I re-read the telegram for the third time. But the message would not change. Zia had died. Alone. In the small Italian village where she had lived for seventy years. Only three months ago I had seen her for the first time. She was standing at her front door, waiting. All of her life she had lived in that mountain village, never travelling more than ten miles from home, and never had any of her American relatives come to visit her. Except me. And I remember her at her front door, waiting for the only relative who would return to claim Zia as family. It was the only comfort I could derive from the tragedy of her life.
Zia had always been a mystery to me. Her name was mentioned sotto voce late at night when, as a child, I was supposed to be asleep and not listening to the whispered adult conversation in our small kitchen of cracked linoleum and faded oil cloth. Zia was my mother’s aunt, my great aunt, who had remained in the old country when her husband came to the United States to seek their fortune. Despite the fact that Zia had never migrated to the U.S., she was always talked about. But always in whispers and always late at night. And in my child’s mind she became forever shrouded in mystery.
One spring evening when I was in fifth grade and wanted to stay up later than my bedtime, I pretended to be asleep on our prickly mohair couch in the living room. I tugged at an old afghan, arranging it around my legs, warm and secure, hoping to remain invisible as I listened to the adults in the kitchen. The whisperings suddenly became louder and animated.
“Ma, che cosa? Che ha fatto? Che peccato?” My mother’s voice was strained and angry. “Dio, Dio mio.” My mother didn’t often call out to God, and what sin was she talking about? I turned sideways on the cushions, hoping to catch a little more.
“È morto.” Someone had died and I soon realized that it was Zia’s husband, Adelfo. What I couldn’t figure out was why my mother sounded so angry at him. It wasn’t his fault that he died. He was old. He was supposed to die. I finally understood that my mother was not angry at him because he had died, but because he had not included Zia in his will. He had left his entire estate, which apparently was considerable for an immigrant steel-worker, to distant relatives and friends. My mother was outraged, but I couldn’t understand it. Didn’t she realize that it was, after all, his money? He earned it. He could do whatever he wanted with it. Fifty years ago Zia had decided to stay in the old country; it was her own fault. I was absolutely secure in my sense of indignation.
I thought about it for a couple of days. Then one night at dinner, when our paesana, Lidia, appeared with her sagging hose and her droopy housedress, I found my opportunity to voice my opinion. Lidia mentioned that the relatives had selected a cheap coffin for Adelfo, one without a satin lining. Before thinking, I jumped into the conversation. I soon knew I had made a mistake. My parents were Italian immigrants who came from a background that insisted children be polite, which meant absolutely quiet, especially around adults. All I could hope for now was that they would indulge me because I was the youngest and, like my dad, considered outspoken by nature.
“If you analyze the situation”—my language arts teacher had just used that sophisticated phrase in class that day, and I repeated it for their benefit—“As I said, if you analyze the situation, you will find that it was Zia’s own fault—that she didn’t get the money in the will. Why didn’t she come to the United States when her husband sent for her? Wasn’t that her duty in those days?”
“Mangia, figlia,” my mother prodded me. Apparently that was going to be the only response: “Eat, child.”
As the years passed and my life became increasingly filled with the demands of high school, college, and finally a career in teaching, I nearly forgot Zia’s quiet life in the village. I imagined that her life doggedly moved ahead with or without me. But after I married and my husband and I adopted two children, Zia’s village, the village where both my parents grew up, became more important. I wanted my children to have not only a family, but roots as well. I wanted them to connect with their grandparents’ past—our past—to understand the culture that embraced them. We would be the first to seek those roots. And so we made plans to visit Zia’s small village.
Armed only with the Italian dialect that I had grown up with and a few helpful hints from my mother, we prepared to leave. In the meantime, when Zia received word that we would be coming, she attended every mass at church the Sunday before we arrived to tell her neighbors that her American niece was coming. To these people I was only a name, but they all remembered or knew my parents.
Getting to the isolated village which lay hidden in the Abruzzi Mountains involved some initiative, for the winding switchbacks were treacherous and difficult to negotiate on foot. We shared American cigarettes and Snickers bars with those along the way who helped us with our luggage or directions; my mother warned me not to offer money. Such would be an insult to the sensitive and kind-hearted Abruzzians. Trudging our way up the last half-mile switchback which, we hoped, led to Zia’s house, we passed several groups of people seated outside their stone cottages snacking on black olives and slices of bread. It became obvious that they were talking about us. In this tiny mountain village that looked much as it had one hundred years ago, the people relied solely on neighbor-to-neighbor contacts for information, and they had already realized who we were and where we were going.
Their only apprehension, I later learned, was that they feared I could neither speak nor understand their dialect. Fortunately, I heard one of the older men, a dark stocky farmer who was wearing a once-handsome Borsolino hat say to his bocce partner that I looked just like my father did thirty years ago. I stopped, turned around and responded in the dialect I had used with my parents every day of my life: “Hai ragione.” You’re probably right. His face lit up and he shouted, “She speaks.” For the next several minutes we were hugged and kissed and hugged again by these wonderful strangers and ultimately chaperoned to Zia’s house. We arrived with a festive air followed by a hobbled donkey and a few chickens.
