Whispered Footsteps:
An Immigrant Journey
Part Three

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwood

III Bonds Across the Sea

My abandoned oath, now I must leave you.
Weeping I go, far away,
O, how many steps separate me?
How many tears my eyes shed?
Not tears, no, but bittersweet poison swallowed up my life.
I leave for far off America.
I do not know where my fate will lead me.
Song of an immigrant from Cosenza – 1800s


Whispered Footsteps- Part Three | Carla Maria Verdino-Sullwold | Scene4 Magazine | July 2021 | www.scene4.com

Westside New York 1920


Frank was the solemn, serene achiever, and, of course, as the adored primogenitore, the focus of all the household's female attentions. Rosina was the bright, goodhearted, timid worrier; Maria the devil-may-care extrovert. The three were, no doubt, a handful for for Peppina and Carlo, who raised them in a strict, old world manner that included spankings and being sent to bed without supper as punishments.

Bilingual from birth, the children spoke both the Calbrian dialect at home, Italian in the larger immigrant community and with local dignitaries, as well as English in school and with friends.  Carlo, who spoke and wrote serviceable English, never really saw the need for Giuseppina to learn much English; after all, her rightful place was the home, and there Calbrian customs were steadfastly observed.

Play was simple and wholesome for the Pucciani children: with handmade wooden toys or stuffed dolls, self-devised games of hide-and-seek, ring -around-the-rosy, or marbles in the tiny backyard, or card games such as Briosche or spoons, or storytelling in the privacy of their cramped bedrooms. Treats consisted of hot zeppole from their mother's kitchen or quick fried turdelloni. Family gatherings with the cousins, aunts, and uncles supplied endless opportunities for diversion: summer watermelon spitting contests (stringently disapproved of by Peppina), fall grape stomping to yield the annual store of vino da casa, winter gathering of fresh fallen snow to make honeyed ice cones, Sunday walks along the Palisades with the breathtaking view of Manhattan were occasions to display new finery like starched white dresses sewn and embroidered by Peppina or smart new knickers for a very grown-up "Fra."



Then in 1924, when the children were nine, seven, and five respectively, Carlo came home one day and announced to his family a momentous decision.  He had determined that they would return to Italy to live!  His father had died; his mother was living alone, abandoned by most of the other siblings who had left the paese, and Carlo, who had inherited a small parcel of property, felt it required his attention. After more than a quarter of a century in America, the master carpenter had decided to take his considerable savings and go ply his trade once again on his native soil.

Political considerations were part of Carlo's plan as well. Unlike his Apa in -laws, he saw Benito Mussolini as a ray of hope for his impoverished Calabria. Relatives wrote to America with astounding news of education, transportation, and economic reforms that promised a new, stronger, more unified and prosperous Italy, and Carlo shared the mistaken dream of many of his compatriots that Calabriaa life in the motherland held bright new prospects. In later years, Giuseppina, who was suspicious of politics and intuitively scoffed at these pronouncements, would never let Carlo forget this misjudgment. To the day of his death she would mockingly refer to her husband as "Mussolini," engaging the stubborn Carlo in a running battle over the portrait of the dictator, which he insisted on keeping. Ultimately, harassed beyond the limits of his endurance, Carlo would remove the offending picture from the bedroom and transfer it to his basement refuge to escape his wife's scolding.


Booking first-class passage on the liner D'Uglio, the Pucciani family embarked on a fifteen-day voyage from New York to Naples – half as long and infinitely more comfortable than the first crossings to America.  The children found the boat to be a fairyland of fun, harrying their mother by hiding in all the accessible nooks and crannies and successfully getting into as much trouble as they could. Once the parents had genuine cause for hysteria when a small fire broke out on the ship and Frank was nowhere to be found, until, after much searching, he emerged from under the canvas cover of a lifeboat.

The ship docked in Naples, where Carlo disembarked his family and hired a horse and wagon to convey his wide-eyed children and their mother, as well as piles of luggage down the Via Omberto to temporary lodgings.  There, for several days, the family awaited the once-weekly bus to Cosenza, diverting themselves with walks through the teeming city and visits to the resplendent churches and seaport. Refreshments were supplied from street peddlers, and foodstuffs for meals were purchased by lowering baskets from the hotel window with the money enclosed and hauling up the fresh produce or fish moments later.



Finally, boarding the long anticipated bus, the Puccianis made the arduous journey south through the mountains, bouncing along a dusty road until they reached Devia at the foot of the mountain on which San Donato was perched. There Felicia Apa had organized a tumultuous reception for the triumphantly returned clan. The entire village of San Donato had walked or ridden on horseback down the mountain to greet their kin from America. Hoisting the family luggage up on their heads and shoulders and seating Rosina and Maria on a single free horse, the jubilant crowd trudged toward the town, singing Calabrian folk songs to celebrate the homecoming.

