Pietro's Italian Song

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

In hopes of a new life in a strange, new world, Pietro Ciccarelli heads out from his hometown of Patrica, Italy to find work in America of the early 1900's. The ship ride is long and arduous, yet his faith in God and love of family, spur Pietro on in the cramped, cold quarters. Will he find his brother in the small town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania? Will he be able to break the curse of poverty in his family?

 

Waves pounded the old, creaky ship, the sound deafening as he leaned over the bow transfixed by deep blue water in the early morning light. The smell of the ocean salt stung the air, sprays of it hitting his face, the taste of it bitter in his mouth. His worn pocket knife sliced into a juicy apple, the liquid dribbling down the strong chin. Pietro’s stomach growled a bit from hunger. He had shared the last of his daily ration of bread with someone, a sickly man who appeared to need it more than he did.

He shivered in the early morning chill and then threw the apple core over the railing. Pietro rubbed his chapped, dry hands together and then pulled his worn coat more tightly about himself. It was March and many of the passengers stayed below in their cramped quarters. Too cold, they said. Why bother? But Pietro liked the freedom of strolling in the fresh air.

Many of the deckhands were busy nearby. Some washing and scrubbing, others repairing and adjusting instruments, poring over charts. In some ways, Pietro felt useless. He wished he could help them somehow. He wasn’t used to all this free time, this endless waiting.

He spent most of his days walking on the deck of the hulking ship, whistling or playing the old harmonica he kept in a pocket of his overalls. He didn’t speak much for he was a quiet man, inner strength his best quality. Robust and healthy at twenty-years-old, a full life ahead of him, Pietro thanked God above for the opportunity to travel to a new country, hoping to find good work.

It had been three weeks already. Three long weeks since he had seen his wife Adelina. Too much time since he had held his beloved children on his knee.

Images flooded him, the last sweet kiss Adelina gave him while the three little ones clung to her long apron crying, “Don’t go, Papa.” Waving goodbye to them while he walked down the rocky cobblestone path, his heart breaking.

Ah, Adelina will do well, he thought to himself. She is strong and skilled at gardening, baking, and mending, everything needed to run a small household. Her mama and papa lived nearby. It is a short walk to our small home. They will help her if need be.

Pietro’s heart ached while he thought of her beautiful arms, tanned brown from long days in the sun and her lovely face, careworn at times. Ti voglio bene. I love you.

#

Sleep did not come easily that night as Pietro lay shivering in the cramped quarters. Would there be enough work for him? Would his brother have enough room for him? How long would it be before he could send word to his family to join him?

Gazing into the darkness, he pulled a thin, threadbare blanket up under his chin and sighed. It hadn’t been easy, the endless days and nights of ship travel. Not knowing a soul, loneliness a constant companion.

Times were tough in his hometown of Patrica, Italy. Born into poverty, barely able to make ends meet, he had heard of his countrymen striking out to seek life in the new world. Pietro knew there had to be a better way. With endless days of hard labor in the fields, sometimes crops so sparse, his family went to bed many nights with the pangs of hunger cramping their bellies. He was tired of being poor. He prayed to God every day to show him the way.

Pietro reached under the tiny wooden bunk and pulled out his burlap sack clutching it almost lovingly to himself. It was filled with a few sour apples, dried beans, tomato seeds, green and red pepper seeds, and the most delectable fruit of all, his dried figs. He was a farmer and had tilled the land of his beloved town since he was a young boy. He’d miss the gnarled fig tree, the one he buried underneath the soil each winter to preserve until the next year.

There will be new planting in America. My crops will be larger than anything I have ever dreamed of.

He knew another skill: carpentry. His own papa, a carpenter by trade, taught young Pietro skills of building small homes, hand-made furniture, and beautiful carved statues.

He thought about his brother, Carmen, who already lived in the United States. Would he be able to find him? The letters which were scrawled in Carmen’s poor handwriting arrived at least three times a year. But Pietro hadn’t heard from his brother in over six months now. He patted the pocket of his ratty coat where the important papers were kept, the ones with the names of the town and street where Carmen lived.

