Monday, September 28, 2009

The trunk

I've spent the last week cleaning the basement and clearing out the junk that we've accumulated throughout the years. As I was moving pieces of furniture, I came upon this trunk. It's always been there, buried beneath my stash of wrapping paper, gift bags, and streamers. The rusted top is disintegrating and crumbles to the touch. The delicate paper that lines the inside peels and falls away as the tiniest spider creeps across its surface. The trunk has seen better days, that's for sure. Actually, it's seen better decades. In the early 1900s, my great grandfather, Francesco DePinto, and his wife, Angelina packed their belongings into this trunk. Together with their 5 daughters and one son, they left the life they knew in Bari, Italy and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to begin a new life in America.
I have heard stories about the relatives I never had the chance to meet, but one story symbolizes the character of my great grandfather, and the character of the immigrants of his generation. When my mother was a girl and visited her grandfather, she would often find him sitting at the kitchen table, studying American history and the English language. My mother always tried to impress her grandfather, so one day she greeted him in Italian. She was proud of herself for mastering the phrase and was certain that he would also be proud. She was astonished when he pounded his fist on the table and said to her in broken English, laden with his thick Italian accent, "Madeline, how can I become an American if you speak to me in Italian?. From now on, you speak to me only in English." He wanted to succeed and provide for his family. He knew that learning English and assimilating to the American culture was an important step in reaching that goal. With hard work, determination, and the love and cooking of a wonderful wife, he did succeed and provided a wonderful life for his family.
I will never throw away the trunk, no matter how decrepit it may become. When I touch the worn spots, I feel my ancestors' hands. When I look at the sides, I don't see the holes. I see my great grandfather's hands gripping the trunk, hoisting it on to the loading dock in Bari. When I look at the top, I don't see the rust. I see my grandmother as a toddler sitting on it, her feet dangling, as she waits for her immigration papers to be checked at Ellis Island. When I open the trunk, I don't see the fading paper. I see my great grandmother hunched over, gingerly placing the family's treasured possessions inside. I hear her scolding her excited children, telling them to leave her in peace so she can pack. When I inhale the scent of the trunk, I don't smell my musty basement. The aroma that permeates the air is something entirely different. It's optimism, faith, promise, determination, yearning, and courage.

Seated in the front row, left to right:

Rose, Pasquale ,"Patsy", the only son. He died in the influenza outbreak of 1918, Francesco, Angelina, my grandmother Esther (her name was Pasque, which is Italian for Easter. When she arrived in America, there was a mix up in the paperwork and Pasque became Easter, which was misunderstood to be Esther, which is how she was known from then on), Mary

Standing in the back, left to right:

Francis, James (the husband of Theresa), Theresa

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Outnumbered said...

As usual your writing is amazing. The emotion that you are able to convey is inspiring. I will certainly never ask you to throw out that trunk!

Anonymous said...

What a great story! I loved that....great way to start my day! :) TFS!!!