Chapter One

center-pg1-EldaThe first time my mother cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving, she wasn’t quite sure how to do it. We had all heard the bird should be stuffed, so Mamma whipped up a batch of ravioli filling and used it in the turkey. That was pretty unusual back in the 1920s, but even our American-born dinner guests told us they loved it. No one in my family knew anything about the Mayflower or the Pilgrims. We had no idea why we were fixing turkey on Thanksgiving, but that’s what we ate, just like everyone else in our San Francisco neighborhood. My family dined on ravioli-stuffed turkey for quite a few Thanksgivings before we finally cooked it more American-style.

Although she lived almost half her life in the United States, Mamma never did learn English. So I always spoke Italian at home and English at school and, later on, at work. Even after I grew up, married, and had a family of my own, I still spoke only Italian with Mamma and translated for her whenever she needed help. Sometimes I’ve felt like that turkey: American on the outside and Italian on the inside.

I was born Teresa Elda Del Bino on April 29, 1909, in Lucca, Italy. I came to the United States in 1916, when I was seven years old. Now here it is, the twenty-first century. Because of when I was born and how long I’ve lived, I feel I’m getting to see most of one century and a good bit of the next. It’s not a bad deal at all. I started life among the rolling foothills and rich farmlands of the Tuscany region of Italy. I’m choosing to spend what are undoubtedly my last years in the small Northern California town of Sonoma, in an area surrounded by golden hills and covered with rows of lush vineyards. In between my first days and what will eventually be my final ones… well, in between there’s been a whole lot going on. Hopes, secrets, betrayals, triumphs, failures, poverty, luxury—they have shaped me into who and what I am today.

It hasn’t always been easy but I have no regrets. It’s not that I think I’m all that different from anybody else. We all have stories to tell. We’ve all had secrets. We’ve all been betrayed in one way or another. We’ve all had sorrows, and we all get a chance or two at happiness. But after years of stress and worry, I have finally learned to savor the small daily miracles of love, joy, forgiveness, appreciation, and gratitude. I’d like to share my story—all of it, not just the parts I’m proud of—while I still have the time and the energy.

It’s important to understand that I’m a ninety-five-year-old woman looking back. I can only give you my memories, such as they are. I’m a widow with a son, a daughter-in-law, five grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. Thinking back to when I was a little girl—first in Italy and then growing up in San Francisco—well, some things stand out and other details are pretty fuzzy.

center-pg2-1913I don’t know if I actually recall our life in Italy and our trip to America or if I’ve just imagined some of the events based on the family stories I heard over and over as I grew up. A few of my memories are quite real, I’m sure, like the sheer terror I felt on Ellis Island. Others you’ll have to take for what they are—the dim pieces that come up as I look back and marvel at how lucky I’ve been. Even with all the ups and downs in my life, I’ve always felt blessed by God. Did I create my good luck by believing in it and always expecting it? I don’t know. But even with my body starting to wear out on me at age ninety-five, my everyday reality is full of beauty, and I give thanks for that.

I was born in an ancient, dusty farm town in northwestern Italy, about ten miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. If you picture the classic boot shape of Italy, Lucca is on the far left side, just a little bit down from where the boot flares out to hang onto the rest of Europe. Lucca is a walled city, and our family lived on the wrong side of the ancient wall—the poor side. My father was a gardener and took care of rich people’s estates.

When I visited my hometown as an adult tourist, it was an easy drive to the nearest beach along the coast. But during my childhood in Lucca, we walked everywhere we went. Occasionally a peddler would wander down the gravel and dirt road in front of our house, hauling his wares in a mule-drawn wagon. At times the mule would get stubborn, Mamma said, and wouldn’t want to move. Then the peddler would have to curse or coax or do whatever it took to get the animal back to work pulling the load.

But mostly our street was filled with people on foot—my family and our neighbors, out on one errand or another. Once or twice my family took a short trip on the steam train that huffed and puffed its way through our town. This was a rare luxury, reserved for important occasions like weddings or funerals in other cities. Otherwise we walked anywhere we needed to go. In all those years, we never went to the beach or saw the bright water of the Mediterranean, even though it was only ten miles away.

We lived in a tiny brick and stone house built in the sort of straight-up-and-down, two-story construction that’s common in Northern Italy. Our home had one main room downstairs, with a fireplace where all the cooking was done. There was no kitchen to speak of, just the open fireplace and a table that served as a work surface as well as a place to eat. Upstairs were a few small bedrooms. That was all the space we had for our family of ten.

I remember that as a little girl I used to eat my breakfast sitting on a wide windowsill instead of at the table. The window looked out on an area paved with crushed rock, a common backyard for all the neighborhood houses. There were no fences, and I could usually see other children playing or their mothers coming to talk with them. Someone was almost always out there, and I liked to watch them while I sipped my milk laced with coffee and ate my bread, which I loved to dunk in the warm drink.

Beyond the gravel area behind our home lay acres of flat, open fields full of weeds and wildflowers. I was told in no uncertain terms never to go out there by myself. Heading in the other direction—toward the wall and the center of town—I was only allowed as far as the railroad tracks, no more than a block away. Two blocks from our home was the Catholic church. That was my world, or as much of it as I can recall.

