~by Katrina Haney~
My father was Italian; Sicilian actually. His parents immigrated to the United States from Calascibetta, Sicily, during the influx of immigrants known as the Ellis Island Years. My grandfather came in 1909 with $46 to his name. He got himself settled with a job, bought a house, and sent for his wife three years later. My father was the youngest of five children born to this couple, and by the time I was old enough to have a memory of them I had two aunts, one married, two uncles, both married, and three cousins: Billy, Elaine and Eileen, all several years older than I.
The family settled in the Little Italy section of Reading, Pennsylvania; a tight-knit community, which provided me a great number of neighbors who were also affectionately known to me as aunts and uncles. As a child, we visited them often, although it was mostly Italian that was spoken, and neither my mother nor I knew it. For some reason, my father preferred we not learn it. By this time, my grandfather had passed away, but I remember my grandmother. She was now in her eighties, fairly sickly, and spent her days in the parlor of the old row house they had purchased and raised their children in. She always held me on her lap whenever I visited.
Shortly after I turned eight, and even more shortly after I had acquired my adopted brother and sister, my grandmother passed away. Not too long after that, most of that family disappeared from my life. There was some ruckus over the inheritance, and my father soon broke ties with two of his siblings, the two that had children. For some reason, the split of the inheritance had something to do with the number of children each sibling had, (which by the way, left out one aunt and one uncle entirely.) But the other two refused to accept my father’s two children by another woman as legitimate heirs, (remember my “adopted” brother and sister?) and I think that upset my father on principle, rather than on the loss of any money. But had they accepted the kids, my father would have received the bulk of the estate, having three children to their two and one, and my father believed that was the only reason his siblings made the fuss.
In essence, I had lost one whole side of my family.
In any case, he basically split from his family after that. We did see my Uncle Sammy and his wife, and my Aunt Mary, who never married, from time to time, but not for very long. In essence, I had lost one whole side of my family. By the time my father passed away we had moved out of state, and had lost contact with his family entirely.
Fast forward to fifty years later. By this time I had gotten interested in genealogy, and began seriously studying my family tree. But I knew little or nothing about my father’s family. I had no pictures of them, and extremely little information about their lives. I was able to find their Ellis Island records, along with pictures of the ships they came in. The ship manifests gave me a little bit of additional precious information. But I was hungry for more. So I began trying to find my cousins, though I was sure the girls had married, and I couldn’t recall my cousin Billy’s last name.
One day, as I was perusing the internet, I happened upon an obituary notice for my cousin Eileen. She had been living in Florida not 200 miles from me, and had died only eight months previously. I was terribly saddened by this, but the obituary notice gave the married name and city for her sister Elaine. I immediately began sleuthing until I tracked down her address and phone number.
I was so excited, but also quite nervous as I dialed the number. When she answered, and I verified who she was, I said, “Well, you may not remember me, but I’m your cousin.”
She immediately exclaimed my name, questioningly, but it was the kind of question that came from shock rather than any need to verify who I was. She was just as excited as I was. She told me that the family had searched for me for years, and had never forgotten me. And then, she told me something else that made me literally burst into tears. My own granddaughter ran to her mother yelling with concern that I was crying, and everyone came to find out what was wrong.
What my cousin Elaine had told me was the most personally heartwarming thing anyone had ever told me in my entire life. Italians, at least from that era, held to many traditions. One of these was to begin a hope chest for all girl babies at birth, and to continue adding to them until the girl got married. Elaine told me that my grandmother and my Aunt Mary had made such a hope chest for me, and that my Aunt Mary had continued adding to it for some time after my father took me away from the family.
While this certainly warmed my heart, there was more to come. Elaine and Aunt Mary had continued to be close over the years, and Elaine was with our aunt when she died. But before she passed, she made Elaine promise to keep looking for me, and to give me my hope chest.
Elaine had tried to find me over the years with no luck so she was quite ecstatic to have finally heard from me. After over fifty years, she was still holding onto my hope chest. This was what had made me burst into tears.
About three or four months after this phone call, Elaine and her husband made their annual trip to Florida to see friends, and they brought with them the contents of my hope chest. While I would have dearly loved to have received the chest as well, even just to see it, to touch it, it was too heavy and bulky for them to transport. However, the contents of the chest were amazing, and my whole family was in tears along with me as we looked through it.
There were both purchased items and items made by hand, The purchased items reminded me of things I used to see, and that
But the real treasures for me were the handmade things…
my mom often bought from a store that was then called a “5 and 10 cent store,” or “the five and dime.” There were dish towels, that we used to call tea towels, tablecloths, pretty kitchen things. But the real treasures for me were the handmade things, the crocheted, tatted, embroidered, and sewn things, lovingly made for me by my grandmother and aunt.
I was thankful that my grandmother had been spared the heartache of losing me, but my heart ached for the pain I realized my aunt must have gone through; wanting for years to see me again, to know what had happened to me, wondering if I was happy; probably also suffering the loss of her baby brother. I mourn the loss of all those years that I could have been with a family who so obviously loved me, cared for me, and wanted me. I hurt for the pain they felt after losing me.
That is why this one thing, a hope chest full of things lovingly made, happily gathered, and carefully laid aside for me, a hope chest full of these too wonderful for words things, that managed to find their way to me fifty years later, was the most treasured gift I have ever received in my life.
Katrina Haney is an author, creative writer, article writer, content writer and ghost writer. Reprint permission is granted as long as the text is not changed in any way, the author’s name is properly credited, and this footer information appears intact. Stylistic changes to match your website are permitted. To contact the author to discuss writing services, please visit the website at katrinahaney.com for contact information.
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