My mother, Anna Maria Fantini, was born into a matriarchal family, a rarity in 1930’s Italy, when men held the power in society. Her mother was one of 8 children (seven daughters and one son), born to an esteemed and talented blacksmith, Giovanni, and his wife Nicoletta, a righteous but ambitious woman, very protective of her daughters and devoted to her first born and only male child, who emigrated to the United States when he was very young. With time, the physical distance that separated my great-uncle from his family and the “first-born son syndrome” were to have great repercussions on his relatives in later years, and to this very day. However, that’s another story.
Giovanni’s work ranged from making ornate railings for balconies, light fixtures and furniture to decorative and religious items, thus it was an activity that allowed him to fully develop his artistic talent. As in every self-respecting Italian household of the time, Nicoletta taught her daughters the basic skills they would need as wives and mothers: to cook, weave, knit and sew, but the girls had that added value inherited from their father, that allowed them to become skilled artisans in their own right, thus contributing in no small way to the family income.
The eldest daughter, Eusebia, was a highly acclaimed dress designer and seamstress and above all, the “manager” of the family workshop; Ernesta, the most eccentric and capricious of the seven, designed the intricate embroidery patterns skillfully executed by her other talented sisters, Antonietta, Consiglia, Concetta, Rosaria and Annunziata, who were specialized in various aspects of embroidery and lace manufacture. With time, their fame grew to the point of making them eligible to establish a legally accredited artisan’s school, where local girls could learn how to design and sew and embellish their own clothes and bedding. It was important back then for girls to learn how to weave cloth and fashion it into the articles necessary for their families once they married.
My grandmother Rosaria, was one of the four daughters who Nicoletta had ‘deemed to concede in marriage’ to suitors of proven worthiness. Two of her sons-in-law, including my grandfather Ernesto, were well to-do-widowers with children from previous marriages, the third was a prosperous farmer and the fourth was an artisan from a nearby coastal city. After marrying Ernesto, my grandmother dedicated herself to her own family, leaving the business to the other sisters. Concettina, Eusebia and Antonietta were all more or less convinced spinsters, whereas Ernesta married at the age of 45. All of the “working” sisters were totally dedicated to their art and at their school, they passed their expertise on to generations of young women, including their three nieces (my mom and her two sisters, Elide and Elisa). All of the girls learned the basics of each craft, but my mother became specialized in dress design and creation, and in later years she developed a particular talent for creating wedding gowns.
My mom often spoke of this nurturing environment as a happy time, where her aunts would play with and dote on her and her sisters. She was the youngest of my grandmother’s two daughters (but Papà Ernesto had a daughter from his first marriage) but she wasn’t the ‘spoiled baby’ of the family. Her bright, good natured demeanor made her a favorite playmate among her friends. When my siblings and I were growing up, my mom often told us about her childhood years, saying that she had never disobeyed her parents or done anything to deserve punishment. We, of course, couldn’t believe her, thinking she said it to “encourage” us to be better behaved, but throughout the last 30 years living in Italy, this bit of information has been confirmed many times by friends and family. Looking at her picture here, in which I think her pure soul is reflected in her eyes, I think it’s safe to say that it really was true.
Anna Maria at 11
Undoubtedly, the love and attention she received strengthened her and provided her with the resilience that would prove vital when put to the test throughout the hardships experienced before and after World War II. Perhaps in some way, those very hardships contributed to forging her, as privations often do. During the war, the entire population of the village, including her family, was uprooted by the Germans who had established their line of resistance to the Allied Forces moving up the Italian peninsula (The Gustav Line) in the area where my parents’ hometown rose on hill overlooking the Sangro River valley and the Adriatic Sea. This exposed them to Allied bombings and German retaliations, which destroyed or severely damaged most of the once peaceful, quaint little village. One day when her group was moving from one refuge to another, my mom was almost killed when a German soldier, just for the fun of it, shot her faithful dog Bricco, which was scampering right next to her. Overwhelmed by shock and grief, she became hysterical and it took the strength of her aunts and mother to hold her back and make her keep walking, terrified as they were that the soldier would take a shot at her, too. The ravaging effects of the war years would help my mother develop her deep love and compassion for animals and children, and most of all for the suffering.
As young women surrounded by doting aunts, my mother and her sisters led a simple, challenging, but at the same time idyllic life during the reconstruction era that followed the war years. At that time, Italy was just starting to get back on its feet and people were beginning to feel a bit more optimistic, a prelude to the economic boom of the 1960’s. Fashion had always been an important factor of the Italian economy, both in terms of textile manufacture and the creativity of fashion design. Success stories like the Fontana sisters’ and the Fendi’s ateliers were generating a new wave of activity, where resourceful women, whether in small villages or bustling cities all over Italy, were creating stylish outfits for their clients. Feminine craft schools such as the one run by my aunts had produced a generation of gifted, expert seamstresses and embroiderers who were excited to put their talents to good use.
