The Anarchist Bastard: Growing up Italian in America
An exclusive excerpt from Joanna Clapps Herman’s new memoir, The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America.
“Rille, rille,” my mother says to her mother. The two women sit at the large, chipped enamel table, with the blue and white checked edge which fills the kitchen “up the farm.” My grandmother’s table is the still point around which we inevitably converge. It’s the large flat plane to which we inevitably belly. The rest of us live in a slack, uneven circle on the streets and roads nearby.
Sundays we sweep in, crowding the table as we press and rush to eat and drink and talk and demand each other’s attention. We children slip into the crevices between our rocks, the grown ups. Rille, rille, tell, tell, we say and the stories from “the other side,” are told and retold. The words vibrate and rotate among us so often so they become our stories too. After Sunday dinner, the kids play wild in the woods while the grown ups crack nuts, play cards, take long, loose naps, then we all eat and drink again and finally pour off home. Our grandparents are the spin of the planet, the forces that affix us to the earth, then loosen us to the wind.
Rille is our dialect for dillo, tell.
Lucia Santorsa, child of cheese makers, is Lucana, a woman from the ancient region of Lucania, now called Basilicata. Su nata in Tolve, provincia di Potenza. Her daughter, my mother, is asking her to tell us one of the stories about making cheese with her father and uncle. I drift in to my mother’s side.
Rille adess, my mother says again. Tell us now.
“Ma, rille di che?” But what should I say?
“ Mo’ gli dic’, u nom’ du padre e che facev’.” Now you tell your father’s name and what he did.
My pader* had cows and he make a lot of cheese. He went to deliver the cheese every day and he went all over: Naples, Potenza, all those places. My pader sell all that cheese. Eh. That’s the life my father had.
And Papa, he wann’ ‘a make me go a’ scuola and I wann’ ‘a go, but Mama no wan’ a makea me go. I stay home to help my mader. But Papa was so nice. He talked so nice and he took me with him to the masseri’ where they kept the cows. That’s where they make the cheese. I learn how to make ‘em. My pader give me a piece of ‘a stuffa to eat, a lilla piece but I went in the back to work the stuffa, to make lilla thing, sola sol’.. And Papa and Zi’ Gerardo, the brother of my papa, make little things for le kids: na cavallozza, na uccellozza, na anellozza. A little horse, a little bird and a little ring. The two brothers always make those things with me. We bring to the kids at home. When they dry they so hard. Once when I had too many in my hands, they cascat’ a terr’, sono’ rott’ perchè it was so hard, eran tropp’ tost’. E quan’ so’ cascade, sono rott’, they fell on the ground and because they were so hard, they break.
“All right, Lucia,” Zi’ Gerardo say to me, “I give a little more. What am I gonna do? We make a little more. We bring ‘em home to tutti le kids and you give ‘em, one each.” He was so patient for le kids. Zi’ Gerardo always thought a bringa things to the creature, for all the kids, not justa me. He brought cosarella tutti le kids i vicin’. How many things my Zi’ Gerardo makea for me! I was always with my father e him. He did everything with me, because I was the only daughter. He likea so much.
But these cosarell’, were so hard nobody can chew him. One time my uncle Gerardo made una special thing just for me. He fatta na doll. From na stuffa from the cheese, Un doll, a regular doll. Cosi beautiful. I love that doll so much. I’m a so careful. I make sure I never drop that doll. I don’t want to breaka my doll.
Ma one day my doll fall sulla terr’ and break into little pieces and my mother she take the pieces and she pick him up and she put ‘em in the minestra. I cry. And I cry. I wanta my thing.
Until I got married, I stayed in Tolve.
And I was in Italy. There were a lot of marriage proposals for me from many young men. My mother was mad at me. She said, “Why do you do this? Why won’t you accept any of these proposals. You’ll wind up never getting married.”
“Ah,” my father said, “Leave her alone. We’ll keep her with us.” But then what happened happened. Vito was taking such a long time to come back from America that my father said, “Lucia, your mother is right. I know you gave your word but are you going to keep your word even if it’s for a hundred years?” These words hurt me so much. My father was so nice, no matter what he was talking about. But now he agreed with my mother.
