Courting Elvira

 © 2005 Jane Pisciottoli Papa, #306

 

            “Grandma, how did you and Grandpa first meet?”  I asked in the intense manner of the young teen who has just come to the realization that all older people were once young.

            “Oh, that’s a long story,” she answered with a little chuckle.

            “Well, tell me the story, because I want to know.” Like all of my grandmother Elvira’s stories this one was a simple narrative in her telling of it. She neither moralized nor tried to impart wisdom with her stories, although she often made references to the mores of the times of which she spoke. No, it is I, the self-appointed family historian, who now finds in this simple tale a much larger story, the story of an immigrant family becoming acculturated and embracing the values of their new land.

             When Luigi Maradei brought his young wife to Boston from Calabria in 1884 he was beginning his new life as an American. He made a series of decisions within the next few years that demonstrate clearly to us his commitment to making the United States his new homeland.

First of all the act of bringing his wife Filomena Marzano with him immediately after their marriage was a strong signal of his intention to stay, for many men of the period made multiple trips back and forth to Italy before finally choosing one country or the other and reuniting with family. Secondly, he soon began calling himself “Louis” as opposed to “Luigi”, at least as far as business was concerned (see the Boston City Directory of the time). Next his chosen residence was within Boston’s South Cove area, a polyglot immigrant community, rather than in the city’s North End, which was becoming increasingly Italian in its composition at that time. Even though there were few goods or services targeted toward Italians in their neighborhood, and despite the fact that they had to travel to the North End to receive religious sacraments in Italian, the Maradei family stayed in their original South Cove neighborhood for many years. Perhaps because they were thus forced to speak English in the course of their daily life they became proficient speakers of the language early on. And finally, Luigi became an American citizen in       1899, completing the process he had begun fifteen years earlier. We have every reason to think that Luigi believed his future lay in America, the land of opportunity and freedom.

But becoming a good American did not require severing all connections with one’s origins and Luigi Maradei certainly remained within the Italian cultural circle. Although the family lived surrounded by people from many other backgrounds, their relatives and friends from Italy all lived nearby. Luigi was interested in American politics and world history, we are told. He is said to have admired the Germans, perhaps for the success of their national unification process in the old world and that of their labor union practices in the new one. But he was very active in Italian American fraternal groups such as Stella di Calabria, holding office and delivering speeches. And although he successfully served the American population of the city in his business life (he managed a series of barbershops, ultimately the one in the newly opened South Station), Italian remained the language of his home.

So like most successful immigrants Luigi crafted a lifestyle that combined the best of his new country with the best of his old culture. We don’t know of any challenges or threats to this mindset until his only daughter, Elvira, reached her middle teens. Then he found himself facing a classic culture clash.

Luigi had placed a high value on education and originally had expected all of his children to graduate from high school, including his daughter. This was not the norm in his community, where many parents directed their children to leave school around age twelve to help support the family. However Luigi and Filomena had both been educated in Italy and had achieved a certain respected status in their community. They surely expected the next generation to continue in that manner. But plans changed when Filomena died suddenly, leaving Luigi to raise their four children, aged nine to seventeen. Reluctantly he accepted Elvira’s offer to leave school after completing eighth grade in order to run the household.

But this series of events, although sorrowful and disheartening, probably did not cause Luigi to question his hybridized values. That state of soul searching would be reserved for the day, not long off, when his beloved daughter would be of marriageable age.

 

“In those days the Italian people arranged their children’s marriages. And it was not like today when couples go on dates alone before they get married.” The opening of my grandmother’s courtship story points directly to her father Luigi’s cultural dilemma: would he be the traditional Italian pater familias and arrange the best possible marriage for his daughter, or would he allow her to marry someone to whom she was personally attracted? Would he force her to marry a man whose family’s reputation and resources would enhance his family’s status, or would he embrace the relatively new notion of romantic love and let her marry as she wished? Would he require her to marry a near stranger whom she may have met only a few times in stiffly formal, chaperoned situations, or would he allow her to get to know a potential husband before deciding whether to marry him?

 “My father said he would never force me to marry someone I didn’t care for, but he would have to approve of anyone I chose.” Once again Luigi seems to have sought to combine the old and the new ways: retain a sense of control by offering strict guidance but acquiesce to the American ideal of marrying for love.

“But how did you meet Grandpa?”

“Well, my aunt would arrange for the sons of families she knew to walk by our house when she and I would be sitting out on the steps. I could tell her when I wanted to meet any of them.” Grandpa was apparently neither the only nor even the first potential suitor.

