By Angela Carella The Advocate
Published: 09:08 p.m., Saturday, February 27, 2010


Delia Socci Skidmore: one woman's tale is the story of thousands



The day Delia Socci Skidmore left for America, her 5- and 7-year-old sisters held on to her hips so she could not walk to the ship. She looked up to see pain on her father's face as he stepped away from her mother.

Her family was wrenching apart.

Delia, and her father were moving from their little town in Italy to Stamford to live with relatives and get work, hoping to send for the rest of the family later.

Re-rooting in a new land was so heart-wrenching and thrilling, so confusing and satisfying, so sorrowful and joyful all at once that, years later, Delia began to write down what happened.

I will never be able to describe what I felt when I left my mother and my little sisters.

The details are hers, she said, but the tale can be told by many immigrants, no matter their home country or the decade they left it.

I'm telling you about myself ... but this is not only my story; it is the story of thousands and thousands of families ... that were forced to make a choice that forever changed their lives.

Delia's tale begins in a little town in the mountains between Rome and Naples. Settefrati was very nearly destroyed during World War II and destitute in the years that followed.

"There were no jobs and no prospects, so the future was America," said Delia.

Her grandmother touched her most as she prepared for the journey. Four of her grandmother's children had already gone to America, and now Delia's father and Delia were going, too.

She prepared a large trunk and filled it with ... things she had made with her own hands, and the oil made from our own olive tree grove. She added sausages, hams ... pieces of cheese ... she wanted to send a bit of everything.

Her mother used all the money she had to buy Delia a beautiful light-blue suit and pointy, black high-heeled shoes, which she was to wear when she went ashore in New York.

They wanted me to make a good impression.

Delia thought she was ready for the journey.

I could barely contain my happiness at the thought of going to America. ... I imagined cities with huge squares and fountains, beautiful buildings and monuments. I dreamed of meeting many good-looking Italian-American boys, much more handsome and well-off than the boys in my town.

The day before her departure, Delia's grandmother called her aside.

She said, "Now you are going very far. Perhaps I won't see you again; but it's for the best for you to leave here. ... You'll get married; things will go well for you. You are a good person and you're smart." She hugged me warmly. I embraced her and promised that I would return as soon as I could. With teary eyes, she nodded her head, but I could see that she didn't believe me.

At about 4 a.m. on July 9, 1956, Delia's mother woke her. The car that would drive them to Naples was in front of the house. Her mother and sisters would accompany Delia and her father, but her grandmother would stay behind.

I felt like I was in a dream as I got ready. ... It felt like the person who was leaving was not me, but somebody else, and I was observing everything from afar. ... Perhaps I did not want to think about the consequences of what was happening. ... I looked around me one last time ... the kitchen, the fireplace, I wanted to see and touch everything.

Her grandmother put her hands on Delia and her father and said, "Go, and may God always be with you." They got in the car.

I kept looking back. The houses were disappearing, the fields were disappearing ... now you could only see the cross on the bell tower. In a short while, even that disappeared.

The boarding dock was full of sadness. Her sisters clung to her.

Every step I took, I had my sisters moving together with me. I had been their little mom and now I felt guilty for leaving them.

The ship set sail from the Bay of Naples for the nine-day trip to New York. Most of the passengers, like Delia and her father, were in third class, but Delia was grateful it was half a century later than the first immigrant wave.

On the bridge of the ship, there were no people lying on the floor, as so many had been forced to do in order to travel at the beginning of the 1900s.

After days of nothing but sky and sea, and shimmering stars at night, Delia, in her light-blue suit, watched as the ship approached New York in the fog.

As if by magic, the grand Statue of Liberty appeared. People cried out and clapped their hands. ... New York was amazing ... skyscrapers, wide, flat streets, cars and people everywhere. At each block, a traffic light. Groups of people would stop at the street corners to wait for the green light to cross, and then they would disappear into the buildings and side streets ... then another group would form ... and the scene would repeat itself.

She remembers the highway as her uncle drove them to Stamford.

The road did not kick up clouds of dust. There were no holes or collapsed pieces of street to avoid. The cars did not have to stop for the cart of a farmer ... or for a shepherd returning with his flock.

Her uncle's house on Stillwater Avenue was painted white and blue and divided into four apartments. Inside, her aunt served a big meal as her father reunited with his siblings and other relatives.

