40 Lire, and A Dream.

By Paul Fioravanti, NIAF Member

A tribute to my grandfather, Giuseppe Gugliemo (Joseph William) Fioravanti (1897-1978).

You sit in your wooden rocking chair in the home you built three decades ago, after the war, and your brown eyes peer out the window at your impeccably manicured lawn and the plethora of pink and red blooms that contrast with the rich green bluegrass.

It’s the summer of 1976.  The United States has just celebrated its 200th birthday and you think that’s really young for a country.  You clean your glasses, put them back on and stare again through the glass and your mind wanders.

For a moment, you are a young man, and it’s the freezing cold winter of 1921. 

You just finished a tour of duty in World War I.   You’ve always thought bigger, been a risk taker. You have never let yourself be confined by bounds, yours or others.

Your mind races backward, and you recall sitting in a chilly stone home warmed only by the hearth glowing from your mother’s bread in the oven, as you sit on a creaky wooden chair, you contemplate a journey which would ultimately entail traveling overseas in a rat-infested ship for 3 or 4 weeks to a place where the only people you know are your two brothers. A place where you don’t speak the language. You think about what it means to leave your homeland where 50 generations of people with your last name have lived.

Staying here is risky, because it’s not economically viable, but it’s all you know.

Can you turn your back on your loved ones, on the verdant rolling hills and sunshine – on the familiar sun that rises over the hills of Prato, glistens on the ancient stone streets and sets on the Bisenzio river?

You will never see your mother, father or sister again.

You don’t have a job.

You’re 24 years old with no formal education. You don’t speak the language.

You’re sick and you might not make the journey. You have no healthcare. Healthcare hasn’t even been conceived yet.  Healthcare just means making it through another day, healthy.

You have nowhere to live.  No home. No family of your own, other than your brothers who have their own struggles.  You have 40 lire to your name, and you need to somehow make that last long enough to get food and transportation and shelter long enough to reach your brothers. You have a dream. Perhaps you don’t know what it is yet. The one thing you are sure of is your belief in yourself.

How’s that for commitment? How’s that for a leap of faith?

So, you boarded the musty ship with others who also want more.  Some of you won’t make it.  You know you will.

You learn a trade, you learn English, you build a family, you build a business, you clear a path.

Less than 100 years later your leap will have produced two children, six grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren, six great great grandchildren (and counting…), all magnificent in their own way?

Your old thought comes to mind, “the decisions we agonize the most over, turn out to be the right ones, don’t they?”

Down below, sick in the hold of the ship, rocking across the waves for 4,300 miles, was that a thought?

You ask yourself why you chose this quest in February and not May? You boarded on January 20th and you saw the welcoming glance of Lady Liberty on February 3rdFebbraio freddo.

How would it turn out? Oh, pretty well. You worked hard, didn’t you? 

Was this your American dream? Or was it your Italian dream? How much did you make of yourself? Where did the time go? How did you go from a child to a patriarch of many generations of children?

How much return did you make on your 40 lire investment?

What was your legacy? And in a flash, it’s not 1976 anymore, it’s some time much later and you feel happy and free.

You appreciate where you’ve been and recognize where you are, and you see it all. All the smiles, all the people, all the flowers, all the trees. You see the sun and the sky and the land and the sea. You’re on terra firma.

The sounds of your grandchildren laughing, the glow on their faces from the candles that lit many birthdays, and the happiness that your son and daughter have brought you, you know now as you rock softly in your chair, twiddling your thumbs back and forth, silent in gratitude, the aroma of warm soup on the stove and the sound of your Ida’s(you sarcastically call her Madame) voice.

You adjust your bifocals and a contented grin comes over your face, accentuating your cheeks and chin as you thank the almighty for the blessings he has bestowed.  You recall the worry when your son was at war and you realized now how your own parents felt, when they worried about you.  You wonder what became of them and remember them. You fast forward your mind through many Christmases and remember each grandchild’s dolls or games or bicycles, and it all went by so quickly. You remember every customer in your store, the ones who have stuck by you all the years, and the ones who’ve passed.

You think about your life and you whisper E’passato troppo in fretta. Yes, it all went by too fast.

Two more years lapse in a blink and you’re not sure where you are but you feel nothing but love, and your family is all close by, and you can see them all, all at once. You look at them and the tears of joy come.

Your view speeds along, and the moments of your life replay in artistic detail and vivid color. You get to relive the splendor of your life once more, and the hard times don’t hurt anymore, and the good times feel even better, and you’re somehow both a child and an 80-year old man, as one, atop a hill in Prato, looking down, and you see all of it. It’s as you remembered it, but the expanse is wider and more beautiful.

Standing there still, you see it, your life, close but from afar, from atop the rolling hill among the Lombardy pines, across the ocean, down from the blue sky, onto your legacy. And you feel the warmth of all those you embrace, and smile.

Ahh, la vita sulla terra merita di essere vissuta.

E tu hai vissuto.

And you’ve lived.

If you’d like to write for NIAF’s Pensieri Blog, submit your proposal to media@niaf.org. To learn more about how to support NIAF and its mission, visit www.niaf.org/join.

This entry was posted in Italian A Day, National Italian American Foundation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 40 Lire, and A Dream.

  1. Dave Scibetta says:

    A truly beautiful tribute

  2. Dina says:

    Excellent! What a beautiful story

  3. Peter Cotton says:

    A great story, Paul. And very well written. It’s not too much unlike my own grandfather’s story.

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