From Northern Italy to Ellis Island, they stepped off the boat and signed the ledger announcing their intent to live in America. After signing their names, they moved over to next line for job employment.
A newly dug coal mine was hiring in eastern VA. Three train rides later they were set up with a job and temporary housing. The house was a small army base-style home, which they could live in until they saved up enough money to buy a home of their own. Working six days a week for the next nine months, her parents were able to do just that.
Five years later Helena would be born, the last of five children.
The smell and soot from coal became the one constant memory in young Helena’s childhood. Her father would come home from the mines covered in a days worth of ash. The kitchen oven was heated by coal. The fireplaces throughout the home used coal and wood to warm the house. This black powdery, oily, substance forever needed to cleaned off of every surface in the house. No matter how much effort Helena’s mother would place into ridding the home of soot it would come back the next day. Her mother would say “You can catch the dirt right out of the sky.”
Their house was a small two-story that was lined up in rows and rows of houses that all looked the same. Every home in her neighborhood came out of the Sears and Robuck catalog. Basements that had dirt floors and a small window on the ground level used to keep the house in coal could be found in every home. Once every month a coal delivery man would stop by to refill the room. On coal dumping day Helena’s Mother would do her best to make sure that furniture and clothes were well covered up, for the next day the house would need a deep cleaning. A day that all the children hated.
The house had three bedrooms with a small fireplace in each room.
Her parent’s bedroom was always the cleanest room in the house. Above their bed was a large crucifix; black, glossy wood with a two foot Jesus nailed to the cross. Her mother had three dresses always neatly pressed hanging in the closet. Her father had two pair of work clothes and one suit, which Helena never saw him wear. Hanging on the bed post were her mother’s rosary beads. Next to the fireplace was a small, white vanity table. On it sat mother’s hair brush, two sets of hair pins and a bottle of perfume that her mother would only use on special occasions. It was a gift from father on their wedding night. It smelled of fresh chamomile.
This vanity was mother’s special place and the children were never allowed to touch her items. Everything had to be lined up properly and be kept in just the right spot.
Helena, along with her two sisters, shared a room with one bed to be shared.
Helena hated sharing a bed with her sisters, unless it was winter.
Helena’s mother would heat up bricks in the coal furnace, then wrap the hot bricks in towels and place them underneath the covers and at the foot of the bed to keep the girls warm on winter nights. Smelling those hot bricks on cold winter nights was the only time Helena was not bothered by the odor of coal.
In the back, far corner of their property was a chicken coop that held six chickens for fresh eggs and occasional meat. Next to that was a small pen that housed a pig, until they would have to slaughter it. Then they would have to save up to buy a new piglet. The pen was empty more often than not. Behind the pen was a shanty, nothing more than a crudely built shack that was made from leftover scrap metals. Helena’s father would use the shanty for making wine, smoking meat (when they could get it), and storing tools.
All in all, Helena lived a life where she did not know poverty or wealth. She had what all of her neighbors had, which was a small two-story house filled with soot from coal and fresh eggs out back. No more and no less than anybody else.
Then The Great Depression hit America in 1928. Life changed.
The Great Depression did not hit the small mining town as hard as it hit the city. People in mining towns grew much of their own food and slaughtered their chickens and pigs that they raised. Neighbors shared as best they could with each other to keep everyone going. My potatoes for your bread, my wine for your flour. Helena’s parents were quite skilled at living this way. This was how life in Italy was for as long as they could remember.
The coal mines were kept open. Paychecks became smaller and the price to buy coal became greater than most people could afford.
For all three years, Helena’s family was able to make do, until the last winter of the Great Depression. That would be the coldest and darkest year of Helena’s life.
There was very little coal to heat the house and very little food to go around the table. Only two of the six chickens were able to survive the winter and there were only root vegetables from which to make soup.
That is when the fever struck.
Helena’s mother began her withdrawal from the world. Helena sat by her bedside and watched as her mother suffered with changes in temperature, visions and hallucinations. She ate so little, refusing to eat most days. Restlessness and agitation took over in her voice where once she would sing gospel songs.
There was never enough money to buy medicine, but there always seemed enough for her father to buy a few drinks. Helena’s mother would spend weeks in bed while her father would come home later and later each night after work smelling of booze.
The closer Helena’s mother got to death, the further Helena’s father was from home. Her father was not one for living for the other people in his life. He could live a happy life if he only thought of himself. “Man is a rational animal. Fulfill that purpose and a happy life can not be snatched away.” That was the only advice that Helena could remember her father sharing with her.
The priest came late in the evening to visit with Helena’s mother. He gave the children unconsecrated communion so they would have something additional to eat that night. He asked Helena’s father if he would see him in church next week. His standard answer was “I’ll see you in two weeks.” He would never go to church and he would never ask for forgiveness of sins, for he believed that his faults would die long before he would.
The priest entered the bedroom and made the sign of the cross on himself as he looked at the crucifix hanging above Helena’s mother’s bed. He took the rosary beads that hung on the bedpost and wrapped them tightly within Helena’s mother’s hands. From his coat pocket he took out a small glass jar, pulled out the small cork and dabbed oil onto his fingertip. He anointed the oils as he placed a drop on her forehead, next the back of her hands and then reaching down to touch the tips of her feet, even though they were still covered by the blanket.
The priest prays by asking God for absolution for her sins. “With your grace O’Lord please give her the provision for the journey.” Helena and her sisters stood on the far side of the room watching and listening. Her father and brothers stayed downstairs while the priest recited Psalm 51. When Helena heard the priest say, “Behold, I was shaken in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”, she believed God was talking right to her. In Helena’s heart, she was born by sin and only in death could she be granted forgiveness for her birth.
In the morning Helena’s mother would no longer be in bed. Her father gathered the children and told them that there was not enough money for a funeral and the girls would now be responsible for their mother’s chores.
Her bed was made. There was not even an imprint in the mattress where she had laid. Her clothes were given to the eldest daughter. The middle daughter took the bottle of perfume. Helena took her mother’s rosary beads from the bedpost.
Helena’s mother did not leave her with basic instructions before leaving Earth. Now she was to shovel the coal, slaughter the chickens and bake the bread.
Every journey has its end. For Helena, hers was just beginning.
Three weeks later, the Easter lilies bloomed and their sweet aroma filled the air.