Rose is 90 years old today, born in Lecce, Italy on February 10, 1927. She still walks briskly each day, relishing the clean air, sunshine when it’s present and keeping herself healthy. She still cooks large southern Italian dinners considering anything less than that unacceptable. She makes sure that her hair is still the auburn that it had been when she arrived as a war bride in the NewYork Harbor across from the Statue of Liberty 71 years ago at age 19. Not one to acquiesce quietly to the ravages or conventions of aging, she makes sure she does not dress like an “old lady.” She dresses to the teeth, always wearing “the latest.” I’ve lived along side her story for the forty years I’ve been married to her son. I’ve heard many of the stories over and over. But it wasn’t until her families and friends were all gathered together in her home twenty years ago after her 70th birthday party that I heard the chorus of stories that witnessed what she and they really went through and yet, all these years later, here they were laughing, singing, and truly grateful for the lives that they and America had created.
“What if she has a heart attack when they all come through the door,” her friend said with usual Italian drama. “Nah, Rosie’s strong. She’ll love this,” another friend, responded. It was 1997, in Easton, Pennsylvania and we were celebrating Rose’s seventieth birthday. Easton had been her American home since April 4, 1946, the day she first arrived. Our family had planned a big birthday party with many of the friends that she had made in America over the previous 50 years. Her birthday party was not held in February but rather in that summer when we could rely on more favorable weather. As her gift, her husband, Nick, brought across the Atlantic from Italy her 3 surviving sisters, one brother, their spouses, and one niece who represented the sister, Anna, who had died about 10 years before. Even though she is now financially able to go to Italy every year, this would be the first time that all of them had been together in America in the five decades since she left the Naples port. Having her family come for the party followed by a month-long stay was to be a huge surprise, with each couple and the niece staying with various friends around town until the moment at the party when they would be unveiled.
The party at a restaurant was not intended to be a surprise. Most of those gathered were of Italian heritage and in true Italian fashion any significant life event is memorialized with huge fanfare. So it would be unthinkable that we would just ignore the milestone of her seventieth birthday.
The food in any Italian gathering is almost a living guest at the event. Many guests in the room were real Italian, defined as born in Italy. Thus they were very familiar with how authentic Italian food was to be prepared. The main courses, the salads, the desserts were of the highest quality and the guests partook heartily of each item. “Che buona!” was heard throughout the room, each person sampling and savoring each bite, weighing in on the taste and enjoyment of the item.
Rose warmly greeted all her guests and looked radiant! She laughed happily and hugged everyone – all these dear people who formed her American family, who supported each other in bad times and laughed and sang in good times. But Rose remained unaware of the surprise that awaited her.
During cocktails and appetizers at the beginning of the party, she was seated in a chair with about 60 close friends and Nick, her husband; Frank, her son; Paul, her grandson and me, her daughter-in-law, gathered around her. “If you could have anything for your birthday, what would it be?” Nick asked. Without a moment’s hesitation, she responded with the answer she always gave during those times when we were all celebrating (or mourning), “If only my family could be here with me.” By “my family” she meant her birth family – those she left behind after the war those many years ago. Those whom she missed every Christmas and Easter, every baptism, every wedding, when she would call and all of them would be gathered, and eating and laughing (or crying) and she was again was not there.
With those words, “If only my family could be here,” the first couple came from behind Rose from a small holding area, in the anteroom of the restaurant. But this was her brother, Pino, the “baby” of the family, and sister- in- law, Cory, who lived in the Netherlands and actually they were the only ones who had ever visited her in America a number of times. So while their entrance was greeted with squeals of joy and hugs and laughter, and she was surprised and thrilled that they were with her, it could be somewhat anticipated that they might make the trip. It was when her sisters, their husbands and her niece, one by one, paraded in that all hell broke loose. “Oh my God! Oh my God! This isn’t real!” over and over, she screamed. “This is not possible!” which she pronounced “POSE-ee-ble.” She actually sat down hard in her chair for a minute to gather herself. She had given up all hope that they would ever come to America because they themselves were in their late 60’s. It was Nick’s generosity that made this the best birthday she would ever have.
It was over the course of the next weeks during the month-long family visit, that these elegant ladies, all now well into their sixties and seventies, gathered around Rose’s table and the stories spilled out. They came from various parts of Italy but most, like Rose, were from deep within southern Italy , the heel of the boot, and a few were from even farther south, in Sicily.
Around her table, her friends, her “American family” reminisced with her birth family about their long journey of grit, determination, strength and no small amount of good fortune. Their arthritic fingers and still beautiful necks now sparkled with jewelry, and they laughed over how lean those first years were, how they scrimped to make clothes with the best fabrics available after the war so that they would look their best. Now we sat in Rose’s large home sipping espresso from bone china demitasse cups, remembering how hard it was to find a decent “Italian” store to buy espresso or acceptable olive oil when they first arrived. “I guess you could find it in Philadelphia but going into Philly cost money; where were we going to get that? We thought you were rich if you could go into Philly then. Nobody but us drank espresso in those days. Now everyone drinks it,” they said, all laughing again.
