Where you came from, what you’ve done

My grandparents (on my mother’s side) came to this country from Italy on a ship. It was the route that millions chose to escape the poverty in Europe around the time of the First World War.

My grandfather, Joseph Maietta, was a common laborer, looking for meaningful employment. My grandmother was a member of royalty in Italy, which at that time still had a king, but no one in the family was sure of what her title was.

Genevieve was her name. She fell in love with Joe Maietta and was forbidden by her parents from marrying him under threat of being cut off from the rest of the family. My grandmother preferred the man she loved to her family. They were married in a small ceremony in a village near Milan, before leaving to find their future in America.

Joseph was barely 20 when he was hired to work in a steel mill in western Pennsylvania in the town where I was born. As soon as he got his first paycheck, he wrote home to tell his brothers about the glut of jobs in the New World. Several followed him to America.

In the course of her lifetime, my grandmother gave birth to 11 children, two of whom never made it past the age of 10. Most of the days in her life, she was out of bed at 5 in the morning, getting the children ready for school, cooking an elaborate breakfast (Joe favored pork chops and potatoes) and making lunches for all the millworkers in the family — which eventually counted six boys and three girls. Between the constant demand for food and fresh laundry she worked from morning until nighttime when she collapsed in bed.

I was there the night my grandmother died. I was only six and my parents and I were returning from a social engagement. My mother was worried about my grandmother’s health and wanted to look in on her. She sent me into the house.

Even though the lights were on it looked like the house was empty. I called out for her repeatedly, before looking in the kitchen. She was lying on the floor, barely breathing. I remember her eyes, the way she looked up at me and the way her lips quivered without really forming any words. I remember her tightly drawn gray hair and the wrinkles in her face. I wondered what was wrong with her, why she didn’t speak to me. The doctors said she had suffered a stroke.

For the rest of his days my grandfather lived a restless existence. During the next 20 or so years he became a legendary walker in the town. Night and day he traveled the streets and roads on foot, as if cursed by an albatross, to chase the demons of loneliness from his life. The house, which once was a jumble of litter and noise from nine children, was now quiet as a mausoleum.

Years later I learned that my grandmother had only been 57 at the time of her death. She had paid the price for all those children, all that hard work. But she had lived her dream, had loved the man she wanted, and had made her way in the New World without any outside help.

Most important to me personally, she had given birth to the woman who gave birth to me.

My mother often referred to her as “a saint.” I don’t know what a saint is, but I will always feel a special admiration for this woman and the values she and others like her represented. Without them our country would be a different place today.