My grandfather Francesco at the wedding of his grand daughter – circa 1950. He was a 33 year old widower in 1905 with 3 young children, no wife to care for them and no future in the new Italy. He decided to come to America.
Francesco needed a wife.
He was a widower. He was sitting in the place in Southern Italy where his family had lived for generations with three children who no longer had a mother. His wife Antonia was dead.
He was also determined to go to America. He knew he had no future here. Neither did his children.
He had grown up poor in a town (you have to guess which one) where absentee landlords owned everything and everyone else owned nothing. He had no education and could barely read or write Italian. The town was run by the landlords, the “prominenti” (those relatively well off), the priests and the Camorra – the black hand.
His home town had been occupied by Islamic invaders, then the Byzantines centuries before. The Normans landed in 1067, only one year after the Norman conquest of England. The Normans kicked out the Byzantines.. These conquerors were followed by The Kingdom of Sicily, the Kingdom of Naples, the Spanish and the Napoleonic French. Garibaldi, Mazzini and Cavour finally created the new united Italy.
Little changed in the small town. The whole region had descended into a deep local sleep due to rampant malaria. The new Italy, focused on the industrial north, did little to help.
Francesco, who went by the Italian nickname Ciccio (pronounced by most as “Cheech” as in Cheech and Chong) was determined to leave. Italy was in chaos.
Ciccio was born November 15, 1872. It was 1905 and he had three kids, no wife and no future in the new Italy.
My grandmother Laura (DeVito) – the last picture I took of her, visiting our little home on a dirt street on the outskirts of Coney Island in the early 1960s. She passed while I was on the Horn of Africa in 1965. A poor woman, she took my mother off of the streets when she had nowhere else to go. My mom eventually married her youngest son Domenico.
He began by courting a local girl – a member of a family in which the girls had a habit of marrying the men from his family, Her name was Laura and she was 21 and available. Would she be interested in marrying a man with three children and leaving Italy for good?
The “Prinzess Irene” – seized during WWI by the navy and turned into the troop ship “Pocahantas”
I have no idea how she came to her decision or even if it was her decision. All I know is that Ciccio and Laura married on September 30, 1905 . Ciccio arrived at Ellis Island with his oldest son on the steamer “Princess Irene” from Naples on January 25, 1906. Laura followed with the two younger step-children, arriving May 4 on the “Barbarossa”. The last letter of our family name was changed from an “a” to an “o”by the bureaucracy.
They moved into a cold water flat on Broome Place on the lower East Side of New York City.
They eventually had five more children. My father was the youngest, born on January 12, 1917. I had no idea until I obtained his birth certificate that he was born at home – in that cold water flat at 166 Broome Place. I had no idea my dad’s given name was Domenico – no one ever called him that including family. Everyone called him Danny.
Ciccio was making a living as an ice man, delivering blocks of ice on his shoulders up the tenement steps to cool the ice boxes of the customers above. By the time my dad was born his trade was listed as “coal dealer” on the birth certificate.
The “Little Italys” of New York were run by the same folks who ran the old country towns – the prominenti, the priests and the Camorra. Italian socialists, syndicalists and anarchists battled these forces which they felt kept the peasants under heel. Pitched battles in the streets between leftists, led by Carlo Tresca and Black Shirt fascist sympathizers, supported by the prominenti and the church plagued the Italian community in the 1920s and 30s. Eventually the war brought an end to both support for Mussolini and the Italian left. By this time Ciccio had moved to 77th street and 13th avenue in Brooklyn. Four of his five children with Laura lived within two blocks.
The move to America went well for our family. I sometimes wonder how someone can leave their home, culture, language, parents and family for good – knowing deep down there’s a good chance you will never see them again. Laura got a break however – her sister and husband followed several years later and settled in the Bronx. I remember as a kid trekking from Brooklyn for the St. Joseph Day feast at my great-aunt’s apartment.
One of Ciccio’s sons from his first wife Antonia went to Staten Island and started a coal and ice company. Today his grandchildren and great-grand-children still run a thriving fuel oil and air conditioning business with an operation in Boston as well. Our family name, shortened up a bit is on all the trucks. My cousins were instrumental in building the Staten Island Hospital. Another cousin is a world renown civil engineer. Sprinkled in are Wall Streeters and lawyers, including my daughter who is a state prosecutor where she lives. During this past year I found cousins I didn’t know I had in Texas; descendants of Cicco’s first son Gaetano, that little boy who came over on the boat and my father’s eldest half-brother.
Success didn’t come until the 3rd and 4th generation but it came. I like to think that if Ciccio were still alive he would be very happy with what we have done with the opportunity he gave us.
The town in the old country has a street named for us. I have no idea why. Our distant family is still there and much better off one hundred years later. They continue to live where we have now lived for centuries. The town built a melancholy monument to all those who left – a bronze flock of birds rising from a great rock, flying away.
I visited Ellis Island about twelve years ago and sat for a time in the Great Hall where Ciccio and Laura sat. What were they thinking as they sat there? Were they happy or sorry that they came here? Apprehensive? Lonely?
My daughter had their names added to a bronze plaque outside facing Manhattan as a birthday gift to me.
I am named after my grandfather, one of a number of his grandchildren to carry his name. I know I was his favorite. He always had a pinch and a pat on the cheek for me followed by a kiss on my head. Laura always bought me an ice cream.
As a child I watched Grandpa grow old. Toward the end he would walk slowly down the stairs from our third floor apartment backwards while holding on to the handrail Soon he couldn’t visit us anymore. I watched his mustache turn gray.
Ciccio died on my 12th birthday – September 10, 1954. I think of that tough old man every birthday. I would give anything for an hour to talk with him!
Laura passed 12 years later while I was in Eritrea. I missed her funeral. I still miss them both. Laura took my mother in when she had no where else to go; but that’s another post.
They are buried together in Calvary Cemetery not too far from the Long Island Expressway but a long way from home.
Broome Street is now gentrified. Nice bars. Young upscale New Yorkers. Heath Ledger lived on Broome Street. If you listen you can still hear the ghosts of the old timers.
Ciccio! Laura! “You did good! Real good!”
P. S. The old country town is of course……….Toritto.