I'm 3/4 Italian.
My dad's full-blooded, both sides of his family having come from Sicily; my mom's 1/2 on her father's side. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have known my mother's grandfather until I was into High School. I knew he came over on the boat when he was 12 or 13. I knew that he came knowing no English, that his family settled in Pennsylvania and then moved to Akron to work in the rubber factories.
Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond knows that Italian heritage is overwhelming. Family's--or at least my family-- stayed closely knit, remain closely knit through multiple generations and branches. Being Italian-American dominated my childhood. We made gallons of pasta sauce to freeze every summer, we danced tarantellas at every wedding, we celebrated Christmas Eve as only good transplanted Italians can.
Growing up I was always fascinated by family history. I loved knowing exactly where my family came from; I loved that I had so much Italian blood running through my veins when most people in my generation are decidedly American mutts. I loved looking at old photographs and hearing stories about where ancestors settles and how they made their livings in a new country. I wanted desperately to speak the language (I still do) and to go back to the old country.
When my plane landed in Milan in June of 2000, I was only the second in my family ever to go back there. (My mom had gone in the 70s.) Not to the towns from which my family came, but to Italy more generally. For two months I marveled at the landscape, the food, the beauty of the people. I suddenly understood that the decision to immigrate was a more monumental one than I will ever understand. Despite what must have been overwhelming poverty or economic uncertainty, to look back at the Mediterranean coast for the last time must have been heart-breaking. I loved everything about Italy, two months later I seriously considered not getting on the return flight. When I took J back there in 2005, landing in Milan after three days in Paris felt strangely like coming home. Despite wanting to see more of Europe, I consistently ache to go back to Italy and can't imagine planning any trip across the Atlantic that does not include a stopover somewhere on the Italian peninsula.
Growing up I couldn't not identify myself as Italian, but so much of this came directly from my great-grandfather. He was the one living link that we had to the old country. As he aged, living alone until his early 90s, he seemed to regress back into some sort of strange peasant lifestyle, cooking whatever was available each day in a pressure cooker while he tended his goats and chickens. Perhaps it's because no Italian grandmothers survived in my memory, perhaps it's because our family is so decidedly patriarchal (or at least that's what the women lead the men to think), perhaps it's because I was so very short sited, but I never really considered the women.
And then, two nights ago I wandered onto the Ellis Island homepage and discovered them all over again. We had always thought that my great-grandfather came over first, with his father. But on the Ellis Island website, you can search for your ancestors and see scanned ship manifests. He actually came with his mother--one of the thousands of Maria's that left Europe in the early part of the twentieth century.
Sometime in June of 1913, Maria Figurelli left the port of Naples with her 4 living children. She was only 2 or 3 years older than I am right now, but her children ranged in age from 12 to 2. She had $60 to her name, she could not read or write, she left no addresses for friends and family remaining in Italy. Sometime in June 1913, she boarded a boat with four children and every expectation that she would be able to make her way to a husband who waited for her in Williamsburg, PA.
Did anyone meet her at the docks? Had she had any contact with her husband who left almost a year earlier? Did she travel with friends or alone? The ship's manifest tells us none of these things, but it uncovered for me a new story to figure out. For so long my focus had been on the men who made a new life here. Now I think about women not much older (and on my father's side far younger) than I am now and what strength they must have had to come.