Our Journey to America: Antonietta Chiofalo CalabresePeople and Communities, Italian History, 400 Stories Project

The following excerpts are from a family history book written by Gloucester resident Antonietta Chiofalo Calabrese. If you would like more information on the full book, please email antcal50@yahoo.com.

Antonietta’s story starts in a small town called Partanna, in Sicily, Italy. She was born in 1952, the oldest of three daughters born to Giuseppa and Antonino Chiofalo.

Early Childhood Memory

At approximately eight years of age, I was considered old enough to help our household. My first job was to get water from our well. On a sunny day, the well water would sparkle from the sun’s rays, and it was so clear that I could see my reflection hovering over the eels that swam below. I would often play with the bucket by swinging it around to enjoy the smell of the swirling water as I would try to catch the eels in the bucket. My mother, of course, disapproved of this. I can still hear her voice yelling at me to “stop playing as we still have work to finish!” She would remind me of her strict instructions to refrain from slamming the bucket into the bottom of the well as it would disturb the eels. I should carefully lower the bucket. When it touched the water, I should loosen the rope slightly until the water filled the bucket before pulling it up. The eels were there for a purpose. My dad dropped the eels into the well to keep the water pure, as the eels would eat all of the grubs, mites, flies, and aquatic insects that would otherwise contaminate the water. At the end of the road where we lived, a natural spring provided a consistent stream of running water that we used for drinking. We filled large jugs with this water which lasted for a couple of days.

Learning How to Knit, Sew, and Design Clothes

My mom and I would also take trips to my Uncle Salva-tore’s farm to assist him with shearing the sheep. Once a year, around spring, we would gather the wool, pull and lengthen it to spool it for yarn. Mom used the thinner yarn to knit most of our winter clothes (sweaters, socks, hats, and gloves) and the thicker yarn to weave blankets. As I watched her swift hands work the yarn with authority and grace, I soon learned how to knit my own scarves and ar-ticles of clothing. Working with my hands gave me a sense of accomplishment and instant gratification. Using these wool threads to create something useful would allow me to feel valued as a productive member of the family.

When I was around the age of ten, my mom signed me up for a sewing course after school taught by our next-door neighbor, Maria. Maria was a seamstress and taught many local girls how to sew. The younger girls, like me, would start by learning how to do a simple cross-stitch to the seam’s edging, and the more experienced girls would work on sewing machines to sew together customers’ dress-es. My days of knitting with Mom paid off, and I became a fast study. Within a few months, Maria started to allow me to hand stitch the dresses, fit them on clients, and finish the job on a sewing machine operated by a foot pedal. I felt so grown-up operating a sewing machine, even though I couldn’t reach the pedal. But I always intently studied Ma-ria while she cut the dresses without using any patterns to guide her way. By the age of 12, my passion for sewing made it more than a trade. The sewing machine gave me the freedom to learn, be creative, earn value, and even fabricate my own clothing.

Keeping Warm

The wood-burning stove served as our primary source for cooking and for heat throughout the winter. We used a small “brace” (a small copper indoor fire pit) to warm up the other rooms and huddle around it at night by can-dlelight. Our dad told us fairy tales as we sat on a low stool that he had constructed while my mom worked on her knitting using our own handmade yarn. We could hear the continuous clinking of the needles against the crack-les of the flickering candlelight. Night after night, my mom created delicate outfits which would soon earn us some extra money; the local store sold her work on consignment. Winter nights seemed long as the darkness approached at an early hour. At around 9 o’clock, my mom would place the brace between the sheets to start warming up our beds.

Caring For Younger Sisters

As the oldest daughter, I felt responsible for doing every-thing possible to help my mom and family. She was always working on keeping up with the house, sewing to make additional income, and even helping my dad on the farm. My dad took care of several acres of land for a man named Vito; many of these acres were abundant with grain. The grain was the first to be harvested in June. Grapes came at the end of summer, followed by almonds in October, and finally, the olive harvest went from October into November. I was solely responsible for watching my sisters, Enza and Angela during those times. At the age of 11, I had learned how to change Angela’s diapers, feed her, and care for myself and my sisters.

