My grandmother, Antoinette Picione, was 27 years old when she arrived to the United States on August 18th, 1921. When she arrived, she was posing as a surrogate mother for two children who were traveling with her: Caterina and Gaetano Girolamo, the children of Rizzo Girolamo. Caterina was 11 and Gaetano was 9. All three were detained upon arrival because no one came to identify them as family at Ellis Island.
I can’t help but wonder what my grandmother went through when she got off the ship with two children that didn’t belong to her and her fake husband wasn’t there to pick her up. Poor nonna. I can remember what happened to me when I arrived to Paris for my year abroad and my luggage was lost. I went into a complete panic and I almost passed out in the customer service area while waiting for someone who spoke English to help me. Yes, I got my luggage eventually, that same day in fact, but what could it have been like for my grandmother who spoke no English, had never set foot on American soil, and no family member was there to welcome her when she arrived to this country. She was the first of the siblings to come to this country. Then followed her brother Guiseppe and her sister Genoveva. So, grandma was really on her own when she got to New York, no cell phone, no Blackberry, nobody. Just a supposed Rizzo Girolamo who was listed as her husband on the ship passenger list.
You may ask, was this really her husband? Were those her children? I have gone through the story many times and I have reached the conclusion that she was posing as a surrogate mother so that she could enter the country. There has never been any mention of two children from a first marriage. And I have a very hard time believing that my grandmother would have abandoned these children to marry my grandfather, Carmelo, and start a new family. So, no, my grandmother was single upon her arrival to the United States. And thank goodness she didn’t marry Rizzo because I would not approve of any man who left his children and waiting at Ellis Island for two days!
The detainee record states that nonna was admitted to the country with the two children on September 6th, 1921. Yet, in the column that identifies who will be called to pick her up, it’s empty. Not only that, in the column that identifies the number of meals they ate while detained, it says, 6 breakfasts, 9 dinners, 6 suppers. Based on that number of meals, it seems to me that they didn’t stay until September 6th. I would guess that they stayed for 2-3 days.
I am left to wonder who came to pick her up at the port. Did Rizzo ever come or did he send someone else out of shame? Could he have been sick? How did grandma end up in Wilkes-Barre, PA when Rizzo was from Trenton, NJ? So many unanswered questions from this ship passenger list. We are forced to fill in the blanks and use are imagination to complete the story.
One very important fact that I have found on one of the ship passenger lists, aside from my grandma's detainment, is the fact that my grandmother was naturalized after my grandfather Carmelo died in 1937. I would have never taken note of the annotations next to her name. Annotations mean something and we have to pay close attention to them. You can study annotations yourself by visiting, A Guide to Interpreting Passenger List Annotations. You see, the annotations include the following:On May 5th 1931 she left the United States to return to Sicily for a brief visit with her biological children. I have yet another passenger ship list from 1931 from that exact trip! In addition to that date, the following numbers and codes are written next to the typed up information: 719000, V/L814/535, 3-190326(505), 11/20/40. The last series of numbers is yet another date. According to my genealogy friend, it’s the date she was naturalized. If she became a citizen after Carmelo’s death, this leaves me some hope that grandpa never became a citizen. That, of course, would mean that I can still apply for Italian citizenship, unless they change the laws by the time I get all the documents collected!
Let me tell you, this job is not for the passive kind. You need to be extremely proactive in this process of digging up documents. If there is anything I know about myself, it’s that I persevere. I don’t give up. Right now, it’s a question of waiting. I persevere better than I wait. Oh yes, I told you about my patience. It clearly still needs improvement.