THE REASON my mother had not returned to Italy for me for five long years, my father later explained, was because there had been a terrible depression in America. It had been impossible for him to raise the money for Mother to make the trip, and a small child could not travel alone. I had been shy in meeting my father. He was blond, blue-eyed, and reserved, the opposite of Mother. But despite his quiet, undemonstrative manner I felt that he loved me. He was kind and he made a pet of me.
There were only four children at home now; the rest had married and had homes of their own. They came to see the new sister and made a big fuss over me. But they all made fun of my best dress — my red confirmation dress which every child in Avialano had admired. They laughed at me and insisted I be rushed to a store to buy an American dress. With great reluctance I put away the beautiful red princess dress and with it the last of my Italian years. And I turned with zeal to the task of becoming an American child.
The three brothers still at home were kind enough, but they had their own interests which were certainly not those of a six-year-old girl and one who could speak no English. But my seventeen-year-old sister, Caterina, called by the American name of Katie, took me in hand. She was a tall, slim, beautiful girl with big gray eyes. She was kind and gentle. She did not like the name I was called by — Maria Assunta — and when she learned that I had been baptized with another name — Isabella — she insisted on calling me Bella.
Katie took me to school. She had made up her mind I was a smart little thing and so she got me in a grade ahead by saying I was born in 1902 instead of two years later. In those earlier educational days she had no difficulty in having me enrolled in the second grade. For a few days I was pursued by cries of “wop, wop,” but I paid no attention to them. I did not know what they meant and by the time I did I had been accepted as a leader in my class.
I liked going and coming from school, especially wandering along and staring at the merchandise piled up on barrows right in the street. You could buy fruit and peppers and sweets and even dress goods and hats there. I liked to watch the pigeons in the street strutting about in their gray and rose coats and silver wings.
My mother did not share my delight in the city. “If we lived in the country!” she would remark sometimes. Only later I learned how much she hated the dirty streets, the gossip of her neighbors, the narrow flat. There were parks, of course, but they made her even more homesick for the open fields.
Mother was a competent woman. She could do a prodigious amount of work and never looked tired or bedraggled. She quickly established a routine of work and play for me. She tried to help me learn English though her own was far from good. She would point to a calendar and repeat each month and day in her curious, soft English and I would repeat the words after her. She would then take the broom and point out the hours and minutes on the old-fashioned kitchen clock, and again I would repeat what she said.
I think one reason for these educational efforts was that she wanted to keep me busy after school for she would not let me spend time in the city streets. She taught me to sew and crochet; sometimes she would take a crochet needle and coarse thread and show me simple stitches. “Someday you will crochet a bridal spread for yourself,” she said solemnly, and when I did not show interest in this idea she added: “Anyway, it is a sin to be idle.”
I liked my family, all of them, but best of all I loved Katie. I loved her not only because she was kind but because she was beautiful, with her hair a cloud about her face, her tiny waist, her pretty dresses. My mother said she resembled her father who had been a cavalry officer. I soon learned that Katie at seventeen was in love with Joe, a tall young man with long thin fingers and the temperament of an opera star.
My new family gradually made my other family in faraway Avialano recede into the past. But now and then, when I felt unhappy and thought my father cold or my mother preoccupied, I would imagine myself back with Taddeo. At such times I would take my red confirmation dress from the box, and the white kerchief Mamarella had tied under my chin, and, putting on my finery, would imagine myself back in Avialano.
In four months I was able to speak English well enough to enjoy the school I attended — Public School Number One. This school still had the characteristics of what it had formerly been, a charity school, one of the last so-called “soup schools.” It was in several adjoining old brownstone houses and was in the charge of two old ladies who opened classes each morning with prayer and the singing of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.”
When I was ready for the third grade we moved from East Harlem. Mother had at last convinced Father that she could no longer bear to live this cluttered life of the tenements. So we moved to a house in Westchester, but this house did not prove satisfactory either. We moved several times. Finally, Father established a successful grocery business, and several years later Mother took over a large house with tillable acreage near Castle Hill. In this home the rest of my youth was spent.
There were sixty-four acres of land and a big rambling house. Mother had coveted this farm before we went to live on it. It was the property of Mattie and Sadie Munn, two maiden ladies who lived near us. They were old and Mother took care of Miss Sadie, who was an invalid. She also looked after their house, and the old ladies grew to depend on her. It was when they died that we went to live in the house.