Ambridge, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. What made his brother choose such a place? He knew it was near enough to the coal mines and new steel plants which sprouted up like weeds amidst the vast country. Plenty of work, his brother had said, backbreaking labor.

I’m young and strong.

A baby wailed, the sound droning on in the middle of the night. Pietro turned over and said a prayer for the infant and mother. Poor little one. He heard the sound of a hushed lullaby, and then the sweet sound of suckling. Someone else coughed an endless, harsh barking cough. Pietro would ask tomorrow who it was. He would share his meager meal with the man. But for now, sleep finally overtook him.

The next day brought the storm, a mighty wind, heavy, torrential rain, pounding thunder, and a myriad of lighting. Children huddled closer to their mamas in the cramped quarters while Pietro played his harmonica, a haunting, Italian melody that calmed the little ones. An earsplitting crash resounded overhead while the immigrants huddled together.

“Move, move, move,” a voice barked. A young shipmate rushed into their small space, motioning for the people to move quickly. He gestured wildly to a staircase near the back of the ship, speaking words they couldn’t understand.

Pietro picked up two small children, one in each muscular arm, while a tired young woman smiled her gratitude. People rushed forward, fear etched onto their faces as they scrambled upward.

Lightning had struck a portion of their ship. A small fire had ignited. The ensigns hurried to snuff it out. Pietro gently set the children at their mama’s feet and rushed to be of assistance. Other strong men followed, averting the crisis.

Cheers went up throughout the ship, while the captain wiped his brow with a worn linen handkerchief. He thanked the men who willingly helped. Later, he shared tender beef and boiled potatoes with some of them. Pietro’s belly was full and rest came much easier that night.

Pietro patted the brass harmonica in his overall pocket, the most precious gift his father had ever given him. Music soothes, his papa had told him. Music is from God. It made him smile to think of his music calming the children as the storm raged and how his own figli, little ones, loved it so.

#

A new day. The sun shone brightly. People lined up for bowls of bread sopping in thin milk. Pietro took his portion to the emaciated man, the one who coughed so violently each night. With gratitude, the man looked up into Pietro’s eyes, and a smile broke out onto the creased face. Pietro patted the man’s shoulder and walked away, whistling a tune his own dear mama had taught him many years ago: “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle, You Fall From the Stars.” He felt good.

The rowdy sound of raised voices piqued Pietro’s curiosity and he approached several men who sat around a worn, wooden table. He watched as they played the card game all Italian men knew, “Scopa.” His papa had warned him against the danger of games. Money was precious and tight. Gambling was not allowed in their family. Pietro chuckled a little to himself as he watched them play for buttons and embroidery thimbles. Their wives would curse them later if they lost precious sewing items.

A bottle of dark red vino, half-empty, passed between the men. The smell of fermented grapes lay heavily in the air, and the stains of purple adorned their worn undershirts. Pietro walked on, his harmonica playing a jaunty tune.

#

It had been weeks since he saw land. The days were long and the air biting with cold in the April winds. The nights were freezing, as people huddled close together in the cramped quarters for warmth. Yet every day, Pietro awakened renewed that this might be the day land was spotted in the distance. He walked back and forth upon the upper deck of the ship. It is close now. I can feel it, I can smell it. Something is in the air.

He fingered the wooden rosary, worn from many days and nights of prayers. It comforted him to whisper sweet prayers for his family. Grazie, Dio. God grant them security. Grant me the courage in the new land to make a better life for them.

It was midday a week later when the lookout cried, “Land, ho!” Excitement filled the ship as the news passed from person to person.

Pietro turned quickly, a sight in the distance he thought he’d never see. Buildings, tall and wide, the statue he had heard about many times before. She is beautiful, Lady Liberty. The spires of her crown pointed majestically in the air, the torch clasped firmly in her lovely hand. Pietro, overcome by emotions, pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wept for joy.

