I was not prepared for what the book said.
“Mrs. Franco was always dragging a goat around at the end of a rope. She walked fast whether the goat liked it or not,” reads a chapter headed “The Foreigners.”
Mrs. Franco was my grandmother. This picture of her life in the early 1900s is recalled in a book titled “When You and I Were Young, Whitefish.” It’s a memoir of small town life from the viewpoint of an 8-year-old girl whose parents were friendly with my grandparents, the “foreigners” of the story.
My mother was very excited many years ago when she found this book about the life of her family before she was born. Naturally, I couldn’t be bothered with the dumb little book. (Turns out that the author of the “dumb little book” also wrote “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and several other books, which became major movies.) I’ve regretted profoundly that I didn’t enjoy the story with her, but I could never find the book again.
Last week an unexpected package came in the mail from a friend visiting in Montana. It was the book, and there was that story of my grandparents living in this tiny Montana town.
My grandfather was born in Madagascar to a pretty wealthy family. Well, they needed to be. There were 24 kids. The family returned to live in Italy, and the story is that he was “struck by the lightning” when he saw Grandma, who was the most beautiful girl in the village. It was a small village.
Grandpa went first to the United States to prepare the way for the family, but the only practical skill for which life had fitted Grandpa was riding on a white horse and looking very handsome. There were surprisingly few openings, so he mostly sat and smoked his pipe, thinking dark thoughts.
Grandma was gutsy and a hard worker. She and their three children became part of the 12 million immigrants who were processed through Ellis Island in the early 1900s. Processing was a rigorous ordeal, and 120,000 Italians were turned back to their home country during those years, but the Francos made it through.
They were most unwelcome. The newspapers ran ugly stories of crimes and the mafia. Carl Sandburg wrote a poem about “the dago shovelman.” Dago was not a complimentary term. Never mind, they couldn’t read English anyway.
The family headed for Chicago, but after they saw two babies die in the tenements, they took the train to Montana.
The book’s author, Dorothy Johnson, wrote that she wished that there were more girls in the Franco family because the oldest girl, Mary, “always had work to do, and her mother always needed her at home so she had no time to herself and no time to play.” (Aunt Mary apparently agreed with that assessment, as she grew up to become a nun in a semi-cloistered order. She had a pet parrot, though.).
Johnson observed that Mrs. Franco could have used another girl but had only boys. Not exactly. The family grew to 12, though only eight survived. Somewhere among that flock of boys was my mom. It was probably hard to tell her from the boys since she literally wore the same clothes as her brothers. There was no money for niceties like dresses or underwear. A family story tells how my mom coaxed her brother Pete out of his bathing suit so she could borrow it to take just a cool dip in the Umpqua River. She had such fun that she left him there in the bushes, providing tasty munching for mosquitoes, for hours.
In the poem “Child Of The Romans,” Sandburg wrote that the “dago shovelman” finished the dry bread and bologna and “goes back to the second half of a ten-hour day’s work.”
Grandma, in addition to moving goats, baked a 50-pound of bag of flour into crusty round loaves of bread every week in the outdoor brick oven just to satisfy the family’s needs.
I’m the first person in my family to finish high school and go on to college. I think Grandma would be glad to know that her great-grandchildren all have graduated from college with a satisfactory assortment of letters added after their names.
We are who we were.
Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional speaker and writer. Follow Dorothy’s blog at itsnevertoolate.com. Contact her at P.O. Box 881, DuPont WA, 98327. Phone 800-548-9264, email Dorothy@itsnevertoolate. com.