Leaving the Old Country forever

On the mezzanine of the Berkeley restaurant Trattoria La Siciliana, there is a reproduction of a vintage Italian poster. It advertises the 1910 Palermo Festival, held from the 1st to the 7th of May, culminating with an airplane show above the city harbor. Just three weeks after that airshow, from the same harbor, my 16-year-old grandmother took perhaps the most emotional steps of her life.

Palermo Festival 1910
Poster for the Palermo Festival, 1-7 May 1910

Exactly 100 years ago today, 28 May 1910, my grandmother Onofria Napoli, along with her older sister Antonia, boarded a ship in Palermo and sailed for America, never to return. The Napoli family emigrated in the classic fashion: the oldest brother left in 1903 and, over time, sent money back to Sicily so the next brother could leave in 1905. They were followed by another brother and the two sisters in 1910, and finally, the two youngest brothers in 1923. Of the nine children, only two stayed in Sicily.

How hard life must have been in Italy to make an immigrant’s lot in America seem better! My grandmother, along with most of her siblings, went into the tailoring industry in Chicago. I have a photograph, dating from about 1915, of a large room inside a clothing manufacturing company. There are about thirty people in the room, most hunched over sewing machines. My grandmother is there, and two seats away is her future husband, my grandfather. Almost everyone is dressed well: the men in matching shirts, vests and neckties. I wonder why this photograph was taken: publicity? It definitely doesn’t resemble any of the unsettling, oft-published photographs of sweatshops full of unhappy immigrants.

June 10th will be the centennial of my grandmother’s arrival at Ellis Island—two weeks in a ship across the Atlantic Ocean, with goodness knows how many other immigrants—and in a perfect world, I would visit Ellis Island on June 10th to celebrate the occasion. Unfortunately, that trip won’t be possible; I’ll have to go another time. Perhaps on the centennial of my grandfather’s arrival at Ellis Island in 2011.

I can’t help but think of a story told by the late biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould in his book I Have Landed. His grandfather, a Hungarian Jew, sailed from Antwerp on 31 August 1901, and later annotated his English grammar book with “I have landed, Sep 11th 1901” One hundred years later, on 11 Sep 2001, Gould was flying from Europe to New York City to be at Ellis Island for the centennial of his grandfather’s arrival—and we all know what happened that day. Gould’s plane from Milan landed in Halifax instead. Here is an excerpt from his essay “September 11, ’01”

Especially in a technological age, when airplanes can become powerful bombs, rare acts of depravity seem to overwhelm our landscape, both geographical and psychological. But the ordinary human decency of a billion tiny acts of kindness, done by millions of good people, sets a far more powerful counterwieght, too often invisible for lack of comparable “news value.” The trickle of one family that began on September 11, 1901, multipled by so many million similar and “ordinary” stories, will overwhelm the evil of a few on September 11, 2001.

My family’s trickle began one hundred years ago today. Here’s to you, Grandma.

1 thought on “Leaving the Old Country forever”

  1. Great story, David. Makes me wonder what conditions were really like in that particular clothing mfg facility. I can’t imagine that they were all the same…in every business there are benevolent owners and unscrupulous owners. Here’s hoping that your grandmother and grandfather worked for a benevolent one.

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