I grew up surrounded by not only the usual family characters, but also had regular interactions with great-grandparents, some of whom lived until I had children, making 5 generation photographs possible. I was one of those (lucky) kids who had more grandparents than most of my friends. When people tell me that I’m “too young to have 3 grandchildren”, I smile and tell them that “that’s how we do things in Appalachia…”
This blog series (Faustina is part 1), however is dedicated to the remarkable women whose lives made it possible for me to be here today; whose strength of character and conviction have surely impacted me in ways I am still learning to understand.
Faustina was my mother’s maternal grandmother. In the early part of the last century, she found herself in her village in the then-Austro-Hungarian empire, alone as war broke out due to the fact that her husband – my great-grandfather – had emigrated to America in search of a better life for them. The plan was for him to settle, find work, save some money and send for her and Amelia, their infant daughter.
As the family story goes, the war resulted in displacement for Faustina’s village and she soon found herself being marched out of the village by soldiers. These forced movements were hard on everyone, but her infant daughter was ill, and the burden was becoming an annoyance to the soldiers, who told Faustina to “leave the baby in the ditch – she’s going to die anyway”. I’m guessing this was punctuated with pointing guns at her and lots of yelling and crying on Faustina’s part.
Faustina did lay the baby in the ditch, and returned to the mass of refugees being moved down the road, but began to slow her pace, falling to the back of the procession until she was able to slip away from the march and sneak back through the woods to retrieve her daughter from the ditch.
Faustina and her infant daughter survived, and eventually made it into Italy where they got passports (that I have had the great fortune of seeing in recent years) and came to America. Faustina reunited with her husband in one of the small towns that immigrants populated in the early 20th century in rural America and went on to run a successful butcher shop and grocery, and have several more children. Amelia grew up, married and had several children; her youngest child was my mother.
I do not remember Faustina, but my mother has told a story as long as I can remember about a visit she made to her grandmother – shortly after I was born. In my family, I’m sure the visit was some version of pass the baby, eat, (EAT!) and kiss-kiss-kiss. We still do this but now it’s my mother we are making the trip to see with my grandchildren in tow, but back to the story.
At this particular visit sometime in the early 1960’s as my parents were preparing to leave, I was tucked into a car bassinet (no car seats back then) which was sitting on the table. My parents were making their usual goodbyes, and noticed that ‘Grandma’ (Faustina) was praying over the bassinet. Everyone got quiet, and waited as Faustina held her hands over my bassinet and with eyes closed, prayed for several minutes in her mother tongue (she spoke Italian). My mother didn’t speak Italian and in those days you didn’t interrogate your elders to find out “what” or “why”, so we don’t know what she was saying – only that she was praying a blessing over the baby; over me.
I have gone through my life comforted in knowing that Faustina, joined over the years by others, has watched over me, and at times “kept my foot from slipping“. There are untold times in my life when I have felt a presence stop me from walking in front of a fast-moving vehicle, or caused me to look up just as I was about to hit a telephone pole, or another car while driving. There was that voice that said with urgency and authority to “leave now!” when I had entertained the possibility of waiting for a casual acquaintance – a young man – to come out of his barracks and go for a ride with me in the late hours of the night in a city, far from home. There are many, many more instances where I have been saved from myself or from the ill intentions of others by a voice, a hand, a tug on a sleeve. Each time I look around and say, “Thanks, Grandma” sometimes while shakily pondering my fate if I had been a few seconds earlier or later, and other times ruefully grateful that I had someone looking out for me when I was seemingly incapable of doing so myself.
Although thankful for the multiple and timely interventions throughout my life, Faustina’s greatest gift to me does not lie in the occasional save from bad timing or poor decision-making, but in the core strength and the fierce maternal instincts that she clearly possessed and passed on through her DNA to multiple generations.
I think of her often and fondly as I look at my own children, now grown, and my grandchildren who are still oblivious to the fierce line of mother-protectors they have in their corner: their mother (my daughter), their grandmother (me), and their great-grandmother (my mother) – all descendants of a simple village woman from the old country who was determined to protect her child, even in the face of immense personal peril. For that gift I am most grateful, and proud.
Grazie, nonna. Ti amo.