I was the youngest of eight children. Our parents were Domenico Del Bino and Maria Sabina Fedi Del Bino. My sister Beppa was the oldest, followed by Jenny, Algisa, and Paolina. There was great joy when the fifth child was a boy, Rico. Next was my brother Joe; then came my sister Eda; and six years later there was me, Elda.

chapter-3-EldaAs the eldest daughter, Beppa was the most serious of my six sisters, but I always knew that her stern exterior hid a soft heart. Jenny was the family comic, able to find humor in almost anything. Algisa was much quieter than Jenny, but the two were always the best of friends. I think Jenny’s constant jokes helped Algisa feel a part of everything. As the fourth girl in a family that had been waiting for a boy, Paolina was a bit of a loner and kept her thoughts to herself. Of our two brothers, Rico was temperamental and moody while Joe was the family peacemaker, always trying to avoid conflict. Eda was good-looking and enjoyed the attention it brought her. I was simply everyone’s baby.

All of us, even our mother, called our father Babbo—that’s Italian for Poppa. Not quite six feet tall, Babbo had olive skin, a prominent nose, piercing brown eyes, and a beautiful handlebar mustache, which he kept carefully trimmed. He always took pains to make sure his clothes were immaculate, and he wore them well. A lifetime of manual labor had left him trim and muscular.

Mamma also had olive skin, a fairly long nose, and brown eyes. However, at barely five feet tall, she was much shorter than Babbo. Mamma was pretty but with a narrower face than Babbo’s round one. She wasn’t fat exactly, but Mamma’s waist had been permanently expanded by eight pregnancies. I can still remember following her solid figure down the street. Like all the adult women in our neighborhood, she kept her hair pulled back in a tight bun and always wore floor-length, high-necked dresses. All eight of us inherited our parents’ dark hair, brown eyes, and distinctly Italian complexions. I favor Mamma somewhat in looks; I have her narrow face. So did my brother Joe. My five sisters all had softer, rounder faces, like our father. Only our brother Rico was the maverick in appearance—he didn’t resemble Mamma, he didn’t favor Babbo…he just looked like Rico.

Eight children is a lot, and Mamma really did work from morning until night taking care of us all. She was always in motion. If Mamma sat down, it was because she was chopping vegetables, mending clothes, or working at some other job that could be done while sitting. As soon as they were big enough to be any help at all, my older sisters were just as busy as Mamma, keeping up with all the household chores.

Our home had no indoor plumbing. We fetched what water we needed from a nearby pump. We’d push the handle of the pump up and down to make the water gush into our bucket; then we’d haul the heavy container back to our shome. There was an outhouse in our backyard, and we kept our “pee-pots”—also known as chamber pots—under the beds at night. They had to be carried out and dumped into the outhouse every morning. We were used to it back then, but that’s one household chore I can gladly do without. I wonder how many people today truly appreciate flush toilets.

We washed our dirty clothes and linens in il fosso, the series of ancient ditches that once formed the moat around the walled city of Lucca. The man-made stream had a wide spot where some large, flat rocks had been placed in the water. Mamma and my older sisters would get down on their knees to swish our clothes through the rushing water. They would rub them with soap and pound each item on the rocks to get out the dirt and stains. Then we’d carry everything to the fields behind our house, where we draped our wet laundry on tall bushes, letting everything dance in the breeze to dry.

ctr-pg4-1st-communMamma came from a wealthy family, but they would have nothing to do with her once she married Babbo, who had worked as their gardener. After she left home, Mamma never saw her parents or her two sisters again. Of her two brothers, only the one who was a priest kept in touch with her. He visited with her while we were still in Italy and wrote letters to her after we moved to California.

Once I was old enough, I became his chief correspondent since Mamma never learned to read or write in any language. In Italy in her day education cost money and was a luxury not to be “wasted” on girls. So even though her family was well-off by local standards, Mamma never got to go to school, as I did in America. I think that’s why Mamma and Babbo took the risk of coming to America—to give us eight children a better chance in life than they ever had. For them the United States really was the land of opportunity and their only hope for us.

They certainly had a hard life in Italy. When my oldest sisters were babies, Mamma added to Babbo’s meager earnings by wet-nursing other newborns in the neighborhood. Between babies, if things got bad, she sometimes went out and picked crops in the fields. By the time I was born, my oldest sister Beppa was twenty-one. In their early teens, Beppa, Jenny, Algisa, and Paolina all got jobs at the J. P. Coats factory, which manufactured sewing thread. They walked five miles along a country road to the factory each workday and five miles home. At lunchtime our brother Joe walked to the factory and back to deliver the hot meal Mamma made daily.

