses were going up. It was still wartime but the evil Nazi/Fascist/Japanese regime was taking a beating so there was hope in the air. Wartime despite the huge loss of human life was also a time when the economy was flying high. Factories, businesses, homebuilding, all the industries were humming.
It was that morning that Anthony went to explore a deserted building site a few streets away. The old building, a small hotel, was being torn down. The walls of the hotel were half up and half down; the heavy construction equipment was parked and locked, as the workers would be back on Monday.
The boys looked left and right to make sure there were no cops around and once sure of themselves they whooped like banshees running about the demolition site. They climbed up wobbly brick walls, grabbed hanging wires and made Tarzan yodels; they threw rocks at half broken windows.
The boys were having so much fun that they did not notice Anthony climbing stair by stair to what would have been the third floor of the hotel. Once there he gave a loud shout to show off to his friends when the half gutted wooden floorboards gave way and Anthony fell three stories to ground.
The fall itself was enough to injure the boy, but brick and stone fell heavily after him and crushed him as he lay silent on the ground. The boys were horrified and started to scream for help, some of the old ladies who came to their windows at the noise saw the child pinned under the brick and started to shout to any the men folk who were around.
Adults ran to the building site and the police and ambulance were alerted. By the time they got Anthony to the hospital he was dead. He was 11 years old.
The police got to Michael Pelosi first and despite his own anguish, he knew he had to get to his wife. When he arrived at the apartment all he could hear was Anna’s angry hoarse shouts and pots and pans hitting the floor. As it turned out some of the neighborhood women told Anna of the accident and she became so incensed by her fear that she started to fight and throw things at her neighbors.
When Michael fought his way to the front of the room and he grabbed his hysterical wife by the arms, Anna dropped to her knees. She knew that Michael would have never left work if what the women said weren’t true.
Frances was terrified at her mother’s reaction and did not intrude on her parents who were now in their bedroom crying and trying to make sense of what had just happened. Frances asked the two policemen to sit in the kitchen and wait and then excused herself to run over to the church.
The entire neighborhood was in an uproar. Mothers were screaming for their children to get into the house, They grabbed their sons’ ears and pushed them up the stairs. The old ladies who sat out on the stoops cried out and prayed loudly for Anthony’s soul. The priest had been alerted to the tragedy and he met Frances half way and both quickly returned to the Pelosi apartment.
Michael had left the bedroom and was now speaking with the police. As he was in shock, he was having a hard time following the information. Luckily Frances was able to write it down. The priest went into the dark bedroom where Anna lay, her eyes unseeing, her mouth slack and the reality of her lost boy beginning to set in.
It was the worst thing that had ever happened to Anna; worse than losing her father, worse than leaving Italy, worse than her mother dying alone, worse than anything that had happened during the war. Losing Anthony, her baby, would be a pain Anna would carry for the rest of her life. How could God to this to them?
Official military protocol, when there was a death in the immediate family, the sailor or a soldier was given grief leave to return home if it was at all possible. Since Augie was stationed locally it took less than 24 hours for the news to reach his ship.
The Captain called Augie to his office and gave him the horrible details. Augie gulped hard and stood at attention and waited for his orders. The Captain told him that he would be transported to shore and taken by military vehicle to East Boston.
Later in the morning, Joe found Augie choking back tears and packing his bag. Augie told him about the accident and for the first time Joe was quiet. He understood that no joke would help Augie. Joe had a little brother himself and he knew that Augie was in for a very hard trip home. Between 1941 and 1945, many Boston Italian families lost sons and daughters in the war, but how cruelly ironic that Augie returned safe and sound and the Pelosi family buried a son who died just a few blocks from the apartment.
From 1944 until 1945, the Pelosi family did their best to adjust to life without Anthony. The apartment was so quiet without him. Michael rarely ever spoke of the tragedy for fear of causing his wife pain. Frances found herself signing up for extra hours and Saturday shifts at work because being home was just too hard. Augie was on his ship and got shore leave more regularly and came home. After one such visit, the family sat around the table and no one spoke.
Augie could not detect an ounce of happiness in the family so he asked his father if the next time he had shore leave could he bring his buddy Joe Vennochi with him. Augie fibbed a little and told his father that Joe was homesick and was a good church going Italian guy.