As her proficiency developed, my mom began working in the more highly specialized area of wedding gown design and manufacture. During the early 50’s her gowns became very popular among young brides-to-be in the area. It was always a family affair, with her aunts putting on the finishing touches with their embroidery and lace. Fashion magazines bearing new ideas and models provided the means to keep up with the latest fads and traveling salesmen came by proposing the most beautiful silk and satin fabrics. I’ve been living in Italy for 30 years now, and many a time I’ve been stopped by her former clients who tell me how beautiful their wedding dresses were and most of all what a wonderful person my mom was.
Anna Maria was a very sweet young woman with strong, but well balanced features; dark, wavy hair and dark brown, mirthful eyes, straight ivory teeth that dazzled you whenever she smiled, and lucky for her, and for those who were blessed by her countenance, she smiled a lot. Her body was thin and harmonious, and although she was only 5’ 3”, she had an innate elegance and a noble demeanor that made her look much taller.
Things could get frenzied in the shop, with much clucking and fussing of all these busy women, especially in the days before their clients would come to pick up the outfits or gowns they’d ordered, but my mom always came out unfazed by it all, such was her good nature. She was a serious, precise worker, but she loved to play; she’d do things like hide spools of thread on the others, or quietly sneak out to play with her cats without telling anyone. Her child-like playfulness was a quality that stayed with her all her life.
The Post-War Years
Life in Fossacesia was pretty tough during the post war years, but all in all, my mom felt safe and loved among her relatives and friends. The town had been heavily bombed by the British in an effort to push the Germans up the coast and out of Italy, although it’s been said that in reality there were only 2 snipers on the crest of the hill that Fossacesia rises on. People tried to tell the Brits that they should stop the heavy artillery and just invade the town because the Germans had left. They didn’t take that advice and kept bombing until not much more than a pile of rubble was left. There were no civilians because they’d been displaced, but still, the town took a pounding.
After the war, under the Marshall Plan, the townspeople began to slowly put their lives back together again and rebuild their homes. My father’s house, about 50 feet up the street from where my mother lived, had been totally gutted, whereas my mother’s home was damaged but salvageable.
Anna Maria Fantini, far left holding her cat, with her parents, her sister Elide and a good friend, Giovannina
My dad left Italy with his mother and brother in 1947 at the age of 15 to live with his father in Norristown, Pa. He left with a secret in his heart though…he’d been in love with my mom since they were eleven. Of course he was too young at that time, and then he had to leave, so the budding love story was put on hold for several years. In the meantime, he finished high school and began working. After a couple of years, he found a job at Merck, Sharpe and Dohme, as a lab technician, producing anti-polio vaccine, while also holding a part time job at a supermarket. After a while, he decided to join the Marine Corps and completed boot camp, but at the last minute, his superiors decided to discharge him because, having been through an actual war, they were afraid he could be suffering from PTSD and could perhaps be unreliable in a combat situation. My father considered this discharge to be unfair and recently, he presented his case to the Veteran’s Administration, who determined that it was, in fact, an unjust decision.
One day after returning from boot camp, while on a trip to Toronto with his uncle Nick, my dad went to visit my mom’s sister, who had recently married and immigrated to Canada. While he was there, he asked about my mom. My aunt showed him a picture of her, and that was enough for him to decide to write to her and rekindle their relationship. In May 1956, after two years of correspondence my Dad decided to return to Italy and propose to my mother. His plan was to stay in Italy forever, but my grandfather Ernesto persuaded him to go back to the States, where they would have a brighter future. Italy was under reconstruction after the devastation of World War II, but so far, there was no sign of the economic boom that was to take place in the 60’s. Dad decided to take his advice and my mother consented to marry him and emigrate. She accepted his proposal and after hasty preparations, they were married two months later on June 2, 1956.
They had a fairy tale wedding with practically the whole town in the piazza in front of the tiny church where the ceremony was held. The wedding couldn’t take place in the parish church because it had been destroyed during the war, and was under re-construction. Instead of having the traditional, 6 course wedding meal at home, they opted for an elegant cocktail reception with hors d’oeuvres, sweets and the traditional bomboniere containing sugared almonds called confetti. Young girls, curious to see the bride’s gown, gathered dreamily at the front window and door, watching the elegantly clad guests milling around, having a wonderful time.
The happy couple with their best man and maid of honor.
