CHESTNUTS AND IRON
On the night of June 10th, 1940, Luisa ran through the gates of her front yard and onto the streets of Pape Ave. in Toronto. With her arms resting on her breasts and her palms pressed together moving in a back and forth motion as only Italians can do, she cursed her fate!
Her screams filled the streets. Her voice, the one that had been silenced for so many years, was finally being heard.
Mannaggia! E come abbiamo bandiere italiane sulle fronte!
Luisa had just learned that her first born son was being held as a prisoner of war by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They called him an Enemy Alien and he was now somewhere behind barbed wire. They refused to tell Luisa exactly where he was, but they did tell her that on that day in the midst of WWII, Italy and Canada had been officially declared enemies. Fifty years had passed since Luisa had laid eyes on her homeland and she simply did not understand.
Neither Mussolini nor Hitler meant anything to her.
At the time, there wasn’t anyone at home with Luisa. Her husband, Luigi, was at work as usual, and her children were long gone. So, it was the neighbours who dragged her back into her yard. They knew she was right. They would never belong to this land of the free. They had been fifty years in the trying and they still lived, just like she said, with the Italian flag glued to their foreheads.
Branded by their roots.
I have only one memory of Luisa, my grandmother, the woman whose name I carry. I was a child waiting for dinner at the dining table in Toronto. I remember the backside of her thick body, wide hipped and aproned as she bent over the credenza reaching for dinner plates.
I do not remember hearing her voice.
Her story was like the story of so many other Italian women of that time. Luisa had been chosen to leave a family she loved, to marry by proxy to a man she did not know, and to begin a new life in America where supposedly the streets were paved with gold.
At 18, she was told she would have to leave her beloved Kaleb, fertile land of wood and resin with its roasted chestnuts free for the taking, its fields of cipolle, finocchi and ulivi, and her friends, flirting when they danced the tarantella in the village streets as the sun set crimson orange over the turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian sea.
But Luisa did not want to leave.
She loved the green hills of Calabria. She loved to herd sheep with her father each morning, to sit beside her mother and together card wool removing bits of grass from the hairs lined up long and smooth. She loved cuddling next to her sisters’ Spadafora on the mud floor of their baracca as they protected each other from the chill of the unwelcome wind blowing through the walls of split chestnut planks. And she loved the sound of the crackling of an open fire as her father, iron poker in hand, roasted chestnuts in winter for her, her sisters, her mother.
She wept when her father handed her over to her new destiny and whispered to her “tocca ferro” – touching iron brought good luck.
It had been arranged. Luisa was to marry Luigi, a man who had left for America two years earlier. He was from the Carbone clan, blacksmiths forging iron with charcoal made from the ancient black pines of the Sila Mountains.
His people had iron in their blood.
They hammered out iron fences in the baroque style of the conquistadores, the ones that kept “the likes of them” out. They forged church bells that rang across the valley calling all paesani to come with their meagre earnings to feed those who had stolen their land.
Luisa and Luigi were born into a world where nothing belonged to them, where there were no communal lands, where there were no schools. They were the illiterate contadini – considered the padroni’s fodder. The Mafia and King Umberto I with his House of Savoy saw to that.
The Mezzogiorno was shackled in iron.
It was in the early months of 1897 when Luisa was escorted by Eugenio, Luigi’s brother, on her journey to America. They travelled by foot from their small village, Figline Vegliaturo, northward to Naples and boarded their steamship, the EMS. Luisa’s passport, issued in nome di sua Maestà Umberto I, was sewn into the puffed sleeve of her white blouse.
Their journey across the ocean in the crowded, dirty, rat infested steerage of the ship seemed to take forever. Luisa’s lungs struggled for air and she soon became sick with exhaustion. She wanted out – of the noise, the crowds, her own vomit. Her suitcase was her pillow, the one buckled closed with white hand painted letters – letters she could not read.
Luisa and Eugenio arrived at Ellis Island on May 12, 1897, and just like the sheep back home, they were herded into crowded stalls. Luisa was pushed and shoved and tested for this or that. She was documented as swarthy. Her signature: an X.
As she clung to the iron railings of the exit gates, she silently prayed for good luck. She could hear the echo of her father’s words, tocca ferro. But soon enough she would learn that here in America, the people never touched iron.
They only touched wood.
In August of that same year, Luisa and Luigi were married in Boston, but there was no celebration. Luisa returned home from the church alone. She knew what she had to do. The neighbourhood was full of women just like her – cook, clean, satisfy, bear fruit. And Luigi, he returned to work – working for others, still. Gold, not yet. Luisa well knew they would never rest.
Spike by spike, Luigi and Luisa moved from place to place living in the tent cities of the Canadian Pacific Railway, crossing borders where there were none, heading north from Boston to Northern Ontario. Luigi worked the railway; Luisa carried babies inside and out. By the time she was 33, she had birthed six children and had lost one. Five girls, one boy.
Luisa and Luigi finally settled in Toronto on Pape Avenue, where chestnut trees lined the streets. The trees with their white flowered cones spiking upwards gave Luisa hope. But the ribbed-like veins of their leaves, deep like those on the palm of her hand, reminded her only of her fate. And her heart would break open, raw with the childhood memories of collecting chestnuts in burlap bags for her father to roast on hot coals for her, her sisters, her mother.
But she did not cry; she could not cry.
Luisa and Luigi’s family began to arrive from their village in Calabria, and of course, they were taken in. Within a matter of days of his arrival, Luisa’s brother begged to marry their eldest daughter. He was not refused. And soon after, Luigi’s nephew took their second daughter as his wife. This was common practice in those times.
All of them lived under the same roof on Pape Avenue, but soon distress crept through the walls. Luisa could hear the yelling, the screaming. She saw the bruises. She knew about the bed in the basement, where other women were entertained. So, she wasn’t surprised when her daughters disappeared. One walked out in broad daylight; the other escaped in the middle of the night – abandoning not only her husband, but also her child.
Luisa tried to hide their shame, her shame.
So on that afternoon in 1940, when the neighbours dragged Luisa in off the street, they openly shared in the pain of her grief. They stayed with her on her back porch and waited for the sun to set.
They likely remembered life under a warmer sky, in a kinder world, kinder than the one that now held Luisa’s son captive, imprisoned by his own country.
From this day onward, for Luisa, her streets would always be paved with only the cold steel of rusted barbed wire.
Eloise Carbone explores her Italian heritage and her life experiences through her poetry and creative non-fiction. In 2019, Eloise attended the Italian Diaspora Studies Writing Seminar led by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, in Calabria, Italy. Her work has been published in the USA: The Paterson Literary Review, Issue 48, Ovunque Siamo, and Voices from the Attic, Volume 27 and 28; Italy: Celebrating Calabria; and Canada: Pocket Lint and Marco Polo magazine. Eloise lives in Vancouver, Canada.