Well from that point on, Joe accompanied Augie to Cottage Street on each shore leave. The two sailors would arrive and Anna would immediately perk up as Joe raved about her cooking and ate like a horse. Anna also liked peeking in the bedroom and seeing a sleeping body in Anthony’s bed.
Once again a little laughter would come from the Pelosi apartment. Joe would tell jokes and offer to help Anna in the kitchen. Michael liked having the young men around and would offer them the occasional glass of wine or cigar.
Of course, there was another person who started to look forward to Joe’s visits. Frances, now 20 years old, was a beauty in full bloom. Many men had made feeble attempts to date her but she, like her mother Anna before her, was not especially interested in settling for just anyone.
Joe however, was athletic and handsome. He was as dark as Frances was light. His hair was thick and wavy and he had dark brown eyes. It seemed that Joe had begun to notice Frances too. Usually so quick witted, Joe would stumble over his words if Frances asked him a question. Once he sidled up to the sink where Frances had her back turned so he could smell the scent of her shampoo.
When Augie wrote home, Joe always asked to be remembered to Frances. By Thanksgiving, Augie, Joe and Frances and Augie’s fiancée Delores would go to the movies together or go window-shopping down town. By Christmas, Joe and Franny had received Michael’s OK to go on dates by themselves though Augie gave Joe a stern talking to about respecting his sister. Well there was no worry about that. Joe was totally and completely head over heels in love.
He bought a small diamond ring and proposed to Frances that spring. In September of 1946, the war over and along with many young couples marrying and starting their new lives, Joe Vennochi and Frances Pelosi married at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in East Boston. The beautiful old hymn Ave Maria played on the organ as paesani and relatives from the North End entered the church.
Frances wore a beautiful white gown and Joe was in his formal Navy uniform. Aunt Carmella, Uncle Joe, Uncle Ralph and Aunt Aurelia were there with all the cousins plus Joe’s family from New York. Cousin Esther caught the bouquet as the young bride and groom sped away in a borrowed car for a 3-day honeymoon at Niagara Falls in New York.
On their first evening as man and wife, the young couple exchanged gifts with each other. With money that she had saved, Frances gave her new husband a beautiful religious necklace. The circular medal, which looked like a small gold coin, was imprinted with the image of St Christopher who was the patron saint of travelers. Frances tenderly fastened the chain around Joe’s neck and like the gold band on his left hand… he never removed either one in the 45 years they would be happily married.
The young couple returned to a small 1 bedroom apartment in Boston’s South End neighborhood. This neighborhood was mixed with Irish, Polish and Jewish families. In fact their street, Warren Avenue, was very near to China Town where Asian families had begun to settle.
Frances felt quite adult to be living so far from home and in such a different neighborhood than the North End or East Boston. In 1946, Frances went back to work. Joe started college at Boston University taking advantage of the GI Bill that provided college tuition to war veterans. Joe also took part time jobs coaching and refereeing at the YMCA as he was studying to be a PE teacher and coach.
Joe and Franny loved married life. Having Joe in the family filled a void left by Anthony’s death and throughout the marriage, Joe became like a son to Michael and Anna.
Augie and Delores got married and Augie returned to his engineering studies at Northeastern. Anna and Michael moved to Lubec Street in East Boston to a nicer apartment, as it was now just the two of them. Every Sunday after church however, the family always reunited either at Ralph and Aurelia’s place or Carmella and Joe’s.
The cousins were all older now but the racket was hard to ignore. The women stayed in the kitchen, the older men sat among the tomato plants loosening their ties and chewing on little cigars and the younger folks watched the tiny black and white TV. This was a very happy time.
The War was over, America had won and the economy was booming. A college education and a professional career was now possible for these first generation Italian-American veterans who were proud of being citizens in the greatest country in the world.
Anna was now approaching 50. Her long hair was gray and Michael was bald. She started to make comments about herself being an old lady. What she was really doing was making it known that she was ready for some grandchildren as Carmella’s oldest son Rocco and his wife Mary had already had a baby girl in the spring.
Anna was eager to meet the next generation of the Anzalone/Pelosi family and unlike her mother Carolina, she would have the pride and pleasure of knowing and helping raise her grandchildren… if they would ever come!!!
Well by 1950, Anna Anzalone-Pelosi received the answer to her prayers and not just once but twice! Frances and Joe and Augie and Delores were both pregnant. The babies were due in the summer. Augie and Delores’ in July right around Anna’s 50th birthday and Frances and Joe’s late in August.