They reminisced about how Rose settled in to her life in her new country, surrounded by Frank’s family and new friends that she made in her new neighborhood. They moved in with Frank’s sister and brother in law and lived in the top floor of their house. Easton had a large population of Italian descendants. And so it was her good fortune that she and her GI husband moved into a neighborhood that was largely of Italian heritage. She was fortunate in that she was able to communicate with them in Italian and create a new family of friends. It may have been the closeness of the homes, or the warmth of the families that made her neighborhood more of an enclave with people helping people, sharing dinners, talking over backyard fences. She loved the familiarity of their celebrations – the tone, the food, the raucous fun, the singing of the old Italian songs. She joined St. Anthony of Padua Church which was begun by a young Italian priest in the early part of the twentieth century for the Italian people of the community. It’s sister chapel, St. Mary’s, was just a few blocks from her house and it became her home away from home.
Rose and her friends made do with what passed for Italian in the late forties and early fifties in the local general food stores. Most of the time spaghetti sauce came out too thick, too strong and too red because of the consistency of the canned tomatoes available to them. In Italy, they picked the tomatoes right off the vine and indeed many of the families had their backyard gardens. In southern Italy the ground was dry which was purported to change the flavor of the produce, the tomatoes grew small and red and sweet. In Italy the sauce came out a more delicate lighter color than the telltale bright red than the sauces made of canned tomatoes of the day. They were lucky in that some of the Italian immigrants started their own grocery stores in Easton and imported whatever authentic Italian food could be brought in to the United States after the war. Even though it was weak olive oil, and the spaghetti noodles turned out gummy and pasty, not al dente as they were used to, and not yet uniformly called “pasta” by the vast public, it was all they had and they did their best to make meals reminiscent of those served back home. Even these watered down imports came at a high cost that most of them could not afford to squander so they used it sparingly, realizing that the food would fall short of anything they had back home. In Italy, homemade pasta dried as it hung from strings across their kitchens, and they ate pomegranates, figs and arugula, artichokes and gnocchi, dishes that would only decades later become trendy in America. The aromas wafting from their homes were of garlic and onions, tomatoes and cheeses. Here, they found hot dogs, mustard, and corn on the cob. Delicious and fun foods for Americans; foreign to them. When Rose saw someone eating corn on the cob for the first time, she recoiled and asked, in horror, why they would eat that, “In Italy, we feed that to the animals.” It was only later that she acquired a taste for the corn which she found to be a staple at summer picnics.
They talked and I marveled at their spirit, their indomitable spirit. Their attitude that nothing was guaranteed but with work, with moving forward they would succeed and be grateful for all they had. No whining here. They took nothing for granted. That Greatest Generation wasn’t only men – there was another side to it and it’s so worth knowing. I was/am in awe.
Italy is a country renowned for its rich culture: its history, its art, its style, its food, its fashion. But the governance of Italy has always been unstable, no more so than in the decades prior to the start of the Second World War. It was in 1922, five years before Rose was born, that a brash despot named Benito Mussolini rose to power as leader of the National Fascist Party. He ruled constitutionally until 1925 when he established himself as dictator, remaining thus until he was deposed by King Victor Emmanuel in 1943 and eventually murdered by political enemies. Rose left Italy in 1946. So for the vast majority of her young life, she lived under Mussolini’s reign.
Convinced that the war would not last, and with German victory looking very likely, Mussolini decided to enter the war on the Axis side. It was on June 10, 1940 that Italy declared war on Britian and France. Italy fought with Germany in numerous campaigns on the European mainland and in Africa. At a meeting with Adolf Hitler in August 1941, Mussolini offered and Hitler accepted the commitment of further Italian troops to fight the Soviets Union. It was when Italy experienced heavy losses on the Eastern Front that allegiance to Mussolini quickly deteriorated among the Italian people.
Additionally, Italy itself was suffering mightily as a result of the Allied bombings. Factories in Italy were brought to a virtual standstill due to lack of raw materials such as coal and oil. There was a widespread shortage of food throughout Italy but particularly in the South. The largely agrarian south where Rose lived relied on food it could grow to feed its families but meals where often meager. The industrial North suffered as well and soon labor strikes broke out throughout the country. The physical presence of the Germans in Italy sharply turned public opinion against Mussolini. This is the backdrop under which Rose’s family tried to decide which group they mistrusted more – the Germans or the Americans. So you can imagine her family’s anguish and outrage when a young American GI began coming to their house, trying to court their young daughter, Rose. Her father was adamantly against any involvement; her mother ultimately softened to this young man as time went on and sympathized with his plight of being in a war so far from home. Rose was so very young, only 15, when she met Frank. I once asked her how it came about that she would decide to leave her Italy, everything and everyone she held so dear, all she knew and go to America? She wasn’t rebellious. With all its hardship she wasn’t looking for a way out of Italy. Her simple answer to me, “I was in love and I didn’t know how far away it was.” So it was that on May 5, 1945, just days before the war ended in Europe that Rose, age 18, married Frank, in a gown made of parachute silk.
