Apprehensive Amalia at 33 years old.

 charcoal vintage portrait of Italian immigrant

This week's vintage sketch is based on a small, blurry passport photo (see below) taken in January 1934, a few weeks before my grandmother sailed from Genoa, Italy, to North America.

During the seven years that her husband has been in Canada scrimping and saving for her to immigrate, my nonna (or Nonni as she signed her letters to me) lived with her in-laws in the home I visited several times in Pozzo di Codroipo. This was a fairly common practice back then.

(This post was first published in 2018)

passport details

Why is she apprehensive?

  • She hasn’t seen her husband since 1927 when he came to Canada to find a home and establish his business. After working in Coniston digging ditches and saving every penny he could earn, her husband has enough money to bring his wife and child to Sturgeon Falls, Ontario where he is renting space for his shoemaking shop and has an apartment for his family. 
  • Amalia is leaving her immediate family and everything she knows for an unknown land so far away.
  • She will be at sea for several weeks on an ocean liner, the Conte di Savoia, an entirely new experience for her.
  • Her 9 year old daughter will be her only companion.

Will she be able to communicate with people she meets in America? She only speaks and understands Italian.

How will she find her way to Canada from New York?

It is easy for me to imagine all the doubts, the worries swirling in her head. Even much later, when she became my grandmother, my Nonna (Nonni) was a worrier.

The family reunited. My mother is a baby so this was taken in early 1935.
Second child born in Canada. The family is now complete. Probably 1938 or 39.

Her future has tremendous joy and sadness.

By the end of the year in which she arrives in Canada, her second child, my mother, will be born. And then, she will be blessed with a third daughter later in her life.

Skiing with father

Her husband, a hard worker with a gentle soul loves their children with all his heart. He tells them stories and sings to them at night. He brings them skiing on nearby hills at the dock.

By 1947, the family will own the building in which they live and in which my grandfather has his shoe shop. Business is booming after the war, and the young couple has dreams for their future.

All those plans will be dashed.

Amalia will be widowed in June 1947 while she herself, is in a Toronto hospital for surgery. The news is kept from her until she has recovered and returned home.

The girls will clean and paint the two shops that the family owns on the main floor below their apartment. Mr. Fosty will rent and have his own shoe repair shop in their father's store. Next, a florist will rent from the family, and finally, Mr. Higgins will have his Canadian Tire store in the newly expanded space now including both shops.

Amalia will have a comfortable life although she will work very hard.  Her many friends will include some from Italy and Greece. They will help her and the family through the difficult times.

She will encourage her girls to speak English to each other at home although she will always speak Furlan with them herself. On her own, she will learn to read and write English, and to understand some French.

In the 60's, Amalia will move one more time to North Bay, only 20 minutes away from Sturgeon Falls.

Her daughters will stay close by and look after her during her life.

Nonni with her first grandson

Her 6 grandchildren will write, call her, and visit often. She will meet her oldest great-grandchild and have many opportunities to get to know him before her death in 1987.

Memories of my nonna Amalia.

She will lack for nothing although at times, she will be lonely.

She will tell stories of regret...of not seeing her mother one more time, of not being by her mother’s bedside when she died, of not seeing her sisters, one who moved to France, and the other who remained in Italy.

Her stories of war, recorded by me, her eldest granddaughter, will describe a frightening train ride during her girlhood to escape the bombing of northern Italy, leaving behind the men of the family. She will tell me of the loss of a young brother whose gravesite I visited in her village in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

And from my mother and aunt, I will learn more about Nonni even years after she has left us. On my website I have written stories about her and the significance of her 1930s Singer sewing machine which I now have. I have also added her Christmas cake recipe in her own handwriting, paintings of flowers which remind me. And I also remember the many times she came to babysit us which were very special occasions.  We felt her love in everything she did.

Hers is the story of many immigrants to Canada.

It is the story of being welcomed and accepted, of making a new life for herself while keeping her Italian heritage in her home that is Canada.

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