“However exciting it was for my parents and their siblings to start a restaurant business it really did take a toll on us children. The three families lived in one apartment building and all the adults worked in “the restaurant” except for one sister. The one sister would babysit six children who were all under the age of five. Needless to say we children were desperately in need of some tender loving care. The days we got to spend with Nonna (my grandmother) were memorable! Nonna in her caring and nurturing ways cooked all of our favorites for us! My brother and I absorbed all that love that we so desperately needed. As I got older I looked forward to listening to all her stories. Even though they were sad stories she always prefaced them by how happy she was once her family came to America. Nonna, a deeply religious woman when speaking of her life would always equate God answering her prayers with coming to America.
Nonna Concetta was born in 1913 just before World War I on the island of Ischia, an island in the bay of Napoli, Italy. Her dad was a prominent fisherman where he and his brothers owned a fleet of fishing boats. Nonna did not remember much about her mom because the mom died when Nonna was only 5 years old. Right after the WWI while the island of Ischia was just getting back on its feet, a contagious illness ripped through the island like a tornado, leaving a trail of destruction in its path! Some say that the soldiers brought it back with them. It was flu, so deadly that people would get sick before bed and not wake up. The infamous Spanish Pandemic Flu of 1918 affected young people ages ranging from 15-35. This flu destroyed so many people so fast that there was a shortage of coffins, morticians and grave diggers. The unfortunate families had no other choice but to bury their loved ones at a mass grave located in the cemetery in Ischia Ponte. Nonna’s mom was one of the victims buried in that mass grave. For some reason it almost wiped out the entire side of the mom’s family. But Nonna, her father and four siblings were spared. The dad had no other choice but to marry right away so he had help to raise his five children.
It wasn’t the perfect family. The children grieved for their mother while dealing with their newly married young step mother. The step mother was so overwhelmed by taking care of five young children that she was borderline abusive. Nonna would tell me many stories of the step mother’s abuse and Nonna had turned to religion for solace praying for it to get better. One story that really saddened me was that being that she wasn’t allowed to attend school Nonna paid her step sister to teach her to read and write just so that she was able to read the bible. Nonna, a very tall beautiful woman remained in that house until she married at age 22, ecstatic to finally get away to start and raise her own family. Her happiness did not last long because WWII broke out in 1939 and her husband had to serve as a Medic in Mussolini’s army for 6 years. It was difficult but she managed to raise 4 children on her own while her husband was away. In 1945 the war ended and life was pretty good with my grandfather being back home. Although the family struggled they never went without any food. Nonno, my grandfather not only farmed on the inherited piece of Nonna’s mom’s land but also was a fisherman. My grandparents had three more children. Many families left Ischia to go find work and live a better life. After two wars Ischia was economically ruined. Work was minimal and people struggled to make a living. In 1949 Argentina was experiencing great prosperity under the Argentinean President Juan Peron and his wife Evita. Nonno decided to go to Argentina to see if he can start a new life for his family. Leaving his wife with 6 children and another child on the way Nonno set out for Argentina with the intention of his family to follow later. He found prosperity in Argentina as soon as he arrived but unfortunately the prosperity was short lived. The money that Nonno sent to Ischia had no value in the Italian currency and his family was literally starving. The church would send food to Nonna’s house but it wasn’t enough for a family of 7. But Nonna persevered and she and her children helped themselves by knitting and making baskets to sell to tourists. Nonno ended up staying in Argentina for three years before a heartfelt letter written by his daughter convinced him to return home. Finally life seemed good and Nonna was happy to have her husband back and the stress of taking caring 7 children on her own dissipated. But alas it was still very hard to make a living in Ischia. Many Ischiatanos left to find work in other countries. My grandmother’s sisters and brother ended up leaving Ischia for England, Australia and the US. Nonno needed to find a better life for his family. His two brothers had moved to Marlboro, NY and were doing well. So he started the immigration process to move his family to New York. In 1955 Nonno, along with three of the older children moved to New York to prepare a life so the rest of his family could join him. My mom, her sisters and Nonno worked very hard in factories located in Newburgh, NY. In five years they made enough money to buy a house and were able to move the rest of the family to the US. In 1960 the day my Nonna stepped off the boat in NYC to join her whole family she vowed to never move back to Italy because for the first time in her life she was truly happy. There was food on the table that night and every night after that! Her husband even made sure that the church was just 2 doors away.
It took 42 years but God finally answered all Nonna’s prayers! To this day whenever I hear the words “God Bless America” I always think of Nonna’s relentless faith and her long journey to keep her family safe and together!”