Babies being born were the true sign that the family was healthy and happy. Even though most of the immigrants of Anna’s generation left behind their parents, uncles and grandparents in Italy, the fact that their own families were growing and flourishing was a blessing they felt deeply. They had worked hard to realize the American Dream.
By 1950, both Augie and Joe had graduated from college and began professional careers as an engineer and a teacher. Joe taught PE and health at East Boston Jr High School and coached football, basketball and baseball. He would be promoted to the High School where he also would eventually coach track and be a guidance counselor. Frances quit her job as a secretary and prepared for the birth of their baby. It would be a tight squeeze as Joe and Frances still could only afford the one bedroom apartment on Warren Avenue in the south end of Boston. But really… how much space would one baby need?
In July of 1950, Delores gave birth to a beautiful baby boy with his mother’s dark eyes and curly dark hair. Augie named the baby Michael after his own father and of course his grandfather Michelangelo Anzalone the music man from Montefalchione. Everyone was thrilled about the baby; he was beautiful, serene and chubby.
Six weeks later, Frances’ baby was born… one day before her and Joe’s 4th wedding anniversary. This baby was chubby but unlike her handsome first cousin, she was bald, and fussy. Joe was secretly a bit disappointed about not having a son as those old fashioned ideas about sons over daughters still persisted… but when he saw his daughter’s scrunched up little monkey face and heard her scream… he could only laugh out loud and fall in love. Joe named the baby Louisa after his own mother.
Anna was now in her glory. Two babies to spoil and spoil them she did. She babysat, she cooked for them, bathed them and she did anything she was asked. She wanted to help her own children raise these babies. Since Anthony’s death, the emptiness of that loss was suddenly less painful. These babies meant the world to the family and were Anna’s lasting treasures.
To everyone’s delight, more babies arrived and from 1950-1959, a total of 7 children were born to Augie and Delores who had three sons, Michael, Paul and William and then Frances and Joe had four, first Louisa followed by Thomas (who was named after Joe’s father) and then John and finally the last baby and only the second girl was born in March of 1959. This baby was as lovely as her sister had been homely. She was born with light brown hair and blue eyes. She was dainty, petite and oh so girlie. She was like a little doll.
After so many boys, this baby was the apple of everyone’s eye. Frances who had decided if the baby had been a boy, she would name it after her husband Joe and if it were a girl she would name it Anna after her mother. When the baby came, Frances had a brainstorm… she would name the baby after both her husband and her mother with a perfect American sounding name: so little Joanne Vennochi entered the world.
As the new decade of the 1960s began, Michael and Anna moved to another apartment in East Boston and their days were peaceful and happy. Their two children Augie and Frances now moved out of the city with their spouses and children to the suburbs to nice houses with back yards and trees all around.
The men went to work everyday and the women stayed home to raise the children. All 7 of these grandkids went to public schools, played sports, made friends and got good grades. Every Sunday, after church, both families would travel into East Boston and have a huge family meal with Anna and Michael. The women would be in the kitchen, the men outside sipping some wine or smoking a cigarette. The 7 cousins rolled around the floor, made a huge commotion and when finally at the table, joined in on all the noisy chatter and good-natured teasing.
Anna would sit by the stove in a rocking chair and when one of the grandchildren raced by she would grab him or her by the waist and pull them onto her lap. The girls would cuddle and even the boys would bury their noses in Anna’s soft skin and allow themselves to be kissed. Joanne being the baby and a quiet child, usually spent a lot of time in Anna lap. She would sit and Anna would rock her and call Joanne, Chickenella… or little chick. These Sunday afternoons were the best part of the week for everyone.
By the end of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s life changed in dramatic ways for the Pelosi/Vennochi families. All 7 of the grandkids went to college… even the girls.
Joanne was a varsity captain in several sports in High School and had received excellent grades. She was accepted to attend the University of Massachusetts where she studied business and played tennis. She had grown into a beautiful young woman who was beginning to explore the possibilities of an independent life.
As a teen, she went to summer camps, had braces on her teeth, went to proms, learned how to drive a car and even was allowed to date boys by age 16. Compare her life to Anna’s back in Montefalchione! Joanne did things that seemed normal and expected to her but Anna could not even fathom that a teenage girl would be allowed to play a sport, drive a car, have a boyfriend, have sleepovers with friends and sleep late on Saturdays. It was a new and sometimes confusing world for the elders of these immigrant families.