On her first morning in America, Delia awoke and listened for the rooster call, the sound of donkey's hoofs on stone, the voices of her mother and sisters, her grandmother's tap on her shoulder to tell her that her breakfast of barley soup was ready.

What am I doing here? ... I felt a thud in my heart. ... I couldn't let my relatives see me so sad; they would have felt bad. I dried my tears, I forced a smile ... and I went into the kitchen.

It was Friday. On Monday, she started work at a pocketbook factory on the South End -- an enormous, dusty room filled with heavy sewing machines -- that employed people who didn't speak English. Delia's job was to insert metal hooks into the handles. Bending the hooks made her fingers bleed and swell, but she couldn't stop; workers were paid according to the number of pocketbooks they produced. Her first paycheck was a disappointment.

Since I didn't understand the system, I didn't dare ask any questions. ... Because of the withholdings and the penalty for not having reached the quota, my pay was substantially reduced. But to us, the new arrivals ... this was fine. In our little village, we wouldn't ever have even had the remotest possibility of working and earning money.

As Delia learned about working in America on weekdays, she learned about socializing in America on weekends. She was shocked to find out that girls and boys "go out together," without chaperones or the permission of parents. She was fascinated by the "girlfriends" of her male cousins.

They had wavy blond hair that ended in curls. On their faces, a trace of makeup and lipstick ... their camisoles were tight and had plunging necklines ... they had white, well-groomed hands. They were careless and confident. You could see that they didn't do much work at home. They were students. ... I felt a pinch of jealousy to see them so happy and carefree.

In Italy, the nuns taught her to be modest and humble and to obey her parents.

I wanted to convince myself at all costs that it was better to be the way I was, that I behaved like a decent girl. But I couldn't help asking myself: What's so bad about how these girls behave? They talk, they have fun, they go out together, they're nice. It didn't seem to me that they committed any misdeeds.

She would have to reconcile many things from her old life. One of the most painful was learning that one of her cousins was embarrassed by how she dressed. He was talking about the light-blue suit and high-heeled shoes her mother had sacrificed to buy for her. Her aunt tried to explain.

"Look," she said, "Lenny says that you have to change the way you dress, especially your shoes. No one dresses like you. You have to dress more like an American teenager. Lenny is embarrassed to be seen with you. His friends made fun of him, saying that you're such an `off the boat.' "

Off the boat was the degrading nickname used to describe the ignorant low-lifes, according to the Americans, who had just arrived on board a ship. When I heard those words, I went stiff. I felt my face get red and burn like it was on fire. I would have wanted to scream that my dress and my shoes were in fashion in Italy and that my mother had used all her money to have them made for me.

But hurts were matched by kindnesses. An aunt and uncle took her shopping at Bloomingdale's, once in downtown Stamford, and bought her a pink dress with white shoes. Before the summer ended, she went on her first date.

There was a lot to learn, and Delia figured it out.

"In America you could be free, you could be yourself. But that terrified me," said Delia, now a mother of three and grandmother of five. "Little by little, it began to ease. The most important thing was to learn the language. Then I could go out with friends. I learned more, and I could get a job in places where no Italian was spoken. Gradually, I started to integrate into the American way of life."

Sometimes, she just faked it.

"I would act American with my friends who came here about the same time as me. We would chew gum, sing American songs. We didn't know the words, so we invented them. We would go to the movies even though we didn't understand what was happening on the screen. We went because it was the thing to do."

Two years after she arrived, her mother and sisters joined Delia and her father in Stamford. It was about that time that her light-blue suit and pointy high-heeled shoes came into style, and she wore them again.

"America was always a little behind Italy in fashion," she said.

Delia got better jobs and, at one of them, she met Sam Skidmore. They were married when she was 20. For their honeymoon, they went to Settefrati, where her grandmother waited.

"She was so happy to see me. She couldn't do enough. She kept chickens, and in the morning, she brought eggs to me, nice and warm. She said, `Here, these are the freshest,' " Delia recalled. "She was my hero, my darling, the love of my life. She gave up everything so her children could have a better life."

Her grandmother's promise that things would work out was true, and Delia kept her pledge to return. She visited Settefrati one more time before her grandmother died.

All immigrants know that a new life has a steep price, she said.

"I especially feel for the young girls who come, so innocent, so naive, to this country, and what a huge change it is for them," she said.