Awareness of Family Strengthens Me

 Many Americans are descended from immigrants who were enchanted by the prospect of a better life in the United States, and that dream was not a fairytale.

For one young Calabrian woman who left Naples, Italy on a ship to New York in 1920, a better future became a reality. Her widowed mother had gone before her, working in a coat factory in Manhattan to raise money for her children living in Italy to join her in New York.  The young woman eventually arrived at Ellis Island with nothing but the clothes on her back and her mother’s address in her pocket. She was only 15-years-old and spoke not a word of English, but she was determined to become an American citizen.

1922: Santa is married @ age 17 in NYC.

“When I saw the statue [of Liberty]  as my ship came into New York, I knew I wanted to be here, and I was proud to finally say, I am an American.” 

The woman grew old and told this story many times in broken English to a little girl who listened, wide-eyed. This lady was my great-grandmother, and I was the little pair of ears. 

Santa, a variation of the latin word Sancta, meaning holy, was the name of my beloved great-grandmother who died at the age of  82 when I was 12-years-old. Sometimes, she sends me the gift of her presence in dreams.

When I open my eyes my face is sticking to the plastic-covered, velvet green couch. I sit up and look in the mirror hanging on the wall above it. I’m a little girl. The room is sunny and warm. Grandma is near the stove, singing opera along with the voice of Pavarotti bellowing out of record player speakers in static sound waves. Meanwhile, something is steaming in a silver pot on the stove top. She offers me some lunch, but I shake my head. No way. Italians eat everything, but little girls do not. I sip some ginger ale instead, looking around. It’s hot in here, and that’s how grandma likes it. She’s wearing an over-washed woolen sweater on top of her flowery house dress. Dried wishbones are suspended on a nail above the fireplace. The soft thumping of her black leather sandals on the carpet comforts me. We watch The Price is Right on television. I know every inch of this apartment. In my adult life I am drawn to the patterns and colors of this place, always grasping at things that remind me of her.

She puts her hands out and calls me to her, looking purely joyful at 80 years old. She grabs my face, squashing it a bit. I squirm. 

“Bella principessa!” she exclaims. Do you know what that means?”

I shrug. I don’t know.

“It means ‘beautiful princess.’ That’s what you are. Do you know that?”

I smile. If she thinks so, then it must be true. She pulls me close in a tight hug, and I can feel her bones. At the age of 10, I can’t wait for the hug to end, but my adult self wishes I had not taken this moment for granted. On the rare, magical occasion of falling into this reoccurring dream, I become aware that I’m not far from heaven. 

I drove past Santa’s old apartment on the way to a friend’s house a few weeks ago, unconsciously slowing down to stare at the white front door. It was closed and I felt my eyes well-up with tears, because the sense of safety I enjoyed beyond the threshold has vanished with my childhood. 

But I am aware of my roots, and Santa is with me every day in spirit. She is just one of the strong ancestors whose life adds dimension to my own and gives me confidence. 


Santa and Loren @ age 3.

By Loren Christie 

Loren is a columnist and Illustrations Editor for MaMaZinA. Visit Loren’s personal blog: Dude, Where Am I?

3 Responses to “Awareness of Family Strengthens Me”
  1. Paul Gerard Dextraze says:

    You’ve penned another masterpiece in this vivid word-portrait. Reading it was like eating warm chocolate pudding. Thank you for sharing your gift, Loren.

  2. I love this post. It resonates with me, at this particular time, as I am doing alot of family research having to do with my own great grandparents who immigrated here to the US from Spain (and finding out some interesting stuff) and thinking of family in general.

    Yes. That is a huge run-on sentence. I am aware 🙂

  3. Loren Elizabeth Christie says:

    Kris I’d love to hear about your geneology research. I’m very interested in that stuff. Thanks again.

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