Just before Christmas, I went to New York City with my Italian cousins, Monica and Carlotta. They live in Rome and we are related through grandfathers who were brothers: Ottavio (mine) and Francesco (theirs).
Ottavio followed his sister to America in 1913 to pursue a life out of poverty. Francesco took his family to Rome for the same reason – as both were born on a remote farm in southern Tuscany – their mother who was either widowed or abandoned (family mystery) with a brood of eleven children. Desperately poor, like so many in Italy at that time.
The link between Ottavio and Francesco was never completely broken, despite world war and raising families – but it wasn’t until the 1960s, when Ottavio retired his career as a chef and my grandmother Olga prodded him, that the surviving family members met in Italy– some were still on the old farm, but Francesco’s family was growing in Rome.
That reunion cemented the link. After that, gifts, letters and visits flowed back and forth between Rome and Indianapolis through the decades, making the same journey over the Atlantic Ocean as our immigrant family had – only now by plane instead of ship.
My first encounter with my Roman cousins was in 1978 when my wise grandparents took me with them to Italy. A big door opened very wide for me, setting the stage to continue the bonds.
And we have.
Francesco’s granddaughters, Monica and Rossella have been more like sisters to me than my own. Rossella’s daughter, Carlotta made her first trip here just this past December and met her cousins for the first time.
And so, it continues with the generation after mine. This makes me extraordinarily happy.
You can imagine how much it meant for us to board a ferry from Battery Park, NY, take it to the Statue of Liberty, the first sighting Ottavio would have had of America and then on to Ellis Island where a big door opened for him.
We spent several hours at Ellis Island, Carlotta enthralled as she learned firsthand the journey so long ago that led to this strong family bond between Italy and America.
While Carlotta listened to the stories on the Italian audio device, Monica and I were in tears. So many stories, so many faces, so many lives, so many American families that began in this place.
Our family name Giovannoni-Faenzi is on the Wall of Honor, a tiny line engraved among thousands.
Sitting on one of the original benches in the registry room, I felt sure we were sitting in the spot where Ottavio, just sixteen years old, had been waiting his turn to be registered, examined, tested. What was he thinking as he gazed out of this window, as I was doing, the Statue of Liberty a benevolent and powerful symbol that must have felt intimidating, overwhelming? Did he miss his mother, his brothers yet? Was he scared? Was he afraid he would be turned away? I can’t imagine how he could feel any other way. But also excited, dreaming of what could be. A little more than one hundred years later, here we are, Ottavio!!
We are here for you. And for Francesco. And for us. And for those who come after us. We will not forget you.
Next: Ellis Island, Part Two: Through an Immigant’s Eyes
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