Women, children and men, arrived on deck, crowding around the rail as the captain and his officers looked on. Hats were tossed into the air. Arms waved wildly. Small children asked questions while excited parents tried to answer as whoops and shouts of excitement broke out from end to end of the massive ship.

In his mind’s eye, Pietro could almost see his brother and family waiting for him. He saw beloved Carmen, ten years older than he, with a fancy suit and fancy bow tie, dapper cap upon his head; elegant silk handkerchief sticking from the breast pocket of his suit. His wife, Elsa, fat and happy with a brocade dress and shiny new shoes. Their three little children holding onto new toys, clutching them for dear life.

A hand upon his shoulder broke his reverie. “I want to thank you, young man,” the man said in Italian. “You gave up your food to me many days. I will remember you.”

A man of few words, Pietro smiled shyly at him, shaking his head as if to say it was nothing. They stood together as the ship drew nearer to the precious land.

#

It took hours for the passengers to depart. Luggage was pulled from compartments, names read for the multitude to claim their meager belongings. Pietro carried very little, only one small leather bag with two pairs of pants, a new shirt, and his beloved satchel of figs, seeds, and apples. He held them close as he neared the ramp which would bring him to his new life.

It is time. Pietro started the lonely journey down the wooden plank to the sandy shore below. Such colors! He had never seen women dressed in such finery in his life. Such smells! There were vendors shouting about the delectable foods they prepared as the hungry crowd departed the ship. Pietro’s stomach growled, his mouth watered. He fingered the few soldi, coins, he had in the pocket of his overalls. I’m so hungry.

Pietro and the other passengers were ushered into a large gray building, a medical facility and processing center. Doctors in the white coats and pretty nurses in white dresses and caps called out names.

Several serious-looking men sat behind massive desks, lines of people before them. Questions were read from a paper, a translator nearby. “What is your name? Why are you here? Do you have family members waiting for you? Do you have a criminal record?” When his turn arrived, Pietro patiently answered, remaining calm.

Another line to stand in He heard his name called, Pietro Ciccarelli. He held a slip of paper high in the air and a nurse walked over to him, her smile warm and friendly. She escorted him into a room filled with many of the others he recognized from the ship.

A bald, heavy-set doctor walked up to him and motioned for Pietro to unbutton his shirt. The doctor listened to Pietro’s chest with a cold, shiny metal device he’d never seen before. The doctor peered into his eyes, ears, and mouth, then wrote notes on a clipboard he retrieved from a desk piled high with papers and documents. Satisfied, the doctor dismissed him as a Italian translator told Pietro he had a clean bill of health.

Pietro was sent to yet another group of people who stood near a counter, with several dour-looking men exchanging money. His few, precious soldi were turned into pennies and nickels, strange-looking coins.

He gave papers to the translator and was shown the direction of the train station. He followed a group of people, whistling.

 

#

 

Pietro stood before the massive black engine as smoke billowed out, and he jumped as the train’s whistle blew several times. He handed his boarding pass to a young man, entering the train that would take him to his new home.

It would be two more days before he arrived in the town of Ambridge. He hoped Carmen remembered the dates he had given him. Pietro relaxed against the seat while the rhythm of the train lulled him to sleep.

In his dreams he was planting a garden, one bigger than anything he’d ever seen. His hoe sliced into the earth, the sack of seeds slung from his tired shoulders as he dropped the precious pods into the ground. Other people worked near him, each with their own satchels, each with sweat pouring down their brow, but gladness in the hearts. Pietro mopped his own face with a red bandana, and gazed at the vast garden before him. Adelina came out onto the back porch of the wooden house, little Angela, Louisa and Samuel skipping alongside their mama. Pietro broke into a run, his heart bursting with joy at seeing his family.

The dream ended as the train jolted to a stop. Pietro sat up feeling the lingering happiness at seeing his love again. Soon, Adelina, soon. His mouth was dry, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. “Aqua?” he asked the man sitting next to him. The man shook his head, an emphatic “no.”

#

Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. The train chugged away gushing smelly smoke from its stack as Pietro and the others stood with their baggage at the platform of the station. So many people, every one of them looking as if they had somewhere important to go.

