As I approach the age at which both of my parents died, I regret more and more, the wasted opportunities I had, as a child and young adult, of conversing with them about their early years. All of those hours that I spent wishing I were somewhere else, or doing something more entertaining might have been put to so much better use finding out the true story of what they felt at my age then, or any given age at the time. What were their dreams and aspirations? How did Daddy feel when he had to leave his beloved home in Sicily, at the tender age of thirteen, to come to a strange new land? Was he frightened? Or was he thrilled to be coming to the richest and most wonderful country in the world? Did his mother cry for days to be sending him, all alone, to join her husband and began working as a man. Earning money so that the rest of the family could eventually make it to America, also? If I had taken the trouble to question Daddy about these things, as well as hundreds of other questions I now have, he would probably replied, in exasperation, "Oh, good God! I can't remember that long ago! Whadda you think I am, anyway?"
So, Daddy, I'm telling it like I think it might have happened. If I have it all wrong, then I am truly sorry. But, some parts, I know are right, because Mama told me about it when I did ask a few questions (never enough); and because George got some of the vital statistics just recently from the Internet, when he looked up data on immigrants coming into Ellis Island in the late nineteenth century. There, he found our father's name, as coming over on the ship, "The Sempione"
She tossed and turned in her lonely bed. She was truly a lonely and miserably unhappy woman. Her husband had been away for the past three years, working in America. She was still a very attractive woman: not yet forty years old. Her skin was smooth as a girl's, except for her hands. He hair was long and black as onyx. Indeed, it shone exactly like that substance. Her legs, which nobody saw except when she occasionally caught sight of them, herself, were long and shapely. Her eyes were extremely dark brown, often causing people she'd just met to exclaim that she had the blackest eyes they'd ever seen. She had a small, aquiline nose, and the corners of her mouth had almost always turned up into a mischievous grin, until Sam had left her to go to America. Now she seldom found anything to smile about. Her breasts were round as melons. She had desires and hopes still, but they were growing dimmer as each day passed. Her eldest child, Sam, born when she as only sixteen, was leaving in the morning on a ship that would take him to Naples, from whence he would sail to America two days from now. The only happiness left to her was in the form of her other three children: Sam was the eldest, then Grace and Josephine, with Phillip, the baby of the family. None of them had seen their father in three long years!
The two younger children had no remembrance of their father at all. There was not even a photograph of him! Grace could barely remember him.
The moon was a crescent shaped sliver of cheddar cheese. It cast its silvery light across the Mediterranean on that night that Rosa would never be able to forget. From her bedroom window, she could have looked out at the Sea. But she was far too distraught to care about such mundane things. The bed was too warm. That much was certain. But, it was only one of the many reasons that sleep would not come to her tonight; would not grant her the comfort of forgetfulness. So she prayed. Always, when she first got between the sheets of her bed, Rosa prayed. She had formed the habit early in life, when an older sister had taught her the prayers of the Rosary. That same sister, Anna, had gone on to become a nun, and had given Rosa her first set of rosary beads. She still was using them, some twenty-two years later.
She was conscious only dimly of the beads sliding between her work roughened fingers. Her lips moved rapidly, as she mouthed the words of the Pater Nosters and Ave Marias. She had lost count of the total number of the prayer cycles she had completed. The words came automatically, and without thought or emotion. She knew she was supposed to contemplate certain mysteries associated with the days of the week: the Joyful Mysteries for certain days, the Sorrowful Mysteries for others, and she had only a vague recollection of the other three categories.
Her mind was full of heaviness and sorrow. She had to send her eldest child to a country that she had never even seen. Her husband had sent her the money to send their older son to join him in America. He was to leave in the morning.
Of course, her husband did not write her long letters, telling her how things were there, nor describing any of the wonderful things he had to be seeing there. She had to rely on what other people had told her. He could barely read or write at all. Neither of them had much education. But, at least her penmanship was neat, legible, and, she had been often told, had great artistic quality. His penmanship was so bad that even she could hardly make it out after lengthy efforts at perusal. Still, the words, "You send Sam me now." And the enclosed money order had made it very clear what his intentions were.
Last Sunday, Father Giulianni, her priest, had announced at Mass that several members of the parish would be immigrating to America the following week. Reading from a prepared list, he named about thirty people from Cefalu and nearby towns, who would all be sailing on a ship called the Sempione. There were even two people from Palermo on the list. As soon as she heard the name of Sam's ship, Rosa gave her undivided attention to the names being read out.
