In 1994 mom returned to school to finish her degree. She went to UCF and got her BA in 1998 at the age of 50. She was incredibly proud of this accomplishment, and we were all very proud of her, too.
She submitted a paper for ANT 3422 on December 3, 1996 titled Gagne, A Personal “Ethnography” which she printed and mailed to me. It’s an interesting view into her own version of her history.
I have spent my life in two very different places. I was born in Rhode Island and reared as a New Englander, a Catholic, an Italian-American, a child of the fifties, an adolescent of the sixties, a bride of the seventies. When my marriage was over, I acceded to the pleas of my parents and joined them in Florida nearly twenty years ago. The physical distance from Providence to Daytona is about 1300 miles. The distance between where I came from and where I am is much greater.
I find that I am the product of chain migration. My maternal grandfather left Arce, Frosinone, in central Italy at the age of 16 in 1910. He and his fourteen-year-old brother came through Ellis Island and traveled to Providence to join their older brother and other relatives who already lived there. They left Italy because they had learned about the American Dream of a better life from letters sent back to the “old country”.
When he arrived, Antonio DiFolco got a job on the railroad, bicycling 30 miles a day to work. In 1917, during an outbreak of Spanish influenza, he started to work with his older brother who was an embalmer. When his brother died, Antonio took over the business.
Concetta Marchetti was born in Algeria. Her family was in produce and they lived six months a year in Africa and six months in Naples. In 1903, her whole family immigrated to the United States, going to Providence because her father’s family was already there. She met Antonio when he was already an undertaker. They were married in 1918 and had six children of whom my mother, Anna Sophia, was the oldest. (Albanese, interview)
Antonio’s funeral parlor was two houses away from Holy Ghost Church, the oldest Italian-American parish in the state, on Atwells Avenue, on Federal Hill. Federal Hill was and still is an Italian enclave. (A low-budget movie by the same name achieved some notoriety about three years ago. Many of the scenes were very familiar to my family.) Just a few blocks away was a huge Irish-Catholic parish. The Irish had gotten there first, but, by 1920 when my mother was born, one out of every nine Rhode Islanders was an Italian-American. (p. 184)
Domenic Albanese, my paternal grandfather, was born in Pozzuli near Naples as was his future wife, Maria Guiseppi Leva. Again, following other family members to the U.S., they both ended up in another heavily Italian section of Providence. Three miles from Federal Hill, that area was called Charles Street. Domenic and Maria met and married in 1911. They had six daughters and two sons of whom my father Vincent was the younger. (Albanese, interview)
I never met my grandfather, he died the day my mother found out she was pregnant with me. I have been told that he was a very talented, sensitive man. He was a stonecutter who often traveled as far away as Maine to ply his trade designing and carving gravestones. He was also an inventor. Maria worked in the mills to help support the family, but, in spite of this interaction, she never became fully integrated into American society. She learned only a few English words and stayed very close to home, associating almost exclusively with her family and other Italian-Americans until her death.
While the DiFolco family was doing very well financially and assimilating much of American culture, the Albaneses were not. My father, who was very bright, had to leave school in the eighth grade to work. His life was very different from my mother’s. She spent summers at a cabin in Newport and her father drove Cadillacs and bought her expensive furs. My father did construction work until he enlisted in the army in 1938. (Albanese, interview)
When she was a senior in high school, my mother had an argument with her father and, to spite him, she dropped out. During the war, she did charity work with the Red Cross and other organizations helping soldiers. When she was twenty, my grandfather bought her a dry goods store on Federal Hill.
Much decorated, a member of Merrill’s Maruaders (There was a movie about them in the 50s.), and a Master Sergeant, my father returned home after the war and opened a variety store near Charles Street. He was tall and handsome and dashing, and his sister and her family lived in a building on Federal Hill owned by my mother’s father.
On August 25, 1945, Aunt Dora’s youngest son Richard was baptized. Anna DiFolco and Vinny Albanese, Richard’s godparents, met that day. They were married the following April in Holy Ghost Church. My father had sold his store because members of the local mob (Mafia) were trying to get him under their influence. My mother sold her store because, like a good Italian Catholic woman, she was planning to stay home to raise children. They moved into a second-floor cold-water flat on Ridge Street off Atwells Avenue, and my father went back into construction. I was born two years later and baptized at Holy Ghost Church. My only sibling, Domenic, was born two years after me.
Federal Hill is located not far from the downtown center of Providence. As one traveled further away from the major shopping and business district of high rises and massive government buildings, one came into neighborhoods where the prevailing construction was triple deckers (three-story, usually three-family buildings). They were very close together but not attached as they are in Boston and New York. There was usually the width of a driveway between them and sometimes a garage in the back where the owners, who lived on the first floor, could park a car. It was an urban environment. Residential streets often had small storefronts on the ground floors of the triple deckers. Railroad tracks ran behind our house a little way down the hill, and on the other side of the tracks were textile mills. There was very little grass anywhere and few trees.
