It was 1919. A woman named Philomena made a choice that would impact dozens of lives, hers most of all.
She lived in Italy, the oldest child of a poor family who tended a farm to earn a meager living. She dreamed of a brighter future with her husband who had already emigrated to America, and their son that she was raising in Italy. Philomena faced one of the most difficult decisions anyone could face — join her husband in a new world or remain with her family, who had already made clear their desire for her to stay with them in her native land.
She chose to leave.
It was a perilous journey. Onboard ship during her three-week voyage to the United States, her infant son became ill. When they arrived at Ellis Island, they were immediately quarantined. After several weeks, her son died. Here she was — in a new land, where everyone spoke a language she could not understand, separated by an ocean from her family, alone and grieving the loss of her child.
Somehow, she soldiered on. She and her husband, Carmine, settled in Baltimore, where he worked long shifts in a steel mill. They struggled and survived, oftentimes not knowing where their next meal was coming from. They raised 5 children, including a daughter named Josephine.
Josephine would marry an Italian boy and they would grow a family of four daughters, one of whom is my mother.
I was blessed to know Philomena for the first 24 years of my life. Despite her painful and sorrow-filled early years, she graced us with her presence for 101 remarkable years. It is her story of overcoming loss and dealing with tragedy so profound that it would tear a weaker person to pieces that gives me the strength to face down any and all obstacles I encounter. Perhaps more than her fateful choice to journey to America and grappling with the death of a child, alone in a room in a country with only strangers to comfort her, it is the knowledge that after leaving her parents she never saw them again that leaves me most in awe of her unending wellspring of courage.
I cannot say that my great-grandmother left me with any pearls of wisdom or secrets to surviving the pain of life. Her life was not one of reflection or self-aggrandizement. Rather, it was her unspeakable, unquenchable desire to seek a better life for herself and the ability that she possessed to overcome the unthinkable that I carry with me whenever I encounter an obstacle that seems bigger than myself.
If it were not for Philomena’s courage and steadfast resolve to create a solid foundation for those who would come after her, I would not be here today. Her choices, her suffering, enabled me to live. And thrive. And succeed to a degree to which she could have only imagined.
I am sad that my children will never be able to look at her long, weather-ridden face as the skin hung low on her cheeks and an ebullient smile formed. I wish that once, just once, they could feel her powerful fingers grip their faces and shake them. I wish that once, just once, they could hear her say to them, “What a beautiful boy,” in her broken English. I wish that once, just once they could taste her homemade ravioli and watch her wield a rolling pin like a master chef. I wish that once, just once, they could sit and stare at the woman who risked everything and trusted her instincts to give her bloodlines an opportunity at true happiness.
Instead, my boys will learn of her from me and, hopefully, they will see the line of our family’s lore extend from her to them and allow her sacrifice and her journey to inspire them as it has their father.