Antonio Fiumara, 1939
On February 18, 1935, just one month short of his 20th birthday, my father left his hometown in Francavilla, Italy. He hopped on a train to Naples. From there he boarded a ship called the Rex. His final destination was the United States of America. He had one suitcase of clothes, the equivalent of forty dollars in cash and a small prayer card in his pocket.
As a child, he would watch the boats transporting travelers in the distant Mediterranean Sea. The day of his journey, it was sunny and mild in Francavilla, located in Angitola, Calabria, in the southern part of Italy. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, his journey was cold and choppy, and he was seasick most of the time.
When he arrived at Pier 84 in New York, he was scared and homesick. He did not speak English. Someone on the streets of New York was giving out free samples of what appeared to be tiny chocolate bars. In reality, it was a well-known chocolate flavored laxative. Needless to say, accepting this tiny sample was not a positive experience.
His early days in New York were disappointing. Distraught, he visited the Italian consul with the hope of returning to his native country. A very compassionate stranger there told him, “Do not be foolish. My son, wait. You will get to love it here.” And he did.
But he never forgot his hometown, which he often spoke about with tremendous affection. His mother raised him. But there were many people in his hometown that contributed to his upbringing and values. He never forgot them.
He spoke about the parish priests who mentored him and helped to shape his values. Early on, he learned the value of meditation and prayer. Throughout his life, he claimed a sacred space to pray, reflect and offer thanks. His faith carried him through the most difficult times in his 93 years of life. Evidence of his deep faith was the prayer card he carried in his pocket across the Atlantic. He kept it with him until the day he died.
Then there were the aunts, uncles and friends in his hometown. They kept their strong ties with family and friends. If you needed them, they came. You didn’t have to ask for help. If a baby was born, they celebrated with you. If someone died, they grieved with you. If there was a wedding celebration, all living generations would share in the joyous event.
During his childhood, some accompanied him to a place he called “il giardino.” This was a community garden where he learned to plant and nurture tiny seeds and watch how they slowly grow into fragile and beautiful living things, — very much like a child in a village.
The priests, aunts, uncles, friends and random people in the village filled a void in a child, and taught him how to pay it forward. Years later, when my father was married and owned his own home, he sponsored some of his friends and family to come to America. Often, the breadwinner in the family would arrive first to establish himself and then send for his family.
I remember many cold winter days in the 1950s that my father’s family came by boat, arriving in New York with our home as their first stop. Sometimes, they would live with us until they were established. Often, my father would recommend them for work at the factory where he worked. They were always welcome at our dinner table. I can only imagine how frightening it must be not speaking a word of English and not knowing anyone else on this side of the Atlantic. When he could, my father also generously remembered his church. Maybe a small child in his hometown will benefit in some way.
As the old African proverb states, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” How lucky my father was to grow up in Francavilla. Antonio Fiumara would have been 100 years old in 2015. Perhaps this story is more about 100 years of gratitude. I have never been to Italy, but if there is one thing I want to do before I die, it is to visit my father’s hometown where it all began.
Pay it forward. Rest in peace, papa.
Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2015. All Rights Reserved.