The Molino and Manna families of Vasto, Abruzzo, Italy in Baltimore’s Little Italy gather on the christening day in 1940 for 2-year-old Johnny Manna, baptized at St. Leo the Great Church. Johnny was not baptized as an infant since part of the family could not travel from Brooklyn, N.Y. because of gas rationing during World War II – the Mannas waited 2 years until they could get there. (Courtesy Johnny Manna)
I could have you crying in 60 seconds flat if I shared the deeper details from people in Baltimore’s Italian community who are sharing their vintage photos and the sagas behind the images.
Heavily into production of my upcoming book on Baltimore’s Italian community, I write caption after caption to describe these dozens of immigrants and what they endured both in Italy and their new America.
Because these stories are in my face daily, it is keeping me from belly-aching over the petty inconveniences we’re experiencing by being “imprisoned” at home:
• No way, our beaches, restaurants, health clubs, and nail salons are closed???
• What, the stores are out of toilet paper and paper towels???
• Dang, we aren’t allowed to go to Starbucks for a double-caramel-mocha-almond-milk-with-whipped-cream latte???
• Wait, we can’t make a hair appointment to color our roots?
• Oh no, our kids are home for the rest of the school year? (NOOOOOOO!)
Oh my-my-my, poor us.
Think our grandparents and great-grandparents could order as many groceries as they desired and wait for a pile of food to be magically delivered at their front door?
Think they received a full education?
Think our immigrant ancestors had the opportunity to pick up a phone to see their loved ones faces via video chats? They were separated for years at a time without laying eyes on each other; sometimes they never saw their family again. Posted mail with family news took weeks and months to reach someone across an ocean.
Do you think they cared their hair was turning gray? No wonder their hair turned gray! They were forced to live under such poor conditions in tiny villages, helplessly watching babies, teens and family members die from crazy diseases which today have cures and treatments. Wondering how they’d scrape together enough soup ingredients to feed 10 children.
I realize this world situation is getting to us, some days more frustrating than others, as we awaken and think, Here we go again. But this is NOTHING. This is a blip of a few months compared to years of hardships our ancestors suffered … and survived: World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, polio, death, famine, Civil War, Spanish influenza … HUGE STUFF.
The hardships! The loss of their bambini! The sadness! The poverty! The family separations! And Prohibition – oh man, people today would never have survived Prohibition as much as we seem to love and boast about our wine, beer and spirits (it’s “show ‘n tell” on social media).
Let’s try our darndest to hold onto perspective. Things are weird, yes. Things have changed, yes. We’re living a new normal, yes. Unfortunately, many are losing their jobs and have no savings to depend on. I am not negating any of that — this crazy situation is heavily affecting many. And certainly our hearts fall open to those families who have lost people to this virus.
These immigrant stories are helping me cope. I think of my Nonna Antonica and Nonno Giovanni and their serious hardships in Sardinia, Italy and here in America. How my grandfather died at age 42 falling off a roof and breaking his back the first day on the job building soldier barracks at Aberdeen Proving Ground. How my nonna never saw him alive again and struggled to raise three children alone. I hate that story and always want to change its ending.
What can strengthen you today?
Pick whatever you need on which to focus to remind yourself you’re bigger and stronger than this. That there will be an ending. That this is temporary. That our perspective can be more than acting like spoiled entitled whiny Americans unable to get our roots colored.
Forget the hair, go back to your family roots.
Cathy Aversa Coleman, a parishioner of St. Ignatius in Jarrettsville, had submitted a vintage portrait of her ancestors for the book, and said, “I come from a long line of tough women! In my moments of despair or fear, I draw strength from them.”
Brava, Cathy, brava. Cathy returns to her roots for strength. Her Nonna Theresa Corasaniti could not read or write – she signed documents with an X.
Think about who and where you came from. Call to mind your tough grandmother, your brave grandfather, a hardworking great-grandparent, your parents who made sacrifices, or that one old family story of courage you know, which breaks your heart every time you tell it.
Draw strength from those who came before us. They survived it all – and so will we.