(This story is based on facts about Carolina’s early childhood and her journey to America. I have edited it now that some research has revealed that Aida died two years after Carolina was born. Carolina’s youngest half-sister, Eva, had sent me a letter in the 1990’s telling me that her mother, Angelina, told her that Aida died in childbirth giving birth to Carolina but that Carolina never knew this. In fact, Carolina always said that her mother died when she was two. Now that we have found records from Italy showing that indeed, Aida died two years after Carolina’s birth, I have edited my story to reflect that fact.)
Angelo closed the door to the bedroom that held his wife’s body. Three year old Armando tugged at his coat. “Papa, can I see mama now?” Angelo patted him on his head but said nothing. He bent down to pick up two year old Carolina. The child smiled at her father’s touch but her smile, so much like her mother’s, only sharpened his pain. He held the little girl out to his sister, Clautilda, “Take her.” He said nothing more as he burst out of the house, trying to find air he could breathe. The house smelled like death and tears stung and threatened to leak out of his eyes. He walked briskly toward his store and sought refuge in the familiar tasks of the day, filling the bushels with fresh fruits and vegetables, talking with the customers, making believe that life had not changed for him. Perhaps he would return to the house and his sisters would tell him that they were mistaken, that Aida had only fainted from the difficult birth. Perhaps she was smiling, sitting up in their bed, waiting for him to return to her right at this very moment. But still, he lingered at the store, long after it was closed for the day.
“Angelo, it’s time to make a decision. What will become of the children?” Lucia repeated for the hundredth time that week. He held his coffee cup to his lips and took in the comforting smell before taking a long drink. Lucia looked at her brother, he had always been such a strong man, but now his shoulders hunched over the kitchen table as if he wanted to collapse in on himself. He loved Aida, she was the light of his life and he never imagined that he would live without her. Her portrait hung on the wall in the living room, still beautiful and full of life. But Aida was gone now. Left behind were her broken husband and her two young children. “Angelo, what is to be done with them? You must make a decision.” He only shook his head. Clautilda walked into the room and sat at the table with her brother and sister. “Angelo, I’ve been thinking about this. If you’d like, I can take Car with me.” “To the convent?” Lucia asked. “Yes, she can be my ward and I will look after her there.” Angelo didn’t trust his voice so he simply nodded in assent. “Good, than I will make the preparations.” “But what about Armando?” Lucia pressed. “He will stay with me.” Angelo commanded.
The years passed. Carolina became a favorite of the nuns in the convent. She helped her Aunt Clautilda in the kitchen and set the tables for the meals. The nuns were kind to her and taught her to be thankful for small things. But at night, she dreamed. In her dreams she imagined what it would be like if she could live with her father, brother, step-mother, and half sisters. She wondered why she didn’t live with them, why her father had given her away. Did her father want her to grow up devout, to become a good nun someday? She tried to be good. She tried hard to make him happy when she saw him, but he never seemed to be able to look at her. Sometimes, like for special holidays, Aunt Clautilda would take her to visit her family and she would watch as her half sisters played with their toys and marvel at their connection to each other, their familiarity with each other. She would follow her brother to their father’s store and she how comfortable he was working for their father. He knew all of the customers and they all knew him. She walked through those visits like a stranger among her own family. After one of these visits she asked her aunt why she was chosen to live separately. Her aunt would only say, “You were young when your mother died, your father couldn’t care for you then so he gave you to me. Aren’t you happy fala nina?” “Yes zia, I am happy.” There was nothing else she could ask without hurting her aunt, so she said nothing further.
One day Carolina put on her apron and entered the convent’s kitchen to help her aunt and she saw that her aunt was crying. “What is it zia? Has one of the sisters become ill?” “No fala nina, Your father has sent word from America that he wants his family to join him there.” “Oh.” Carolina looked down quickly, trying not to cry. They were all going to leave now. No matter how tenuous her connection to her family was up to this point, now it would be even more distant. Her heart hurt so much that she thought she would never be able to smile again. She turned to enter the dining room to set the table. Like her father, the familiar chores of the day helped her to push the sadness out of her mind. She did not think at all. She counted, one, two three, four, as she set the plates, five, six, seven, eight . . . “Carolina” she turned at the sound of her name on her aunt’s lips. She never called her by her name so she knew there was something more coming. She looked up at Clautilda whose eyes were rimmed in red. Clautilda used her handkerchief to wipe at her eyes. “Carolina, you will be going to America with them.” The child ran across the room and clasped herself to her aunt. “Truly?” Clautilda shook her head. “I will miss you fala nina. America is very far away.” Carolina felt the twist of guilt in her chest, she was glad to be going to America with her family, but that meant leaving her aunt behind. “I will write you every day,” she promised. “That is a good child. Now after you set the table, you will need to pack your clothes. I will take you to meet your step-mother at the port of Naples and you will join your family on the journey.” Carolina thought for a moment, “Zia, can I take the portrait of my mother? The one that hangs on the wall in my room?” Clautilda thought for a moment, she knew that this would be difficult for her brother, but she knew that Aida’s daughter should take her portrait with her. “Yes, we will pack it in your luggage.”
