- From Bologna to Boston: Immigration Scenes from the 1950s
Photographs by BRUNO BEDETTI
When the occasional opportunity arises, I like to use the anachronism that I’m “off the boat.” What makes my family’s story different from most is that we immigrated to the United States twice. On the first occasion, my father’s engineering company offered him an opportunity to transfer to St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother had reservations about the move, as she had already moved from Italy to Switzerland a decade earlier to marry him, but she took comfort in the option to return after two years. Our lives in Zürich seemed idyllic to my nine-year old self. I loved my teacher, Fräulein Schmidt, the cows on the hillside on the walk to school, the swans in the lake on a Sunday outing, Samichlaus visiting us in our apartment. My friend’s house was where I saw my first television program, a ballet. Life was perfect. Always ready to explore new horizons, however, Pop beguiled my brother and me with images of ponies in wide-open spaces, as in Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” In the end, Mom was outvoted.
At the end of the week’s reveling at sea, we were primed for a new adventure. The Statue of Liberty followed by a grimy and hurried New York City awaited us. Mom’s uncle, whom we called Zio Berto, and her cousin, Artiode, greeted us at the dock. They had traveled from Massachusetts to welcome us before we continued to our final destination, St. Paul, Minnesota. Mom’s uncle owned an apartment complex in Brookline, and her cousin practiced law in Boston. In Figure 3, Mom looks happy to be among her extended family, even if only for the moment or for the photo. I appear to be in a gleeful state of shock. Though there was not much our relatives could do for us since we were to live in Minnesota, they would reenter our story a couple of years later.
In St. Paul, while its owners were away on sabbatical, a sprawling ranch house and back yard—our first single-family dwelling—awaited us. We carpooled to the local Catholic school. An older student, an émigré from eastern European, taught me how to read out of the Dick and Jane series. Our sociable neighbors introduced me to peanut butter, reciting Hail Mary’s when a fire engine drove by, Saturday morning cartoons, and Halloween. While we kids were soaking up the new culture, unbeknownst to us our parents were having second thoughts about the move. Maybe Mom got tired of Pop’s forays into ice fishing. The shoes she is wearing in Figure 4 appear too thin to stand up to hours of standing on the ice, waiting for the fish to bite. While Pop sported his own skates, Mom did not embrace the activity. So after a year in cold Minnesota, we returned to Switzerland.
Although my parents encountered a less welcoming demographic in the suburb of Zürich where they were able to find housing, the transition seemed easy enough for us kids. Since I had lost a year of Swiss home economics education, a classmate taught me how to knit. I had a fun year helping the teacher, Herr Rancati, clean the fish tank, playing tag in the playground, and reciting multiplication tables in German. I was in awe of the stick he used to rap certain kids’ knuckles. Recently, our class, held its 50-year reunion in a beer hall. Herr Rancati led the singing. Back in the fourth grade, absorbed with my new bicycle and friends, I was oblivious to the fact that our folks were revisiting their decision to leave the United States. Returning to Switzerland gave them the kind of perspective they needed. Before long, my friends were signing my Tagebuch, and we were giving away our parakeets and fish and choosing furniture to ship to the States. Pop resigned from his company. Our folks chose Brookline, Massachusetts, as our final destination, because of its public schools. The proximity to our Boston-area relatives must have been of some assurance to Mom, and I recall Pop’s gratitude to Artiode for a $500 loan so Pop could buy a used Studebaker. Before my brother’s and my return to America, however, we would have our own extended Italian holiday.
For one magical summer while our parents travelled ahead to establish a home in Brookline, they entrusted my brother and me to the care of our maternal grandparents in Italy. We had an unforgettable time with our relatives in Bologna. Having visited two or three times a year throughout our childhood, we were more than comfortable staying with them; in the end, we didn’t want to leave. One of my favorite times was bicycle racing out to the country with my grandmother (Figure 5), whose bicycle Zio Enzo had supplied with a motor. I loved visiting with my grandmother’s country friends, leaving cakes she had prepared with the fornaio to bake in his oven, and bringing a bottle to the latteria to fill with milk. Despite overhearing one young bride confess her disenchantment with the rural life, the vineyards, farmhouses, and folks we visited left me with a permanent call of the pastoral (Figure 6). At my grandparents’ house on the outskirts of Bologna, I loved Nonna’s well-tended roses, the wine making, the meats in the basement, the fig tree and chickens in the yard, Pucci, their egg-stealing dog, Carlotta the girl next door, polishing pewter spoons with sand, helping make tortellini for special occasions.