“ One time a fellow walked by and I said to my aunt, ‘That little shrimp? You want me to marry that little shrimp?!’” Given my grandmother’s 5’3’’ stature he must indeed have been short for her to make such a comment.

I was satisfied with my grandmother’s story as she told it on that occasion, chuckling along with her at the thought of her being married to someone shorter than she was. After all, Grandpa appeared rather imposing at 5’7’’. But over the years other details of the story emerged, offered in other contexts, some of them by the next generation long after my grandparents were both gone.

There had in fact been other suitors. Elvira rejected out of hand the proposal that was made to her by a first cousin who had just arrived from Italy and who was looking to settle down here. I never found out whether she objected to him personally or to the fact that he was closely related, but he ultimately married another of his first cousins, a practice not atypical of Italian ways at the time. There was at least one other suitor, a member of a very prominent family in the small Cosentino community of Boston’s South End, the brother of one of the first medical doctors produced by that group. But Elvira refused to even consider marriage to this man on the grounds that he looked old enough to be her father, he had a big black mustache, and he intended to relocate to Barranquilla, Colombia. (He was in fact fifteen years older than she was and did indeed move to Barranquilla, where he eventually forfeited his naturalized American citizenship.)

So somehow Grandpa’s mother, Rosina Pinto, who was looking for a girl from a “good” family for her son, must have arranged with Grandma’s aunt for the two young people to encounter each other. Was it love at first sight? We don’t know, but there was surely an attraction between them. And I have heard two stories of their courtship which indicate that once again Luigi Maradei was struggling with his cultural dilemma.

The first is a tale of Grandpa, Luigi Pisciotti, asking permission of Luigi Maradei to escort Elvira to the opera. Luigi Maradei asked to be shown the opera tickets and, upon seeing them, granted permission. When the young couple arrived at the theater they found Luigi and his three sons sitting several rows behind their seats.

The other anecdote involves attempts by the young couple to be together alone for a few moments. Elvira would make an excuse to run an errand in downtown Boston so that she could meet Grandpa in R.H. White’s department store while he was on his lunch break. Did her father know? She must not have been too concerned that he would find out as they were quite likely to have been seen by people who knew them. She must have believed that he would not object too strenuously.

There was one additional aspect of the marriage between Elvira Maradei and Luigi Pisciotti that shows just how far her father had moved away from his old Italian  mindset. Although the two families had come from Italian villages that were nearly adjacent to each other, the Maradei/Marzano family had attained a much higher status in Italy. They were literate and belonged to the class of merchants and civil servants which had been arising within Calabria in the post Napoleonic era. Luigi Pisciotti and his widowed mother had worked hard at physical labor in Italy, never having the opportunity for education. Luigi Maradei would have been unlikely to have accepted such an inequity of family status in a potential son-in-law were he still living in Italy, a socio-economically stratified society in those times. But I think we might reasonably conclude that because he now viewed himself as an American he bowed to American ways, embracing the values of the democracy and its goal of a classless society. This suitor came from a hardworking family and was gainfully employed, and Luigi assented to the marriage.

Elvira Maradei and Luigi Pisciotti were married on June 12, 1910, in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii in Boston’s South End. Their marriage endured for fifty-eight years, until Luigi’s death in 1968. They had three children, who have given them seven grandchildren, ten great grandchildren, and a growing number of great-great grand children, seven to date.

Echoes of Luigi Maradei’s old Italian ways continued to reverberate through the lives of his descendants, at least as far as my generation. For instance as a mid-teenager I often overheard family members discussing who “should” have married whom in my parents’ generation, if their parents had been making the matches. I recall hearing an older family member remarking how felicitous it would be if I were to marry a certain grandson of one of my grandfather’s close friends from “the old country.” This discussion of old fashioned matchmaking was quickly squelched by my Irish American mother.

But more significantly the ripples of the new values Luigi Maradei embraced when he reinvented himself as an American have also continued to spread. In my childhood and youth I heard much discussion of the importance of being a good citizen, of racial and ethnic tolerance, and especially of acquiring as much education as possible (girls as well as boys). These are values I have absorbed completely. I view this as my legacy from my grandparents and great grandparents, a gift which I in turn offer freely and comprehensively to my students (for I am a public school teacher but not a parent) with the hope that my little corner of America will match my ancestors’ vision of what it can be.