THE NOT SO GOOD “GOOD OLE DAYS”
(EXCERPT FROM GILDA, PROMISE ME)
Since our audience with the pontiff, my interest in “Italianità” became more intense.
I continued to ask any relatives to tell me all they could about where they came from in Italy and what life was like in their paese. Some preferred to forget the hard times they knew while others, like my maternal grandfather, were eager to recount details of their experiences. My main source of information emanated from my parents. They welcomed my insatiable interest. I was always intent on hearing their stories, even when they repeated the same accounts over the years.
Daddy’s life was the most heart rendering to me. He had overcome overwhelming odds and was the role model I wanted to emulate throughout my life.
“The best thing about “the good ole’ days,” Gilly, is that they’re gone!” Daddy would often say.
I didn’t understand the full impact of what he meant at the time. Angelo Fortunato Battaglia, the first son in a family of 18 children, was named after his paternal grandfather. Being born on 13 January 1905, his middle name became Fortunato because 13 is a lucky number in Italy.
Daddy was six-feet-tall, lean, with dark hair and hazel eyes. His upper lip was blanketed by a black mustache. Several of my girlfriends confessed to having a crush on him.
“You have a crush on my father!” I retorted in disbelief.
“Yes, Gilda. I can’t help it,” the teenage neighbor in the corner house confessed.
My earliest memories were of Daddy returning from a long day at his Naturopathic office, after riding the Broad Street Subway and then a trolley car to Chew Street, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. His arms were loaded with stuffed animals. Vicki and I laughed with glee as he’d bark like a dog, meow like Felix the cat, or pretend to smell like the skunk before he would toss the soft critters to us. My father liked to fire our imaginations with made-up stories like “Chocolate Boy and Peppermint Girl,” an adventurous duo who did daring deeds and solved many mysteries. We’d listen in rapt attention, imagining the bravery of such a diverse pair, but we were most captivated by accounts of his childhood in Italy and Philadelphia.
“I was born in a small town in Puglia on the Adriatic Sea, Margherita di Savoia, named after the first Queen of Italy. A pizza was also named after her.”
“Will you take me there, Daddy?”
“Yes, someday, sweetie.”
Daddy was always educating us. In 1948, when I was ten-years-old, most Americans did not know what pizza was. Italian food to the Amerigans consisted of spaghetti and meatballs.
“We want to go to Italy, Daddy. Why did you leave and come here?” I used to ask, anticipating the story he repeated so many times.
“Italy was beautiful but day-to-day life was hard. Many workers in my town were not even paid with money. Some toiled 12 hours a day, six days a week in the blazing sun in the local salt industry earning a salary of coffee and cheese, which they bartered among themselves. Your grandfather was one of them for a while until he decided to leave and come to America.”
“Why didn’t they want money instead?” I’d interrupt. He didn’t answer.
“What was your life like when you came here?” I would ask, knowing the question would prompt him to tell us about one of the bleak jobs he held from the time he was eight years-old.
“In Margherita, it never got very cold and never snowed.”
“Never?” I’d ask in disbelief.
“No. Never! We came to Philadelphia by ship in August 1913—not to Ellis Island like many other Italian immigrants. I had a pair of short pants to wear every day. My mother made me a nice suit with long trousers reserved for church on Sunday. I had to get up at 4 am and sell newspapers at the North Philadelphia Train Station, with my legs bare up to my knees. It was not bad until winter came. The snow covered my bare legs; my skin turned red and chapped. When all the papers were sold, I went home for breakfast. All we had was coffee and milk. Sometimes there was a hard piece of bread which my brothers Santo and Giuseppe would throw at each other like a ball. The only way we could eat it was to dunk it in the coffee.”
“I hate coffee,” I said. “I’ll never drink it.”
Daddy loved to take long walks with us. Every excursion had an educational purpose. He’d talk about botany as we passed ferns.
“Take a look at this; the little coiled green plant shows alternation of generation. When this small one dies, a new, big fern will grow.”
“What is he talking about?” I whispered to Vicki. “How does he know all that stuff?”
“Stay in school. Get an education!” he’d exclaim to his impressionable walking companions. “If you don’t, you might have to work in places like I did.”
“Like what, Daddy?”
“Like in the Ball Bearing Factory. After school, I had a job in a place where they put a heavy, long black rubber apron around my waist. I had to dip metal equipment in a vat of acid. After the first day at work, my apron was full of big holes. I was so scared.” I was too, imagining wearing something riddled with gaping holes from acid.
“As a teen-ager, I cleaned trolley cars. One of the worst things I had to do was in the winter at the train station. We worked on the steel rails. Our hands got so cold they’d bleed. I used to be so tired I’d fall asleep in class, yet I never quit school.”
“Why didn’t you quit those awful jobs?”
“My mother died when I was 14-years-old, and we always needed money. A friend and I dreamed of running away out West and becoming cowboys to live free under the open skies. He succeeded in doing it, but I could not because I had to take care of my five siblings. I wondered what happened to him. I am glad I didn’t follow him because I wouldn’t have had you.”
I never quite believed his sacrifice story, but loved listening to it. The occupation I liked most was the one I could relate to, Italian water ice.
“When I was 15, my father had me stationed behind a 100-pound pushcart in the summer. My job was to shave a huge block of ice for making Italian water ice. I enjoyed watching the purple, red, orange or blue syrup whirl through the frozen crystals. If customers wanted it to be extra sweet, I’d charge them double and they were happy to pay. I made good money, though it was tough work. Get an education.”
Dr. Gilda Rorro Baldassari is an educator and writer actively dedicated to all aspects of her Italian-American heritage. She is the author of Gilda, Promise Me (Idea Press, 2018).