The former occupants had called the colonial house “Pilgrim’s Rest.” There were no lights but kerosene lamps. The roof leaked and there was only an outside toilet. But from the first I loved this home dearly and especially my own room on the second floor which was literally in the arms of a huge horsechestnut tree, lovely at all times but especially so when its flowers, like white candles, were lighted in the spring.
Our home was full of children all the time. My brothers’ youngsters came and went. Katie brought her baby over often. In addition, there were dogs, cats, chickens, geese, and now and then a goat or pig. Mother fed everyone well. She bought so much feed for the chickens and for the wild birds who knew ours as a generous temporary home that Father complained that she spent more on feed than she made on eggs. This I doubt, for Mother was a good manager. She ran her farm with hired helpers but she was the best worker of all. We grew all sorts of produce, enough for ourselves and some to sell in Father’s store and some was also sent to Washington Market.
We had little cash, but we had a house, a slice of good earth, and a resourceful mother, one with imagination. We were not conscious of want or insecurity even when there was no money. I remember one particular dessert she made for us children when money was scarce. We were always delighted when she mixed new-fallen snow and sugar and coffee, and made for us her version of grańita de caffé.
We had neighbors all about us — Scotch, Irish, and German families. There were two Catholic churches not far from us, Holy Family Church largely attended by the German population and St. Raymond’s attended by the Irish Catholics. We did not seem to belong in either church and Father and Mother soon ceased to receive the Sacraments and then stopped going to church. But Mother still sang songs of the saints and told us religious stories from the storehouse of her memories.
Though we still considered ours a Catholic family we were no longer practicing Catholics. Mother urged us children to go to church but we soon followed our parents’ example. I think my mother was self-conscious about her poor English and lack of fine clothes. Though the crucifix was still over our beds and Mother burned vigil lights before the statue of Our Lady, we children got the idea that such things were of the Italian past, and we wanted to be Americans. Willingly, and yet not knowing what we did, we cut ourselves off from the culture of our own people, and set out to find something new.
For me the search began in the public schools and libraries. There was a public school a half-mile from our house — Number Twelve. Dr. Condon, the principal, a man of varying interests, was fond of having his pupils march to the school fife-and-drum corps. He was apt to interrupt classes and call on everyone to go marching, the fife-and-drum players in the lead. In this school there was Bible reading daily by Dr. Condon himself. I learned to love the psalms and proverbs that he read to us and to admire their poetic language.
Near our house on Westchester Avenue was St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and on Castle Hill was the rectory. In architecture and landscape, St. Peter’s looked like pictures of English churches. Its grounds extended a half-mile or more. In summer we picked blackberries there and in the spring we hunted violets and star of Bethlehem.
St. Peter’s was an old church; in its graveyard were headstones with weather-dimmed names. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons I wandered through the graveyard trying to reconstruct the people from their names. Because of my constant reading of books on American history I thought of them all as Pilgrims and Puritans or heroes of the Civil War. I frequently placed bouquets of flowers on these graves as a token of respect to the men and women of an American past. I wanted passionately to be a part of America. Like a plant, I was trying to take roots. We had cut our ties with our own cultural past and it was difficult to find a new cultural present.
The minister at St. Peter’s, Dr. Clendenning, was a dignified and kindly gentleman whom we greeted as he walked or rode from the rectory to the church. Across from St. Peter’s was a building for church activities which I passed on my way to school. It was near the Huntington Library and I became friendly with the librarian. She was interested in children who liked books and it was she who suggested that I go to the afternoon sewing circle at St. Peter’s parish house.
In charge of this work was Gabrielle Clendenning, the minister’s daughter. We met once a week and we sewed and sang. It was here that I first learned such simple songs as “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Rock of Ages Cleft for Me.” The other children used to cross the street and go to services in the church. I drew the line at joining them in this because I regarded myself as a Catholic, though actually I was conscious of almost no tie to my own Church. I explained to Miss Gabrielle that Catholics were not permitted to attend any other church. She seemed to understand and she never objected or argued with me about it.
When the children came back from services, we all had tea and cookies together. It was a most happy association. Often Gabrielle Clendenning invited the children to ride with her in her pony cart. That was high adventure for me; and it meant being accepted among people I loved. Gabrielle’s mother, the librarian told me, was the daughter of Horace Greeley. I didn’t know who Horace Greeley was but she told me he had been a famous editor and a patriotic American. I remember this family as a wholesome influence on our neighborhood. They set the pattern for what I believed to be the American character.