It was indeed not until she was on the troop ship Algonquin, carrying her and other war brides to the United States, that she realized as each day at sea passed and still they had not reached the American shore, how very, very far she would be from her family. It had taken 9 days to reach New York and Rose was almost in a state of nervous collapse. She knew how far from her home she was.
When they arrived at the dock, other GIs were there to welcome their brides, but not Frank. Rose was almost hysterical. What could she do? She knew no one in America except Frank. The American Red Cross had contacted each soldier to let them know when the ship would arrive but through a mistake in communication Frank had not been contacted until very late in the day and the trip from Easton to New York, now a trip that takes about 90 minutes, took much longer. Eventually he arrived with his sister and brother in law, with whom they would live for the first years of their marriage. Rose was so relieved and happy to see him that she ran toward him and caught her heel on a groove in the pavement and fell flat on her face, tearing her outfit and the stockings that she wore!
As she began her life in America, she wrestled with how everything seemed so different from where she came – some for the better, some for the worst. America, unlike Italy and the rest of Europe, generally was physically untouched by the war. And there indeed seemed to be opportunity here. But she realized that if she was going to live in America, she would need to learn to speak English. Because she needed to work in the clothing factories, there was no time or money to take English classes. Instead, she learned through full immersion from Frank’s family, from her neighbors and by attending weekly movies. Over time, TV would enhance her learning further and she became completely conversant in both languages. Every week she would spend a dime and go to the local movie theater to see a movie starring Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne. Rose loved the movies. The scenes playing out on the screen represented viewing a life apart from the life she lived. She paid attention to how they spoke, words new to her that the actors used. And gradually she learned. An added bonus was that, in those days, theaters often ran premium promotions whereby the audience could, for an additional sum, purchase towels or dishes or other household goods. When she could afford it, Rose delighted in taking an extra dime to buy a spoon or a fork or a dish to start a full set of tableware for the home she and Frank would one day have.
Her friends and their husbands all lacked an abundance of formal education. But some of the men were barbers or brick or tile layers. Those who had none of those skills got jobs in post-war America in manufacturing or steel plants, where one could earn reasonably good incomes for the time and build toward pensions. Or they drove trucks and made deliveries. Most of the women could operate a sewing machine and got jobs in local factories. These women now laughed as they remembered their factory jobs, wages of $.75 an hour and how they eagerly vied for overtime which would pay time and a half, enough by the end of the week possibly to buy a cabinet or a door as, little by little, they built their first homes by themselves on weekends. There was little loyalty to their employer, as they jumped from one factory to another if they found that they could make more money somewhere else. In Italy, some of the women had been trained in tailoring or embroidery or as seamstresses. They picked up additional work altering clothing.
In 1947, Rose’s only child, Frank, was born. He became the focus of their lives and they doubled down to create a life so that their child would have everything he needed.
Rose had an uncanny ability to save money, even in the tightest money years. A dollar here and a dollar there and eventually, after 8 years in America, they were able to buy a shell of a building that was supposed to have been a club, but Rose and Frank made it into their first home. While still living in an apartment, each day before or after work, Frank and Rose sanded floors, or painted rooms, or put up doors. Eventually it was ready for them to move in. They lived in that house until 1965, the year their son started college, when they sold it to buy another house.
And little by little, over the years, they and most of their friends prospered. As for Rose and Frank, in 1967 they quit their jobs and bought a small luncheonette in which they would flourish and would be the source of their livelihood for the rest of Frank’s life.
Some gradually invested in real estate or in stocks or both. By the time they were telling their stories around that table, most were living financially comfortable lives that they built with their own blood, sweat and tears.
Rose found love twice – with Frank, the GI she met and married in Italy in 1945, who brought her to America and changed the whole trajectory of her life. Together she and Frank started with nothing and built it into a wonderful life. She was young – 48 years old, and married to him just under 30 years – when Frank died in 1975. Devastated, she and her son sold the luncheonette and, a few months after Frank’s death, she went back to Italy for a year. Her family wanted her to stay for the rest of her life but she said she had a son and that she wanted to be in America with him. So once again, she left her beloved Italy and family for America.
Upon her return from Italy in 1976, she resumed her life in America with her son and her friends. A number of years after Frank died, she met Nick, an Italian American, whose ancestors came from Calabria in southern Italy. Nick was also a part of that generation who lived through the Depression and fought in World War II, came back, got a job, raised a family, understood the value of hard work and prospered. With Nick, she had a home in Pennsylvania and a condo in Florida, they traveled extensively, started going to Italy each year, had many friends and loved life until Nick died 13 years ago.
She’s having a large life, well lived, but with her heart divided – loving America and the life she enjoys here but still missing the life and family she left behind all those years ago.
And, in case you’re wondering, she’s far from done. Today her life is made up of her dear friends in Easton, Nick’s family and her frequent visits to Chicago to visit with her son and me, and her grandson and grandaughter-in-law and her beautiful great grandchildren. Almost every summer, she travels to Europe, to Italy to visit her sisters and nieces and nephews, cousins and a 99 year old aunt, and to the Netherlands to visit her brother and sister-in-law and their family.
Happy 90th birthday, my dear mother in law! Many, many more!