NOTE: We are starting the publication of a new series of stories. These stories are about the life of an Italian man in America, Pietro Gentile, as they were told to the author during several meetings with the protagonist.
Pietro is an old man now, a little bent under his 86 years.
But you can still see that he had been a tall and muscular man and quite handsome.
The day I went to see him to talk about his interesting story as an emigrant I found him behind the garden with his friend Gianni: they were covering the fig tree that his uncle had brought from Settefrati many years ago.
Fig trees must be well protected during the frigid Connecticut winters, otherwise they would die. The branches must be bent to the ground, and are covered by waterproof cloth, then a shelter made of wood is built above and all around the tree and finally you cover everything with a big tarpaulin.
The two friends were having fun working together, they joked with each other like two little boys. While they were working to enclose the tree, Giovanni, who was also almost 80, was explaining to me how the two of them spent their days: early in the morning, after breakfast, they scour the various supermarkets, looking for “specials” using Pietro’s car, he still drives. The friends that are no longer able to drive give them their shopping lists and they go looking for products at reduced prices. By now, all the retailers know them and wait for them with the merchandise ready. In the mean time, I wait for Pietro to give me the sign that he is ready for “the interview”. Instead, he keeps going about his business and chatting with his friend. I wait. After a while he tells me that now we are going to Giovanni’s house which is right in front of his. There we found Lucia, Giovanni’s wife and my cousin, who has already made coffee. Lucia opens the door with her ever present smile. she invite us to sit, then she puts the cookies on the table and sets out the ever present bottles of anisette and Sambuca for the coffee. I see that Pietro enjoys coffee and anisette very much. “So,” I say “What year did you arrive? What did you do? Where have you lived?” Now that he drank a couple of coffees with anisette, Pietro starts the story.
He tells me that he came from the town in 1939, when he was 19. He only came to reunite with his parents who had emigrated a little while before.
With a veil of nostalgia, he says that he had left his girlfriend, Francesca, in Settefrati. He had promised her that he would return within a short time and they would get married. As many before him and even after him, he came full of hopes and dreams for the future and with a great will to work, save some money, go back home, get married and live happily in Settefrati with his Francesca.
Pietro remembers everything as if it was yesterday. Those were hard times, even in America. His uncles had a “business” distributing blocks of ice. Those were the times before modern refrigerators and ice used to be bought in blocks. His uncles had a cart pulled by two horses and everyday they would go around the streets of the town to distribute the blocks. As soon as the housewives heard the cart approaching, they would look out of their windows and call the two men to deliver the ice. The two men did not wait for the woman to come down. They would bring the ice into the house themselves. If their friend, their “compare”, happened to live in the house, they would sit down and chat; there was no established time to deliver the ice. The “compare” always had good wine that he made himself. The three men would sit to chat and drink and time would pass. Then back again to do deliveries. And if, again, by chance, they would meet another “compare”, he would invite them to drink with him, trying to convince them that his wine was much better than that of the other “compare”. The two agreed and drank. Obviously, having drunk too much, the two men would fall asleep on the steps or on the sidewalks.
The horses would wait, but then, since the owners didn’t come back, they would go home without bridles. The wives would then know that the two men were getting over a hangover and would come home later. Apparently, it was a normal occurrence and no one would get agitated. If the ice was not delivered today, there was always tomorrow. Pietro has fun telling this story and laughs happily pointing out how smart those horses were.
Alternatively, he was working as an employee in a construction company. He thought about Francesca whom he had left behind, very sad because of his departure. He thought about their life together, about the family that they would have created. For him, every day that passed brought him closer to his goal and with renewed hopes he kept working. He anxiously awaited Francesca’s letters and it seemed to him that it took an eternity for them to arrive because in those days, the mail would take a long time to travel between the two Continents.
DELIA SOCCI SKIDMORE