Times were hard for the new nuclear family. There was construction work to be had, but the winters were long and cold and men were constantly laid off and rehired. At one point, my father hurt his back and was out of work for months. My mother went to work at Uncas Jewelry Factory to support us. Over the course of the next several years, we moved several times, always trying to better ourselves.
The DiFolco family was decidedly patriarchal. Antonio towered over his wife and dominated the family. He had gone from penniless immigrant to respected businessman and politician. In his home Rhode Island notables such as T.F. Green, Congressman John Pastore, and Governor Vanderbilt were frequent guests. The women were expected to cook and clean and entertain and to defer to his wishes in every way. Even though he doted on his eldest, my mother, the family thought nothing of the fact that, almost up to her marriage at age twenty-six, he would beat her if she came home a few minutes late after a date.
The Albanese family, on the other hand, was matriarchal, which was unusual for Italian households. I am told that my grandfather went about his business quietly and rarely defied his wife’s wishes. (Albanese, interview)
Both families were large by today’s standards. The DiFolcos had risen to a higher socio-economic status and were more educated than most of their neighbors. The two families did not mix well. There was virtually no contact between them except at celebrations of the rites of religious passage for my brother and me. The DiFolcos generally thought that my mother had married beneath her station in life.
As a child, I was constantly surrounded by a large extended family. We spent virtually every holiday with the DiFolcos, with an obligatory short afternoon visit to Grandma Albanese’s home a few miles away. I remember her house smelling of unfamiliar Italian foods. (We usually at Italian, but Grandma used different, heavier oils and spices.) For me, the visits were unpleasant. Grandma always smiled at me and kissed me, but I did not understand her, and she appeared not to like my mother whom she thought of as “uppity.” (Albanese, interview. Personal observation.)
Catholicism played a major role in our lives. Families were often designated by the parish to which they belonged. Catholic rites of passage, Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation and marriage were major events and causes for great joy and celebration. Both of my parents had attended parochial school. One of my earliest memories was of having my mother washed out with soap by a nun because I had used a bad word. Apparently I dropped out of nursery school over it because I attended public school after that. When it came time to learn the Catechism in preparation for Holy Communion and Confirmation, I remember feeling like a second-class citizen next to the Catholic school kids because I thought they knew more about the Faith than I did.
We attended Mass every Sunday. It was in Latin, and the priest was turned away from us most of the time. It was very boring until you were old enough to get a Mass book which had English on one side and Latin on the other so you could follow along.
We were taught about Original Sin and Jesus the Savior, but, unlike in Protestant churches, Jesus was not represented as loving in any way a child could comprehend. Instead, God and Jesus resembled Papa, the patriarch of my mother’s family. The only comforting person in religion was Mary, Jesus’ Mother. Even the saints, the holiest of holy people, were scary, doing strange things like getting crucified upside-down and plucking out their own eyeballs.
The concepts of salvation and an afterlife were not particularly appealing if you had to do those things to get into Heaven, yet everyone seemed to believe that, if you were good on Earth and bore your suffering without complaint, you would be welcomed into a cloud-filled paradise. At that time, Catholics were still taught about Purgatory, a mythical half-way house for those who were not quite sinless when they died. We were to pray for those souls in Purgatory, and, by our prayers, we could speed them along to Heaven. (I spent a lot of time with adults who spoke often about death, so it is no wonder I was particularly interested in those aspects of Catholicism dealing with the subject.)
When I was around ten, my grandfather bought a home in Warwick, about twenty minutes from Providence. I thought it was a mansion. It was a hundred yards of so from the main street and was surrounded by several acres of grass. There was a pond across the street, a well in the back yard, and an old carriage house that had been converted into a three-car garage. The house had a huge wrap-around front porch and silk and velvet wallpaper in the 30-foot living room and up the curving staircase. The funeral business was very lucrative.
Patriarch that he was, my grandfather built ten good-sized ranch houses behind his new mansion and offered one to each of his children for $10,000. Three of them accepted, my mother included.
What a change this was for us! We were officially in the suburbs. We had a big back yard and woods at the end of our street and wild blueberries across the way.
I think of Warwick as the place where I grew up.
My father was now a foreman for a large construction company and had steady work. My mother had opened up a small jewelry job shop where we assembled costume jewelry. We finally had a little more money, even enough to buy a color television and a new car.
Rhode Island has four distinct seasons, and in Warwick, I remember enjoying and being affected by them much more than in the city. The winter snow seemed whiter and deeper and lasted longer without turning to dirty, gray slush. In the spring, the scents of lilac and new grass filled the air and the delicate buds on the trees were lacy against a sky not dominated by dark buildings. Even the birds were different, plump robin redbreasts and cardinal instead of pigeons. The summers were hot and humid but not oppressive, and the falls were magnificent, with the crisp air turning the leaves into a rainbow fire. We used to rake leaves into huge mounds, and then we would jump in and roll around, and finally burn them and enjoy the woodsy smells.