Father Giulianni had read from a prepared list: Giovanni Marino, who was just fourteen; the Terracina family: Antonio Giglio, age twenty nine; the Muffolettas: the husband was named Giuseppe, and his wife was named Giuseppa, and their daughter, Rosaria, age seventeen; Rosa Culotta; and the priest's voice droned on and on. A total of thirteen people from the town of Cefalu alone were leaving the country of their birth. Sam's name was read last on the list. Rosa's ears had perked up at the mention of the name Muffoletta. She had spoken a few times, after mass, on the steps of the church with this couple. She knew they had a daughter, but she had never met her. Maybe she would be able to ask them to look after Sam on the
She had enlisted the aid of the local postmaster in procuring the ticket for the boy's passage to the United States. There had been just enough left over to buy Sam a new suit of clothes. She could not send the boy to a strange country with only the clothes he wore each day. That had left no money for the boat fare from Cefalu to Naples. She had gone to the boy's Godfather, Lorenzo Saaia, and begged him to pay the boat fare. It did not cost much at all, so the man grudgingly agreed that he would "Lend" her the money. "But," he said, emphatically, "I expect to be paid backwith interest, when Sam makes his fortune in America."Father Giulianni, her priest, had announced at Mass on Sunday, that several members of the parish would be immigrating to America the following week. He had read from a prepared list: Giovanni Marino, who was just fourteen; the Terracina family: Giuseppe, his wife, Giuseppa and their nineteen year old son, Salvadore; Antonio Giglio, age twenty one; the Muffolettas: again the husband was named Giuseppe, and his wife was named Giuseppa, and their daughter, Rosaria, age seventeen; Rosa Culotta; and the priest's voice droned on and on. A total of thirteen people from the town of Cefalu alone were leaving the country of their birth. Sam's name was read last on the list. There were several others from near by cities going on the same boat, which was listed as the Sempione. But Rosa's ears had perked up at the mention of the name Muffoletta. She had spoken a few times, after mass, on the steps of the church with this couple. She knew they had a daughter, but she had never met he. Maybe she would be able to ask them to look after Sam on the journey.
On their way outside, as soon as they had all taken communion, Rosa told her four children to wait, while she tried to see if she could have a word with Giuseppe Muffoletta. Just about this time, the family had emerged from the church. Rosaria, the daughter, recognized Rosa first, and nudged her mother as she pointed to the Imbraguglios. Her mother and father walked over with her, to shake Rosa's hand.
"Well, Mrs. Imbraguglio, I had heard that your young son was to be on the same ship with us. I am so happy we cam all make 5the journey together." Giuseppe Muffoletta was a handsome man and his wife was still a pretty woman. But Rosa could not help noticing that she was fast losing her figure and becoming the typical overweight Italian wife. She guessed the couple to be over ten years older than she and Sam.
Rosa, took the proffered hand, and gave the man one of her rare smiles. He couldn't help noticing again how lovely she was, and how dazzling white her teeth were. "Yes," Rosa said in reply, "I was hoping I'd get a chance to speak with you. I want to wish you and your family the very best of luck in America. And I especially wanted to ask if you could possibly-- sort of look out for my boy on the trip."
He turned to his wife, and smiling, answered, "We had already discussed this. We said we'd have to take care of your son, and make sure he reaches his father after we land in New York."
Rosa had been almost overwhelmed at the man's generosity and kindness. After all, she hardly knew them. "Thank you, and God bless you all." She grabbed the wife's hands and pressed them, then she leaned forward and kissed pretty little Rosario on the cheek. "And you," she said, "are just about the prettiest little thing I've ever seen."
Rosaria blushed prettily. Her parents beamed. "It's just too bad you're three years too old. Otherwise, I'd have Sam courting you on the voyage."
And they all laughed. But Rosa knew, somehow, that the next time she saw her son, he would have a wife and children of his own.
So, it was on this that Rosa's mind was busy, and not her prayers. Her lips continued to form the words, endlessly, however.
When she completed the Rosary (actually, it was the fourteenth she had said during the long night), she kissed the crucifix at the end of the beads, and laid them carefully on her nightstand. She rose wearily from the bed, with its sagging cotton mattress. Taking the lamp from the stand, she fumbled around for a match with which to light it. The orange colored light dimly illuminated the big, dark room, with its wooden furniture. She pulled the dress she had worn the day before over her head, and smoothed down her braided hair with her hands.
She walked down the stairs to the ground floor. The animals blinked their eyes as the light woke them from their slumbers. Rosa walked over to the hens' nest, and found a still warm brown egg. She took a needle from the hem of her petticoat and pricked the small end of the egg. Turning it up, she drank hungrily from the shell.
