I grew up in a little piece of Italy, on a tiny one block Terrace, in a suburb 6 miles west of Philadelphia named Lansdowne, Pennsylvania.
Starting at the age of 4, I’d walk with my grandmother daily, helping to pull her little cart to the corner store owned by a “paesan” from the “old country.” The shelves bursting with olives, sardines and brioschi towered over me as she encouraged me to help her pick out ingredients. It was an adventure I adored, sorting through all those breads and cheeses and wondering just what those adult shadows in the back room, bathed in cigar smoke and playing cards, were doing.
“Vieni qua,” she would respond to my curious wandering back there, my tilted head peeking, thrilled and pensive. “Miamm,’ miamm’” (andiamo) she’d say as she took my tiny hand and led me out, my head on a swivel. Back at Nonna’s we’d collect tomatoes, basil and—God knows—the garlic, from her modest yet abundant garden, that took up every inch of grass out back. There I learned how calming getting your hands in the dirt and feet on the ground can be. Nonna taught me about cooperating with Mother Nature, that there is a time for everything, and it goes much easier once you learn to just go with the season.
Libera Maria Cristina Pilla Biondi was born May 19 (diciannove Maggio), 1902 in Circello, Italy, the third of four children. Before emigrating to the USA at the age of 11, she, her 2 sisters and her oldest brother spent 5 years in a catholic Orphanage in Benevento after losing their mother.
It took their father Pasquale five years to collect himself, and the resources, to send for his children to come meet him in the country of great promise—the country where they’d live a “better life,” back together again—America. Relatively speaking, five years was fast and no matter, because nothing meant more to him, to all of them.
In the spring of 1914, the children began their month-long journey from Benevento, by way of Napoli to Ellis Island, New York. Just two short years after the tragic sinking of the Titanic, Libera and her siblings braved the 13-day sailing across the Atlantic on cots in steerage aboard the ship the S.S. Stampalia. The children clung to each other scared and unsure; yet hopeful that the future held times, things and promise, indeed better than the past. A harrowing month of travel by horse & buggies, trains and an ocean liner was made good when Libera and her siblings caught sight of the Roman liberty goddess Libertas, the statue draped in robes, holding the torch of freedom high in her right hand, and a tablet inscribed with the date of America’s Declaration of Independence in Roman numerals ( JULY IV MDCCLXXVI), in her left.
At Ellis Island, where her name is now commemorated, a mistranslation christened Libera with a new birthday of May 29 (ventinove Maggio). Just grateful to be here, she went with it. In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty’s welcome, the family walked forward into their new life together in the USA.
After a brief time in the Bronx, they settled in Malaga, NJ. Her father enrolled her in school, where she was so bright they advanced her 2 grade levels. Waking up at 3 am to help sow, plow and harvest the tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and strawberries on their new gentlemen’s farm, wasn’t easy on the schooling schedule however. Plus there were pigs, chickens and cows to tend to, which little Libera milked by hand. Thirteen year-old Libera left school a brief time later so she could continue to help her papa take their harvest by horse and buggy on the hours-long trek to sell at the emergent, bustling vibrancy of the 9th street Italian Market in South Philadelphia.
She married my grandfather in 1927 and they made wine, celebrated ferragosto and the festivals of saints. While they did their best to keep their traditions alive for their two sons, they strived very hard to be American too. In 1941 the two immigrants celebrated becoming citizens of the country they loved so much and 27 years after an intake error at Ellis island changed her birth date, Libera was now required by order of the court to change her name to “Lena Mary” as part of naturalization. Still grateful to be here, she went with that too.
I am thankful to my grandfather too of course, who, catalyzed by illiteracy, pushed the value of education-education-education. This is only complemented by the priceless education my grandmother passed on: She taught me to sew. First by hand, how to thread the needle and to use a thimble, and when I was long enough to reach the pedals, by machine. She taught me the value of mending things and to not just “trow” them away—that goes for clothing, and relationships. She taught me “meatballs” and wrote down her recipe for “cravy.” To this day, the scent of garlic is a time machine and I can see her there in the kitchen when I smell it. She taught me that the bubbles in the 7up, a little walk after you eat (la passeggiata), and some time and space help you digest—both food and emotions. Growing up in our little slice of Italy in America, I wondered why, unlike my “Americana” friends, we didn’t have a microwave or central air. Libera taught me to appreciate what you have, even in the “having-not.” That there’s lots to appreciate about not having a microwave, and the physical conditioning that no air-conditioning gives you.
On a tiny melting pot of a street, with lots of food, family and love, two worlds collided to create a magical third. For brave little Lena and her family, the two words — Libera and America — united to express the destiny borne in her name: Freedom.
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