Chapter III - Orphaned
Fate had decreed more trouble for us. Father was ailing, complaining about discomfort in his stomach. Instead of going to consult a doctor he followed the suggestions of well meaning friends and tried all kinds of remedies recommended by them. Finally he developed a fever and an inflamed throat and a swollen face. A doctor came to care for him but his medication was not effective. He called for a consultation and the decision was made to take him to a hospital in Naples since there was more equipment there and more experts to deal with his sickness.
My father came downstairs dressed for his short trip. A coach (cab) was waiting to take him to Naples. I came up to him. He said, "Maria, don't kiss me. I will come back."
He never did, not even his body. My older brother Guiseppe, who had returned from America, accompanied him. We had no way to communicate with him. My stepmother was with her second child and had the family to care for, so she could not go with him. Gloom had fallen over our bubbling household and we were anxiously waiting for news. On the third day Guiseppe came back with the news that father had been operated on and was recovering.
The next day a telegram came from the hospital informing us of my father's death. Consternation followed this message. My stepmother screamed that she wanted to go to Naples and then she fainted. Being with child she was put to bed. A doctor was called and he said she could not travel in her condition. Her pregnancy was impaired and she had to have bed rest. Guiseppe went back to Naples to arrange to have the body shipped to our town to be buried in our cemetery. He came back alone with the sad news that when he got there he was informed they had performed an autopsy and buried the remains.
My stepmother worsened with the news. People were coming and going offering their help to my stepmother and the rest of the family. My sorrow was too deep for consoling words. Two and a half years since the death of my mother, I had learned not only the meaning of death but the death of a parent. Those two and a half years were more than ten to me. I had lived through the complications and loneliness of one household and especially of a young girl needing her mother.
Now that my father was gone what was to become of me? I made myself as inconspicuous as possible. I did not want to be consoled. I wanted to give in to my sorrow and cry. No one missed me. I was a non-identity to be concerned about. What could a twelve-year-old girl possibly know about complicated problems? Night came. I was lying on a bed of freshly threshed straw out on the aria, a round packed surface space made for the purpose of threshing wheat, husking beans and drying corn. It was also an area for drying fruit and vegetables and legumes for storage for the coming winter supplies. There I was when the sky began to be studded with stars. Looking up at the stars I felt utter loneliness and despair. I loved my father and now he was gone too. During those terrible hours I grew like a sturdy oak tree. As darkness was descending, unfolding all around me. I got up and went upstairs to my stepmother's bedroom. I leaned over the bed and said, "Ma, you've got to stay well. What would become of us if you don't?"
It never occurred to me what was to follow later. This was the only family I had and she was the head of it. There were six children - three girls from her first husband, my sister and I, a two-year-old boy of hers and my father, and one to come.
Miraculously, she recovered. I expected life to continue the same, only she had to be both mother and father and we had to work a little harder. I never had gone through the process of a home being broken.
My stepmother had expected to retain custody of my sister and myself but my brother Guiseppe contested the legality of the custody. We were minors and had no say in the dispute. A family council consisting of my uncle (my father's brother), and a few cousins was formed. The council decreed that my sister and I should be my brother's wards and that he was to be our legal guardian.
I was not happy with the separation from the household that I considered rightfully mine. My stepmother and my brother haggled over the division of the little property my father had left and over the harvest.
My father died at the beginning of July, the wheat had already been taken care of and there was work to be done on the grapevines, but the main work had been finished. Now it was time to begin gathering the harvest. Guiseppe was claiming the legality of the settlement. My stepmother was aware it meant her very livelihood. All this was very oppressive and I was more unhappy every day.
The school closed on the last day of August and reopened the first of November. There was no talk about going back. I did not dare to ask. I had to work to earn my living. The day the school opened I felt my heart was breaking. There was peace and sanctuary in learning. I began to lose weight and my skin became dry.
My sister had found refuge at my uncle's house. He had asked my brother if my sister could go and live at his house for awhile. He was a widower with an only daughter who was sick and there was no one to attend to her needs. It would be a great relief to have my sister there. My brother agreed and Emily went to live with my uncle. Guiseppe was relieved to see her go because, being older than I, she would give him arguments. Emily was happy with my uncle. She managed the whole household and cared for our cousin. The daughter got well and my uncle asked if Emily could stay on to be company to his daughter who had become very fond of her.
Guiseppe decided to let her stay. She would come home weekends, look at me, and cry.
Winter passed. In the month of May, in a nearby town, there was a celebration of a saint's feast. My brother decided to attend with the whole family and his mother-in-law. I was given the job of taking care of the young child. He was just beginning to walk and had to be carried most of the time. I was not enjoying the occasion. In the middle of the square there was a woman sitting in a chair. She was dressed in black with a black band covering her eyes. She was a mind reader. There was a man standing in front of her who would incite the circle of people standing around to have their fortune told. Something prompted me to step forward and pay the two cents required as the price. The man asked the woman what she was seeing. Her answer was, "A very young girl, an orphan and very unhappy. The future looks brighter because she will pass over a lot of water." Then she stopped.
My sister-in-law's mother wanted to know what the fortuneteller meant when she said that I was very unhappy. I answered, "I don't know what she means."
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