On a cold April day in Montana, colder than anything we ever knew, Tina tried to tell Grandpa that we needed to get to church, that it was Good Friday, and we must make our confession and preparations for Easter. Her English, gibberish. The man I called Grandpa spoke calmly, without looking up.
“Nobody leaves the house, not man, not beast. No church."
We had arrived a week earlier.
We landed in New York, far from our final destination, a five year old scared and tired, and a young twenty-something girl, my aunt Tina, who knew just what to do and what to say at the ticket counter of the Italian ship line, the address of our sponsors on a piece of paper.
? Signora, sei sicura?” Are you sure? Montana
I heard her go back and forth, one question on time, on costs, on problems we might encounter.
We took trains and buses. We traveled for days and days.
With the picture of her soldier for everyone to see, she told everyone that she was traveling to meet his family, our new family, that this was her sposo, her soldier sweetheart.
She was here to bring his child back to his parents in
She told me to call the new people I’d meet, Nonno and Nonna, Grandma and Grandpa, and to call her Mommy.
I was cranky, wanted to go home, couldn’t quite pronounce the words correctly.
At the train station in Willow Creek, Tina hugged Seth and Evelyn, the only old people waiting for someone to get off the train at that station. Then, she pushed me to do the same.
“We thought he’d be a boy! Isn’t that what we thought, Pa? Don’t look nothing like Frank!” Evelyn was a frail, pale woman, with hard green eyes.
Tina repeated the same few words she knew, in a sing-song fashion, sounding like a rosary.
Frank was a good man,
Frank loved his family,
Frank couldn’t wait for the war to end,
Frank wanted her and the child in America.
Frank this and Frank that, at the beginning of each sentence, at the end of each question.
“Well, now. Well!” They said, taking the picture she had held in her hand, a picture of her and the soldier together, and breaking down, forgetting why they were there, sitting down in the waiting room of the station and kissing the picture between sobs; a cold bench in the middle of the night had become their mourning time.
They patted me on the head, stiffly.
Tina was saying Frank’s name so often, they kept crying each time with more vigor.
A few smiles later, a few more attempts to pat me on the head, we must have caused the ticket clerk to worry, because a few minutes into this, he motioned us to go.
We were escorted to a pick-up, the three of them got up in front, and I was positioned behind the front seats, in a sliver of space that did not allow me to sit down. Smells of grass and animals.
The next thing I remember was morning, and, I was upset that I did not have my own bed. Though I had always slept with somebody, I wanted my own bed in a pink room. I whined for hours, quietly at first, then more and more vigorously until Tina threatened me with a severe lashing,
We were in Frank’s room. Boy smells and boy stuff in every corner.
I slept on and off, for days, through noises of people coming in and out. Every time I woke, I asked about my mom and dad. I worried that I’d sleep through and miss them. I even worried that if I didn’t wake up and eat my supper, I would get sick and die.
At night, I heard scurrying, hooting, squealing noises that terrified me, that kept me wrapped up under covers. Tina sang me lullabies, encouraging me to sing along. But those songs only reinforced the fact that I was not home, that my mother was far away.
“Ninna, nanna, coccola di pa`pa, ninna, nanna, coccola di ma`mma.” Tina kept herself awake, rocking me to sleep.
I sang myself to sleep, or tried to, between bouts of tears, mine and Tina. I told her that I couldn’t pretend that she was my mother any more unless she produced my real mother.
She started crying, and I’m not sure I understood her consternation.
She was my real mother now, she kept repeating and I had to pretend so we could all make this wonderful voyage. I didn’t understand, and my tears began to etch a deep canyon in my tiny heart.
On the third day, I was awakened by a brightness that I didn’t recognize at first, snow on the ground, and a warm smell of freshly baked rolls. Dazed, and wobbly, still feeling the sensation of plane and trains in my limbs, I ate the roll and held the table down, thinking that we were all experiencing an earthquake.
The feeling lasted even after I took a long bath where I played until I was tired again, and Tina took me back to bed. I got the feeling that Tina would let me do anything to keep me from crying. I wanted to go out and play in the snow, and she would have permitted it, but Grandpa Arnold put his foot down talking about respecting the weather.
I spent many hours alone in our bedroom, looking at things I wasn’t supposed to touch.
“This is Frank’s room, but we must leave his things alone. We’ll be busy, chores to do, lots of them, milking, cleaning. We must get used to new things and be very polite.” In America, she had said, everyone works.
Grandpa met me every morning with a big grin, “Hello there!”
“Siamo in un ranch?” I asked him. He smiled and said “hello there, you can’t sleep your life away, you know?”
Grandma didn’t talk, kept on working.
I said “Hello there”, to her, the way grandpa had greeted me and wrapped myself around her bottom half until she pealed me away. Something about the way she pushed me from her, made Grandpa sad. I sensed that even before I understood what he meant.
“She’s smart, Ma. A good thing. Just like him. She’ll soon figure things out. We are doing the right thing!” He was comforting her, patting her on the shoulder, while I swallowed tears that began to harden and solidify in my heart. We were not wanted here.
“Yup, weera arancha.” I repeated, to no one in particular, trying to make light of the situation. Grandpa laughed and I went on, “dov’e lo sheriffo?”
“A sheriff, yep! A sheriff.” Grandpa offered me some salty meat from his plate that tasted burned. The taste of bacon was not pleasant, and I made an ugly face after I took a bite.
Evelyn ate silently.
Tina shooed me away even before I was finished, as everyone had gotten up and moved away in silence. The silence was new to me
“Va, va a fare il letto, go make your bed. “ She gestured , wanting me out of the room. I left, even though I wanted to know about the ranch and cowboys and sheriffs.
The Little Sheriff had been a favorite character in a popular magazine from the same name that Tina had obtained and was teaching me about the place called Montana. I knew Grandpa would know them.
Later, I pressed Tina for more information.
“We’re in the same place, yes? Il piccolo sheriffo vive qui da noi?
Yes, she said, to my questions. Yes, go on, go play in the bedroom. Yes, stop asking questions.
“Are we really?” I kept insisting.
“Yes!” Tina said. I liked living in the
Far West, like in the movies I watched back home, fighting Indians. I couldn’t wait for the snow to melt and ride on the ranch on big horses.
I followed Grandpa to the barn, to feed animals, and learned names of everything before Tina did.
Tina kept me busy at the kitchen table while she cooked and cleaned by seeing that I learned my alphabet and practiced my letters.
Grandpa found books with simple words I could copy, and coloring books and crayola I could have. He also moved Frank's things out of the room, while Evelyn complained and yelled at him.
I caught pneumonia that first spring, days and night all looking the same, except when Tina would crawl into bed with me, wake me with her prayers, and soon, wrapped together and singing old familiar songs, I could fall asleep and dream of times when I could meet cowboys and Indians.