The ship moved slowly over the sea that summer of 1913 toward its destination and the arms of the Statue of Liberty. The days on the journey were difficult but Carolina didn’t mind it at all. She was with her family! Her step-mother, Angelina, was very kind and her little sisters were sweet. She couldn’t give them enough hugs to make up for all of the missed time! The oldest child, Aida, was five. The next, Ada, was three. And the baby, Eva, was one. In addition, Carolina’s brother, Armando, was with her. At thirteen he was handsome and attracted the attention of all the young girls on the ship. Carolina was proud to be his sister and savored the times he took her with him as he traversed the passages of the ship. She was also surprised to see how difficult it was for those passengers traveling in steerage. Her father had arrange for them to travel second class which was far better conditions than those that existed below.
As they approached Ellis Island, Carolina became nervous. Her father was there waiting for her. How should she tell him how grateful she was that he had arranged for her to join him in America? Should she rush to him and jump in his arms? Should she play the part of a young lady and demurely curtsy to him and offer her hand, after all, she was ten years old now. She was not a child anymore. She practiced her curtsy over and over, trying to get it perfect.
She was holding Eva in her arms when they saw him waiting for them at the reception room on Ellis Island where families were reunited. Her father looked relieved to see that his family had arrived safely and he greeted his wife first and took Ada from her arms. Aida, whom everyone called Edith, wrapped herself around his leg tightly as if she was afraid he would disappear if she didn’t have him within her grasp. Carolina stood back from them as she watched this scene of a family reuniting. Her family. Her heart had trouble beating in rhythm. A coldness covered her and she shivered. Angelina saw Carolina turn white so she reached for Eva and drew the baby into arms. Angelina asked, “Carolina, are you alright?” With a dry mouth she replied, “Yes, mam.” Angelo stood next to Armando who was almost as tall as their father. “Father, where shall we go now?” Angelo looked toward Carolina and nodded a polite welcome. “Follow me, Armando, take as much of the luggage that you can carry. I have a wagon over here.” They all followed him and loaded the bags into the wagon. Carolina followed in a daze, she was living her dream. She was with her family and they were traveling to their new home in America, together!
They arrived at the tenement house on Hamilton Avenue in Brooklyn. Carolina looked around at the small three room apartment but didn’t mind the crowded conditions. She joyfully helped her little sisters with their bags and marveled at the bedroom that all of the children would share. It was late and she had just settled her sisters in bed when a knock came at the door to the apartment. She creaked open the bedroom door to see a man and woman standing in the kitchen. She heard her father call her and she thought how nice it was to hear him say her name. She closed the door behind her gently, so that her sisters would not waken. Her father addressed her, “Carolina, this is Zio Lorenzo and Zia Anna. Zio Lorenzo is your mother’s brother.” Carolina smiled and managed to say, “Buona sera.” She used the curtsy she had practiced for greeting her father. She bent low like a princess, barely able to conceal her joy at meeting her mother’s brother. She stood as still as she could while her uncle reached down to kiss her cheeks. This all seemed too much for her. More family than she ever dreamed of! Then she heard the words her father said, but thought she must have misunderstood. She looked at him, questioning him with her eyes. So he explained further, “Zio Lorenzo and Zia Anna have no children of their own, you will go to live with them here in New York. Go get your bag so that Zio Lorenzo can take it to his wagon.” Carolina looked at her step mother who was crying near the sink. Angelina crossed the room and knelt down beside the little girl she had become very attached to on their journey to America. “I am sorry Carolina, I didn’t know how to tell you.” Carolina backed away from Angelina and felt the door to the bedroom behind her. The bedroom where her half-sisters lay sleeping. The bedroom she thought she was going to share with them. She looked toward her handsome brother who stood near the door to the apartment. His eyes were cast down. He couldn’t look at her either. Zia Anna walked over to her and took her hand. “Come, we will go to the wagon. Lorenzo, you will bring her bag.” Angelo looked at his daughter with a pain so severe that he could not hide it and it pierced Carolina’s soul. But he did not stop her aunt from leading her away.
A few streets from her family, Carolina stood in a pretty bedroom that was all her own. She opened the suitcase and unwrapped the portrait of her mother. She hugged it to her and then crossed the room and stopped in front of the dresser. She looked into the eyes in the portrait as tears filled her own eyes. She spoke to the portrait in a whisper, “At least you will still be with me, mama.” She kissed the image on the sketch and lifted the portrait high enough to settle it securely on top of the dresser. She walked back to her bed and slowly unpacked her belongings. This was her new home.
http://www.theresadodaro.com Author of The Tin Box Trilogy