(for my father, Donato Gioseffi, 1905-1982)
In his casket, my immigrant father felt hollow to the touch, laid out in his one good suit, respectable for la famiglia. Family and friends gone at last, I bowed before him my goodbye, then tried to turn him a little to one side. The undertaker hurried to assist, not wanting me to ruin his artwork. My immigrant father had a lame right leg from a fall in the Old Country – Apulia on the Adriatico. A dying Greek–Albanian Italian with a wit, he’d joked: “My right hip hurt me all my life. I don’t want to rest on that pain through eternity!” I took him seriously, though we had no faith in eternity.
“He looks good!” his old friend, Doctor De Felice, said as if it mattered now. It was a modest funeral for a small lame man whose labor was large: Everyone in the room – sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends – had been fed by him through the Great Depression.
Too often, I remember that his body felt hollow and I wish I’d never thought he seemed light enough to fly away forever. He’d loved books: Dante, Shakespeare, Voltaire. He died laughing, reading Rabelais. He’d dreamed of being a writer, but rarely had time to write, laboring to feed others. He’d been called “guinea gimp” when he shined shoes to work his way through school – though he’d be the first Italian immigrant to win a Phi Beta Kappa from Union College’s Alpha Chapter. Classmates had sung Guinea, Guinea Gimp, Shine my shoe. I got money, but I won’t pay you.
I wanted him to know I was better than the son he’d longed for “to carry on the name.” I wanted him to know I’d put his name on books in the Library of Congress to fulfill his dream.
I remember when as a child, in 1944, I spent days with Grandma Lucia in Newark while he worked in his laboratory. I was just learning to read. “DON’T SPEAK THE ENEMY’S LANGUAGE,” said the poster at the end of a gray alleyway where the raggedy, immigrant guineas of Newark whispered quietly in their dialects on concrete steps, far from blue skies, olive groves, or hyacinths. Bent in a shadow toward the last shafts of sunlight above tenement roofs, Grandpa Galileo sadly sipped homemade wine and hummed, moaning, with his broken mandolin. Children played hide-and-seek in dusty evening streets as red sauce simmered, hour after hour, on coal stoves, the garlic, oil, and crushed tomatoes blended with precious pinches of salt and basilica – a pot that had to last a week of suppers.
The fathers’ hands, with blackened fingernails, were worn rough with iron wrought, bricks laid, ditches dug, glass etched. Wilted women in black cotton dresses waited in twilight, calling their listless children to scrubbed-linoleum kitchens. In cold-water flats with tin tables, stale bread was ladled with sauce, then baked to revive edibility. Clothes soaked in kitchen laundry-tubs, washboards afloat. Strains of radio opera were interrupted by war bulletins. The poster pasted on the fence at the end of the block, streaked with setting sun and rain, still read “DON’T SPEAK THE ENEMY’S LANGUAGE!” But the raggedy immigrant guineas could speak no other, and so they murmured in their rooms in the secret dark, frightened of the camps where people like them were imprisoned in the new land of golden opportunity.* They whispered of Mussolini’s stupidity – stifling the mother tongue, wounding the father’s pride – urging their children to speak English by daylight, telling each other, “We are Americans. God bless America!”
Author's CommentMy father was detained in Ellis Island’s Hospital on Isola delle lacrime (Island of Tears.) after arriving in steerage passage. He was sick for a month with pox and diphtheria contracted in the ship’s crowded hold. His American immigrant life was hard as hell though he’d been told American streets would be paved with gold. He found blood and sweat, and cold in The New Land. He’d crossed the grey Atlantic seasick and vomiting in U.S.S. Liberty’s hold, in which his little sister Rafaella died. Buried at sea, her shrouded body was slid from a board into the rolling Atlantic while his mother Lucia wept her bleeding heart into the storm clouds of that horrible trip. A young boy, he tried to comfort her, but instead, exploring the Liberty, he nearly slid from its deck into the stormy Atlantic, like the Muslim child, a pitiable image in the news, drowned washed up upon a foreign shore. In threadbare clothes, speaking no English, he attended Schenectady’s Public Schools. Depressed and distraught in America, dubbed a guinea, dago, greaseball, shunned by America’s populace and threatened by the police. What taunts he took and what hard labor he endured: delivering newspapers, tending parking lots, carrying coal buckets, shelving library books in Union College where he was the first Italian immigrant to earn both Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Psi. An oldest child of many, a thin boy in ragged knickers, he limped through the 1920s and 30’s up city steps, door to door with loads of night and daily newspapers, each worth a penny of his family’s keep. He wore his heart and soles sore, feeding la famiglia through The Great Depression. My father filled me with pride, and immigrant tenacity. Slave to filial duty, weaver of our dreams, he couldn’t be free to sing. Once full of history, philosophy, poetry, physics, astronomy, his bright, high-flying psyche is now dispersed, set free from his tormented body, but the song he offered, often forlorn, glistened with enough luminescence to carry me onward. I’m the author he wished to be, but could not find time to be in his laboring life, caring for others. He reminds me that all immigrants were once treated like the Muslims and Mexicans of today, and that America was built by the hard labors of slaves and tenacious immigrants.