First and foremost, this is a work of fiction, based on experience. You may find similarities to people you knew; you may be convinced that I'm talking about a specific person. Not so. Although I will be using memories of events – writers use everything – please be aware that my memories are flawed by time, colored by intent and rearranged to suit a dramatic purpose. What is true is not always what is factual.
I intend this continuing story to be one primarily of entertainment, and secondarily of enlightenment -- about the customs, traditions and attitudes of the past that add up to who we are now, and how we got here.
Chapter One: Modesta
Modesta Campobasso hated her name. Her first name, that is. As for the last name, it sounded like poetry to her. On May 8th, 1920, as she anticipated the celebration of her sixth birthday at dinner, she remembered her shy older sister Rose telling her stories of that proud name. Lost in the shrouds of time and the constant retelling of the family's oral tradition, it was no longer clear if Campobasso, the largest town in the province of Abruzzi e Molise, was named for the family or the family was named for the town.
Whichever it was, the daughters knew that despite the dire circumstances that forced their father Francesco and mother Maria to emigrate to America as children twenty years before America's entry into the War to End All Wars, they were descendants of artisans who forged iron implements used in war and peace by generations of Italians, and of Romans and the Samnite tribes that resisted the Roman Legion before that.
Working with iron and steel imparted spiritual as well as physical strength to the Campobasso family – a fortitude that Francesco, Modesta's father, needed in the prejudicial American society he struggled against.
Unable to utilize his skills in Hartford's cutlery factories where he first sought employment in the late 1800's, he joined others of his town and traveled to Troy, New York, where laborers were needed in the bustling city that was a manufacturing and transportation hub as the 20th century began. But everywhere he and his paesans looked for work, they found they were paid less than other “races.” It didn't stop them from taking back-breaking jobs of lugging iron, barrels of scrap, and of loading and unloading boxes, crates and bales from trains, barges and horse-drawn carts.
The point? Survival, providing for their families.
When Francesco arrived home to the family's sparse but neat third floor walk-up flat near the Piazza Mercato – Troy's Public Market -- he was exhausted and exhilarated. It was his bambina's birthday – this strong-willed youngest child who was so much like the cousin he named her for. He hid an extra sweet in his pocket for her, to add to the celebration that included this American custom of blowing out candles on a cake.
Rose, now married, was making one of her rare visits outside her home to help prepare her little sister for her entrance into the spotlight. As Rose put the finishing touches on Modesta, the birthday girl made up her mind. She would no longer allow anyone to tease her about her name, calling her Mod, or Modesty or any variation. Already an accomplished reader, she had thumbed through the family bible, and discovered a book in the Old Testament with a woman's name she liked. She was special, thought Modesta. Her name will be my new name.
Dinner was over, the relatives were there, the lights went out, the cake was brought out, ablaze with six candles. The singing stopped, she took a breath and suddenly her 10 year old brother moved forward and blew out her candles. In a second, a range of emotions flashed across Modesta's face – anger, revenge, hurt, the welling of tears – and then – resolve. She didn't cry. She didn't complain. She even pretended not to notice her brother's mischief and need for attention. After all, she realized, she had their attention – they were applauding her.
She took it all in, looked around and made her planned announcement, “From now on, my name is Esther.”
They looked at each other and smiled, thinking this was a whim that would pass. But as the days and weeks went on, and she unfailingly refused to respond when addressed as Modesta, they realized just how much Campobasso steel she had in her spine. She left them no choice. Soon everyone called her by the biblical queen's name she had chosen -- Esther.
©Copyright 2008 Frank LaPosta Visco
NEXT: In part two, meet 9-year-old Egidio, as he prepares to impress his family and a strong-willed six-year-old girl.