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The Story of Nedda, an Italian Reservist's Wife

Italian quarter in Boston's North End, 1915 – Part 1 – When the big White Star liner Canopic entered the port of Boston from Italy and backed in beside the new dock, there were no happier hearts among all its twelve hundred immigrants than Marco and Nedda Lucetti. They had embarked from sunny Sicily on a double venture, matrimony and a new start in life, and they were both very young and very much in love. So indeed what more could one want to explain the smile on Nedda's pretty face and the confidence in Marco's black eyes as they looked down from the side of the ship on the preparations for debarkation?

It had been a boy and girl love, theirs in the straggling hillside village behind Palermo, and it had ripened frankly and openly among the lemon trees of that peaceful countryside until the old priest blessed them and gave them to each other.

A small legacy of eight hundred lire ($160) from Marco's old grandfather, who had died the previous autumn, had made their emigration possible; and though there was no better or stronger workman than Marco in the village, and Nedda could wash at the riverside with any girl thereabouts and cook home-made macaroni with the best of them, yet she and Marco decided upon this journey to far-away America in the hope of larger opportunities and better things in life.

It was Marco's idea principally. He was full of it and most confident of steady employment there and high pay. Had not Renaldo Monti come back, after fifteen years, a rich man and able to build his own house and do nothing save watch his lemons ripen and his wife and children grow fat from all the good things they ate? So it was settled and they were married, and a few days later they boarded the Canopic at Palermo and sailed westward towards the land of promise.

The young couple made a really charming picture as they stood together by the ship's rail, a little apart from the mass of the immigrants, who were already crowding towards the gangway, and even the stevedores on the wharf seemed to look up at them with appreciation.

Marco, with his hat off and a red handkerchief knotted around his neck, was of good height, slender and sinewy, with a skin of dull bronze, clean-cut features, and a well-shaped head, framed in glossy black curls and firmly set on manly shoulders. His attitude was typically Latin, graceful, almost nonchalant, but in his easy relaxation one felt much strength in reserve and the power for work when called upon.

Nedda seemed such a little thing, small even for an Italian woman, but well made and as yet unbent by drudgery, like the older women of her class. She was so thin she looked only a slip of a girl and would have been taken by most observers for her companion's sister. Her head-shawl had slipped back on her shoulders in her preoccupation, revealing a pretty and very winning little face. If her features were less regular than Marco's, she had a sweetness of expression that was exceptional and a smile that was irresistible, together with coloring such as only Italy can give and very lovely dark eyes.

So these two arrived in the country of their dreams, and a week later found them living in a tiny bedroom and still more tiny kitchen in a tenement house in the Italian quarter in Boston's North End. The rent was high for such poor accommodation and living was dear, as they soon discovered, and when war began in Europe prices rose still higher. There were, however, plenty of jobs to be had for an able-bodied youth like Marco, who was not afraid of hard manual labor, and in all the city there was not a more contented couple than the Lucettis.

Two young persons, very happy together and busy with the small affairs of daily life, have not much time to make acquaintances, and thus it happened that neither Marco nor Nedda made many friends in the Italian colony, though of course their neighbors soon knew them by sight and commonly referred to them as the beautiful bride and groom. Nedda, when she went marketing, and Marco, going and returning from work, were objects of approving regard, for Italians are quick to perceive beauty and love it.

Some months after these young people had arrived in this new land of opportunity, Nedda made a discovery and, having no intimate woman friend to whom to impart it, she whispered it to Marco, hiding her pretty face on his shoulder as she did so. It was a very momentous little secret to both of them, though one as old as is humanity — the hope of a coming joy, a new little life between them, to bind them even closer to each other. Marco was filled with a buoyant courage as he set out the next morning, for the coming responsibility had brought a greater determination into his life, a brighter glint of resolve into his eyes. He meant to be head of his group of Italians in the street department, and that before long. Indeed even now he sometimes directed the men whenever the foreman was absent.

As he made his way through the crowd that February morning he saw an unusual number of people in front of the bulletin boards of the newspapers. Being well ahead of time and with a few minutes to spare, he stopped and listened to the conversation about him, hoping to catch something of the latest war news, for though he had learned to speak English brokenly, he was still unable to read this strange new tongue.

It so happened that next to him among the bystanders was an Italian workman whom he knew slightly. This man had been for some years in the United States and both read and spoke English. To Marco's question his acquaintance replied briefly, but with startling effect. There was likelihood of Italy entering the Great European War and of joining France and England and Russia against Austria. The man spat as he spoke the latter hated name, for he was from northern Italy. The bulletins were as to whether Italy would be drawn into the war or not. "If our nation does fight, I may not have to go, for I am old, but you will be among the first reservists to be called back. You are young and they will need you to stop the Austrian bullets," Marco's compatriot continued with a laugh.

