Saturday, February 27, 2010

Grandma and Grandpa's Great Adventure

My family originally came to America in 1912 from a little hill town in Southern Italy called Grassano. It is situated down near the heel of boot-shaped Italy, sandwiched between Puglia to the north and Calabria to the south. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents came from Grassano in the same year, the former in May, 1912 and the latter in October, 1912. My wife's grandparents come from southern Italy too, the maternal side from around Naples, and the paternal side from the seaport town of Gaeta (Grandma) and from Calabria (Grandpa). As I grow older I think about all of them a lot. What must it have been like to leave all that was familiar to cross the vast Atlantic in the steerage section of crowded ships, sometimes not knowing what fate awaited them in America. For many, their first stop was Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was a unique and a remarkable place. From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of this small island in New York Harbor. This gateway to the new world was enlarged from its original 3.3 acres to 27.5 acres mostly by landfill obtained from ship ballast and excess earth from the construction of the New York City subway system. Immigrants from around the world arrived, often carrying all they possessed. They were screened here for diseases and some were quarantined or sent back home. Things must have been truly horrible in the countries they came from for them to leave and endure the hardship of the perilous crossing.

Thankfully, immigration records at Ellis Island were kept pretty meticulously. I was able to look up the actual ship's manifest that recorded the entry to this country for both sets of my grandparents. The ledger page shows many passenger details including their names, place of birth, marital status, with whom they were traveling, how much money they carried, a general physical description, health status and where in the United States they were bound. For me it was very moving reading these details about my grandparents, people I never thought of as adventurous, but who had the courage to make this dangerous journey for the sake of their family. It helped me see Grandma and Grandpa in a whole new light.

We were less fortunate finding any kind of paper trail for my wife's grandparents. Many Italian immigrants came to America through different channels, for example by crossing the lightly secured Canadian border and simply walking into the United States. My wife says that her paternal grandfather worked as a ship's cook and eventually took up residence in the U.S. Her paternal grandmother's story is a more poignant one. Grandma Gelsomina (pictured left at our wedding) was sent to America by her family at the tender age of 13 to work as a domestic for a family they knew who had already set up house in America. Imagine how frightened she must have been, and the desperation of her family in Italy who were too poor to support their daughter.

The American immigration story is a compelling one. The country was growing and men were needed to do the hard labor on roads, subways, bridges and tunnels. Many places around the world like Italy and Ireland were dirt poor, and families broke away from their ancestral lands to find a better life. The contribution these immigrants made to the building of America cannot be measured. They arrived with not much more than strong backs, improbable dreams and a determination to succeed, and America welcomed them, if not always with open arms. I am proud to be the grandson of Italian immigrants. Last year we vacationed Italy, and in a way, it felt like going home.

I've written before about what it's like to visit Ellis Island (View "Those Who Came Before"), to sail into that harbor, to walk in the great halls that your grandparents passed through, to see the photos and hear the stories of these remarkable people. It is an experience I will never forget because it helped me understand who I am.


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The Whiner said...

Good thing it wasn't me who had to be sent to America from Italy to work as a domestic....I don't even iron. Seriously, can you imagine how scary that was? I couldn't even pick up my dirty clothes when i was 13.

Jim Pantaleno said...

All those who made the trip were pretty amazing people. Luckily, things worked out OK for most of them.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

My Father's father, Grandpa Joe, came over as a stowaway! Apparently, he killed a man in self defense (political in nature) and slipped over on a ship!

I wonder if they are still looking for him?

Jim Pantaleno said...

Wow, your relatives are a lot more exciting than mine!