“Mi scusi,” he said, pulling his precious slip of paper, the one with the name of the town he was looking for. A uniformed policeman grabbed the slip with white-gloved hands and motioned with his arm to a sign which read “Departures.” The officer held up two fingers in Pietro’s face and did this twice. “Number twenty-two,” he said.

Pietro stared blankly at the police officer. He didn’t understand the words. He shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of surrender and the cop, with a look of pity, gently guided him down the platform.

They neared a dais, the number twenty-two clearly marked when Pietro finally understood. He nodded to the policeman, thanking him again and again. “Grazie, grazie.”

#

The connecting train chugged along the track past the city through towns with names like Emsworth, Bellevue, and Sewickley. In some ways the countryside resembled his hometown: rolling hills and heavily wooded areas. Pietro felt alert and focused as he headed to the new town he would call home.

He had never been on trains before this day, and it felt so free to him this strange new way to travel. The train slowed, its whistle blew as it came to a complete stop several hours later. Pietro and the others departed into a small train station.

Pietro looked around, the chill of the April air making him shiver. The first steel mill he’d ever seen, American Bridge Corporation occupied the land behind the train station. A vast structure, not quite completed, it still looked fully operational. Huge smoke stacks billowed out gray smoke; men ran from place to place, their wheelbarrows filled with scraps of metal, faces black with soot and dust.

A sign, “Welcome to Ambridge” perched atop a small hillside. Pietro began the long walk into a downtown area past markets, a theater, clothing stores, and a bank.

At a crossroad, Pietro looked around. Where do I go? What do I do? A streetcar rushed by, its clanging bell scaring him.

He pulled another slip of paper from his pocket and tried to find a helpful soul, someone who could read the words scrawled upon it. People passed him, not bothering to even look.

It had been at least a day since he had something to eat or drink, and he sat dejectedly on a wooden bench plucking an apple from his satchel. The crisp, tart flavor only made his stomach growl more.

A young man and woman walked by with a baby sleeping peacefully in her buggy. Pietro stood, thrusting the slip of paper at the man. “Mi scusi,” he said, and gestured to the address printed upon it.

The man spoke to his wife quickly in American, then motioned for Pietro to follow them. “Come on, fellow,” the young man said in the strange, new language. “It’s not very far. We’ll show you the way.” Pietro didn’t understand a word, but the excited way the man gestured and pointed, Pietro realized he was headed in the right direction.

Pietro followed them, tired from hours, days, and weeks of travel. All he wanted was to have one night of uninterrupted sleep.

They walked on in a comfortable silence, the baby waking up and cooing. It made Pietro’s heart ache; he missed his little Louisa, the youngest, so much. They walked past the new stores, owners barking of their wares and finery. They headed into a lightly populated area, dotted with small, wooden homes. Clotheslines draped across yards on the April afternoon, another sight that tugged at his heart.

Up a steep hill they climbed, a large brick school building on their left, a light sandstone church to their right. Pietro took it all in, the sights, the sounds of his new town. On they climbed, higher and higher up the crest of the hill. The man stopped and pointed to a wooden pole with a sign attached at the top. He pointed to the paper, and realization dawned on Pietro’s face. The words matched: Pine Street. This is where his brother lived.

“Grazie,” he said to the couple. A few tears trickled from his eyes as he wiped them away with the back of one hand. He motioned for them to wait and produced two shiny apples for each of them from his satchel. The couple shook their head “no,” but he insisted. The young woman hugged him briefly and gave him a small kiss on his cheek.

He passed clapboard homes and tightly packed row houses with small numbers on their doors. He was looking for number 427. He was sweating despite the chill, his armpits sticky with perspiration. His aching arms felt as if he carried two lead weights.

Suddenly, Pietro saw it. A tiny, white-painted wood house, sagging porch, and small, weedy yard. Could this possibly be the home of his rich American brother? Disappointment hit him like a huge slap as Carmen stepped out onto the porch smoking his hand-rolled cigarette, wearing clothes that looked like the ones on Pietro’s own back. The land of opportunity. Not what he’d pictured.

