The flowers were always a small token. I never had a chance to buy him a tie or a sweater – the usual gifts for a grandfather.
Flowers really were the only appropriate gift, since it would be presented graveside.
My grandfather’s name was Antonio Branella. I never met him. I only knew his eyes – black as coal, intelligent, eager. They seemingly reached out to me through the ether of time from the oval, framed picture my grandmother had placed on his headstone. It’s the way my mother, Mary, his only daughter, knew him too. She was just two years old when her father, my PopPop Tony, was killed.
It had been accidental. Antonio had been overcome by carbon monoxide in an explosion at Coatesville’s Bethlehem Steel Company, the day after my mother’s second birthday.
The crushing experience of losing her husband, emotionally paralyzed my grandmother, Giulia. She was 26 years old, now a widow with their toddler daughter, Mary and their six-month-old son, Anthony.
The details of how her Antonio was killed were never really clear to her. Or to us. I believe speaking the language of their native Italy, and very little English, confused those details, until now.
The way we were told of Pop Pop Tony’s death always included… “Two men were caught in the explosion that caused a gas leak at the blast furnace… and your grandfather went in to save them. He got them out, they survived, but he was overcome by the fumes and died.”
To my grandmother… and to us, it seemed like heroism of the highest order.
It was 1930. Dreams of this immigrant couple and others had changed as the Great Depression gripped the United States. Even though Antonio and Giulia had coaxed their dreams to life out of their love, now those dreams were surely torn.
A young widow, Giulia returned to the village of Nereto, in the Abruzzi region of Italy. Her parents and seven siblings – four brothers and three sisters — awaited her and her children.
My great aunts, Giulia’s sisters, told me she cried every day for a year. The Nereto farmhouse became her refuge. Overwhelming grief was made even more difficult by the question of what to do next.
How does a widow with two small children carve out a life from the shattered pieces of a life imagined?
My grandmother described how she would climb to a second-floor balcony at the farmhouse. To the west, she could see the Grand Sasso Mountains. To the east was the Adriatic Sea. Somehow in that space between mountain and sea, her tears parted.
When they did, Giulia saw the faces of her children and in them, Antonio. Their daughter, Mary and son, Anthony were two little Americans. Through their birth, they earned the right for the opportunity to be Americans.
Giulia chose to return to America. Destiny drew her back.
My grandmother never told me of her courage nor fear. Humbly, she would recount the story of her life. My grandmother married again, gave birth to three more children, but she always carried the treasure of a true love.
At 84, my mother’s questions about her father’s accidental death had become insistent. The questions led her and a friend to the archives of the Coatesville Record newspaper.
The dateline: Monday, March 24, 1930. In bold type, the front page headline: One Killed, Two Made Ill By Gas At Blast Furnace. The sub-headline: “Antonio Branella, 38, Loses His Life. Men Enter Room After Gas Machine Gasket Blows Out.”
As my mother revealed her discovery, my heart started to race.
The story explained how at 11:30PM, the night of March 23rd, 1930, a gasket blew out of a gas machine, used to operate the furnaces at Bethlehem Steel. The workmen were warned not to enter the room. They could be suffocated by the escaping fumes.
Then, came the word that ring in my ears.
“Branella, it was learned at the investigation, DISOBEYED orders and disregarded all warnings. He is said to have entered the gas-filled chamber in order to shut off the escaping carbon monoxide fumes. No sooner had he entered the room, then several of his co-workers noticed that he had been asphyxiated by the gas.”
“Disobeyed.” The word rang in my head.
The article continues. Two workers — Alphonso Marino and Oreste Marcoldile — saw the plight of their co-worker, and took their own lives in their hands and attempted to rescue the man who had been overcome. They fell unconscious. A fourth worker, Jackson Pattos, found a gas mask and got all three men out of the toxic room. It goes on to report: “Doctors and nurses tried in vain to revive Branella. Marino and Marcoldile were revived. Branella was an Italian who had come to this country quite a few years ago. He was a married man. His death was accidental.”
March 23rd, 2023 will be the 93rd anniversary of the explosion that called my grandfather into action, ignoring warnings, “disobeying” … in order to shut off the escaping carbon monoxide fumes. His actions were still selfless.
Reading the newspaper story again and again, I wonder now whether Antonio understood the warning about dangerous gas. Was it spoken in English? In Italian? The workers were immigrants.
Considering their names, the men who tried to save Antonio most likely were Italian immigrants too. But I also believe, these men were friends. My grandmother, Giulia, always said, everyone loved Antonio.
Over the years, my mother had wished that her father had thought of their family, waiting for him to come home from his shift at the mill. Antonio’s decision had changed so many things that night.
Very few possessions of those precious years as a family remained. Antonio’s wedding ring and some lace from my grandmother’s wedding gown were treasured, as was a linen doily for a dressing table.
The doily was a wedding gift, from Giulia’s youngest sister, Antonietta. She was gifted with a needle and thread. The doily, twenty-seven inches wide, is edged in flowers that were cut out of the material. Each stitch is perfect.
That doily became a gift to me from my grandmother. Standing in my first Philadelphia apartment, she whispered. She kept the precious cloth on her dresser for more than sixty years. The threads had connected her to their dream.
The doily is framed, in my home, connecting this granddaughter of immigrants to love, courage, destiny and truth. Antonio’s eyes are the connection to an enduring love.
“Through Antonio’s Eyes” from anthology “Non soltanto un baule”used by permission of Edizioni Farinelli (www.edizionifarinelli.com).