Carlo quickly used his nest egg to open a carpentry shop on the first storey of his mother's home, where he installed on the upper floors his reluctant wife and blithely adventurous children. Relations between Rosina Pucciani, Carlo's mother, and her daughter-in-law Giuseppina were not felicitous.  The old matriarch resented what she saw as Peppina's flaunting of her "American ways" – the younger woman's refusal to wear the all-black Calabrian matron's costume and her insistence on dressing her children in contemporary American fashion, as well as her continuous conversation about the luxuries to which she had grown accustomed in America. For Peppina, fourteen years across the sea had made San Donatan domestic life seem primitive to her. She complained endlessly about having to cook over an open hearth or twist a cloth circlet onto her head to support jugs of water or bundles of firewood which she was forced to haul from the distant well or forest.  Nor could she get used to the lack of ice boxes or return to the old fashioned ways of food gathering and preparation:
milking goats, slaughtering pigs and smoking hams, harvesting fruit and olives from the orchards.

A move, a few months later to the Apa family home solved the mother-in -law/daughter-in-law tensions, but did nothing to ease Giuseppina's sense of injury at being subjected to a lifestyle beneath her dignity as an American citizen, nor could it quiet the nagging, unvoiced second thoughts Carlo was having about Mussolini's "new Italy." Though his beloved son Frank was only ten, Carlo shuddered inwardly at the Fascists militaristic and autocratic ways.

Frank, for his part, as did Rosina and Maria, had few cares. It was, after all, an adventure for the siblings to attend the one-room schoolhouse where boys pursued their lessons segregated from the girls and where recess was marked by the arrival of an old peasant with a tethered goat, which obligingly dispensed fresh, warm milk for the students.  Among their schoolfellows and the instructor, i giovani Americani enjoyed a measure of celebrity. "Francesco" was treated with the deference due his age, serious intellect and sophistication seemed to merit.  Rosina, always an acquiescent scholar, quickly became teacher's pet, asked frequently to edify the class with recitations in English, while Maria preferred running outdoors in bare feet at recess to studying, which she grudgingly did only to avoid the sting of a ruler across her knuckles for recalcitrant preparation.



School and workdays ended at 3:00 p.m.when the laborers, who had been up before daybreak, shut up shops or made their way home from the fields. Late afternoons were occupied with household chores; the older children milked the goats; Peppina prepared the evening meal; Carlo tended to household repairs or stoked the fire. At sundown all five joined the procession of extended family and townsfolk climbing the tortuous path to the church for vespers, before returning home to shut themselves up in the quiet, firelit warmth, dine, and retire to a well-earned repose.  Sundays saw huge family picnics for which the women prepared the food while the men played bocce and dominos and drank espresso. Weddings, baptisms, communions, and religious holidays were celebrated with colorful town processions, church services, feasting, dancing the tarantella, and singing to the accompaniment of a "Jew's harp" or mandolin.

And thus the cycle of summer passed into harvest and frost and the awakening of spring. The winter had been long and trying on the tempers of the Pucciani household, and before eleven months had passed, Peppina had given Carlo an ultimatum: she wanted to return to America. Carlo knew in his heart she was right.

IV Democracy and Discrimination

 Appena giunti che fummo in America
Abbiam' trovato ne' paglia n' fieno,
Abbiam' dormito sul duro terreno,
Come le bestie abbiam' riposa.

 Eviva, eviva, Cristoforo Colombo
Che ha scoperto la parte del mondo,
E'coll industria dei bravi Italiani
N'abbiam' costruito paesi e citta.

 When we had landed in America,
We found neither straw nor hay
We slept on the hard ground like beasts.

 Hail, hail, Christopher Columbus,
Who discovered this part of the world
Where, with the work of the Italians\
We have built cities and towns.



Frank, Maria Parents

It was 1925 when the Pucciani family returned to New York and began their search for new quarters.  Carlo had sold his house before the voyage and was now forced to lodge his wife and children in a rented apartment on Van Buren Place in West New York (New Jersey) while he set about to build something more permanent.  Purchasing a small plot of land on 59th Street between Broadway and Hudson Avenues, Carlo worked for four years in his spare hours with the help of fellow craftsmen to construct his own two -storey brick dwelling that look remarkably like the one he had left behind in San Donato with its large, boxy rooms, atrium-like hallways, and spacious , white-tiled kitchen. Into the first storey, set above a ground floor, he installed his family in 1929, just before the onset of the Great Depression.