Recognition dawned on Carmen’s face; he threw the cigarette onto the sidewalk and approached his brother. “Mama mia!” he exclaimed, hugging his brother tightly to his chest. Both men cried tears of joy.

Elsa walked out onto the porch in a tattered dress, a dishrag in her chubby hands. She squealed with delight as Pietro and Carmen mounted the concrete steps to their home. She babbled in Italian, hugging Pietro. Three dirty children surrounded him, poking into his satchel.

The aromas emanating from the kitchen tantalized Pietro as he walked into the house. It had been weeks since he had a real meal. Almost faint with hunger, he laid his baggage down and followed Elsa into the kitchen. Fresh-baked bread, sausages, and pasta fagioli. The meal looked like a feast to Pietro. Elsa laid an extra place for him and motioned for Pietro to sit. She ladled the steaming bean soup into their bowls Carmen sliced the warm bread, a dish of olive oil for dipping in the center of the table.

Carmen gave a word of thanks for the safe arrival of his younger brother. The children giggled while they watched their uncle dig into his plate with relish.

#

Later, when dishes were cleared and washed, the children in bed, Pietro and Carmen went out to the porch together.

Carmen motioned for his brother to sit on a wooden crate that served as the porch’s only seat. Pietro sat and tried to play a pleasant tune on his harmonica. It shocked Pietro to see the poor conditions around him. His brother was fortunate to have one of the few small homes in the area when so many others lived in the close quarters of the row houses. So far Americans weren’t much different than the poor of Italy.

“I know it isn’t much, brother,” Carmen said in Italian, lighting a cigarette with the strike of a wooden match against the wooden railing and blowing smoke through his nostrils. “But I have heard about plentiful work, the steel factory, coal mines in nearby West Virginia, and there may even be work for someone like you with you skilled labor. New buildings spring up like weeds.” Carmen gestured with his hands high in the air, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “Trust me, my brother, we will do well here. Give it time.”

Pietro looked into the night sky, stars shimmered in brilliance. He made a wish on a falling star: I want to do so much more than my papa. I want to be the one to break the curse of poverty in my family.

“I am so tired,” Pietro said, rising to his feet with a huge jaw-cracking yawn. “Please brother, show me where I may sleep.”

Carmen brought his brother to a small room near the kitchen, a tangle of blankets on the floor, his makeshift bed. After saying goodnight to one another, Pietro said his prayers and then lay upon the blankets falling instantly to sleep.

#

The summer months flew by while Pietro worked long hours. His back ached, his arms and legs tight from lengthy days shoveling coal for the furnaces of the American Bridge Corporation, his first job. At night, he sat at the workbench in his makeshift carpentry shop, the shed behind his brother’s house, mending furniture for people in the town

Weekends, he and his brother labored, beginning construction on new homes. They could barely keep up with the work that flooded them and four hours sleep a night weren’t nearly enough. But the thought pressed ever on: This is for you, Adelina.

People in the town began to hear of this hard-working man, the one with the magic hands; the stocky, Italian man who was known to play his harmonica on the way to his jobs.

#

By the time spring rolled around the following year, Pietro sat and wrote the most important letter of his life. The letter to Adelina.

My dearest wife:

It is with a glad heart that I write to you. I have done it, my darling. I have made a name for myself in America. I have a small home for us and our children. I have a garden that makes the one back home appear small. I am ready for you now, my love. Ready for you and our children to join me. My heart is happy. I await your letter.

Your love, Pietro

#

In June of 1911, another ship, the Verona, docked at Ellis Island. A woman with a pretty, yet careworn face departed with three small children clinging to her long skirts. Their faces were filled with fear, yet also with the light of hope. When they arrived on the train to Ambridge, Pennsylvania, Pietro was there to greet them, running to them, kissing his precious children, his beautiful wife.


Submitted: January 17, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Karen L Malena. All rights reserved.

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