"Ah," she sighed. It had tasted good. If only everything in life could be available at so little cost or effort.
She walked over to the shelf and took down her pail, and then nudged the goat to move over a little and allow her to pull up her milking stool.
"I gotta take a little of your milk," she said to the Nanny, stroking her silky hair.
The tiny Nanny Goat stood patiently as Rosa kneaded her teats, drawing forth every available drop of milk for her family's breakfast. Long years of practice had given her the ability to coax the last drop of nourishment from this faithful little animal. Rosa called her "Bella", affectionately. She often laughed and said she considered Bella another of her children.
Her thoughts were all over the place as she milked. First and foremost, they were with Sam, and his imminent departure; she would have all of the gardening to do now, with him gone. Then, her thought turned to the husband who had been away for so long. She had become almost completely self-sufficient. She had to. The little money orders he sent from time to time were a mere pittance. She could barely make ends meet. And that was almost totally without meat to eat. If Sam had not possessed such uncanny ability to grow things from the soil, they would have gone hungry many times. But, he always grew the biggest, most wonderful tasting tomatoes. And his onions were as sweet as apples! Yes, he definitely had the gift. Or, as some would say, he possessed a green thumb.
When she had finished with her milking, she gave the hen and the goat something to eat, and walked back up the stairs to her kitchen.
It was still very warm weather, and she did not like building a fire in the stove. But she felt she owed it to Sam to cook him a hot meal since it would be the last one he would have at home.
She lifted the black iron circle from the stove-top, and taking her kindling, placed it, with some old papers, in the stove. She struck a match and watched as the paper caught fire, then spread to set the splinters ablaze.
She planned to make some fresh, hot biscuits, which they would eat with some soft, sharp goat's cheese. This was Sam's favorite breakfast.
In the room he shared with his younger brother, Phillip, Sam had also experienced difficulty sleeping all night long. He had never spent a night away from home. Not in all of his twelve years and eight months. He had never spent a single day away from Cefalu. Now, today, he was to travel to Naples, from which huge city he would board a boat for America.
He had no illusions of his having a good time on the journey, nor after he arrived, for that matter. His mother had made that very plain. He was going to join his father, who had left Sicily three years earlier, and now worked as a brick mason in Syracuse, New York. To young Sam, this had always caused confusion. Syracuse, he well knew, was a big city on the same island on which he now lived. How could his father have landed in another city with the same name, millions of miles away? He was glad his future home had such a familiar name, however. The biggest city in Sicily was named Syracuse, also. Indeed, the place where he was going had taken its name from its Sicilian counterpart. His mother told him that was because there were so many Sicilians already living there. That gave him hope that he would be able to converse with many people, and not just his father.
Sam, too, was to become a brick mason. The young lad was well acquainted with labor. Ever since his father had left home, Sam had to do all of the manual labor. There was the garden behind their home. He was good with growing things. Both of his parents had remarked on this ability early in his life. He loved tilling the rich soil, planting the seeds or small plants his mother grudgingly bought. They were woefully poor, but not much poorer than most of the people in Cefalu. Many of their friends, neighbors and kin-folks had already migrated to America. They never referred to it as the United States. Whenever anyone in Cefalu spoke of the U.S.A., it was simply called "America".
He got out of bed, now, and pulled on his trousers and shirt and walked down to the kitchen. He could hear his mother shuffling about already, even though it was still almost dark. He walked in and simply stood there, observing his mother in her preparations for breakfast: his last meal at home.
Although he had not made a sound, she felt his presence. She looked up hurriedly: yes, there he was. His beautiful head of jet-black hair was tousled and a lock of it fell over his eye. He looked as if he had not slept at all.
"You didn't need to get up this early," she said. "Boat don't leave until ten."
"I couldn't sleep." He said it simply, without whining or complaining. He was a brave little boy. She recognized this fact, and was thankful for it. She would certainly miss him. He had been all the real help she had since her husband had gone to America. But, she was glad that she did not have to send Phillip. Her baby was her very heart. And she knew, deep down in her own heart, that sooner or later she was going to have to give up each one of their four children as they were sent for, to join their father. But, would he ever send for her? Probably not. Theirs had been the usual arranged marriage, and one of convenience only.
He looked up hopefully. Yes, there it was: the Sempione! It wasn't just another ship. This was the ship that would carry him to America. America: that great, big, wonderful country that everybody in Sicily wanted to live in: "The Home of the Free". There, he would join his father in the city of Syracuse, New York. He had never been as far away as Syracuse, however. It might just as well have been thousands of miles from Cefalu. Or on the moon, for that matter, because none of his family had ever been there. Money was as scarce as hen's teeth, and for his mother to afford for him to travel to Naples had been a great sacrifice.
