by Arlene Valentine
They were a powerful triad in my life……my grandmother Sarah and her two sisters, Rita and Carrie. As the oldest child in a very poor farm family in a hill town on the shore of the Adriatic Sea in Italy, by the time she was eight years old Carrie was in charge of her two siblings and the house as well since their mother had to work constantly just to keep them fed. Their father had gone off to America to find work and a place to live. Her story about coming to America on a ship full of immigrants from Italy is heart-wrenching when you consider her age. She was ten years old and her sisters were five and two.
When they arrived at Ellis Island in New York, they were separated from their mother who was taken to another building for medical evaluation because her back was misshapen. Immigration law required an exam for anyone who seemed different in any way. She spent the night alone with her sisters, all of them sharing a bunk in the large hut provided for immigrants. They spoke no English. Her fear, of course, was that they would never see their mother again. The next morning they were taken to the food hall where long tables were lined up and as they filed along she spotted her mother across the room in another line. Instructing her sisters not to move from the spot on which they stood, she jumped onto the nearest table and hopped from one table to another until she had crossed the room to where her mother, crying out in shock and fear, was standing. They were not separated again. Their mother was released from medical observation when it was determined that years of farm labor had reshaped her back but there was no other medical problem. They made their way to Connecticut to join their father who was waiting for them in Bridgeport where he had found work and a place to live.
At first, Carrie and most of the other young women in their neighborhood found small jobs doing household chores such as cleaning, cooking or sewing. Eventually she moved on to sewing piece-work items in one of Bridgeport’s many factories and life improved dramatically for her when she married a young man who had immigrated from a nearby town in Italy. They had a happy love match which produced two little girls when tragedy came into her life. Her young husband was killed in a construction road accident. Left alone with two young babies, she leaned on her family for support as she worked diligently to raise them. She accomplished her goal…..they grew up, she saw to it that they were well educated, they married and had children of their own.
Throughout all of her life, Carrie was unflappable……a strange word to use, but it’s true. She maintained an even keel, she always had time for others, she cared deeply about anyone who was lucky enough to be connected to her. Like me. Some of the things she taught me that became part of my life……..
How to put a good meal on the table with next to nothing in the pantry.
How to find gratification in the simple things in life, but nonetheless things that are important to those you care for…..like always having the laundry done, mending a favorite piece of clothing instead of tossing it away, ironing a shirt as if the wearer would be visiting the Queen.
How to listen….really listen….when someone is sharing a problem or concern and then hold nothing back when it’s time for your opinion.
How to deal with losses without losing sight of your own capacity to carry on.
She wasn’t famous, wasn’t known outside of her own circle of family and friends, never had a lot of money, but her influence remains with me and with many who knew her. We pass on to others, whether we realize it or not, the things that have shaped our own lives. Simple lives, lived with grace and focus, form the future. That’s the real legacy of so many strong and graceful women like my Great-Aunt Carrie.
© Arlene Valentine, February, 2016