Many Italian-American families, like mine, christened first born sons the paternal grandfather’s name. Second born sons were given the maternal grandfather’s name, and the third sons wore their father’s name. Daughters’ names similarly honored the matriarchal line. Families were littered with Vitos, Paulos, Marias, and Christinas. It was a mystery, then, that my dad’s father, the first born son, was baptized William, an American name void of his patriarchal lineage.
This is the story of William, as told by Aunt Tosca, my grandfather’s youngest sister, with some of my propriety embellishments.
The 20th century was in its infancy when Vito Truglio served in the Italian Merchant Marines. He was the fifth or seventh son of some fifteen or eighteen children from a starving village on the Italian Mediterranean coast. He crossed the Atlantic, several times while honing carpentry skills in his hands and lean muscle on his wiry frame. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, his tenure on the ship arrived. Not wanting to sign up for another term, he shook hands with his fellow crewman and assured the captain that he had people in New York City.
Vito arrived on Mott Street and found a roof and job at the Migliaccio’s store. The family had immigrated from a similar Italian village twelve years earlier. They traveled for three weary weeks and arrived in the New World with only the clothes on their back and a cousin’s New York City address sewn into their coats. Four young children clung to their sides—the youngest was three-year-old Angelina. Years of hard work, faith, and patience eventually earned the Migliaccios a home, a business, and a future for the children.
Angelina happily attended school. Everyone called her Nellie—a pretty American name. An American baby was born to the family. The little fellow soon became the darling with his broad smile, mischievous play, and infectious laugh. They named him William; a strong American name for their beautiful American son. Nellie sang to her little brother, held his hand while walking to school, taught him to shoot marbles, and played rowdy games of hide-and-seek in the store. She called him Willy.
Vito proved to be a strong and worthy employee. He carried bags of coffee on his back, scrambled up wall shelves to retrieve and replace can goods, repaired doors, and roofs, and delivered groceries quickly. With Nellie and Willy in school and the other children grown and busy with their families, Vito soon became vital.
Nellie’s mama, Teresa, feared that her heart would fail before seeing her daughters married and secure. Nellie’s older sister’s marriage was arranged just before the girl’s seventeenth birthday. Soon after, Teresa’s attention targeted Nellie’s future. She noticed how nicely Nellie and Vito smiled at each other. Vito liked how Nellie hummed while doing her arithmetic homework and balancing the store’s books. Sometimes, he dropped his serious demeanor and joined in her songs as she swept the floors. Nellie had whispered, more than once to her sister, as to how handsome Vito was and that she liked his blue-green eyes. He was a hard worker, and once she got her nose out of books and ledgers, she could learn to cook and be a good wife. Nellie and Vito were married in the autumn of her sixteenth year. A baby was expected the following summer.
One warm May day, Teresa commented that Willy was late in getting home from school. Nellie guessed Willy was singing on the corner. Papa teased that he probably had to clean the blackboard again as punishment for his pranks. Vito said that most likely, Willy and his friends were playing stickball in the alley.
By late afternoon, Willy pushed through the door pale and wheezing for breath. He was swept to his bed, strip down and bathed in cool water to drive out the fever. For hours, Teresa and Angelina tended to him. A doctor came and left with a bowed head. The strega left herbs on his chest and thick incense lingering in the small room.
Before the dawn, Vito cradled the limp body. Nellie held her brother’s hand. Willy gasped, “Vee! Help me, Vee!” Vito could only watch as the last breath expired taking the child with it.
Teresa was despondent, Papa deflated, but Nellie was inconsolable. She sobbed into all of the linen napkins and aprons. She could not eat the sweetest pastry the neighbors left for the grieving family, nor find sleep to escape the loss. Vito fretted for his young wife. Before Willy’s death, she moved effortlessly around tables and barrels despite the heavy belly filled with their unborn baby. But now the weight of her grief crushed all of her grace and strength. He feared she would collapse, and he would not be able to save her, too.
“So young,” she lamented, “My sweet Willy will only be remembered for dying so young. He will be forgotten.”
“Cara Mia,” whispered Vito, “We can name our first boy for Willy. He will play and laugh just like your Willy, only he will be our Willy.”
William, who became my grandfather, was born that summer, a strong and beautiful American boy with blue-green eyes. Willy loved to laugh. Playing music brought joy to all around him. His first son, my father, christened William but called Billy, always found fun. Sweet William’s name lives in his nephews, grandnephews, great-grandnephews, and now, great-great grandnephews who all have a quick laugh and passion to play.