In 1969, only one year after he retired from the cobbler shop, Michael Pelosi was diagnosed with cancer. He died after a few months of treatment and it was a devastating loss for the family. Of course, the family was devout in its belief of heaven, so some were comforted by the thought that Michael was now reunited with young Anthony. The loss of their grandfather and father was hard on everyone but Anna insisted that life would and should go on. At age 69 Anna would live almost 30 more years as a widow.
Joanne, like her siblings and cousins before her, graduated from college. She immediately went to work as an accountant in a big firm in Boston. She was very skilled and decided to go to graduate school where she earned an MBA. This level of education allowed her to receive promotions and earn a large salary.
When Anna heard how much money Joanne earned, she was flabbergasted! She earned more money than her father Joe earned as a schoolteacher. What a crazy world we live in where a girl can earn more than a man.
Eventually Joanne became a manager of her department and oversaw the work of many accountant. She had many girlfriends, loved to travel, and especially enjoyed the new babies that were starting to be born. Her sister Louisa, and brothers Tom and John had all married and started their own families. Anna was now a GREAT Grandmother and both she and Joanne fussed over these new babies.
Joanne was dedicated to her family. She adored her grandmother Anna and was also very close to her mother Frances. In fact of all the members of her family, she has maintained that strict Italian code of family first. However, both Anna and Frances fretted about Joanne. On the outside, everything seemed fine: she had a great job, lots of friends, plenty of dates and 4 nieces and nephews to spoil… BUT she had NO Husband. For traditional and conservative Italians… this was a no no.
At 31, Joanne seemed much too committed to her single life. Anna worried that Joanne would some day be alone… though that worry soon went on the back burner when sadness touched the family once again.
In 1991, Joanne’s father Joe Vennochi did not recover from his third heart attack. He was home on a Monday holiday from school and that morning he fell over in the den. The EMTs and paramedics arrived in the ambulance and did everything they could but at age 66, Joe was gone.
Frances was grief stricken and in shock. Anna grieved as she thought of Joe as her own son. Though everyone was heartbroken, Joe’s death was especially hard on Joanne. She had always been daddy’s girl and was close to both of her parents. Losing her Dad was bad enough but now watching her mother suffer was unbearable.
Joanne thought of her nieces and nephews who were so young and would not have a memory of Joe. She remembered how she loved own grandfather Michael and how these kids would not have the benefit of that kind of relationship. But just like Carolina when Angelo died and Anna when Michael died, Frances picked up the pieces and at age 65 after almost 45 years of marriage, she buried her husband and devoted her life to her children and grandchildren.
A year after Joe died, Joanne celebrated her 32nd birthday. The family gathered at Frances’ house and much like years before, the kids and grandkids came over for cake. Joanne let the little ones blow out her candles and being the doting Auntie she is, she bought presents for all the kids.
It was a familiar scene… except for one thing. There was a “stranger” in the house. Well, Anna thought of him as a stranger because he was not really family or a paesani. He was Joanne’s current boyfriend.
Though the family had met and liked Tom St Pierre… no one thought much of it until Joanne did something no one saw coming. She stood up and held up her left hand. There on her ring finger was a diamond ring. Tom had proposed and Joanne had accepted. Since her father’s death, Joanne and Tom had become close and both became committed to a life together. So at age 32 and 36, Joanne and Tom got married… and there were no two happier people in the church than Anna and her daughter Frances.
Joanne was a beautiful bride. As she walked slowly down the aisle escorted by her brother, Frances felt a rush of love and wished that Joe was sitting beside her.
For Anna, it was only when the organist began to play the Ave Maria, the hymn her own father Angelo loved to play for the nuns at St Anthony’s church in Montefalcione, that a single tear dropped from her eye.
Northendbosotn.com NOTE: This last chapter brings the story to a close. We hope you have enjoyed this personal immigration journey as told to us by Jan Maguire in her “Letter from Anna.” Many have read and commented on the story. We have chosen three of these to share with you.
From Yolanda: I have lived in the North End my entire life and this describes my grandparents’ journey to America from Avellino. It broke my heart that Anna would never see her mother again. I am so forward looking to the next installment!
From Andrew: Excellent work Jan. Wonderful beginning to a still unfolding story.
From Judith: I can’t wait to read the rest! Love to Fire and Connor.