Dear Great-Grandfather, where did you go?
In addition to Wednesday’s post about storing memories I decided to write this. It’s a story about a story told by my grandfather. So I ask: what is our history without our stories? What are we without stories?
10 years ago I accompanied my grandparents on a trip to my grandfather’s hometown in Italy. We stayed in their little house at the top of a hill, which overlooked rolling hills, houses and farms. Although I had never been there before, this tiny house on a hill felt like home away from home. When we arrived we climbed the steep stairs which were crumbling beneath our feet. With our heavy luggage in our hands and the wind knocked out of us from all the climbing, we finally reached the rather tall wooden front door. My grandfather reached into his tiny pocket and pulled out a key, and as he pushed open the door a display of old world charm erected in front of me. I was eager to explore my unfamiliar surroundings and I couldn’t wait to get acquainted with the house which would be my home for the next two months. The house was charming, rustic and cozy. So much of my grandfather’s life and his family’s history resonated within those four walls. I remember being astonished and it feeling surreal. I couldn’t believe I was standing in the house my grandfather grew up in. I dropped my luggage in the foyer and began floating around each room, touching the walls, running my fingers across the furniture and window sills until I was interrupted by a rather large photo on the wall. It was a photo which had a strong presence in the room. It was a black and white photograph of a man in a suit and tie who strongly resembled my father. I stood there and observed the man of mystery in the photograph. Who was he and why was his photograph the only one which hung in the house?
Two years ago I enrolled in a course for school on the immigration of Italians to North America. I took this course because there was so much I didn’t know about my heritage and I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more. We had to complete an important assignment, which required us to interview someone who had immigrated to Canada. I decided that the perfect candidate would be my grandfather. I drove to my grandparents’ home in Toronto with my tape recorder and my notebook. I was excited to hear my grandfather’s immigration story from beginning to end.
I entered their home and sat down at the kitchen table with my grandmother and grandfather. They shuffled about in their seats and smiled from ear to ear. I could tell that they were excited and honored to share their immigration story. I still get emotional when I think about that day. I placed my tape recorder on the table and opened the box of photographs I had found in their home. Those photographs, which I displayed before my grandparents, were a great way to begin my grandfather’s storytelling process. I pressed the record button and began the interview.
My grandfather explained the struggles of working and living in Toronto without much money or any knowledge of the English language. He explained the hardships and the prejudice he experienced as an Italian man trying to grow accustomed to a foreign land. He told me about his difficult childhood, he shared what life was like working in the coalmines in Belgium and the different people he met along the way. He shared a story about his experience on the ship, which brought him to Canada, and how hard it was for him to leave his family behind. I was very proud to sit across the table from a man who had sacrificed so much for his family, his future children and grandchildren. As we sorted through more photos in the box we came across the same photo which hung on the wall in the home in Italy. I handed the photograph to my grandfather and watched him as he studied it with his eyes and fingers. I told him that I recognized the same photo from Italy and asked him who the unknown man in the photograph was. This is where his story about his estranged father began…
I was just a small boy, the youngest of three. Times were getting tough and there were rumors that there were better job opportunities in Argentina. The economy was starting to pick up there so my father took all of our money, kissed my mother, me and my two sisters goodbye and told us that as soon as he made enough money he would send for us to go live in Argentina or he would return to Italy. Weeks, months, and years went by. We never heard from him or saw him again. Times got tough and we were poor. At the age of six I had to quit school and start working. I became the sole provider for my family. I really liked school and was at the top of my class so I was sad when I had to say goodbye to my teacher and my school mates. Years passed and I continued to work and provide for my family. After working labor jobs in Italy and working in the coal mines in Belgium I decided to make the move to Canada. I came to Toronto to work so I could help my mother and my two sisters. We were poor and they needed the money. After years of working in Toronto I met a man named Antonio who had gone to Chicago to work. He told me that he had worked for a man with same last name as ours. Because our last name is very rare I was sure it had to be my father. I told Antonio that I had always wondered where my father had gone. I often wondered where he was living, what kind of life he had, if he had a wife or any kids. I sometimes wondered if he ever thought of me and often wondered why he never came back to me. I decided to buy a plane ticket to Chicago and meet this man with the same last name. I needed to know once and for all if he was my father. Antonio accompanied me on my journey to find him. We arrived in Chicago and waited for my father to leave the job site. I had this very photo in my hands and a picture of my mother and I (he flagged the 5×7 photo in his hand and waved it at me). Antonio pointed him out and when I was ready to get out of the taxi cab he had already crossed the street to get to his car. So I got back in the taxi and told the driver to follow the car my father was driving. We followed it all the way to his house. My heart was pounding as I watched him get out of his car and walk into his house. Antonio motioned me to get out of the car. I thought: it’s now or never, so I got out of the car and walked to the front door. I rang the doorbell and waited. A lady opened the door (I assumed she was his wife). I asked if I could speak to Giovanni. She told me that he was busy and couldn’t come to the door. As she was about to close the door I put my hand out to stop it from shutting. I explained that I was his son and held a picture up of my father. I told her that I needed to see him and talk to him. I needed to. She became very angry with me and told me to leave. I refused. I told her that I needed to speak to Giovanni and that I wouldn’t leave until I talked to him. Just as I finished that sentence I saw the man at the window. I saw my father, the man who had left me so many years ago. All that separated us now was a glass window. I waved at him and pleaded for him to come outside. Just as I stood there with my photos in my hand begging for the man who had disowned me, to come outside so I could meet him, a police car rolled up. They arrested me for trespassing and before I knew it I was on a plane back to Toronto.
(This story has been edited to for reading purposes)
I was astonished by my grandfather’s act of bravery and persistence. All my grandfather ever wanted in life was to meet his father. He never stopped missing him and was determined to find him one day. He had come so close to meeting him, to touching him, to seeing him face to face. It broke his heart that even after all those years his father had no desire to meet the son he had abandoned almost 40 years ago. My grandfather had endured so much as an abandoned child, adolescent and adult. He undoubtedly had a hard life. It’s a shame his father wasn’t around to be proud of everything my grandfather accomplished.
Storytelling connects you to your history and to the people who are a part of your family’s history. My grandfather has always been a great storyteller and although they’re stories I’ve heard more than once, they will always hold a special place in my heart. Although he’s 87, his memory is as sharp as a thumb tack. I often have to lean in to hear what he’s saying but it’s worth the neck pain and every earful. After the interview had finished and my grandfather had finished telling me a story he thanked me and told me how proud he was of me. I hugged him and said “No Nonno, thank you. Thank you for sacrificing everything to give me a better life. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me and for everyone. I’m proud of you. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for you.” He looked up at me and smiled. His eyes welled up with tears and he said, “No one has ever said that to me.” My grandfather had gone through so much to get to where he is today, not for himself but for his family, my dad and his brothers and sister and for me. I have never seen him frown about the past. I’ve only seen him smile. I’ll never get to repay him or thank him enough for making the move to Toronto 63 years ago. All I can do is share my blessings, make the most out of my ambition and make him proud.