Submitted by: Maria Tommaso Cafaro
Ancestor / Family Name: Cafaro
Ancestral Town: S. Margherita di Belice
A First-hand account on a passenger ship from Italy to America
My father had come to America a year before us, in 1958. He came by airplane. He said he got the scare of his life when he saw red outside his window. He thought the plane was on fire. To his relief, the stewardess told him they were the red lights on the plane.
In those days people needed to be sponsored to come to America. When they arrived the sponsor would have a job waiting for them and a place to stay. My mother’s uncle sponsored my father and he found him a job at Eagle Clothes in Brooklyn and a place to live in what my father called a “finished room” or a furnished room. After a year my father was able to call us over to America.
My mother, a 33 year-old young woman with three kids, wasn’t too eager to leave her town. There were too many things to consider. She had two houses. She decided to sell one house and keep the other just in case we wanted to come back. She was able to sell most of the furniture and other belongings. In other word, it was a stressful time for her.
From our town, S. Margherita di Belice – the town where Il Gattopardo was written, we went to Palermo to get our physical. There, my poor mother had to strip naked along with all the other ladies while a male doctor inspected them. The indignity of it all! I remember being checked over as well by what I thought was a nice lady. We passed! I remember posing for a group picture with mom and my two brothers for the passport.
We boarded a huge ship called “The Vulcania.” We had to come by boat because of the two big trunks my mother was bringing. Our cabin was small, but it had four bunk beds. Mom told me some people had to sleep two in a bed. We were fortunate to have our own individual bed. According to the steward, the doors to the cabins were to be left unlocked in case of emergency. I had a gold necklace with small charms my friends had given me to remember them by. Stupidly, or maybe being nine years old I didn’t realize what would happen, I left the necklace on the small dresser in the cabin. Well, you can guess what happened next. My mother was angry at me for days after that. I learned a big lesson that day.
The meals on the ship were not memorable because I don’t remember what we ate – with one exception. A bowl of boiled eggs were perpetually placed on the table. I remember being disgusted at their sulfuric smell and the greenish hue around the egg yolks. There was this big old man who would grab handfuls of these eggs and put them in his pocket. Mom told me that a young man made fun of him and would bump into him to crush his eggs. The old man was Jewish and was coming to America to meet up with his sisters who had escaped during the war.
My older brother turned eleven on the ship. He loved to explore the ship and to the chagrin of my mother was forever missing. My little five year old brother wanted to follow him around, but there was no chance of that. Once I followed him and we wound up in the engine room. It was something to see! The big pistons going up and down and the deafening noise of the engine – it was amazing. Needless to say, we were escorted back to my mother who was admonished to keep an eye on us. She was told she could bring us to the movies, or bring us on deck, or even to visit upstairs in the first class – we were second class.
We got all dressed up and we went to the first class lounge. It was mesmerizing to see the big chandeliers, the huge sofas, the carpeting. I could see that mom felt out of place and wanted to leave. I had this white pocketbook that I had bought with my own money at home. It had a compact with a mirror in it and a lace handkerchief. Somehow I left it on one of the tables in the lounge and no matter how I begged mom to go back to get it, she absolutely refused. She brought us to the lounge in second class instead – less threatening. I had found another nine year old girl on the ship and had become fast friends with her. We played together all the time. I remember mom buying pizza for us in the lounge. I had never eaten such bad pizza in my life. I told mom it tasted like cardboard to which she agreed. That was the end of pizza buying.
There was a safety drill on the ship, but we weren’t told it was only a drill. We were supposed to find our life vests and put them on. Pandemonium broke loose. People were running everywhere, mom couldn’t find the life vests and when she found them she didn’t know how to put them on us. The stewards didn’t know who to help first. One of them said, “If this had been a real emergency we would have all wound up on the bottom of the sea.” My brother responded by saying he wished that the boat would sink. Mom covered his mouth and said, “If the boat sinks we will all drown.” My brother answered by saying, “If the boat sank, all the airplanes would come and rescue us.”
Before this drill we saw people throwing up and getting sick. But after the drill things got worse. You couldn’t walk down the corridor without smelling the acid odor of vomit. My mother had brought with her bottles of Vermouth and Marsala to give as gifts. The steward told her they would be confiscated when we arrived because it was illegal to bring them. So what did she do? First of all, we never got nauseous on the ship, but to avoid it from happening mom gave us a nice spoonful of the delicious liquid every night. We slept like logs and had no symptoms of sea sickness.
The Statue of Liberty – what a sight! We were all on deck to admire the beautiful lady. It was time to disembark after thirteen exciting days on the ship. We arrived on April 29, 1959 at 9:00 a.m. Somehow my father had understood 9:00 p.m. There was no one there to meet us. My mom got nervous, my little brother started crying, my older brother and I were perplexed as what to do. Thank God a nice woman came around to help us. Mom had no telephone numbers, but she told this woman that her cousin was Judge Anthony Di Giovanna. She called him and in no time we were in the car traveling to our new destination.