Francavilla, Italy: It Takes A Village To Raise a Child

Antonio Fiumara 1939

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.


This morning, I was peering out my window with a cup of hazelnut decaf while watching a snow plow drive up and down the hilly roads in my complex, clearing the roads for the residents. While deciding to retire from my teaching job took quite a bit of contemplation, I smiled knowing I didn’t have to trek up to the college and deal with yet more winding, hilly and icy roads in its bucolic setting.

For many of us, there is a tug-of-war issue when it comes to retirement. Retire completely? Keep one foot in the door? I guess the issue is whether or not you truly love what you do. While I do miss teaching, writing, which is something I have done for quite some time, is an equal passion that keeps me satiated.

But there are many dimensions to retirement, and here are some reasons I am glad I am retired from a full-time job and the drudgery of commuting:

  1. Rediscover that sacred space called home. The other day, I woke up on a bone-chilling day and decided it was a day I wanted to make Tuscan White Bean and Spinach Soup. While my olfactory receptors took in the scent of sautéed fresh garlic mingling with carrots, carmelized onions, baby spinach and baby portabella mushrooms, I listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as the wicks of scented candles danced nearby.
  2. “Let’s Get Together Soon.” How many times do we say these words, but never get a chance to really meet friends and family? Life is short.  Somehow, the word gets out when you retire, and you really do get a chance to do lunch.  I never felt so popular as I do in retirement!  Let the fun begin.
  3. No Lines- When I was working, one of the things I dreaded most was stopping by the supermarket after work and waiting on a long “express” line just to get a quart of milk.  One of the greatest things about retirement is choosing what you do and when you do it.  I love going into a store and seeing the best of a cheery salesperson in the morning before all the grouchy customers change his or her mood.
  4. Senior Day Discounts-  On Wednesday it’s Mrs. Greens.  Sometimes stores such as Kohl’s, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts have senior specials, and you really have the time to experience them and use all the coupons you clipped.
  5. Morning Drudery-  I can take my time in the shower in the morning, I don’t have to worry about laying out clothes that look professional.  Although I like to look nice, if I feel like wearing gym clothes and just moisturizer, I can.  That’s liberating.
  6. V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N- As the old Connie Francis song goes, we all look forward to getting away and having fun.  No more asking your boss for time off!  This is the time of life as the Mamas and the Papas song goes to go where you want to go, do what you want to do!  Woohoo!
  7. Doctor Appointments- Let’s be honest.  As one friend put it, at this age we are “on maintenance.”  We NEED to pay closer attention to our health, and that is a good thing.  Sometimes we make the mistake when we are working of putting our health last.  Not good.
  8. Doing what you love- Visits to the library?  Joining a knitting club? Nature walks? Learning to swim? Photography?  Your time is yours, and the world is your playground.
  9. Discovering your inner child- Why do we take the world so seriously sometimes?  Who says we can’t still color in or outside the lines?  Fingerprint? Play hopscotch?  Ride a scooter?  Play catch?  Double dutch anyone?
  10. Grandchildren- See number nine.  My grandson gives me faith and hope in a weary world.  Getting on the floor and playing with him makes me remember there is still a lot of “girl” left in me.  Once you forget how to participate in childlike wonderment, that is when you grow old.  While I realize the need to grow, I refuse to grow old.  I see my grandson as a lifeline and pulse of what is to come.  That gives me faith in this weary world.

                          To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: …

                           Ecclesiastes 3:1-King James Version

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2015. All Rights Reserved.