View of the wedding cerimony from the choir loft
The young couple went on a honeymoon tour of Italy, visiting Venice, Florence and Rome, as well as San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio of Pietrelcina lived. My father had already been there a couple of times before leaving for America, having been personally blessed by the Saint. While there, an amazing encounter took place. Padre Pio used to meet male pilgrims in the sacristy after Mass and spend some time in conversation with them. He would ask them where they were from, what they did and bless them. When my father told him where he was from and what his job was (he worked at Merck, Sharp and Dohme as a lab technician, producing polio vaccine), Padre Pio, who had just inaugurated his hospital, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, stopped right in his tracks and asked my dad to come back in the afternoon.
At 2 pm sharp, my parents knocked on the monastery door and were ushered into a room with a big table and some chairs all around it. Padre Pio arrived a few minutes later, and asked my dad to explain the production process involved in making polio vaccine. My parents were there for a good part of the afternoon, in the company of a Saint, discussing such an important matter as the production of a vaccine that has saved the lives of millions of people.
About two months after their wedding, my father returned to the United States to prepare for my mother’s arrival 8 months later.
After you, my dear…
I’ve always been fascinated by this evocative photograph taken on the day my mom arrived in the United States. I find it fascinating to try to imagine what it was like for my mother to leave her family and country, not knowing a word of English, travelling alone on a huge ship. She must have been terrified, but at the same time elated to begin this new adventure. That’s what this photo symbolizes for me: my father ushering her into her new life. I imagine she’d just arrived at port a few hours before on the Leonardo Da Vinci sailing from Naples. The voyage across the ocean was a bit rough so she was delighted to finally set foot on solid ground again. The view that greeted her was a shock to a young Italian woman from a tiny village in Abruzzo. Dark, ominous skyscrapers rising steep in front of her, hundreds of people on the dock, waving and cheering as they greeted the incoming vessel and the relatives and friends they’d soon hug again. I can see her struggling to make her way to the railing to see if she could get a view of her husband, but no luck. When the docking procedures terminate, I see her waiting patiently to descend the ramp that will take her to the terra firma. There she is, as she is descending the ramp, trying to stand on her tiptoes in an attempt to get a view beyond the people around her, and there, she finally catches sight of her young husband who was doing the same, calling out to her. Their eyes finally meet and then they embrace each other after almost a year’s separation.
I imagine her as she looks around, happy to see her aunt Mary and Uncle Joe standing next my father. After their hellos and how are yous, they quickly load her luggage into the waiting car and drive away to Uncle Joe’s house in Palisades N.J. just across the Hudson River. When they arrive, Uncle Joe runs ahead to get his camera ready to preserve the moment. Instead of accompanying her up the steps directly from the driveway, Dad leads Mom around to the front so she could make a ‘proper’ entrance through the intricately designed wrought iron gate made by Uncle Joe himself. My dad courteously opens the gate for her, just as one of the two-tone green city busses zooms by. At that very instant, Uncle Joe, with his instinctive photographic talent immortalizes the moment that symbolizes the beginning of my parent’s life together in the United States. A life that would carry them through Dad’s collegiate studies while holding down two jobs, with Mom taking care of the children: Mario, me (Pia), Francis, and Rosanne, all born within their first seven years of marriage. They would own three different homes, umpteen cars, two dogs and two cats during their 54 years together. They would go through good times and bad times, making several return trips to Italy as a family and many others as a couple to visit me after I decided to turn the wave of immigration back towards the Mother land.
My parent’s marriage would withstand the test of time and weather the tempests caused by a number of unfortunate situations that our family traversed, and ultimately, the most devastating storm of all, Mario’s tragic death in 1996. By the same token, our family celebrated many birthdays and graduations, a trip out west with all ‘the guys’ dedicated to Mario, as well as thousands of ‘normal’ days in relative peace and tranquility.
As a family, we would often visit Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe before they died between the late ‘60’s and mid 70’s. Their affection was such that we considered them as grandparents. We used to travel often to Canada to visit my mom’s two sisters, and when my grandmother died in Italy in 1980, my grandfather decided to move to Canada with his two other daughters. The whole clan witnessed my engagement to my future husband, Giovanni, and my grandfather was very happy that ‘the roots that had been transferred to North America, were going to be re-planted in Italy”.
Years and years of picnics out at Montgomery Park and family gatherings at Christmas and Easter with Uncle Nick and his clan, my dad’s brothers Phil and Frankie and all the kids. After my departure, I followed the developments from afar, happy to see that Mario and Francis had such a great group of friends. They used to go over on Sundays to watch the Eagles’ games, getting mom to stomp her feet in the kitchen to cheer the team while she was cooking. On any given Sunday, she could have between 2 to 10 guests or more. They loved her cooking and they loved her..she was sweet and kind and she loved to laugh, and it seemed to me, from so far away, that they considered her their Mom. Many thanks to Al, Steve P., Carl, Vinny, and Rob for their lasting and faithful friendship with my family. “The Guys” were there for them, especially in the wake of Mario’s death, even going out West for the epic trip to bury Mario’s ashes in St. Michael’s cemetery on an Indian reservation. And they are still there for Dad, Francis and Rosanne. From them I can truly say that we’ve known what true friendship really is.
