I WAS BORN in southern Italy on a farm that had been in my mother’s family for generations. But I was really an American born on Italian soil as the result of a series of accidents, and it was also an accident which kept me in Italy until I was almost six years old. Not until years afterward did I learn that one reason my mother had left me there was in the hope that someday she could persuade her husband, in New York with her other children, to return with them to Italy. To her that farm near Potenza was home. But she was never able to persuade them of that, for America was the place of their choice.
My mother had been left a widow when the youngest of her nine children was still a baby. With the help of the older children she ran the farm. If Rocco Visono had not come to Potenza from his home in Lugano no doubt she would have remained there the rest of her life.
But Rocco fell in love with Teresa Marsica who, despite her nine children and a life of work, was still attractive, with bright, dark eyes and lively ways. Rocco had come to visit a sister married to a petty government official and met Teresa in the nearby village of Picerno. A stonemason by trade, he found work in Potenza while Teresa was making up her mind. She was almost persuaded but hesitated when she learned that he planned to go to New York. It took a long time to get her to agree to that. She would look at her rich soil that grew good lettuce and beans. This had been her father’s farm and her grandfather’s and his father’s. How could she give it up and cross the Atlantic to uncertainty, and perhaps have no land there to cherish and work?
But the quiet, blue-eyed suitor was persistent. The children were on his side, too, eager to go to America, for Rocco had told them glowing stories of the life there, of the freedom and the chance to get rich. They argued and pleaded with their mother until she gave in.
The three oldest boys were to go with their father-elect, and my mother and the others were to join them later. I say “elect” purposely, for Teresa, for reasons of her own, had insisted that she would not marry him until she arrived in America. Having lost all the rest of the issues, he had to yield on this also, and the four left for the United States.
From East Harlem they sent enthusiastic reports. There were many Italians living there; it was like a colony of home people; she must come quickly. So Teresa accepted the inevitable. She said good-by to her neighbors and her beloved fields, to the house that had sheltered her all her life and in which all her children had been born. She put the farm in the charge of a relative for she could not bear to sell it. She might come back someday. With six children she sailed for the new home.
The three older boys and Rocco took her in triumph to their five-room flat on 108th Street. Teresa was happy to see them again, but she looked with dismay at the honeycomb of rooms. She was only partly comforted when her sister, Maria Antonia, who had been in America for some time, came to welcome her.
In January 1904 Rocco Visono and Teresa Marsica were married in the Church of St. Lucy in East Harlem. It was perhaps on that day she felt most homesick of all, for a memory came to her when she heard the words of the priest — a recollection of the past, of Fidelia, her mother, and Severio, her father, and the farm workers and herself and her brothers and sisters, all kneeling together at family prayer in the big living room of the Picerno farmhouse.
Several months later a letter came from Italy telling Teresa that there was trouble with the management of her property. At this news she persuaded Rocco that she must go back to adjust matters, perhaps rent the farm to responsible people, or even — this was his suggestion — sell it outright.
It was not until she was on the high seas that Teresa realized she was pregnant. She was dismayed. The business in Italy might take months and the baby might be born there.
The affairs of the farm took longer than she expected. In October of 1904 I was born in Picerno and baptized Maria Assunta Isabella. With my father’s approval Teresa decided to return to the United States and leave me in charge of a foster mother. She hoped to return within a year, but it was five years before she saw me again. I was almost six years old when I saw my father and brothers and sister for the first time.
The woman who became my foster mother and wet nurse was the wife of a shepherd in Avialano. Her own baby had died and she was happy to have me. For five years I lived with these simple people. Though there was little luxury in the small stone house, I received loving care from both my foster parents. I remember them and my memories go back to my third year. Mamarella was a good woman and I was greatly devoted to her. But it was to her husband, Taddeo, that my deepest love went. There was no other child in the family and to me he gave all his parental affection.
I remember their home with the fireplace, the table drawn up before it for supper, I in Taddeo’s arms, his big shepherd’s coat around me. In later days, when life was difficult, I often wished I were again the little child who sat there snug in the protecting love about her.
My mother sent money regularly, and gave my foster parents more comforts than the small wages of Taddeo would provide. Time and again Mamarella tried to make of Taddeo something more than a hill shepherd. She disliked his being away from home in the winter, but in that mountainous part of Italy it was cold in the winter; so the sheep were driven to the warmer Apulia where the grazing was better.
