Remembering a Son and Daughter of Italy
By Venera Di Bella Barles
All changed profoundly for me since that day in March of 1937 when my father, Salvatore, held my hand and walked my mother and me up the gangplank of the luxury liner, the Conti di Savoia, heading for Italy.
I was four years old.
I would spend a year and half with my parents visiting and staying with relatives in Sicily and Naples, using these places as bases for travels throughout the country.
During that time I saw and heard Mussolini, Pope Pius XII, and Hitler, but not fully understanding the impact these individuals would have on our family and the world. I began to comprehend how love and hate were so closely related. Because of the fear of the impending hostilities, we left in 1938 on the Rex, the last luxury ship to leave Europe before World War II started. To this child it was a completely new world. Incredibly unlike Albany, New York.
Everyone spoke Italian and lived a different life than I knew. It was here I began to recognize the penchant my father had for his native land. I saw that the trip posed difficult responsibilities for him. He seemed to have a need to prove himself. I began to appreciate the conflict in his soul and the depth of his service to America as a hard-working loyal citizen. I think of my father and wonder how at odds he must have been that terrible day of December 7, 1941. War! The war he knew was coming when he visited Italy only three years before. The country that was feeding and educating his family was now also going to have to fight against his father's land. I knew it tortured him to realize that he must stay back and not be able to help his brothers and sisters in Sicily. Throughout this time of war he sent them care packages. Did it assuage his fears and guilt of having left? There are countless heavy messages passed on to the first generation Italian-American children, one of which, might include the pain an immigrant feels that he made the right decision to leave the land that suckled him.
What I brought back from this voyage was an absolute allegiance to my father's reputation. From his unspoken communication I understood why we had to demonstrate we were quality humans. I have asked myself what it meant and what did it teach me to be the child of Salvatore and Antonietta Valente Di Bella, the immigrants? Those early years were tattooed on my brain and laid the groundwork for years to follow. I learned it all in the first ten years. I became more acquainted with its lessons during the next ten. My father, with the greatest force and loudest voice, received the most attention. I learned what his explosive power, out of his fears did to my family: the fear of losing control of his children, his wife, his work, his surroundings, and his ethnicity. We worked hard to keep Father's Old World precepts, but my brother and I were also learning New World rules that when mixed were like fire and oil. We tasted formal education, material comfort, and independent thinking. For me the struggle was enormous. I also learned what my shy mother's role was as the eldest child of five siblings and the only one that came with her parents to America when she was a few months old. I could not save my mother from herself, who adapted a robot-like and passive persona, but I understood her better through these memories. After my father and mother died, in 1984 and 1986, respectively, I picked up the pen to put on paper some of the dramas that played out in my life with them.
Through the years I kept a few journals and enjoyed telling stories, but I never attempted to write down anything officially. In 1995 I purchased my first computer and all fell into place. At age sixty-three I set about writing the individual accounts of my life. With nearly fifty narratives, it took five years to finish. Each story stands alone. Marriage, Kidneys, and Other Dark Organs, is a philosophical chronicle of how my parents, brother, relatives, friends, including my immediate family, husband and daughters, interplayed in the game of love, and how their pasts dictated their future. It was, I believe, an uncomplicated study of the heart. I've asked myself if I achieved what I set out to do in writing my memoirs. To a degree I would say yes, but I could never know the profundity of the fears, longings, and aspirations that were hidden in my Italian-born parents and their relatives' spirit. With time, I came to know the complicated love that was generated in our family. Sometimes, I believe I wanted the same things my father fought so hard for--a zest for life and the struggle to feel its depths.
So I asked myself, what could I leave my children and grandchildren besides chairs, linens, and tombstones? What could they remember about their mother and her family? They may have thought they knew how I evolved, but I needed to speak and tell the stories as I felt and saw them. I wouldn't be able to have them taste the tears or hear the laughter. I could only describe the sounds from my heart.
I think this quote sums up what we need to remember. It is from a Public Television Series 1999. "We Must Tell the Children: Italian-Americans II: A Beautiful Song."
We must tell the children
Tell them the stories of the land we left behind
Tell them what we have had to endure and overcome and triumphed
We must tell them so they can really know who we are.