My family had originally lived in a small town called Monsummano about twelve miles west of Lucca. They moved to Lucca shortly after Eda was born—probably just to be near the sewing thread factory. My older sisters gave every cent they earned to our parents. That may be why Eda, as the second to the youngest, got to go to school even though she was just a girl. I guess times had changed from my mother’s day, because Eda went to the local grammar school and then learned dressmaking from a neighbor in the afternoons. I was too young to start school until after we moved to America.

chapter-6-Etta-and-EldaOf course the boys got as much education as possible. Joe even graduated from high school before leaving Italy. His classes cost money, but Joe paid for them by working at a rock quarry after school and on weekends. He couldn’t add anything to the family’s finances, but he did earn enough to be able to go to high school. My four older sisters weren’t as lucky. Algisa was the smartest and the most determined. She managed to learn to read and write in Italian as part of going to catechism classes at the Catholic church. Beppa, Jenny, and Paolina didn’t have much energy for lessons after all the household chores—especially once they started working their ten- to twelve-hour-a-day jobs at the thread factory. Just like Mamma, those three never learned to read or write.

For several years, Mamma ran our household in Italy by herself. That’s because when I was three years old, Babbo and Rico went off to San Francisco to try to earn enough money to bring the whole family to America. Babbo had been working as a gardener for an Italian doctor who spent several months each year in San Francisco. The doctor told our father all about the advantages of life in the United States, and Babbo told Mamma. Together they decided that, even with all sthe upheaval involved, moving to America was the best thing they could do for their eight children. Babbo was forty-seven years old at the time, and Mamma was forty-three.

There was no way all ten of us could afford to go to America at once. So on March 26, 1912, Babbo and fifteen-year-old Rico went to San Francisco by themselves. Looking back now, it must have been so hard for my parents to say good-bye. I’m sure they had absolutely no idea how long it might be before we could all be together again.

After arriving in California, Babbo found a job growing produce at the Italian Swiss Colony in Asti, about ninety miles north of San Francisco. He earned room, board, and a small stipend. Set up by immigrants to employ immigrants, this somewhat remote farm grew all kinds of crops, but eventually became famous for its wine. Rico went to work as a busboy in a San Francisco restaurant, which left him living on his own in the city. I doubt he and Babbo saw each other much because transportation was so difficult. Even in a big city like San Francisco, only a few people had cars. Everyone else got around by horse and wagon or had to pay to ride the train. Babbo and Rico were both working long hours, trying to save every penny. They couldn’t have made the ninety-mile trip between Asti and San Francisco very often—if at all.

ctr-pg5a-SF-1920The rest of us stayed in Italy, living on my sisters’ wages while also saving as much money as possible. Mamma was frugal. We ate a lot of greens—she would go out into the fields around our house picking mustard plants for salads and turnip greens for boiling. Sometimes she’d fix dried fish, cooking it in a broth so we could dip our bread in it. She really knew how to stretch things as far as possible and still make delicious food. We might not have had much, but we always had something tasty to eat.

Our routine changed after World War I broke out in 1914 because my four sisters were transferred to the night shift. They had to start work at 2 A.M. Joe walked them to the factory every night and then turned around and walked the five miles back home.

Finally, four years after Babbo and Rico went to California, we had enough money for the rest of us to join them. Mamma made arrangements for us to sail out of the northern Italian seaport of Genoa on April 1, 1916. But the world was at war, and at sixteen years old, Joe couldn’t leave Italy without an official form saying he didn’t have to serve in the Italian army. The paperwork didn’t come on time, so we missed our ship, which was a big disappointment.

One week later we were told that that particular ship had been torpedoed by the Germans. We heard that it sank with no survivors. Our sadness at the delay turned into shocked relief—and fear at what might happen when we finally did sail. All eight of us had avoided death because of a missing piece of paper. Although we now had the proper signed form that would let Joe leave the country, traveling to America meant we had to risk drowning like the people on that first ship.

“In ogni modo andiamo lo stesso. Se siamo destinati d’arrivare in America, allora ci si arriva.”— “We’re going anyway. If we’re meant to make it to America, we will,” Mamma said.

I don’t know how she did it. I watched the movie Titanic a few years back, and when I saw all those people in the icy water, I kept thinking about how that might have been me and my family. I was struck by what a horrible death it would have been. But Mamma was a strong-willed woman, and she wanted her children to have better opportunities in life. My father and brother had left for California when I was three years old. I was now six and didn’t even remember what Babbo and Rico looked like. I’m sure Mamma knew that we had to take a chance if we were going to get the whole family together again.

ch-29-house-Elda-bornSo about a week after we heard that the first ship had sunk without a trace, the eight of us boarded the local steam train heading north to Genoa. We carried all our belongings in a battered suitcase and a couple of bundles tied with rope. We didn’t own any toys and I don’t remember Mamma packing any pans or other kitchen stuff. I think the few things we had in our kitchen in Italy were too worn out to be worth carrying with us. Mostly we took clothes and blankets—stuff to keep warm. Tucked carefully into the middle of our bundles were our spotlessly clean pee-pots. Unaware of the wonders of flush toilets, Mamma just assumed we would need the chamber pots in our new home.

On April 15, 1916, the eight of us carried our precious possessions up the gangplank of the SS Caserta, which was bound first for Napoli in Southern Italy and then for New York.


The Sugar’s at the Bottom of the Cup
published by Zucchero Press
© 2004 By Elda Willitts and Patricia Henley
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