Throughout those years, my mother ‘grew up’, but didn’t ‘grow old’, either from an emotional or a psychological point of view. In the early years in America, she had to endure the difficulties of running a household with lots of children while her husband was always out for work or school. At the same time she had to learn a new language and most of all, fill the void left by the separation from her beloved parents, relatives, and friends. It was tough, especially when we children were small and had to do homework or got in trouble at school, like the time I secretly joined the music group because I wanted to learn to dance… I ‘purloined’ 25 cents a week to take lessons and was ‘caught red handed’ when I ended up having to be in the recital and needed my mom’s sewing skills to whip up a skirt and vest in a couple of days…Thank goodness she was a pro and had no trouble – except for one small detail – she didn’t have time! She sewed it after our bedtime and two days later I was ready for the show, but boy was she mad at me!
When we moved to Long Meadow Road, my mom fell in love with that idyllic spot..it was so quiet and soothing on that corner near the woods. She loved her discreet but sincerely friendly neighbors..the Sziblers, the Pedutos and the McCormicks. My mother loved nature and its myriad splendors, from the little bobtail rabbits that would hop out of the woods, to the shy deer and colorful cardinals and blue jays. She used to tell me, during almost every phone call, that she’d just spent an hour sitting outside on the patio, just soaking it all in.
It was then that she would talk to God, wondering in her simplicity, how and why He created us the way we are, marveling at the miracle of our hands, eyes, ears, senses…God’s gifts to us, to help us live and work and love. She’d say, in her cute Italian accent, Pia, “it’s incraydibol, I lav it!” Her meditations, which she often shared with me, were so simple and pure that they’d leave me speechless. Her reasoning about many topics was very clear cut and pragmatic, not high theology, but yet, the truest theology there is. In other words, she was a contemplative, but with her feet firmly planted on the ground. She used to say ‘a mother is the angel of the hearth’, with everything she does to nurture her family, and God blesses mothers especially, and gives them a special spot in heaven. She once told me that during confession, she’d said “Father, I love God and I love others, what else can I confess?” and the priest raised his hands, saying ‘nothing, that is true faith’.
She often didn’t make it to Mass, but she prayed assiduously, reciting the Rosary or just plain talking to God, the Blessed Mother and Padre Pio or Mother Teresa of Calcutta, her champions, especially after Mario died. She used to tell Mother Teresa or Padre Pio, You BETTER help me!, because I’m like a baby, I’m not strong enough to go on. And that prayer would give her the strength to move forward one more day. She used to tell me how important it was for her to talk about Mario, crying when she needed to cry, but not forgetting to laugh about the funny things he used to do. She’d say, ‘maybe I could go to a psychologist, but why should I? I know I could be a psychologist myself, from everything I’ve learned about life. I know inside, what I need to do.”
My mother taught me some of the most important lessons in life, especially after I left the United States. She slowly immersed herself in developing her awareness of the meaning of life and love, allowing me to share in her discoveries. Her deepened understanding helped us to reconcile after my turbulent teen years, when she was having a tough time relating to me while I was in the throes of the hormonal imbalance of adolescence. She recognized that I truly did help her a lot back then, when I’d ‘get up early on Saturday mornings, tie my hair in a kerchief, put the music up loud and clean the house” like my brother Francis often reminds me. She taught me a sense of order…she had a lot of cute knickknacks and decorated boxes, but they were always tidy, and just so cute. She thanked me for all the times I made a cup of tea or warmed up a hot compress whenever she had her weekend migraines. She remembered how we always used to fight and realized with time that I was only trying to grow up. She was sorry she didn’t offer to pay my way for the trip out West, because ‘I think you really needed to come, too, didn’t you?’…every time we talked, it was as if she wanted to discover who I was, and get close to my heart. This was her way of making up for the miles that separated us.
My mother taught me the meaning of sacrifice, respect for others and the importance of keeping the channels of communication with God open at all times. With her example she transmitted the importance of contemplation and meditation, not as an exercise with rules and a method or even a goal, but more simply as a way to be in harmony with nature and absorb all of the positive effects this has on our souls and bodies-and thus be in touch with God Himself.
I’m sure she did the same with everyone in our family, and each one of us, in cherishing our memories of her, can drink from the deep well of her love whenever we want, because they are a part of us. What she did in the years before she died was untie knots, cut off loose ends, and make sure everything was in the right place, especially our hearts. They were a sign of maturity and wisdom and proof that she was very much in tune with the ebb and flow of the tides of love, giving steadily of herself for the sake of everyone. We all still have something to learn from this, and can use it in our everyday lives. Anna Maria truly was our Angel of the Hearth and she will live on for evermore in our memories.