When Angela was two months old, I would watch my sisters under a shaded fig tree as my parents worked out in the field. During the day, mom would prepare a shaded sleeping area for baby Angela by creating a small hammock between the branches where she could nap. Mom never forgot to tell me to make sure not to put Angela directly on the ground as the lizards and other small creatures would smell the milk and attempt to go near her. At night she constructed Angela’s sleeping area by hammering two nails on a corner of the barn. She then tied ropes around the nails and wrapped a heavy blanket around the rope to create a hammock.

1968 Earthquake Hits Sicily

Sicily’s weather is usually mild, but during the winter of 1968 we were experiencing colder than normal temperatures–sometimes around 35 degrees with snow. We had just ended a great holiday season together with all of our family when our lives changed forever on January 14, 1968. At midday, without warning, the Earth violently shook underneath our feet. It felt like we were standing on a moving train that came ripping through our lives. My parents yelled for us to get outside, and by the terrified sound in their voices, we girls knew we needed to move fast without asking any questions. We all ran outdoors, scared, stunned, and confused. We had never experienced anything like this before! We could hear our elderly neighbors yelling, “It’s an earth-quake!” They explained that this trembling could be just a warning, with the worst to come. We stayed out in the cold and the snow with barely enough clothing on our bodies to keep warm. After all, there was snow on the ground, and we were not dressed appropriately to battle the cold air. We began to hear reports that the earthquake had also caused a lot of devastation in the nearby towns. My mother was panicking as all her family lived in Gibellina, the next town over. Gibellina was where the center of the earthquake hit.

We were warned that the big quake would come, usually within 12 hours, and to be prepared. We returned to our homes fearful of the news yet hopeful that we would make it through unharmed. We woke in our beds around 1:30 a.m. as the horrific rumbling started again, this time with a vengeance. We could hear the water in the tub sloshing against the sides and spilling out and our mule howling from inside its small enclosure. My parents screamed, “Earthquake!” as we scrambled out of the house in our thin nightgowns, this time carrying light blankets. We ran frantically toward an open field as the electrical wires on both sides of the street were snapping and sparking on top of us. The homes swayed from side to side, bending and swinging in either direction. We dodged streetlights as they crashed into the sidewalks, and soon, darkness fell upon us all.

As we continued to run, houses seemed to be crumbling alongside us. We could hear the fear even in the dogs as they barked angrily and the horses as they tapped their hooves on the ground. The only light we had was the moon shining over the white snow. When we reached the open field, we joined hundreds of other emotional townspeople. My dad cleaned some snow off of a small ledge in the field, and my sisters and I sat snuggling together with our blankets, trying to keep warm. The devastating 7.5 rated shock that hit our town was not the only one that night. As we sat in the snow huddled together, we continually felt several more shocks as a reminder of the destruction we had just endured. Despite the cold temperatures, everyone was afraid to go back home because the houses were visibly unstable. The men started to break branches from trees to start a fire. Unfortunately, the branches were too wet from the snow, and the failed attempts were a constant letdown. But they kept trying, and finally, the men were able to build a bonfire, and we all stood around it to try and stay warm. However, we could not get too close to the fire as the aftershocks would throw us off balance each time they came.

It felt like an eternity, but when the sun finally rose, some people went back to town to see what remained of their homes. Some homes were just a pile of rubble, and it was hard to imagine that a family had once shared in that space. Some houses were partially torn down, with furniture hanging from the windows and other household items scattered on the ground. That morning, my parents went to visit our home. At first sight, it did not look badly damaged, probably because it was newly built. However, upon trying to enter, we found the outer stairs had separated from the main part of the house. There was now a five-inch gap between the wall and the stairs held by iron poles. My parents grabbed what they could, including food, blankets, and our mule. The mule carried whatever belongings we could grab in a few moments.

The following night it rained. The men took a large tarp and tied it to the trees to make a tent, which housed over 45 of us. My dad laid out a bed of hay on the ground and covered it with blankets so that we had a place to sleep. At that moment, I didn’t understand the extent of what had happened. I thought we would go back home soon, back to our beautiful, brand-new home. Around the second day, we saw the local army walking around town. We were banned from returning to our homes as it was too dangerous. However, on occasion, a soldier would accompany someone to their home for a few minutes at a time to salvage clothing and food. Most of the surrounding towns were old, and the houses seemed to crumble further with every aftershock. The shocks came so frequently that we soon learned to predict when the next one would arrive by listening to our surroundings and how our bodies felt. We noticed that the sky and air would feel still, and the animals would act erratically as if they knew that the Earth was getting ready to show its unsettled mood again. Mom would gather us to huddle in one spot that was clear from potential falling objects.

