As told to her proud and loving daughter Enza
I was born 82 years ago, in Roccamonfina, Caserta, Italy, a village nestled in the crater of a dormant volcano. The oldest fossil human footprints called Ciampate del Diavolo have been found there. The sanctuary of Maria Santissima dei Lattani, founded in 1430 by St. Bernardino of Siena and St. James of the Marches is its main attraction, and Vesuvius is visible from the piazza. Groves of sweet chestnut trees still surround the village. But life was far from idyllic. I was born the youngest in a family of eight children. There was little work and fewer opportunities for peasant families in Southern Italy. Generations had lived in poverty and we had few prospects for anything better for ourselves or for our children.
The Second World War brought enormous hardship. Our village was occupied by the Nazis and life was a daily struggle to avoid their cruelty, rape and pillaging. Scarcity was the rule, and fear of the Germans pervaded our lives. We knew nothing of the horrors of the Holocaust; we knew only that our brothers, our fathers and our uncles were gone to war. The brave women of the village became, for those too young to fight, our role models. We did not know that, not far away, Canadian soldiers were sacrificing their lives for us in one of the fiercest battles of the War, the Battle of Monte Cassino. When they finally arrived in our village bearing chocolates and treats, we embraced “gli Americani”. Liberation brought peace but not prosperity. Soon the village began emptying of its most productive citizens. My sisters and one of my brothers, like many from the region, left for Canada.
The first to leave was my sister, Maria. In her letters home she told us of a wonderful land, which, if not exactly paved in gold, would provide opportunities out-of-reach for children of poor villagers in post-war Southern Italy. And so it would be. Lured by the promise of opportunity for our children, in 1962, I, my husband Armando, my four children, Anna Maria, Enza, Adriana and Antonio set sail from the port of Naples aboard the ship Vesuvius landing at Pier 21.
It was during the voyage to Canada that I first experienced the reality of transplanting oneself to a foreign land. I was violently ill and confined to our tiny cabin for the entire journey. A kind purser asked me if I was sick. I was appalled. The word for skinny in my dialect is “sicca” and I was certain he was telling me I was too skinny! I thought him rude and told him in no uncertain terms that it was none of his business if I was skinny! Communication would be a challenge in the early years. Reading signs and finding my way around what seemed to me to be a huge megalopolis often lead to comical situations. I had never seen an elevator, but on my first job as an office cleaner at the Hydro Building curiosity got the better of me and my sister and I wound up trapped on the top floor, too frightened to get back in! My four great-grandchildren laugh whenever I tell this story.
We spent our first two years in Canada sharing the upper level of a duplex on Melrose Avenue in Montreal with my sister Pina’s family. Four adults and seven children shared one bathroom and three bedrooms. I worked at night and my husband found what work he could. We sacrificed and saved and, within two years of arriving in Canada, purchased our first home at 2217 Wilson Street. Within two years of purchasing our first home we moved to a newly constructed duplex in LaSalle, Quebec, where I still live. None of this would have been possible had we remained in our village. My husband was a stonemason and shortly after arriving in Canada, he founded his own construction firm. Through the years he created jobs and gave back to his beloved new land. From the day we became citizens in 1972, to the day he died in 1994, my husband wore the Canadian pin he received at our citizenship ceremony on his lapel.
Tragedy struck when my husband had a massive stroke at the age of 48. He lived to the age of 59 years old, never regretting the sacrifices that ultimately took a terrible toll on his health. It was a few years before I found the strength to begin anew. Armando and I were childhood sweethearts. He was a tender 17-year-old and I was 19 when we married against our parents wishes. We had survived earthquakes, poverty and a trip across the ocean to an unknown land. The birth of four children and four grandchildren. He did not live to see his great-grandchildren.
Gradually I began to frequent a senior’s social club called Les Marguerite d’Oro, founded by Senator Marisa Barth. I had been a mother and housewife for most of my life and it was a revelation to me that an Italian woman who had, like me, immigrated to Canada after the war, could be a Senator. In those early days I could not imagine that I, Albina Martuccelli, with a third grade education, would one day become the President of the social club. But I did. I could not imagine having my photo taken with the Prime Minister of Canada, Paul Martin, who represented my riding. I could not have imagined giving speeches and being honoured with a plaque from the Government of Canada for my volunteer work with seniors. I came from a feudal society where such honors were accorded only to the educated, titled or wealthy. Reflecting on the years that have passed since my little family set off from the Port of Naples, poor, frightened and traumatized as we watched the beautiful shores of Italy fade into the distance, I realize that my journey is not unique. If I could say one thing to families who come Canada today, it is this: it will not be easy. Memories of the lands you left will tug at your heart. But, you, as I did, will soon come to love this land. Canada, among all nations, is still the land of opportunity for your children. And, if you follow the lessons of Italian, Greek, Portuguese and other older immigrant communities, you will become part of the fabric of the greatest nation on Earth.