Marco did not reply, but started on with a heavy heart. Called away! To leave his little Nedda, his all, alone here in this foreign city and with so little money and no help from him. What would she do? How would she live, a stranger not knowing the country or even its language? Marco turned faint for the first time in his life. This big swarthy fellow was completely unnerved and sat down heavily on a bench on the Common to think. He reviewed the situation all over again: what would become of Nedda, what would she do, if he were long at the war — if he were killed? He foresaw how helpless she would be alone and feared that the pittance his country might give her as a soldier's wife during his absence would count for very little in this expensive land.

The more he dwelt on this tragic possibility the more hopeless did it seem for his poor little girl-wife, and a bitter resolve began to form in his mind — to refuse his country's call and remain to protect her and their child. He knew it would mean dishonor forever, and his face saddened into deep lines as he remembered the "Hymn of Garibaldi" of his childhood days and thought of his beloved Italy, perhaps soon to be in need of his help and abandoned by him who loved her so dearly. A church clock striking the hour recalled him to a sense of his present duty and he proceeded to his work, but with a spiritless step.

When he returned home that night his face was set in an expression which Nedda had never seen, and there were lines which she had not noticed before. Quick to imagine, she feared he might be ill, and the more so as he ate hardly any supper. Then it occurred to her that he might have had trouble with the foreman or even lost his job, for she knew that the city was at that time economizing and that many men in the street department had lately been discharged. She said nothing, however, for with true feminine instinct she understood that he would rather tell her at his own time and in his own way, but her poor little face lost all its rosy bloom and grew drawn and worried as she waited on him.

After supper, in the gaslight in the bare little room which had become so endeared to them both, he told her very gently about the latest news of the great war, of the possibility of Italy's entering the struggle, and of the probability of his being called back to fight, if Italy became involved.

His reference to the war did not startle her, for they spoke of it almost daily; but when he mentioned the likelihood of Italy's becoming a combatant — of this she had heard nothing, thought nothing — it came to her as a great shock. That Marco's class would be one of the first to be summoned she realized all too well. She kept silent for a moment and crept closer to him, while she tried to grasp the purport of his words. Her Marco gone and she alone in this strange place! The thought of her loneliness and defencelessness frightened her. What if she should never see him again? At that presentment she drew still more closely to him, as though, even then, he were being torn from her.

Soon she grew calmer in the protection of those strong arms and could comprehend what he was saying to her. He was telling her that Italy was not yet at war, might never engage in the conflict, and that he might not be recalled. And if he were forced to return it might not be until the summer, and there would be enough money to see her through her childbirth and well again. Then there would be an allowance for her from the Italian government; that was certain. He did not know how much, but it might be more for those wives of reservists who were living in this land which was so dear for all to live in, and perhaps it would be sufficient.

Nedda, however, found it hard to be comforted and clung to him the more as she protested that she could not remain without him, and that she would go back with him on the boat as far as Sicily, among her own people, where she would feel safe and at home.

Marco petted her and kissed her sad little tear-stained face, for he felt that what she proposed could not be encouraged. As the wife of a reservist, even if she were allowed to sail with him, the cost of her return would absorb some of their small savings, and if, at the end of the war, the remainder had been exhausted for her support and that of the baby so soon to arrive, it might be impossible for them to find money for the expense of another emigration to America.

Furthermore the contest might not last very long, and in that event it would have been the height of folly to have broken up their life in their new home in a country where he meant to prosper and grow rich. They would have lost a chance which might never be theirs again, and his pride stiffened at the thought of their returning thus from a land to which they had sailed away with such high hopes.

It was late when Nedda grew calmer, soothed by his tenderness. They went to bed, but not to sleep. Though he lay very still, so as not to disturb her, all the terrible possibilities of their future held satanic carnival in his mind — how to shield her, how to support her while he was away, perhaps for a year, perhaps longer. Then the darkest thought of all confronted him again with sinister countenance — what if he were killed!

Nedda seemed to sleep at first, but later he knew that she was awake and that she was crying. He thought it best to make no effort at consolation; perhaps she would drop off to sleep tired out. This she seemed to do after a time, and when he was sure of it, he praised God. She sleeps, he thought, my poor little wife. Her heart is with the angels.

When it was morning he arose quietly and lighted the fire almost noiselessly and had the kettle boiling before Nedda awoke and got up hastily, looking very pinched and worn. She thanked him and called him her good Marco, but nothing was said of the subject that was in both their minds and lay so heavily across their hearts. And thus it was during the weeks and months that followed; while all the Italian quarter was chattering daily like a big family of magpies over the war and the prospects of Italy's becoming engaged, in this one little household the dreaded matter was rarely mentioned, though its dark shadow stood always beside them.

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From: The Story of Nedda - An Italian Reservist's Wife – by Lewis Niles Roberts

Member of the Executive Committee of the New England Italian War Relief Fund

Frontispiece from a Charcoal Drawing by John S. Sargent, R.A. and Other Illustrations

Cambridge, Mass., The University Press, 1917

Library of Congress