My parents had a big decision to make, but they knew that coming to America would be the best thing for all of us. The next day, a friend drove us to the Italian consulate in Palermo to get our visas. The otherwise short trip took us three hours due to the many detours and roadblocks. We sat at that office for what seemed to be an eternity. When my parents finally came out of the office, I knew from the troubled look on my mom’s face that something was wrong. She told us that they wouldn’t give my dad a visa as the men of the town were needed to assist with the cleanup and rebuild. They were confused and upset because my dad’s brother Baldassare, his wife, and their four children were able to get visas the week before. My mom didn’t know what to do, whether to stay with my dad or take us girls out of the unbearable living conditions that would surely exist for a long time. The decision to leave was hard to make but one that left little choice. Mom borrowed some old luggage and packed most of the embroidered items that I had made and some essential clothing. We hugged and kissed my dad goodbye right before my dad’s friend drove us to the airport. Looking back, I remember how scared I was to be whisked away from everything I knew and loved, but I can only imagine how difficult it was for my parents to make this decision. They must have felt crushed inside, but it never showed.

My mom showed us the meaning of courage when she boarded the plane to travel halfway around the world– without her husband and the sole responsibility to care for her three small girls.

On February 25, 1968, we arrived at New York’s Kennedy Airport. After going through immigration and customs, we finally came out to meet our new family, our saviors. These new faces greeted us as they held signs with our last name written on them. However, we did not need the signs, as just by looking at the love and hope on their faces, we knew they were family.

Falling in Love… with Gloucester

After we arrived in the United States, we settled in New York. But in 2009, the birth of my granddaughter Sienna in Massachusetts would be the driving influence to change my life as I always knew it. When she was born on a snowy day in January, I knew that going back to living a life in N.Y. would not be the future I had always imagined. My husband Angelo and I immediately fell in love with more than just Sienna. We loved that a city called Gloucester shared our culture and offered a coastal life to which my husband had always dreamed of retiring.

We soon settled into a condo on Stacy Boulevard in Gloucester and started our retired life as caregivers for our granddaughter and eventually for our new grandson Mason. Our life alternated between babysitting, walks on the boulevard, and fishing excursions that Angelo had always wanted to experience.

As the years passed and the five grandkids grew, I became interested in donating my time to this city that I had grown so fond of. I never thought that I would find such fulfillment in a new group that I joined, called Generous Gardeners.

In 2013, on one of my morning walks on the Boulevard, I met Susan Kelly, the co-founder of Generous Gardeners. Susan was working in a garden by Pavilion Beach. When I thanked her for cleaning the garden, she explained that she headed up a volunteer group to perform gardening tasks, such as cleaning the Fishermen’s Wives Memorial. I immediately returned home, changed into work clothes, and joined her. Working day after day on the boulevard and beyond to beautify our city reminded me of my childhood in Italy. It brought back the comfort of working the fields in Sicily to pick olives and grapes for my family.

We are now more than 80 volunteers, taking care of more than 45 locations within Gloucester. Collectively, we plant thirty thousand tulips and about one thousand dahlias each spring and summer in the gardens, attracting over a million tourists. I am otherwise known to my group as the “dahlia whisperer.” You can often find me wearing my green apron, pink hat, gardening gloves, and carrying my tools on the 1⁄4 mile stretch of Stacy Boulevard, taking care of my dahlias.

Gloucester always brings me back to my past through its Italian traditions that I love to take part in. During Saint Joseph’s Day, I gather with a group of women to honor the Saint with a nine-day novena and create the same decorated breads, pasta, and cookies I remember as a young girl in Sicily. My heart is full as we gather to sing, pray, and celebrate these old-time traditions that bring back memories and joy to my life. I could say that I finally found my community, my passion, and my home. Or, maybe it found me.

Acknowledgements

I would like to first thank the Prinzivalli family for welcoming us to America. I would also like to thank the numerous family and friends who assisted and encouraged me to write this story. There are too many to name, I appreciate you all!

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