PRIME ESPERIENZE IN AMERICA
VISITS FROM RELATIVES
Relatives used to come from far away to visit with us; being all together and spending time together for a few days was something that used to happen very frequently with the families that had recently come to America. And since we were all relatives and friends, reciprocal visits were abundant. When our uncles from Detroit came, we had to rearrange ourselves in the house as best as we could. My uncle and aunt would even put some mattresses on the floor; the men slept in a room and we women in another. Everything was fine, no one complained. We were together and this was enough.
The relatives from Detroit talked about the automotive industry, since that was the industry of their city. In Connecticut they talked about construction and about the handbag factory, while in New York it was about tailor’s shops where Italian women were very sough tafter and appreciated. In Pennsylvania the topic was steel mills.
At night after dinner, we used to spend the most beautiful hours together. We used to gather around a table to listen to the stories that my father and my uncle Paolo used to tell us. They were famous for their way of telling a joke or a funny story: the pauses, the rhythm and the tone they gave to each word made even the simplest story interesting and hilarious. But what every one wanted to hear was the news about their mother, my dear nonna Rosa. I could almost see her sitting at the table, smiling with all her children and grandchildren all around her. I could see her with her hands on her lap, with the white head scarf on her head, chewing a nut as she would always do at the end of every meal. She loved nuts and always had one in her pocket. The aunts would ask me to tell them everything about their mother. First, I gave them the letters nonna had sent them, and that I had written for her before I left; then I gave them the cheese, the salami and the olive oil that their mother had sent them.
They used to thank me with the "envelope". It was common for relatives to give a little monetary present, putting the money into an envelope, to help those who had recently come to start their new life. I used to give mine to my father and he decided what was the best thing to do with it.
I used to tell my aunts how their mother sent them her blessings. I told them that she had been very good at not crying when we left. She remained on the doorstep with one hand on the wall and another in the pocket of her apron, looking at the car that was taking another son and another granddaughter away from her, leading them towards the "Promised Land". They were all listening very carefully. They got very emotional hearing about their mother whom they hadn't seen in many years I continued, saying that their mother used to tell me stories of when they were young and were still living all together.
They were renowned as seamstresses and experts in embroidery. It was a respectable profession that distinguished them from other girls who were daughters of farmers. The distinction between the craftsmen and the peasantry was very important in small towns.
My aunts did not wear the traditional costume of Ciociaria; they could afford beautiful dresses they made themselves: another distinction between social classes. I asked them if they remembered the day when their mother, before going out for her daily visit to the big country house, told her daughters to go to the mill. She had left a sack with the grain that had to be ground and asked her daughters to bring the flour back home so that she could have made tagliatelle pasta for dinner. But not one of the three sisters wanted to go out with the sack on their head, because they had to cross the square where there were a lot of people and they could not "lower themselves" to do that. Each si
er would tell the others "you go", but no one would move.
When she came back, their mother didn't find the flour. She got very mad at them and scolded them severely. She told them that "they had a lot of nerve" and called them "impudent". "Who do you think you are?". But the thing that scared them the most was when she threatened them that she would have forced them to put on the Ciociara costume to give them a lesson in humility. Then my mother, trying to prevent any conflict between mother and daughters, took the sack and went to the mill, she had recently gotten married and was living with them. But not before my grandmother whispered to her daughters "abbrevegnitevenne" she shortened. Anyway, thankfully she didn't follow up with the threat of the costume.
While I was talking, the three sisters were nodding with their head and were laughing with joy.
No, they hadn't forgotten that episode. They remembered it very well and the kindness of my mother’s action had made that memory even more precious for them.
It was obvious that she was very loved and respected by her sisters-in-law; they owed her a lot, they said. My mother had remained with my grandmother when her daughters had gotten married and had left to join their husbands in America. My father was in Africa and the two women alone had created an enviable relationship of deep affection and reciprocal respect. People were talking a lot in the village about the beautiful relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law and the news had even got to the ears of the children in America.
My mother…my grandmother…my sisters…."who knows what they are doing?", I was thinking with sadness.
The evenings spent together lasted until very late at night. I had become the center of the attention thanks to all the stories I was telling and I liked that a lot.
Delia Socci Skidmore