(My annual Columbus Day repost – originally published here October 2013)
(With the approach of Columbus Day, I’m reposting this brief tribute that I wrote for my father in 1994, when he was eighty-five years old. Columbus Day is a revered occasion for Italian-Americans, but it is especially poignant for me and my family. In 1924, it was the day my father arrived in America. In 1974, my son was born on that day. And in 1996, my youngest daughter married on that day.
The photo is from my father’s immigration and transport document. He is in the center, flanked by his younger brothers.
I hope you enjoy this personal indulgence, and break from my usual poetry.)
I write on the eve of Columbus Day, a day with personal meaning unlike mere national holidays, a day for reflection on more than salutary celebration of a new world conceived, a day I respectfully decline to debate of political correctness and revisionist Columbian history. You see, it is the anniversary of my father’s arrival in America, the day he transplanted my own roots in this most fortunate soil of freedom.
It was seventy years ago when Ettore Paolo Lenzi, a tall, robust, fourteen-year-old boy, looking much like my handsome son does today, brushed the harbor blown hair from his large brown eyes and gazed anxiously through the cold, gray New York mist at Lady Liberty. His younger brothers Paolino Francesco and Salvatore Raffaele clung to his long, steadfast legs in apprehension, the rumpled rustic trio of them nearly indistinct amid the steerage throng of the S.S. Giuseppe Verdi.
So much larger was this lady than he had imagined, he dared wonder if other dimensions of this new place, this l’America, would also exceed anticipation. In any era, a boy can become worldly before he becomes mature, but in the 1920s of the mezzogiorno, little beyond the humble existence of his southern Italian village had been experienced even by adults. Medieval circumstance lingered still upon the isolated culture of this ancient sun washed region. Modes of communication had barely changed from the time when Roman legions pitched mortal battle here, sending campaign bulletins by runners from camp to camp. With modern politics and economy growing uglier in the aftermath of the Great War, emigration from the area was increasing, and occasionally, happy words, messages of sta bene, reached back to soothe the ears of those left behind. But he’d also heard a few disturbing stories of unexpected New World harshness and bitter disappointments suffered by some paisani.
What was the reality of this new land? During that last donkey cart ride down from the mountains of Campania, Ettore believed he could answer with some advantage because his father, my grandfather, Tommaso had earlier made his own discovery of America, coming to earn money with which to eventually finance his family’s migration. Riding the cane-benched open train from Salerno to the steamer docks at Napoli, Ettore sobbed with recall of his gentle mother Gerardina, of the day he held her in his not yet manful arms, kissing her goodbye at the very moment she succumbed to tuberculosis.
Tommaso, now a widower, had not made any pretensions about America, or for that matter, about anything else. Always the straightforward sort, he was disinclined to embellish the situation as did some men who, forced to entice reluctant wives away from kith and kin, helped make American fantasies into articles of immigration faith. But the truth had always been more than sufficient for his sons.
Ettore knew this well and, yet, the colossal size of the statue so stunned him that it made the boy worry if his expectations really were better informed. By his father’s words: America was a difficult place to be sure but a better place nonetheless, and while it sometimes promised more than it could mean to give, it would give more than they could ever hope to have – opportunity to prosper from one’s own effort – a future more of design than of destiny. Would it be so? Would the melancholy surging from separation ever give way to happiness? Would he find his manhood, fulfill his primogenitura outside the nurturing ancestral bonds of his beloved Buccino?
The lady in the harbor long ago proved my grandfather honest. She indeed gave to him and to my father and uncles the opportunities Tommaso had trusted she would provide. And they each seized those opportunities con gusto, con brio, relentlessly laboring through the harshness and beyond the disappointments, until they reached the personal contentment that is the essence of America’s promise.
At eighty-five, my father today remains the quintessential, though lately unfashionable, American patriot. I love him dearly for it. It seems to me that little in the human experience can match the audacity of emigration. The act demands character, courage and fortitude beyond my own comprehension. I’m proud, I’m honored, I’m grateful to know that it met with such large measures of each in the men who preceded me.
Buon oggi di Colombo, Papá.
(Published in my book Pentimento, February, 2014)