So, Sam had never left his home-town of Cefalu before. Beautiful, quiet and peaceful Cefalu, with its sparkling blue bay, stark white houses, and magnificent old Mount Gibilmano, rising majestically in the background. Already, he felt a lump forming in his throat at the thought that he might never see this town again.
But he wouldn't dwell on this. It made him too sad. He tried to envision the wonders of the land he was about to become a part of. He had never been a reader, and there were no television sets to bring him program on foreign lands. Nor had he yet seen one of the moving pictures that were just beginning to make a name for themselves: mainly in America. It seems that every single new invention came from that fabulous land. Small wonder his father had wanted to go there to make his fortune.
Well, so far, the fortune had eluded the elder Sam Imbraguglio, and a few dollars a month was all he had managed to send his family back in Cefalu. And now, Sam was about to join him. He would have to learn the art of bricklaying, so that he, too, could earn money to send back to his mother. Like her, he figured it was only a matter of time before he and his father would be sending for the others to join them: one by one.
Secretly, Rosa wondered if she would ever be sent for.
Sam was not a good sailor. He had never so much as learned to swim, because his mother had a horror of one of her children drowning. This morbid phobia was the result of having had a younger brother drown when they were young. Furthermore, he never had the time to work around the docks, or even visit them very often. He did love to look at the beautiful little Bay of Cefalu, and to him, the dainty sails of the boats in the harbor were one of the prettiest things he had ever seen. He did occasionally wade in the warm, soothing and refreshing water. Until he boarded the boat that took him to Naples, he had never been aboard a boat in his life. Not even a rowboat or a raft!
So, that first night out on the open water, was a calm, balmy night, and although he had been unable to sleep, because he was so keyed up, he did not get seasick.
Similarly, the next night, on the Sempione, the waters were calm, but this time he slept through the entire night. This was no doubt due to the fact that he was utterly exhausted. But it was to be his last night of rest until he landed in New York!
The second day they were out from Naples, there was a bad squall. The ship was tossed this way and that, like a bird, flying crazily through the air. Sam had begun to feel nauseated, and for the first time he "Fed the Fishes". He was miserable from that point until he walked down the gangplank at Ellis Island.
All the following day, after he first became seasick, Mr. Muffoletta worried about him, and kept trying to tempt him to eat a little something.
"Oh, no, sir. I couldn't eat a thing," the poor youngster moaned, "I'd just have to throw it up as soon as I swallowed it."
"But, Sam, they say the only way to fight sea sickness, is by eating. Eat anything and everything."
But Sam just shook his head, miserably, and refused to waste perfectly good food.
And so, he ate nothing from that second day of the voyage until he was safely in the harbor in America.
Human misery is a terrible thing. First of all, Sam was lonely and afraid. He was homesick for his mother and home. He was more than a little scared of the great unknown, which constituted his entire future life. And he was nauseated beyond endurance, and ached in every fiber of his being.
In later years, he was to declare that he wasn't able to remember a single thing about the long voyage across the Atlantic. His subconscious had undoubtedly blocked the whole dreadful experience out of his memory.
Mr. Mufoletta had to come and help him to his feet when the time to debark arrived. The poor lad was so weak, he could not stand alone. This kind and generous man had brought a tin cup of coffee and a piece of bread and some good goat cheese. "See if you can't eat this, Sam, and try to keep it down. You're going to need your strength."
Sam discovered that upon rising, the boat was no longer rolling from side to side. "Oh," he exclaimed, greatly relieved, "I can stand up now," and having said that, he almost pitched forward on his face.
"Steady, now. Just hold on. You're got to have some nourishment in your stomach. Remember, Son, an empty sack cannot stand alone." Sam was to remember this saying for the remainder of his life.
"I think I will have that food now," he said, and began devouring it the minute he held it in his hands.
"Slow down!" Mrs. Mufoletta warned, "Don't try to eat it all at once."
"You forget---the boy's literally starving to death." Her husband put his arm around Sam's shoulders. "He hasn't eaten a bite of anything since we left Naples."
"Oh, yes I did," Sam said in response to this statement, "I ate that first night after we sailed----but it all came right back up!"
They were being herded into lines, which were beginning slowly to inch their way across the floor of the ship. Sam had been too sick to notice how they were herded like a bunch of cattle on the ship. Now, that he was on his own feet again, he would have resented this, had he not been so afraid of what was coming. There was not much he could do about any of it, though, so he staunchly made up his mind to take whatever the Lord had in mind for him.
