I Remember Mama (Auntie to the Florios)

by Janet DelRocco Pallman

My Mom loved to tell me stories of her childhood.  She was born August 9, 1900 in Maiori, Italy.  A beautiful mountainside town, overlooking the Gulf of Salerno.  Today it is a Beach Resort destination…known as the Pearl of the Amalfi Coast.  I know this because of old post cards I saved from our Zia Maria (Uncle Patsy’s wife) who few of you knew.  She was quite attractive and a strong woman, but that is another story.  I kept the post cards she had sent us from Maiori when visiting her family years ago.

Maiori…this is where the DiBianco family has its roots.  Our Grandmother, Elizabeth Imperato had a twin sister…who immigrated to London…that is all I know. Our Moms had cousins here…but I can’t seem to connect them properly.  As for our Grandfather, Vincenzo DiBianco, he was a shoemaker…my Mom reminded me that he made the shoes from scratch…and I guess he was quite good at doing that.

My Mom had five brothers…Carlo, Rocco, Dominic, Pasquale and Alberto.  She also had two sisters, Mary and Susie who were her lifelines.  They didn’t always agree on everything but they were inseparable.

One of my Mom’s early memories was the scent of lemons from the surrounding trees.  The house they lived in overlooked a beautiful yard that had peacocks walking in all their splendor.  The lady who owned them would call to my mom to come look at them.

Since my Mom was the oldest of the girls, she was put in charge of taking care of her siblings…I’m guessing she was about eight years old…I don’t think the older boys were there, but our Grandmother would lock them in the house, so she could go to church.  I’m assuming she was very religious and alone with her children…with no husband around to look after them.  Not a great life.  Maybe that’s why she never smiled.  She had been doing this for years…by the turn of the century, southern Italians were starving.  No jobs for the people and little to eat.  Our Grandfather had to get money for his family so he sailed to South America, settling in Argentina, making and selling his shoes and sending money home.

He made eight voyages.  I don’t know how much time he spent with his family before he was going to sail again, but always managed to get our Grandmother pregnant.  He finally made one more trip and it was to America.  He was so enraptured with what he saw here…he said “YES, THIS IS WHERE I WILL BRING MY FAMILY”.

Our Grandfather was crying so hard. He had lost his wife and two sons…but now he had no choice…he would take the rest of his family to America. My Mama said “Si Papa…They would all go with him.”

The Aftermath of The Quake – A Miracle

Such havoc followed after the earthquake, the Tsunami, which was recorded as 40 feet high, kept returning with gradually smaller heights over the next two hours. It was followed by heavy rains, hail storms, wild fires and aftershocks. About 100,000 or more people lost their lives. The Red Cross, Sailors from the Russian, German and American Fleets were called in to help with the search and cleanup.

Back to our Grandfather, at home with my Mom and her brothers and sisters. They knew a great disaster had happened. For days there had been no word about anyone. He was so desperately trying to find out about his wife and sons. He saw someone he knew…..he shouted down to him “the church, what about the people in the church?” The man shouted back up to him, “tutti sono morte.” They are all dead. You realize this whole story was told to me in Italian, through my mother’s tears.

A Miracle
It was days before the astounding news came to our Grandfather….his wife and sons were alive, they had survived, with the help of (you guessed it) the Parish Priest. As the Saga continues, my Mom remembers it all as it was told to her by her dear Mother. ..and every time my Mom told the story, she always cried and the story never changed. Our Grandmother had made it to the church that morning.

Outside in front of the church, the ground was opening up, people were panicking and then…stay with me now…oooh shzoom (tsunami) came. The people were trying to run into the church, which was already packed.. They were all crying and praying. The Priest looked at our Grandmother, with her sons, put his finger straight up to his lips, to tell her to be very quiet and to follow him.. ..he took them to a secret door and through a narrow corridor, which led to the outdoors. They quickly climbed to higher grounds. He had saved our Grandmother and her sons.and of course, himself. Now I know why she went to church every morning…and so the reason why she did not want to leave Maiori.

And finally, My Mom’s last memory of the earthquake was King Emmanuel of Italy, on a white horse…GIVING OUT BREAD TO THE PEOPLE!

The year is now 1909 and still our Grandmother could not be convinced to leave Maiori. I am such a romantic who would like to think that our Grandmother and the Parish Priest were in love and maybe that is why she did not want to leave.

By now, our Grandfather finally had the perfect solution to his problem. He knew how much his wife would miss her daughter Angela and so one day he innocently asked my Mom if she would like to go to America with him.  Of course she said yes, she loved him so.

They left one day, never telling our Grandmother of their secret trip. Once in America, after a time, my Mom missed her Mother so much, all she could do was cry, she was so sad.  Our Grandfather told her not to worry, he would go back to Maiori and bring the whole family with him.

And so, true to his word, he finally sailed away and eventually returned to America…bringing not only the whole family but a new addition,  a baby brother, Alberto six months old. A sad ending for our Grandmother….but a new beginning for the Di Bianco Family settling in a new home on Frank Street in New Haven, Connecticut.