Nowhere in Rhode Island are you ever more than about thirty miles from salt water. In Warwick, we were only about ten. I loved it. Narragansett Bay reflected the seasons, gray and wild in the winter, deep blue and cool in the summer. The shore was covered with rocks and shells, and the soft sand was often dotted with clumps of purplish seaweed. Quahogs abounded. (Most people call them clams, but this more common Rhode Island name for them reflects the Native American heritage of the area.) You could walk a few feet out into the water and dig with your foot until you felt a shell and fill a bushel in a few minutes. The bay also provided us with huge, red crabs and fresh, fat lobster and a wide variety of fish.
The soil in Rhode Island is generally dark and rich and, it seemed, always a little moist. It was great for back yard gardens, and most of the men in our neighborhood took great pride in their flower beds. In order to plant anything, though, you had to move rocks. There were rocks everywhere, so many that New England is famous for the low rock walls built by the colonials which stand today.
I graduated from Pilgrim High School in June of 1966, thinking about Vietnam and the Beatles and the bomb and what it all meant. And someone had killed the president. I was part of a generation of women who were expected to marry and have children and keep house for a husband who would “do better” than their fathers had done. This was even more deeply ingrained in me because of my ethnic background. Though most of my friends now were not Italian-American, they tended to spend a lot of time with my family rather than the other way around. From one of them, I actually learned the English words for some things we had always used Italian words for. (I called a dish towel a “mopine” until I was in high school.)
Like so many others, I was trying to figure out where I fit in. I was also looking for God. I thought I might find Him at Seton Hill College, an all women’s Catholic college about thirty miles from Pittsburgh. I attended for two years, then dropped out after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Still, I had not found God.
But my best friend had. She was a Baptist who was thinking about joining the Billy Graham Crusade at the time that she had a religious experience that she called the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. One afternoon, when I was particularly depressed about life, we prayed together, and I felt something, too. I, however, felt guilty about feeling good because it wasn’t a “Catholic” thing. I decided to talk to my priest about it. He told me about a group of people who were meeting weekly in, of all places, the basement of Holy Ghost Church (where I had been baptized and where my roots were). My friend and I went to the next meeting and soon became heavily involved in what was called the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
At one point, my friend and I were among twelve women, both lay and religious, who moved into the old convent of St. Patrick’s Church across from the Rhode Island state house in order to more fully devote ourselves to working and praying for what had become the Word of God Community led by Fr. John Randall.
I had met a young man at one of the prayer meetings who was a student at Providence College. He was planning to become a Dominican priest after graduation. We were married in September of 1972. The Catholic Church and the Charismatic Renewal were major forces in our lives. We even moved into the inner city Providence neighborhood of St. Patrick’s in which the Word of God Community was teaching and evangelizing. This was a unique situation in the Catholic Church because the Bishop of the Diocese of Providence had made on of Fr. Randall’s followers pastor of what was a dying parish there and had essentially given carte blanche to the Renewal to see if they could save it.
Shortly after my son was born, my parents retired to Florida. Four years later, though we had been working and living in the religious community all that time, my marriage broke up. Looking back, I can see that the odds were pretty high that this would happen. We married young. I got pregnant immediately (like a good Catholic Italian woman). There was a history of unstable and broken marriages in his family.
On the other hand, I was the first one in my extended family to marry a non-Italian and the first one to get divorces. For Catholics in the 1970s, there was still a major stigma attached to divorce and especially from my extended family which had viewed my religious commitment to the Charismatic Renewal as slightly threatening anyway.
After months with no child support and having sold the house we had bought shortly before the divorce, I gave in to my parents’ pleas that I take the children and move to Florida for a while so that I could get back on my feet. My now ex-husband did not exercise his right to detain us and so, in February of 1979, my two children and I arrived in Daytona Beach.
Volusia County in Florida is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island yet has approximately one-fifth the population with fewer than 60,000 in Daytona itself. (Rand McNally, p.19, Complete Guide, p.273) Whereas I had grown up in an area right in the middle of the Northeastern megalopolis, I now found myself in what was, to me, a small, backwards town whose only high rises were directly on the beach, where there was no centralized downtown business center, and where everyone seemed to be moving at slow speed. From the bustle of an urban center bisected by Route 95, we had come to a city that relied almost completely on the tourist trade and virtually shut down whenever there was a lull in visitors.
Having grown up near Narragansett Bay, I felt at home living near the ocean. The major difference was that the ocean in Florida was much calmer all the time, the shoreline is smooth and unbroken by jagged boulders and rocky crags, and you can’t see the lights of the island houses across the water at night. The ocean never gets icy cold here and the sand is clear of rocks and large shells. In all, the beach is generally much more pleasant than it was in New England, yet there is a wild, romantic quality about the northern sea that I often miss.