As they walked down the gangplank, the little group all felt an indescribable thrill. They were about to walk of the very earth of America!
The lines moved at a snail's pace into the big shed that was the main building on Ellis Island. All immigrants had to pass through this before they were allowed into the country.
It was hot, once they were inside. Hot and crowded. Sam felt as if her were smothering. He strained his eyes trying to see what was about to happen to them. All he could discern was the longest line of people he had ever beheld.
When he asked Mr. Mufoletto what was being done to them, the man answered that he thought this was the place where they would be asked questions about their names, ages, if they had any relatives in the USA, and so forth.
It took over two hours before Sam could finally see the wooden table, before which each immigrant was made to stand, as they were interrogated.
When it was finally his turn to approach the long wooden table where each passenger had to state his name, age, place of birth, as well as his destination in the USA, he looked back, helplessly, to Mr. Mufoletta. Sam did not speak more than two or three word of English, and he was too afraid he was mispronouncing even this limited vocabulary.
"Don't worry, Sam," the fatherly man comforted him, "they've got people who speak many languages working here. You won't have to know English just yet."
He felt as if he were going to be sick again, as his legs, which felt as if they were made of rubber, took him forward.
The man spoke perfect Italian.
The man wrote it without asking how to spell it.
"Thirteen," actually, he would not be thirteen for six more months, but they had agreed that it would be better this way.
"Have you relatives here in America?"
"And where is he?"
"Syracuse, New York."
And gradually, the boy began to relax a little.
The man stamped a paper and handed it to him. "Keep this on your person until you are with your parent," he said to Sam.
After they had all been cleared, the Muffolettos and Sam were instructed to board a ferry, which would take them from Ellis Island to the mainland.
As they caught sight of the magnificent bronze statue known as "Miss Liberty", or the Statue of Liberty, they all felt such a rush of emotion, that they all had tears streaming down their faces.
The mere size of Bartholdi's gift to America, was overwhelming. This, coupled with the freedom, hopes and dreams it signified, made it especially meaningful to these immigrants, pouring into the United States at this period of history.
The closer they got to Brooklyn, the faster their hearts beat. By the time they reached the streets, Sam was so excited he could hardly stand it! There were so many people! And they all seemed to be rushing somewhere!
Sam was astonished that he was able to hear so many different people speaking in Italian! There had to be a very large number of people who had moved here from Italy and Sicily.
Mr. Mufoletto was going to remain in Brooklyn. His brother had secured a job for him as a janitor in one of the dwelling places. It would be hard work, but it paid a small salary, in addition to providing two rooms that would serve as the family's home.
Sam wished that his arduous journey was at an end, and envied his newly discovered friends. But, true to his word, the good man saw to it that Sam got to the train station, and even accompanied him to the ticket window where he purchased his ticket to Syracuse. The journey was to take well over a full day's travel.
When he boarded the train, it was the first time he had ever been inside a railroad coach. There was the odor of stale air, cigar smoke, cigarette smoke, and more smoke and soot from the coal burning engine. The dirty brocaded seats were so soiled and worn that it was impossible to tell what color they had originally been. And it was hot. Hotter even than the shed on Ellis Island had been. He saw only one empty space by a woman. She appeared to be middle aged, and had an immense stomach. It was the only free seat he could find. And she was sprawled over most of it, as well as her own seat.
He said, "Can I sit with you?" and she nodded. Whether or not she spoke Italian, she knew what he was saying. He had to crawl over her to reach his seat, which was by the window. He longed to open the window to let in some fresh air, but he did not know how. Also, he was afraid that it wasn't allowed.
They sat and sat. After what seemed an eternity, there was a great metallic clatter and the train shuddered, and then the whistle screamed out, as the coach began to move. It moved so slowly, at first, that Sam was not sure whether or not it was moving at all. Then, as it gathered speed, he watched in utter fascination, as the platform seemed to be moving, and not the train.
The train pulled away from the station, and, as it began to move in one direction, another train could be seen, departing in the opposite direction. The two trains came very close to each other, and Sam was afraid they might actually collide. When he realized this was not going to happen, he sat back and watched as the people in the other train stared out their windows, just as he was doing.
His eye caught that of a young man about his own age, he thought. This fellow returned Sam's inquisitive stare, as if the two of them would like to know where the other was going.
And then, the other trains were gone. Sam sat back in the seat and thought he might be able to sleep. He was terribly tired, and was very happy that the motion of the train, unlike the ship, did not bother him at all.