Life in that little community was peaceful. Our cluster of houses was filled with people who respected each other despite differences of race or religion. We were not conscious of the differences but of the kindnesses to each other. Mr. Weisman the druggist and Mrs. Fox the candy-store owner, the McGraths and the Clendennings and the Visonos — all lived together with not the slightest sense of hostility or of inequality. We accepted our differences and respected each person for his own qualities. It was a good place for a child to grow up.
Several years before I graduated from Public School Number Twelve, World War I had commenced. I became an avid reader of newspapers. I read the gruesome propaganda charging the Germans with atrocities. My imagination was stirred to fever pitch. I never lost the newspaper habit after that. And what I read left its imprint upon me.
In the fall of 1916 I was ready for Evander Childs High School. But I did not enter for another year, a hard and terrible year for me. I was coming home on the trolley car one hot day in July and I had signaled the motorman to let me off. The trolley stopped, and I don’t know what happened next, but I was flung into the street and my left foot went under the wheels.
I did not faint. I lay in the street till my father came to me, picked me up in his arms, and with tears streaming down his face, carried me to a physician. I was in great pain by the time an ambulance arrived, but the doctor who sat beside me was so kind that I hated to give him trouble. So we joked together all the way to Fordham Hospital.
As they carried me in, I fainted. When I came back to consciousness there was the sickly smell of ether and pain that stabbed mercilessly. The look on Mother’s face as she sat beside my bed told me something was terribly wrong. I learned that same day that my left foot had been amputated.
Mother came faithfully to the hospital, loaded with oranges and flowers and whatever she thought would interest me. It was a hot, sultry summer. There was a strike on the trolley system and Mother had to walk many miles to the hospital. She never missed a single visiting day during that dreadful year.
It was a bitter time for me. I was in the women’s ward, for I was tall for my age. I saw women in pain and saw them die. I was particularly affected by one old lady, who came to the hospital with a broken hip and died of gangrene when they amputated her leg. I could not sleep that night, nor many nights thereafter.
My wound did not heal well. I was in that hospital almost a year — treatment after treatment, operation after operation, with little improvement. Five times I was taken to the operating room; five times there was the sickening smell of ether. The day I felt most desolate was the day school opened and I saw from the hospital window children going by with books in their arms. I was so sad that young Dr. John Conboy stopped to ask what was wrong.
“I was going to start high school today,” I told him through my tears. “Now I’ll be behind the rest in Latin.” For Latin was the subject I had looked forward to most of all; it was to me the symbol of a real education.
That afternoon Dr. Conboy brought me the Latin grammar he had used in college and promised to help me. I promptly started to work at it.
During the time I was in the hospital I was registered as a Catholic but I never saw anyone from my Church. Occasionally a priest came through the ward, but I was too shy to call to him. However, Dr. Clendenning and Gabrielle came, and they wrote me letters. Once Dr. Clendenning brought me a little book of religious poems and sayings. On the white cover were flowers, and the frontispiece was a reproduction of “The Gleaners” and the title: Palette d’Or. I read and reread this book.
When it was evident that the surgical operations were resulting in nothing but pain, Mother decided to take me home. I spent the next six months on the farm and Mother nursed me. I went about on crutches until an apparatus could be fitted to my toot. A general practitioner came to our house to treat me once a week, for the operation had not been well done and the wounds healed slowly. I spent most of my time reading and writing poetry and developing my friendship with my mother. I was so glad to be away from the hospital that I felt almost content.
During this period our family suffered losses by death. My sister Katie lost her second baby and not long afterward she herself died in the influenza epidemic. Mother suffered terribly and her brown hair became white. It pained me to see her suffer so. Her sons were married and gone from home; one daughter was dead, the other an invalid.
During that time at home I spent most of my time reading. My mother brought me books from the local library, and I read the accumulation left in our house by the Munns. Since that family had been Methodist, the books included a variety of hymnbooks, old Bibles, and commentaries, and the sermons of John Wesley. There was also a copy of a book by Sheldon called In His Steps which made a profound impression upon me.
The old Bibles had fascinating illustrations over which I pored. I liked the sermons of John Wesley. Even today his sturdiness comforts me, so firm and straight like the English oaks under which he stood to talk to his congregation.
There was, of course, a great deal of the Gospel simplicity in these old worn books and out of them I distilled a little prayer of my own which never left me. Even when I did not believe any more, I would often repeat the words as one does a favorite poem. This prayer which I worked out of the books of John Wesley was: “Dear God, save my soul and forgive my sins, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.”