Were it not for a death, these two women’s lives would never have crossed. One had to leave for the other to walk in the door. But, they both changed the course for the generations that came after them.
Josephine and Angelina shared what many women of their time shared. They had little control over their lives and very few options in front of them. I know only bits and glimpses, but what I do know is that children, one right after the other, were at the center of their world.
We’re on the move
Josephine was my great grandmother. She and my great grandfather, Louis, together with their children and a few other family members, sailed the long formidable journey from Sicily to America. The details of that journey are long gone with those no longer here to tell about it. But what I do know is that they must have wanted something so bad that they were willing to risk everything. Everything.
Louisiana is where they landed. But Texas is where they headed and it would be there they would put down deep roots. My mama would tell us how odd it was to hear her grandfather speak broken Italian/English with a Texas drawl. I can’t even imagine what that must’ve sounded like!
Louis opened up a grocery store and everyone had a job to do. Josephine had five children that lived. She lost a sixth somewhere along the way. And there was a lot of work to do with all the mouths to feed.
Jagged and coarse
I have a photograph of my great grandfather with his two Chow Chow dogs. They guarded the grocery store. Times were hard and people were hungry so the dogs were a good security system. It was said Louis and the boys were the only ones who could get near the dogs. They were that ferocious. Grammy said all the little girls were terrified of them. The picture shows my great grandfather, looking like a stocky bulldog, brutish, with a dog on either side of him. They looked scraggy and menacing. He looked the same.
They made their life in the heart of cotton country. Most everyone was in the same boat, just trying to eke out a living to feed hungry mouths and clothe growing children.
What is happening?
But, every now and then, the world does an abrupt turn on its axis. Like a jet falling from the sky is what it was like when the 1918 influenza pandemic hit. It came with a vengeance and left death and destruction along the way. Our family was not to be spared. My great grandmother contracted the virus. Josephine had just given birth to her seventh child, a baby girl, just a handful of days prior to coming down with it. How long she was sick is unknown. What is known is that it wasn’t long, she deteriorated and Josephine died from complications of pneumonia. Louis, his hands full with children and a grocery store to run, gave her baby girl to an aunt and uncle to raise. The baby was twelve days old.
And, with that, life flipped upside down again. Older children either helped in the grocery store or tended the house. The little kids went to work picking cotton in the fields. My Grammy was one of them who went to the fields. She told of being a little girl and her fingers bleeding from picking cotton. They had no mother now and, so they were so grateful for the black farm women in the fields who took care of them. Those women made sure my Grammy and auntie’s were fed and cared for until the day was done and they all went home. As a result, Grammy had a real love for singers like Mahalia Jackson and others who sang old spirituals while working the cotton fields.
A girl crossing the ocean
Within a few years, Louis found it all too much to handle. He wired home, to the family in Sicily ,that he was in need of a wife to care for his brood. A young girl was sent over on a ship. We know she had a sister, but of the two, her parents chose her. He’d asked for the pretty one. Instead, they sent Angelina. Upon arriving in America she would be married to a man old enough to be her father and mother his children. And, she would go on to have four girls of her own. Angelina would parent nine children.
What could they do?
I think of Josephine, my great grandmother….. my mother’s grandmother, my Grammy’s mother. She knew she was dying. She’d be leaving her children in the care of their father. She’d be leaving her newborn baby. What was her head trying to convince her heart? Did she pray for her family’s welfare? Did she say what she wanted for her newborn? Did she have no choice but to trust? What choice?
I think of Angelina, my Grammy’s second mother, as she called her. Little more than a child herself, on the water, heading into a life she couldn’t imagine. What could she know of the world she was rolling into? She was setting sail to take care of someone else’s husband and someone else’s children. She was leaving all she knew behind. And she was by herself.
Both women had circumstances that put their backs against a wall and few options in front of them. Each had little choice but to scale the mountains that showed up around every corner. I don’t know how or where they found the resilience.
We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. ~ Isaac Newton
You have people like that in your story. You have kin who lived lives of trial and tribulation. They had to cry an ocean of tears. There was so much they lost along the way. Still, they carried us forward and planted seedlings in an effort to keep us going.
I’ve been talking to Josephine and Angelina a lot lately. I’ve been asking the two of them to please stay close to me right now. They had such resilience. They found their way through all of it in the best way they could. They did their best. I’ll take their guidance. I like to think they’re holding a flashlight on the path in front of me.
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game. ~ Joni Mitchell