I was almost beginning to feel foolish until I saw Zia looking out at us from her front stoop. She was tall and thin, wearing the unadorned black dress of a widow. The long dress hung loosely from her shoulders, so loosely that it appeared to sway around her body. Her dark hair was pulled back in a tight knot which was caught in a black scarf at the nape of her neck. She stood in the doorway with tears welling up in her eyes. And there she remained. Her neighbor Emilia explained that she had been crying for three days in anticipation of our visit. The same would happen when we left.
Zia was the image of my mother, older and thinner, but the eyes obviously belonged to la famiglia. I realized then that they were my eyes, too. As I slowly moved towards her, I desperately tried to think of something wonderful to say. I so wanted her to like me. With a choked voice I greeted Zia with the only Italian greeting I knew, a peasant’s greeting that my mother had taught me, “Com che va?”—How ya doin? Her reaction was immediate and joyous. She threw her arms around me. She had feared that I would speak a more cultured Italian. Little did she know that days earlier I had repeatedly embarrassed myself in Rome using the dialect, the only real Italian I knew. It was good to know that it was finally something that someone wanted to hear.
In her two-room stone cottage she had us sit down around the kitchen table, made wobbly by the uneven stone floor. We would eat before the visitors came calling. But who, I wondered, would come to see us? And yet, come they did throughout the evening. They were greeted by Zia at the door, and bestriding the threshold like a slender colossus, she would announce our presence. Each time she repeated the same thing: “This is my grandniece, Algisa, and her wonderful husband and their two beautiful children who have come to my house.” There was something almost defiant in her tone. What my mother later explained was that Zia was heading off a confrontation. In her remote village adopted children would be a curiosity, an anomaly. Zia was issuing an ultimatum: if you come into my house you accept my niece, her husband, and their children. Period. She was fiercely protecting us from gawking stares and unpleasant questions.
Carrying fresh eggs, biscotti, and smelly home-made scamorza cheese, the villagers arrived and presented their gifts with joy and affection. My family and I were being embraced by them, for two of their former villagers had sent their daughter to them. So many villagers who left never returned. Those who did, often insisted that they had forgotten the dialect and their roots. We had come seeking to find and claim those roots. They loved it. And so did I.
In the early morning hours, the house finally cleared and Zia and I were together and alone. And so we talked. I surprised myself by asking Zia about her husband. She surprised me by telling this story, which for the first time was told without whispers and without mystery.
Like most of the girls in the village, Zia had married young, and like most of them, her husband and marriage had been arranged by the families. In Zia’s case she would add a few farm animals to his farm land. She had no say in the arrangement. It would come to pass with or without her approval. And so it did, and the newlyweds established their home in the village where they had both grown up. Unexpectedly, her husband had the opportunity to book passage to the United States. It was being done by so many young men at the time as a chance to escape poverty and to establish a better life. As he prepared to leave, they realized that Zia was pregnant, and he left knowing that within the year there would be a child. He left his widowed mother in charge of his household and his wife, realizing Zia would need help with the farm when the baby came. Rather than having a midwife, which was routinely accepted in the village, they had decided that Zia should have a doctor and go to a hospital when the time for delivery was near.
Zia was not considered to be particularly hearty or resilient, and they agreed a hospital would be safer. Her husband made the arrangements before he left. She would deliver in Castel de Sangro, the larger town a few miles to the west, even though their village had its own doctor and a small hospital. Her husband vehemently refused to have Zia see the local doctor. And everyone knew why. Two years earlier, Zia and the doctor had fallen in love, and they had wanted to marry; this, however, was impossible. What could Zia’s poor family offer in dowry to match the social and financial position of the doctor? With the village’s unbending rules and conventions, the marriage could never happen. But the town knew that the two had fallen in love. And so did Zia’s husband.
Soon after Adelfo arrived in the United States, he secured work at the U.S. Steel Plant in Lorain, Ohio. For the next few months he sent Zia support money and saved the rest for her eventual passage. He had even sent a package of baby things, diapers, booties, a sweater. All seemed to be going well.
A month before the baby was due, however, Zia began to experience severe pain. It had not been a routine pregnancy from the start, but nothing serious had been anticipated. When Zia began hemorrhaging, she was put to bed by her mother-in-law and a neighboring midwife was called in. There was no thought of the local doctor. Zia remained in bed for two days, but the bleeding continued. On the third day when the bleeding increased and Zia grew feverish and disoriented, the midwife realized there were complications that she could not handle. Both the midwife and the mother-in-law feared for Zia’s life. In desperation, the mother-in-law called in the local doctor. For seventy-two hours the physician, the midwife, and the mother-in-law struggled to deliver the baby. She was still-born and Zia’s life remained in jeopardy for another forty-eight hours.
Zia’s mother-in-law rushed telegram to her son with the sad news. Two days later she sent a long letter carefully explaining the circumstances of the delivery and her personal decision to call in the local doctor. It had been a life and death situation for both Zia and the baby. The mother and Zia waited for his reply. Nothing came. Not the first week, not the second, nor the third. For fifty years it did not come. Never again did another word pass between Zia and her husband. And so it ended. There was no bitterness or remorse in her tone. “It just happened,” she said.
With tears in my eyes, I asked Zia one last question: What have you been doing these fifty years all alone in this little village?”
“I’ve been waiting.”