Even in the summer Taddeo often stayed all night in the hills. Then Mamarella and I went to him carrying food and blankets so that we, too, might sleep in the open. While husband and wife talked, I would wander off for flowers and butterflies. I remember running from one hilltop to another. My eager fingers stretched upward, for the sky seemed so close I thought I could touch it. I would come back tired to find Mamarella knitting and Taddeo whittling a new pair of wooden shoes for me. Not until just before I left for America did I wear a pair of leather shoes.
Taddeo would give me warm milk from his sheep and try to explain to me about the sky. Once he said: “Never mind, little one. Perhaps someday you will touch the sky. Perhaps!”
Then he would tell me stories about the stars, and I almost believed that they belonged to him and that he could move them in the heavens. I would fall asleep wrapped in a blanket. When I awoke I would find myself in my own bed back at our house on the edge of the village.
I have vague memories of the things of religion. I remember being carried on Taddeo’s shoulders on a pilgrimage with many people walking through a deep forest several days and nights to some shrine. It must have been spring for the woods were carpeted with violets. I have never since seen blue wood violets without hearing in my mind the hum of prayers said together by many people.
One of the children told me about a place called purgatory. She said that if you let the bishop put salt on your tongue and water on your forehead you got into heaven, and that if it were not done you stayed in purgatory for years and years. I took this matter to Taddeo and for once he was not reassuring. Purgatory was a gray place, he said, with no trees and no hills, but he said he would be there with me.
He talked to Mamarella, and she said though I was young she was going to have me confirmed because the bishop was coming to our town to perform the ceremony. This called for great preparations. I had a new red dress with a high neck made “princess style.” I was to have my first pair of leather shoes.
When the great day came I was at church early. It was still almost empty save for the restless group of children awaiting confirmation. The few seats in the big church were placed toward the altar. You did not sit in these for they were for the gentry of the town. Everyone else knelt on the stone floor.
I knelt, too, and looked around me at the statues. I had a favorite among them: St. Anthony, with the tender smile and the Christ Child on his arm. Taddeo told me that St. Anthony would watch over me and keep me from evil; and that if I lost something St. Anthony would help find it.
One evening at supper we heard hurried footfalls and an excited voice calling:
“Una lettera d’America!”
“Maybe it’s from my mother,” I said, “and there will be money in it for Mamarella.”
When she opened it I saw only a very little letter and no money at all. No one told me what the letter was about. Weeks later I was alone in the house, close by the fire. February was cold that year. Taddeo was in Apulia and would not be back for some time. Mamarella had gone to the village fountain for drinking water.
I heard strange steps on the cobblestones. The door opened and there stood a tall, dark woman in a heavy coat who looked at me and without a word put her arms around me and hugged me. Then she took off her veil and I saw she had thick black hair, a little gray, but soft and wavy.
I looked at her with amazement. “Who are you?” I asked. She answered me in Italian, but it sounded different from that of our village. “I’m a friend of the people who live here. Where is the shepherd?”
“He isn’t here. He’s in Apulia.” “Do you like him?”
“I love him better than anyone in the world. I love him all the time.” I stared at her and wondered why she should ask such questions.
“Of course you do,” she said soothingly. “Come over here and sit on my lap while I tell you a story. But first, do you love him better than your own mother?”
“Of course I do. I don’t even know my own mother.” The strange lady smiled at me. “Listen, dear, I had a little girl myself once.” As I listened I began to feel uneasy. “I had to go away to a strange land where I couldn’t take care of her and so I found a good kind man who said he would. His name was Taddeo.”
“Taddeo?” Suddenly I understood and slipped from the woman’s lap. “You’re my real mother.”
She stroked my hair and said, “I have come all the way from America for my baby girl and I hoped she would love me.”
Something in her voice won me over. I went to her and put my arms around her neck and so we sat until Mamarella came in. I was half asleep and remembered only saying, “This is my mother, my real mother. You have to love your mother.”
She went away again that evening, but she said she would be back in a week or else send for me. She promised to take me with her to America.
Now all was feverish preparation. Word was sent to Taddeo and he sent back word that he would be home before I left. For me that last week was one of triumph among my playmates.
“Did she bring you presents?” the children asked. “Will you go in the coach to Potenza?”
“The houses in America are made of glass,” said another child. “No one is poor there. Everyone is happy.”
“And they eat macaroni every day,” piped another. This even I knew would be a wonderful thing, for to eat macaroni every day was the essence of plutocracy to children whose chief diet was beans and polenta.
“And will you come back?” someone asked.
