South Troy was full of Italian imprenditori – entrepreneurs – who used whatever skills they had to help their countrymen and themselves. Arturo Larigno, known in the neighborhood as Argento Linguetta (Silver Tongue) was such a one. Proficient in both English and Italian, Silver Tongue would serve most of his neighbors as a scribe, writing letters in Italian to accompany the money sent to relatives in the old country, and reading the thank you replies and requests for more when they came. He collected a small stipend for each transaction.
The Campobassos employed Silver Tongue to serve in his other capacity – as translator – with the local banker and lawyer in the purchase of the corner building. In this case, Silver Tongue collected three times – from the buyers of course, but also from the lender and the lawyer, in return for steering the business their way.
The purchase of the store and apartments above it went smoothly, and the entire Campobasso clan pitched in to clean, stock the shelves, and move their belongings to the second floor. They rented out the third floor to earn enough to insure that the monthly mortgage payment was met, no matter what the fluctuations in income from the store.
Only Esther was exempted from service – schooling and piano lessons were more important. To Francesco and Maria, a daughter with those skills would attract the right kind of husband. Esther took to her studies and music lessons, and progressed rapidly, even performing difficult classical pieces when the Sisters of St. Joseph showcased their students at the annual recitals at their conservatory.
Music played an important part in the life of all the immigrants. It was more than entertainment – it was a catalyst for bringing families together, and the songs helped to keep alive the customs and traditions that had been left behind.
Even in the impoverished Case family, a battered old violin was handed down, until Eddie, the youngest son and the only one not working full time, took possession of it and began learning to play popular music on the fiddle.
As Esther's father proudly arranged the wire-backed chairs at the store's marble soda fountain, he wished his young brother, Michele, could have been there to share in his success. As was often the case, some members of the family had to stay behind until they had the money and the Italian government's permission to emigrate. Since Michele was a talented and prosperous blacksmith, the money wasn't a problem. But his too-vocal opposition to the oppressive taxes imposed by the Northern-run Italian government had angered a local official, and permission to leave Italy had been tied up with an excess of red tape.
The delay lasted through the beginning of the Great War, and when Michele came of age in 1917, he was drafted into the Italian Army. Although Francesco and his brother managed to exchange letters as often as possible, Michele hadn't been heard from for more than a year.
Francesco had followed the progress of the war as best he could. At night, when Esther was beginning to fall asleep in her bedroom off the Campobasso's kitchen, she would hear her father speak in Italian to Maria about the Italian army's futile attempts to confront the Austrian army. Esther knew enough of the old language to understand how badly things were going. It was a hopeless cause, and over 300,000 young Italian soldiers would lose their lives.
Soon after the store opened, with the proud owners cutting the ceremonial ribbon with a pair of their own family's scissors, the black-bordered envelope arrived. It had been traveling for many months, and it contained the news Francesco dreaded. His brother had died on the battlefield long before his last letter arrived, but timely identification and communication had been next to impossible.
The day that letter came was the first and only time Esther saw her stoic father cry.
©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco
Next: In Part Five, Esther and Eddie at the school on the hill.