Do you remember writing letters? Not just a birthday card or holiday greeting, but touch-base, telling letters written to and by a dear one. These days, handwritten notes on paper written with a reliable pen, and sealed in envelopes, are seldom composed or received. As a kid, I loved my stationary sets with pretty paper, matching envelopes and seals or stickers to embellish. Who didn’t experience a little thrill of holding a letter from a friend and reading about their far away life? Email does not have that intimate connection.
My great grandmother, Francesca, left her mother, young sister, and everything she knew in Sicily in the winter of 1905. She traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in the belly of a ship with a toddler. On the other side of the ocean, her husband, Stefano, claimed his travel weary wife and child and brought them to a three-room tenement apartment on Mott Street, New York City. She was a reluctant immigrant and for seventy-five years she pined for her family and homeland. Letters were the only way could remain connected to her mother and sister. However, Francesca never learned to read and write.
During her young life, Francesca worked on a shared-crop farm and the family garden. According to her daughters, my grandmother and grandaunts, Francesca did not want to leave her mother to go to school, but I think there was a deeper reason.
Lean and strong, Francesca was best suited for labor. Being the eldest, and a girl, she probably cared inside the home as well. Her mother had only two daughters. Perhaps she suffered multiple miscarriages or buried several babies—a common part of life in that time and place. Sending Francesca to school was not a priority. The younger sister, Maria, twelve years younger than her big sister, went to school and learned to read, write and figure numbers. She also made friends and played—another absent piece of Francesca’s life.
In America, Francesca had to find someone she could trust with the intimate family information shared in the letters. Stefano could read and write well. While making his way in America, he corresponded with his wife through his mother, who was also literate. But he was a man and could not understand the contents of sisterly news and thoughts.
Francesca befriended an Italian woman (not Sicilian) to read and write letters for her. Francesca made sure there was no connection between their homeland families. She was that suspicious. I am sure she arranged a barter. Perhaps Francesca traded a jar of cauliflower or a delicately crochet doily.
As Francesca’s daughters grew, reading letters from Zia Maria and writing back fell on their shoulders. This is probably where the family stories came from. Unfortunately, my great grandmother and her daughters did not keep these letters in drawers tied in a pretty ribbon. Once read and acknowledged, Francesca threw the letters away. There was no room for clutter or sentiment and no chance for sensitive family secrets to be found.
In my latest story, The Wishes of Sisters and Strangers, letters from Mama’s sister are not what they seem. I imagined a stranger intercepted the letters and used the contents to deceive Mama and her family. But I’ve said too much.
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Pray for peace.
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