And, while seafood abounds in Daytona, it is not as much a part of daily life here as it was in Rhode Island. There are different varieties of fish, and the huge quahogs are missing. Here the crabs are mostly freshwater blue crabs, and the lobster is imported from Maine.
The soil is very poor and sandy and constantly baked dry by the sun. For over seven years, Volusia experienced a severe drought, something I had never seen in Rhode Island. Water use was restricted, and the grass, which is unlike the silken, dark green grass of New England, withered and browned.
But, in Daytona there were obvious advantages to my smaller nuclear family. Living with my parents, I was able to get a job without worrying about daycare for my two young children. This was particularly important to me since my children had just experienced the loss of daily contact with their father and the turmoil of moving twice. The tropical climate was a welcome change from the series of blizzards that had hit Providence just before we left. And, while we were far away from our extended family, there was family here. My parents had even become involved with the local Italian-American club, and many of their friends were from the northeast.
But life was very different here. As I said, the pace seemed slower, almost painfully so. At holidays, there were only five of us and the usual stragglers my mother rounded up instead of the thirty or forty I was used to. There were fewer job opportunities for me, and the pay scale was much lower than it would have been in Rhode Island. And, in spite of living with my parents for nearly two years before I was able to get a nice apartment, I was now the head of a family and totally responsible for the wellbeing of my children. Becoming a member of that fast-growing segment of the American population was a heavy burden for many years.
Again a part of a chain migration, I had my closest family here, yet I still felt relatively isolated. I had to start again, building a network of friends as a single person while working and spending as much quality time as I could with my children who were the center of my life.
We joined St. Paul’s parish and I managed to put them through Catholic school there. It was important to me that the values I was trying to teach them at home be reinforced in the school environment, especially since I was a single parent. There was a small Charismatic group at St. Paul’s but they were very different from the people I was used to, and, given the turmoil of divorce with my background, I could not manage to be open to their way of doing things.
My first job was as a police dispatcher in the city of Holly Hill. I likened the department there to an old television series called “Carter Country” in which the rotund chief of police and his slightly maniacal subordinates blundered their way through each episode. There were no special requirements for the job, however, and I thought it might be interesting since many of my uncles were on the police forces up north. I stayed there for nearly two years until, as my children started school, the changing shifts because a problem. I was making approximately $180.00 per week, but the benefits were good.
Fortunately, I was able to find a job as a proofreader for an international engineering firm with a slight raise in pay and, again, good benefits. Still, our standard of living was far below that of my ex-husband and his new wife and children, and it was often difficult to obtain the things we needed. Still, given the recreational opportunities in the area, we were able to occasionally take a day and have an adventure, usually on very little money. We went to a lot of dollar movies and sugar mills and parks. And, every now and then, we managed to visit Goofy.
By the time I left the police department, we had moved into our own apartment in a government subsidized complex not too far from my parents’ home. My children were growing up Floridian, used to the year-round warm weather and the generally mixed cultures they encountered. A high percentage of their friends had either just moved to Florida or were children of people who had moved here so that they came into contact with northerners and midwesterners and Hispanics and African Americans alike.
Every summer, they would travel to visit their father for a few weeks. They appeared to enjoy the time with him, but it was almost always stressful for them, as was coming home knowing it would be a long time before they saw their northern family again. As they got older, they were less enthusiastic about going, and neither chose to go to college up north in spite of pressure from their father.
While the children were in Florida, I spent much of my free time with them, wanting to fill the void left by their father. Consequently, I had limited outside social interaction. Most of my contacts were through work or my children’s schools. I was very active in PTSO and attended just about every sporting even my daughter was in and every play my son was in. Except for a short time when my son was in his late teens, they were never a problem. They have made good friends and established healthy relationships. My son worked from the time he was fifteen all the way through college, and my daughter worked summers during high school and later. David was a National Merit Scholar and Jennifer is a Florida Undergraduate Scholar. Some of the parents I became close to during those years are still my good friends.
Most of the choices I made in life were based on the effects of the three major influences I faced growing up, my ethnicity, my family, and my religion. As a member of an immigrant ethnic group with strong family values and kinship networks, I have nearly always placed family highest on my list of priorities. I have always felt fully American, but there is a large part of my that is proud of my Italian heritage and unwilling to relinquish it, and I have apparently passed that along to my two very independent children who claim to be Italians even though their father is French Canadian / Irish. And being a Catholic, or not being a Catholic, is still very much a part of my life.
Interestingly, I don’t regret my choices. There has been a great deal of fulfillment in being the person I am. My children are wonderful, mature young adults. I have honored my parents. And now I am in college, just for me.