Somehow this was the first time I had actually thought of going away and I felt a little shaken, but I answered boldly, “Of course I will, and someday I’ll take you all with me to America.”
No further word had come from Taddeo on the eve of my departure to join my mother. Mamarella had prepared a wonderful supper of pasta arricata, and nuts and squids stuffed with raisins. There was sweet white wine. It was like carnevale. We waited for Taddeo but when he did not come, we sat down and ate in silence. Then we cleared the table. I sat with my head against Mamarella’s chair. She was crying, but she stopped when she saw that I was crying, too. She took me in her arms and sang to me — a song about the saints.
Still Taddeo did not come. I feared I would never see him again. I tried to picture exactly how he had looked so I would always remember him.
When the fire was embers, Mamarella put ashes over it and we went to bed; but I could not sleep. Suddenly I heard what I had been listening for — heavy steps on the cobblestones. When the door opened I was in his arms. My feet were cold and he took off his muffler and wound it round them and rubbed them.
Mamarella came in and poked up the fire and said to me sharply, “Non far mosso,” and began warming polenta. I sat still in his arms while Taddeo talked to us about his trip home.
“I traveled half the night and had no idea it would be so cold in Avialano,” he said. He must get to the sheepfold in the valley right away, he said, for he had left the sheep in charge of Filippi. He could stay only an hour with us.
“St. Anthony brought me,” he told me. “He helped get me here in time. Don’t ever forget he will help you get where you ought to go and find what you lose.”
I paid little attention to his words. I was happy to sit by the fire and watch him eat polenta and dip bread into the red wine.
Then he rose, put on his long cloak, and tied the muffler around his neck. “This muffler is too thin to be of much use any more. Listen, child, will you send me a new one from America?”
My eyes filled with tears. He kissed me. “There, carina, someday you will come back,” he said reassuringly. “And you are going now to a fine home where you will be una signorina and have silk dresses and maybe two pairs of leather shoes.”
“I don’t want to go,” I cried in panic. “I won’t go! I wont!”
He held me until I stopped sobbing and then he said, “Now I must really go.Addio, carina,” and he handed me over to Mamarella and hurried from the house. I struggled free and ran after him. I had no shawl and my dress flew in the wind. I kept calling, “Taddeo! Taddeo!” I ran down the street till I came to the piazza and I could see Taddeo and Filippi driving the sheep ahead of them. It was bitter cold and the ground was icy.
I called Taddeo again and again. I had put on my first pair of leather shoes to show to him and the untied laces made me stumble; the hard leather hurt my feet. I lay in the snow and sobbed. There Mamarella found me and took me home and put me between hot blankets. She stayed with me until I fell asleep.
Next day I was dressed in my red confirmation dress which was to have been saved to wear on the feast of the Virgin and carnevale. My hair was carefully combed. The leather shoes were laced around my ankles. Mamarella brought out her wedding box and drew from it a white silk kerchief. “I wore it when I was a girl,” she said, as she folded it in a triangle and tied it under my chin. Then we went to the coach which was waiting to take me away. “Madonna, questa creatura e tutti occhi,” said the coachman when he saw his smaller passenger. Mamarella and I sat in the coach in silence and watched the desolate mountain scenery and the snowdrifts banked along the road. Finally, numb with cold, we reached the railroad station in Potenza. Mamarella put me on the train and kissed me. I could not cry for all the feeling was drained from me. Then I was alone on a train with strangers and on my way to Naples where my mother was to meet me.
It was the first time I had ever been on a train but I did not find it strange. I looked out of the window at the changing landscape. After awhile there were no snow and no mountains, only grass and plains, with olive trees here and there. Once I saw a flock of white sheep with a shepherd, and I thought of Taddeo. But Taddeo was now far behind, and I was alone. I had left everything I knew and was going into the unknown.
The compartment in which I rode was almost empty. The conductor had promised Mamarella that he would take care of me. Finally, as I sat on the wooden bench, I fell asleep, leaning against my bundle of clothes, exhausted by the strange movement of the train.
It was night when the train pulled into Naples. The conductor came in and picked up my bundle. “Viene subito,” he said, and I followed him to the platform. And there was my mother looking anxiously for me. She was tall and straight and reassuring. I waved excitedly to her and it made me happy to see her warm smile as she ran toward me.
I was frightened by what I saw of Naples. There were beggars whining and wheedling in the name of St. Rocco. There were dirty children in the streets. There was noise and confusion. I wanted to fly back to our quiet little village, where the people were poor, but clean and proud.
I was glad when the next day we sailed for America.