Besides grandparents, we had two sets of doting aunts and uncles (Figure 6) who took us to the local movie theatre on Saturday night or to the Piazza Maggiore on the bus. On occasion Zio Enzo would take me along on his Lambretta. Once, years later, Mom and I tried to sit in on one of Umberto Eco’s seminars at the Università di Bologna, but our timing was off so we sat in on a random class in this oldest university in the world. One summer a decade later while I was studying the language at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia, my grandfather and uncles came to check on me, bemused that I would choose to improve my Italian anywhere else than with them. They had a point. Despite Zio Enzo correcting the Italian in the letters I wrote, I don’t imagine my oration some time later at my grandmother’s eightieth birthday celebration received points for correct expression. After Sunday lunch, Nonna would invite me to lie down with her for un pisolino, which was in fact an opportunity to share confidences, usually about our secret loves. Only once, years later, standing under the aqueduct, did she admit to her feelings about my grandfather’s overbearing ways. After the Sunday nap, everyone sat by the side of the house and visited or played briscola. Nonno would recite poems to me as we crossed a field. He had memorized them in the trenches during World War I. On one of our walks, it started to rain and a rainbow framed us. Meanwhile, Nonna’s interest in affairs of the heart became apparent during a visit years later when, after cooking yet another delicious dinner, we all gathered to watch Dallas. At a kissing scene, my pragmatic grandmother said quietly, “Che dolcezza!” At the time, Zio Enzo was still courting Zia Lucia, so the gift-giving rituals intrigued me. After they married, I became aware that some men went out without their spouses on Saturday night, whether to the local dance hall or to play boccia with friends.
On Sunday afternoon, we also went to visit Bisnonna, our nonagenarian great-grandmother, at her home a block away. Nonno, in the foreground of Figure 8, liked to stage family events. As generous as he was to us, I also experienced the brunt of his strong opinions. On a visit in the 1970s wearing a miniskirt, I found myself in tears walking down the street to a local vendor the afternoon of my arrival to purchase a proper skirt. As Bisnonna got older, my grandmother would walk down to my grandmother’s house twice a day to bring her meals. Similarly, her daughter-in-law, Zia Lucia, would come to care for my grandparents as they aged. Though Nonno’s house underwent renovations, Zio Enzo never left the family home. Bisnonna had nine children. Mom was her favorite grandchild. Much later, I learned the reason for the extreme closeness between the two. Mom was named for one of her aunts who had committed suicide, purportedly because she was forbidden to marry the man of her choice. As a girl after school and young woman after work, Mom visited Bisnonna, her confidante, daily. On our departure, Bisnonna always gave us caramele.
The idyllic summer ended when my brother and I boarded a plane bound for Boston. I wished never to leave the warmth and hospitality we experienced in Bologna, but our parents wanted us back. In Brookline, we came to rent an apartment in Zio Berto’s complex near Cooolige Corner (Figure 9), enjoyed great schools, bought our first and only house, and after five years became naturalized American citizens. Pop questioned the civil servant completing the forms who described Pop’s skin color as “swarthy.” Weekdays Mom accompanied us to the playground where she visited with the other mothers who lived in the neighborhood and whose children attended the same school. She socialized with the Epsteins, Obermans, Kaufmans, and Ziskends. For a decade, her cards-playing group met once a week at each other’s homes. Pop worked at General Electric across the Mystic River Bridge. Summers we went camping with the families of his friends from work, often also émigrés–the Hansons from the Netherlands and the Freisingers from Austria–who became our lifelong friends.
In retrospect, Mom’s adjustment first to living in Switzerland, and then to living in the United States must have been harder than it was for Pop. While he was included in Mom’s family, who looked after his mother when we came to the States, Pop did not feel he was abandoning an extended family. The lure of adventure may also have been stronger in my father. Mom tended to find his projects a bit self-aggrandizing. In quick succession, he took up projects and hobbies, including travelling (Figure 10), hiking, camping, boating, and fishing. He built a telescope, a sailboat, and a vacation home. He taught Junior Achievement, played the accordion, flute, and piano, oil painted and water colored, wrote his World War II memoirs, and catalogued hundreds of his slides, films, and photographs. Our favorite pastime in his later years was playing piano duets.
Thanks to my father’s urge to document his life, I am fortunate to have these and other photographs of a time in my life that I would not otherwise remember with such fondness and clarity.