Frank, Rosina, and Maria were enrolled in the local public schools where they studied not only literature, language, history, math, and science, but also the more practical skills of coping with discrimination and name -calling. "Wop" and "Guinea" were the epithets that flowed indiscriminately from the lips of fellow students, whose families had arrived in West new York earlier than the Puccianis.  Rosina often wept in silence and did her best to hold her tongue and try to assimilate (she would round the corner of their home before rolling up her long-johns which Peppina considered essential against the cold of "a northern climate" and substitute bobby sox); Maria fought back, sometimes even-despite her pint-size-with her fists, requiring Frank to rescue her and clean up the cuts, bloody noses or muddy dresses before escorting her home.

Still, despite the competitive and often intolerant tensions of those immigrant years, the children appreciated well what Carlo's homecoming had permitted them: a chance to go to high school and for the only son, the ultimate dream of attending college. Brought up in a household where the teacher was part of the pantheon of notables requiring utter respect, the three children embraced the horizons of a free education with awe.

Frank was a scholar and a tennis star from his high school days onward. He read Italian and French classics and introduced his sister Rosina to the pleasures of Homer, Dante, Cervantes, and Hugo.  Together they would practice their French, polish their formal Italian or work their way through the Modern Library of world literature, discussing the stories with wondering reverence.  Together they listened to favorite operas like Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and La Traviata – mostly at home on a cranked -up Victrola but occasionally across the river in the magical city.

All the children's pleasures were not intellectual and artistic, of course.  There were Fourth of July parades and picnics, the touring circuses, the brass bands in the park, the nickel Saturday movies at the Rialto in Union City, or the ferry rides across the Hudson on sunny days.  And, naturally, there were the church events.


Peppina and Girls

Carlo and Peppina, like many Italians, were deeply Catholic and just as deeply anti-clerical. Carlo never went to church, and Peppina, though she turned out for occasions like special novenas or holidays, she preferred to worship at home at her tiny, improvised shrine crowded with plaster icons of Mary, St. Joseph, the Sacred Heart, St. Anthony, and Mother Cabrini, dotted with flickering votive candles, and hung with rosary beads.  Yet, from the time the children were five, they were dressed in their sober best and sent off each Sunday morning in Frank's charge to hear Mass.  They made their First Communions and Confirmations at nearby Lady Of Libera, chosen for its Romanesque façade and its genial, Italian-speaking pastor, Father Fanelli, who once cast the cherubic Maria as Baby Jesus in the annual Christmas Pageant.

The school years proved to be an era of change not only for the Pucciani children, who experienced the normal rites of passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, but also for the populous city in which they lived, and indeed, for America at-large.

In the home electricity replaced gaslight; the woodburning stove became gas powered; the metal washboard gave way to the first washing machine with its roller cranked "dryer," and meticulous hand needlework was rapidly being replaced by the humming black iron Singer Sewing Machine. Walking, an early necessity and recreational pastime, gave way to the automobile, though the senior Puccianis resisted this luxury for their entire lives. In his eighties, Carlo preferred to walk five miles to visit his children rather than take a bus or be picked up by car.


Frank and Parents

Outside the practical realm, entertainment changed, too, with the lightning speed that mirrored the tastes and tensions of a nation hellbent on financial crash and global war. In 1928 silent films were supplanted by sound flicks, and Peppina, who had secretly swooned at the charms of Rudolph Valentino, was forced to tolerate the brassy appeal of Eddy Cantor.
Operas at the Sons of Italy or Miller Stadium lost ground to vaudeville at the Capitol in Jersey City or jazz clubs, while waltzing was replaced by the Charleston and later the Foxtrot and Lindy to the music of Big Bands.

Carlo and Peppina viewed the rapid progression of social, political, and cultural events with the characteristic ambivalence of transplanted old world peasants, whose centuries-long bond with tradition left then both mistrustful of and wonderous at the seductions of modernity.  With the melting pot democracy that Carlo had opted for came the yoke of discrimination; with the headlong rush of progress arrived both prosperity and a loss of age-old skills and values. Frank, Rosina, and Maria came of age in an America where the desire for assimilation threatened cultural identity and where the cross currents of ethnic inspiration and native genius were joining to form a new national style.

Like it or not, Carlo and Peppina were forced to admit that in the hard-won struggle for acceptance, their children had acquired a different perspective.  They were no longer San Donatans, or Calabrians, or Italians, but rather that new breed: Italian-Americans.

Read Other Parts in This Series:
Part One
Part Two

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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

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