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My Grandparents from San Fele, Potenza
by MaryAnn Pittaro Spager
Grandpa Vito Pittaro 1902
In the early dawn, with his meager belongings packed in one small sack, he left the tiny village of San Fele. Along with five other villagers, they traveled by the only means, in an ox drawn cart. Their destination was the seaport of Naples where they would board the SS Scotia and continue on to their final stop, the United States. He watched her as she stood on the hill top with his four precious little ones fading into the distance. His eyes did not falter until she was barely a dot and then he could see her no more.
Grandma Donna Marie Scapicchio
High on the hill, the dawning sun already hot on the barren land, she watched, holding a babe in arms with three others little ones at her feet and the soft breeze tugging at her billowing skirts. She watched the cart stumble over the rocky terrain, over the hills, until it was just a tiny speck, and then it was gone. In her mind’s eye, she could see his face, the gentle brown eyes, the quick smile, the pain of poverty. But she could not see him now, nor the tiny tear that trickled down his cheek when she disappeared from his view.
The United States
He boarded the SS Scotia, headed for the Port of New York, to labor on the railroad in Newark, New Jersey where he would work for thirty-eight years. The sea voyage was harrowing, but finally, the sight of Miss Liberty in the harbor brought forth such joyous feelings and he was overcome with emotion. He thought of Donna Marie and the four little ones, two sickly. He missed them intensely, and hoped they would be all right. She was strong and healthy and would care for the children alone until he had saved enough money to send for her.
He toiled long hours on the railroad, in the hot summers and in the icy winter when his mustache was often times covered with icicles. He lived in a shack near the rail yards with other immigrant workers, lonely men doing as he did, saving money to bring their families to the promised land. Often, he would bring out his concertina and play softly, sometimes joined by the sounds of a mandolin from another tent. He could not read nor write, but one of the workers was a lucky one. Although his writing skills were limited, he volunteered to write to the families of his coworkers.
She stood on the hill, under a tree, holding each child by their hands. Two, tiny wooden markers carved out the names of her smallest children. They were in ill health when Vito left and three months later they could hold on no longer and just stopped breathing. Alone, she buried them. Alone, she carved out the markers with their names. Alone, she cried.
Six months had passed, when the sound of ox hoofs tapping along the rocky road interrupted the stillness of the early morning. Outside, she shaded her eyes from the blazing sun as she watched the approaching wagon. A sense of dread enveloped her as she noticed the postman from Potenza making his way up to the mountain. He approached her, and fearing the worst, she asked the postman to open it and read it for her since she could not read. As she listened, her tears turned to those of joy. The letter spoke of the miseries endured aboard the ship and finally, the beauty of the Lady in the Harbor. It told of the hardships endured working on the railroad but spoke of a joyous future when they would all be together again. He did not say I love you. Those words were so hard for him, but she knew how much he adored her. There was some money in the envelope, too, which was not much by most standards, but would get her through another winter.
She asked the postman to write a letter for her, which he did. She told of how much she missed him, how lonely she was, and then finally, the awful thing she had dreaded, the death of the smallest children. She knew this would break his heart, but it was better to tell him now.
Two, long years pass by with intermittent letters from Vito, always promising that soon, she would travel to the United States and they would all be together. She was growing weary of waiting, but she never gave up hope. Then, finally, the letter came. With shaking hands, she opened it and could see that enclosed were tickets for a ship. The postman, once again as always, read the letter and gave her instructions as to when to arrive in Naples to board the ship. In the years that passed, her ox had died and she had no means of transportation. This did not deter her. Finally, when the time came, this courageous woman filled a sack with whatever she had, and set off on foot for Naples, dragging the children behind her in a small wagon. She turned once and surveyed the land she was leaving behind, bidding good-bye to the only home she had ever known. She would miss the sunsets, the scents of bergamot and eucalyptus. She trudged on, the sun beating unmercifully and the dust stinging her eyes. Along the way, she was befriended by travelers who often drove her short distances to the next village. Although her thoughts were sometimes filled with sadness, she knew that in the United States, life would be good and there will be more, many more children.
The long journey ends and the ship docks. Soon the family would be together again. Vito had told her in one of his letters that she would have to pass through an immigration center, Ellis Island, so she was prepared for the delay. Finally, there he was, waiting for her and the children. The monumental joy they shared was indescribable. There were hugs and kisses and shrieks of joy from the children, although they could hardly remember Vito. He piled her belongings along with the children onto a horse and wagon they shared with another couple and drove to the city. Vito laughed all the way at her unashamed joy at seeing him again and in the wonder of this new land. They pulled up in front of a tiny brick-row house, a secret Vito had kept from her, and said welcome to your home. He had saved every penny, sacrificing everything, so that he could buy this house for her. She could not remember when she was happier.
Over the next forty years, they would live in this house and raise ten children. They would bury some prematurely. They would watch three march off to war and amazingly return alive. He would make wine on his wine press utilizing his small army of children. When there was a parade, he would walk to the main street and watch it, all the while waving his tiny American flag. She would garden and cook and rule with an iron hand and a heart full of love. Then, tragically and unexplained, he would take his own life at the age of sixty-five, breaking her heart leaving her once again. But, again undeterred, this courageous woman would go on, reaching the age of ninety-four, a great-great grandmother, representing five generations.
Story copyright MaryAnn Pittaro Spager © 2001 - 2014 All rights reserved.
Photo of Vito Pittaro and Donata Maria Scapicchio
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Last Updated: 11 July 2014
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