This is the only family picture we have with our parents took just before Anna Maria left for Canada. The youngest, Renato was born in Canada in 1960.
Italy did not seem to have much to offer my parents and my siblings in 1957. WWI and WWII were behind us. Yet there did not seem to be enough to go around. Women did not yet work and my father like so many others was always working away from home. Many men supported their families by going to work in other countries. Some men had already left for the Americas or Australia. For my father leaving the continent and crossing the ocean was a big problem. He was most afraid of water. So for him, along with other men went to Belgium and worked in the coal mines. He hated being underground. What most of us did not realize is that he likely suffered from Post Traumatic Stress as the result of early childhood experiences compounded by his war experiences.
To heal from trauma one needs to stay present and to tolerate their emotions, in other words not be triggered and move into explosive anger. Our father had his own way to escape his difficult memories which sometimes meant that he was not much fun to be around.
It is so easy to blame when we don’t understand. Much of our not understanding back then was not only our youth, it was also because trauma was not yet even recognized.
Women were second-class citizens in many countries and Canada seemed to offer women more opportunity. At least in Canada, women could work and so my mother decided that in Canada she would gain some financial freedom for herself and her children. In Canada, we could be a family all living under one roof. How to get to Canada?
She somehow convinced my eldest sister Anna Maria to come to Canada and live with my mother’s paternal aunt, Zia Nina. What did my sister leave behind when she left at 18 to cross an ocean when she did not even leave the village or nearby towns? She left her parents, her siblings, a boyfriend, her extended family that adored her, the ability to communicate, her culture, the customs, her sense of belonging, a knowing of how to be in the world and a sense of predictability.
She talks about the fear, the uncertainty, the loneliness, the sense of loss, homesickness and more even though she adored Zia Nina and credits her for giving her a place in her home with her cousins, wanting only the best opportunities for her, supporting her as she transitioned from the Italian culture to the Canadian culture. Zia Nina also gave her a sense of freedom and independence that would not have been possible in Italy as her household had already adopted many of the Canadian norms.
However, Anna Maria also had a huge responsibility. At 18 she now needed to begin the process of establishing herself with steady work so that she could arrange for her family’s immigration process. She tells me that Zia Nina would get up every morning with her and bring her to various places to apply for work. After two months she got a job creating straw bundles. Anna Maria didn’t like the job. Zia Nina deplored that job and again she would bring Anna Maria to different places until she found a better job working at a textiles company sewing men’s shirts and later at a laundry until she married. The long-term relationship did not work out as Anna Maria was most sought after in the Guelph community by the local young men. One was most persistent and in spite of not being able to speak the same language they managed to develop a strong bond, get married and have 6 children.
One year after she arrived in Canada we arrived–my mother aged 38, and my father at 44, my sister Adriana at 17, my brothers Gianni at 14, Gino at 11 and me at 5. She with the help of our Zia Nina, painted and furnished our apartment which was on Alice Street where so many other Italian immigrants originally settled. My family was always most grateful to Zia Ninna.
Arriving in Canada was our first major hurdle for many reasons, including my father’s greatest fear of water. He was the only one that did not get seasick. Our next challenge was growing new roots with no skills, no language and little money. When you start with so little, you have no choice but to find a way to make everything better.