How Grandma’s Letters Became an Archive

Dopo l’emigrazione degli italiani negli Stati Uniti, l'abilità di comunicare è diventata molto importante per gli emigrati, per avere corrispondenza con la loro famiglia italiana. L’autrice dell’articolo descrive come aveva aiutato sua nonna italiana con le lettere che riceveva dai parenti in italia. Sua nonna ha  corrisposto per più di sessant’anni e dopo la sua morte, l’autrice ha continuato a leggere e rileggere le lettere che sua nonna ebbe ricevuto durante questi 60’anni. Queste lettere sono diventate gran parte della sua storia familiare.

The 1860s in Italy saw the creation of two important institutions that softened the burdens of emigration: a postal system and public schools. Increasingly, Italians attained some education and literacy in the standard language. This allowed emigrants settled abroad to communicate with their families and with regularity. In fact, the exodus from Italy spurred an ocean of correspondence connecting the “old country” with the new. Much of our immigrant history can be found in what remains of that huge production of everyday letters penned by ordinary people.

With her eyesight getting worse, Grandma Lariccia more and more relied on others for help with the constant flow of correspondence in Italian. But the available pool of those schooled in the language was quickly evaporating. In my senior year of high school I began reading for my grandmother without knowing what the Italian revealed. Previously, she had been a faithful correspondent exchanging mail for over six decades in Italian: with relatives in her hometown of Montelongo, with family in Canada, and with nuns running an orphanage in Bari. 

With three years of high school Latin, I tried helping, too. She and I would sit at her kitchen table where I read from the blue aerograms that came from Italy. At the beginning, I was a machine reading words I did not understand, pronouncing consonants and vowels in my Catholic school Latin, but without inflection. From time to time, she would nod or make a comment, and I would see that she was understanding something from my efforts. 

Most of Grandma’s mail at that time, a decade before her death, was with “the girls,” her sister Caterina’s three unmarried daughters who were holding tight to the lifeline that stretched from Montelongo across the Atlantic to Grandma in Ohio, and to cousins in New York. Lena, Marianna, and Rita had lost their father, the mayor of the town, during WWII. 

Caterina and her daughters existed in large part on the income derived from the general store they had inherited and the steady flow of used clothes my grandmother and other relatives would send to boost inventory. I remember the stacks of Grandma’s packages in her dining room ready for overseas parcel post. When Zia Caterina died, the fate of the nieces became an even greater concern to my grandmother.

Macular degeneration did not stop Lucia Bisceglia Lariccia from answering her Italian correspondence. Keenly aware of her nieces’ situation, she would send 10 and 20 dollar bills to Montelongo via the regular mail. Postal clerks, here and in Italy, could have made a second income by pocketing her undeliverable envelopes. By then, Grandma’s handwriting was failing, too. 

Well aware that her children did not approve of her generous remittances to Montelongo, Lucia invented a subterfuge. She would call our house, just down the block, to ask for my younger sister’s help. Janet recounts, 

“Grandma used to call for me when she wanted someone to help her bake bread and pizza. When I was there, she sat down and wrote letters to people. I knew the letters were going to Italy, but I didn’t know she was sending money. Her handwriting was large and difficult to read. Years later, I found out that I was her accomplice. I just smile when I remember her saying in broken English to just take the letters and put them in the mailbox.”

Often, correspondence would arrive weekly, maybe spurred on because mail from nearly blind Grandma was not arriving in Montelongo the way it used to. The nieces would alert Grandma to the needs of the village church. She was a regular contributor to the feasts of St. Anthony, St. Joseph, and St. Rocco. They also wrote to ask for the latest about Grandma’s grandson, Joey, who was making great strides at the county school for children with developmental disabilities. Grandma was their only source of information about him, and their prayers aided his every goal. In an increasingly weak hand, Lucia also communicated our baptisms, graduations, illnesses, marriages, and deaths to Lena, Marianna, and Rita.

I remember that before Grandma died, I began to understand more of what I was reading to her. My college Spanish and Latin studies provided keys to unlock some of the writing. Words such as abbracciamo and scriviamo looked and worked like Spanish. Latin helped, too, with nipote and auguri. Gradually, I managed to understand parts of letters. 

But the more I worked with her correspondence, the more the Italian of the letters seemed an enigma. Who spoke this language? None of my Italian-speaking relatives did. No one said adesso. They said mo’ when meaning now. Did Grandma’s letters make me listen more closely to the Italian spoken at the family store? Or did the customers’ speech take me back to the language of the letters? In any case, I started to realize that there was a great discrepancy between the two Italian languages, one of which was not written, and that this difference was an important fact about our identity.

This early interest in linguistic diversity eventually helped me narrow my professional choices to teaching languages and, later, to inherit my grandmother’s correspondence. In the mid 1990s, Aunt Connie told me that she had saved a lot of her mother’s papers, including letters from 1917 through 1972, the year of Lucia’s death. She added that part of the collection included mail from Grandma to Grandpa during their courtship. Did I want the correspondence, she asked? I skimmed the many letters. Right away the content grabbed my interest, and not only as a grandson eager to learn more family history. Here was a large cache of immigrant writing in Italian across 60 years. I promised my aunt I would do what I could to get the mass of letters translated and preserved. 

I don’t know how Grandma’s death was communicated to Italy. I am fairly certain it was not through a phone call. With Lucia gone and none of us able to write in the language without embarrassment, the stream of letters mostly stopped and then resumed as a trickle after my visits to Montelongo and classes in Italian. 

The growing literacy in 19th century Italy supported by a robust postal system created a sea of immigrant correspondence. It has come to the attention of scholars here and in Italy that one of the best ways to study the experiences of Italians al estero, outside Italy, is through study of the very texts the immigrants themselves created. I am happy that Grandma’s correspondence now forms part of the collection housed at the Maag Library Archives at Youngstown State University, where the conserved and translated letters of her generation are available at