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Dying to Be an American
I sat there, on my bed bunk, as the ship slowly swayed back and forth over the ocean waves. I couldn’t help but think how dramatically my life would change in a matter of hours. But still, the question was: For the better…or for the worse?
We were due to pull into New York Harbor at dawn, putting an end to the most intolerable three weeks of my life. It had never been my idea to leave Italy in the beginning, but as usual, Mamma made us. For as long as I could remember, Mamma was always talking about coming to America for a better life. So many people had left before us; it seemed like the natural thing to do. We had heard of Italians, such as Joseph Stella, who became well-known painter in America.
Back in Italy, everybody was poor and lived under bad conditions. We lived in a small apartment in the middle of Naples, crowded among many other unsanitary buildings. We were always very tight with our money and food ever since Mamma lost her job as a seamstress at the local clothing shop. But Mamma promised that everything would be all better once we got to America. After all, they have always said, “In America, the streets were paved with gold.”
We were coming to America to find Papà, who had left us two years ago to find a job in New York City. Before he had left, he promised me and everyone else, including Mamma, Camille, and Nonna* that he would write letters and tell us all about America, and yet he never did. One summer, I was so desperate that I actually sat outside our front porch every single afternoon with my younger sister, Camille, waiting for the mailman to deliver something from Papà. And to my disappointment, every one of those afternoons was wasted.
I drowsily stood up and walked by Camille, who was sleeping soundly next to Mamma in their narrow bunk. Camille was almost twelve, and small for her age, but took up nearly the whole bed, leaving Mamma with barely any space. We were lucky enough to have three bunks in a row on the second floor. Next to Camille and Mamma was Grandma Tortorella, or Nonna, as I call her. She made it very clear from the beginning that she wasn’t going to share a bunk with anyone, leaving me alone with my own bunk. I don’t understand how an old lady can be so stubborn at seventy-four years old.
I reached under my bunk and pulled out my shoes and cloak, which were still falling apart despite being patched numerous times. I decided to walk up onto the ship’s deck to see if there was any land in sight. I looked around to make sure everyone was asleep and climbed up the ladder to the deck. The fierce wind and crashing ocean waves mixed together, making it feel as if raindrops filled the air. A gray void of clouds filled the early morning sky, emphasizing all the darkness and coldness in the world. For a moment, a reminiscing thought shot through my mind. I remembered the feelings that I felt when we first boarded the ship three weeks ago- anxious, scared, worried, but excited. I wondered how I would feel once I got to America…Would I feel the same way? Would I ever regret even leaving Italy?
I trudged over to the metal railing of the ship to get a closer view of what was ahead of me. “Zee dat?” A thick, foreign voice asked.
I turned around to make sure the voice was talking to me. There the person stood, a man, who was probably in his late 40s or early 50s. His face was wrinkled with many blemishes and scars, signaling that he has endured a lot physical work. He had a full mustache and beard that had speckles of gray and brown in it.
I looked back at him with a confused expression on my face. “What? I don’t see anything.”
“Ya don’t zee it, no? Ya zee dat dark shape over dere?”
I leaned even closer to the railing, squinting through the fog, to get a better view. “You mean that blur over there?” I pointed straight ahead of me.
“Yes. V’once vee get drue, vee’ll be in New York Harbor.”
I gave the man a quick surprised look, but soon that surprised look morphed into a big smile. I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I hurried right back down the ladder, into the steerage quarters. I ran into the room, screaming, “Mamma, Mamma! Wake up everyone! We’re almost there! We’re almost there! We’re almost in America!”
Camille was the first one to jump up from her bed. “What?!? We’re here, already?” Then, Mamma sat up and frantically went into action. “Isabella, make sure everything is packed up in our suitcase. Camille, wake Nonna up. She better be ready with that leg of hers. Quick!”
I checked all the bunks for anything loose items and stuffed them in our suitcase. We had only brought a few old clothes and a pair of shoes for everyone and barely any money to last us a week. “Camille, hurry! I want to be the first ones off the ship!” I rushed my sister, who was still sitting on her bed, putting on her shoes.
“Now stay right here. We’re not going anywhere yet until I say we’re ready. We have to gather up our things”, Mamma said. “Tidy yourself up, and your sister, too. I’m not having Papà see you looking like a bunch of barboni*. Capiche*?”
“Yes, Mamma. Capiche.” I said reluctantly.
Camille and I were ready to kill Mamma by the time she decided we were ready. Mamma said that Camille was going to go up the ladder first, then Nonna, and then Mamma with the large suitcase in her hand. It was my turn next. I was glad that this was going to be the last time I would ever touch the rails of this ladder again.
“Here we are”, I gently whispered to myself. I took a deep breath to prepare to end my sentence. “America.” I slowly exhaled, letting out all my worries.
I remembered the words of the poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” My mind was overwhelmed with hope and fear at the same time. For some strange reason, I felt as if I was destined to come to America. Something important was going to happen to me here.
That day, February 28th, 1911, would mark the new beginning of my life—as an American.