Someone from Tolve had gone to America and he told Vito that there were many young men who wanted to marry me so Vito knew that if he didn’t come back to marry me, he was going to lose me.
Well, I used to stand by the door hoping Vito’d come back for me. And I was standing there one day, just standing there waiting. Someone came to our house and said, “Vito is coming.S”
Vito is coming? No, I couldn’t believe it. After all this time he was going to be here in five minutes.
When he arrived at the door, he asked, “Can I come in?” just as my father had always said he would. He shook hands with my father, and he talked to him about America. He told my father about the life he had in America.
Then my mother-in-law came and said to me. “This one isn’t going to stay here.” And so I got married. And that was the end of that.
While Vito was in Tolve to marry me, he was walking in the town square when someone met him and blurted out, “Your father’s dead. Vito, your Papa passed.” Vito lost consciousness. His father had died suddenly of pneumonia in New York. That was one of only two times that I saw Vito faint. The other time was later when your little brother Pasquale died. So he went back to America. I waited three years for him in Tolve. I had Archangela (her first daughter).
Tre` Casse: Arriving in America
So tell us about when he came to America and then tell us the story about why you finally came to live in America. And tell us about the houses you saw when you came here
Vito said he didn’t like New York, and he wanted to come back, so I built a house in Tolve. My father helped me and I made a home for us. I built a house in Italy. After I had lived in that house for a year—it was such a nice house, built out of stone—so nice. Then he went to Waterbury to visit some people from our town, Tolve. Then he wrote to me and said, “I like Waterbury, it’s like Tolve and I’m not going to come back to Italy no more. You have to come to America.”
All my people were there. I didn’t want to leave them. I had a nice big family (tenev’ una bella famiglia) and so I didn’t want to go to America. I complained for a year. Then my father said, “You want to lose your husband? Your husband will not come back here; you have to leave.” And so I was forced to go to America. It seemed so bad. My parents had to force me to get into the cart. I didn’t want to leave them.
Pasquale, my cousin, came with me up to Naples. We were going to travel together to America. But when we got to Naples they stopped him from getting on the ship because he had something wrong with his eyes. Pasquale said to me, “Lucia I can’t come.”
My father had told us that if someone couldn’t go ahead. the other one should go on alone. And so I obeyed my father’s words. And so I came alone. I didn’t want to leave Pasquale. And I came alone, me and the girl (her daughter, Arcangela). It was really bad on the ship. There was a storm, the water was stormy. I couldn’t hold anything down. Not even water I could keep in my stomach.
When you got off the boat what happened with your trunks? Tell us, when you got off what happened with the trunks.
I had three wooden trunks with me. They were filled with linens and things to eat. When I arrived in New York they let us pass through customs, but they wanted me to go through without my trunks. And I said I am not leaving here if these trunks don’t come with me.
And there were so many people on line. No, they said, I had to pass through without them. “They don’t come through with you.” But I wouldn’t leave the trunks. I wouldn’t leave unless they came with me. I only had three trunks with me. So I sat down on them and refused to leave. Then an Italian man came over to me and said, “Don’t worry Signora. You won’t lose these trunks. They will come with you. Here take these.” And he gave me three papers.” (claim checks)But now you take the boat,” (off Ellis Island into the harbor of New York).
Then Donato” (her brother-in-law) came to me and I said, “What do you want? I didn’t know him at first. Then I looked at him and said to him, “O Donato, Thank God you are here.” And all my fear went away…
I told him these are the papers for the trunks and he said, “Don’t worry. I have a friend in New York. He’ll help us get the trunks.” And his friend helped me.
I got here and there was no one here that I knew, no one from Tolve. Just Vito and Donato. I felt so ill. I was sick. I had come to the end of the world for Vito and I was alone. I was so all alone. When the distance from your family is great it’s very bad. What are you going to do? You have to make someone happy, either your husband or your family. I cried many times over it. And datsa’s the life.
Joanna Clapps Herman’s other books include Wild Dreams and Our Roots Are Deep with Passion.