I wish I had known my Dad’s father better or, for that matter, at all.
My Dad and his brothers and sisters spoke of their difficult childhood. Their Mom died at the birth of her seventh child who also passed. Needing to work while requiring help with his children, my grandfather had his recently married cousins move in with him and his family. The cousins eventually had seven children of their own; both families living together for a while. Three adults and thirteen kids lived in a small four room flat. In time, the cousins moved further down the street to their own place.
The thirteen children grew close, becoming more like brothers and sisters. As soon as they were able, they went to work, some as young as fourteen (our Dad one of them).
Our grandfather, aunts and uncles lived in a small tenement on Tell Street in the Federal Hill section of Providence. The tenement, one of six in a bulky building, stood almost within touching distance of another behemoth of the same size across a narrow alley. It was a second-floor walk-up, the door opening directly into the kitchen from the hallway. Three small rooms (two bedrooms, a den) and a small pantry were off the kitchen.
In the early years, my aunt Vera, the oldest at thirteen, stayed home from school to raise her siblings. When the truant officer came, she hid.
My grandfather, Carmine, was mostly a shadow in my mind. Because he was not well and spoke only Italian, I did not have a chance to chat with him, nor did I do things with him as I did with my mother’s father who lived with us in our house a neighborhood away. We were told of Carmine’s courage, one which came in quiet doses. It took years before I appreciated his, and my aunt Vera’s.
Dad stayed connected to his boyhood home. Two of his sisters and his father lived there for some years after Dad married. His visit was a Sunday ritual … church, visit with family and then meet his longtime friends at the corner drug store on Broadway. I was fortunate to trail along.
On some Sundays, after visiting with my aunts, we went to visit with the cousins, some of whom still lived in their small tenement. They were so delighted to see us. In all the years of visiting, I never heard a malicious thought, self-pity or jealousy of those more fortunate. They worked hard to fulfill their needs, doing what was necessary, working to survive and appreciating what they had. They were grateful to their parents and this country for giving them that opportunity.
I loved those Sunday mornings. As I look back on them today, it helps me recognize and appreciate the courage of our immigrant grandparents and their offspring. Like so many others of their generation, they gave us our opportunities. They taught us, by example, about the importance of family and perseverance.
How very fortunate we were.