A Far-fetched Dream  

 

Twenty-year-old Amelia ducked into a dark alley and pressed her hand against a cold, wet brick wall to steady herself as she cautiously made her way down the uneven road toward her family’s tiny home.

The Varela family had moved from Italy to New York City in 1905 when she was only seven years of age. Her father had started a small restaurant four years ago in 1914, giving her family a source of income better than many immigrants at this time. However, they had been struggling financially ever since a fire ruined much of the building and equipment about eight months ago.

Amelia finally arrived, her mother meeting her at the door. “Amelia!” she exclaimed as she pulled her inside, “What took you so long? One of these days I’m going to have a heart attack because of you.”

“I’m sorry, Mama,” Amelia said emphatically as she removed her jacket. Her mother snorted and bustled away, “I’ve told you at least a hundred times that there’s a bunch of hooligans out there at this hour and I don’t care what your father needed done, you come straight home when it begins to get dark.”

Amelia nodded and helped her mother finish the dishes. She understood her mother’s concern. There was a great deal of discrimination against Italians, and the dark streets at night could prove dangerous if she ran into the wrong people.

More than anything she had always dreamed of being a nurse and wished that it were possible for her to pursue it. But for a young, inexperienced immigrant girl who spoke broken English, she understood the difficulties that would lie in wait for her should she attempt to pursue that dream.

Considering the verbal lashing she had received from her parents—especially her mother—Amelia bit her tongue each time she thought of mentioning it. Her family had their own business and a bond with their Little Italy. Most Italians stayed within their community because “of the hostility they encountered in American society” (Pozzetta) and they were “afraid of being separated from other Italians” (Rapczynski).

Her dear brother, Cesare, had been her greatest supporter and she always knew she could confide in him. He believed that she should pursue her dream and break the cycle of expectation. However, ever since he had been drafted into the war, she knew her family would object even more strongly to her leaving. She missed him terribly and wrote to him often.

Climbing the rickety stairs to the tiny bedroom she and her two sisters, Violetta and Anna, shared, she quietly entered. Eleven year old Anna was fast asleep but sixteen year old Violetta sat up when she heard Amelia enter.

“Is that you, Meli?” Violetta asked hoarsely.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” Amelia replied. “I’ll keep the lamp low.”

Violetta laid back on her pillow and blinked up at the ceiling, “I wasn’t asleep.” She sighed, “I can’t sleep.”

Amelia pulled out a pen and paper to respond to Cesare’s latest letter, “Why not?” she asked. Violetta took a few moments to reply, and Amelia began scribbling her letter. “The war. So many people have died and I’m so afraid somebody I love is going to die, too. I’ve prayed so hard for it to end. Why won’t God make it stop?”

Amelia stopped writing and rested her chin in her hand. They were both silent for a while and the sound of a closing door downstairs announced that their father had finally returned home.

“I don’t know,” she replied finally. “I really wish I did.” She paused, then got up to sit beside Violetta on the three of them shared. She pulled her into a hug, and almost immediately Violetta began to cry.

“He’s hurt, Meli,” she gushed, trying in vain to keep her tears silent. “Cesare, he was shot. I overheard Papa talking about it—he doesn’t want Mama to find out.”

Amelia gasped. Hurt? Her brother? A numbing fear gripped her and million questions flooded her mind, making her dizzy. Would he live? When did it happen? Would they let him come home? How serious was the injury?

She stayed with her sister until the sobbing girl fell asleep. Tears slipped down her own cheeks, but she remained frozen, devastated. Her thoughts remained on her brother, and she begged God to spare his life. She couldn’t imagine life without him because he’d been there ever since she could remember. Mama’s face of confidence would certainly be destroyed if she found out, although she deserved to know. But Amelia decided to let Papa decide when to tell her.

She found herself wishing more than ever that she could at least try applying to be a nurse. It was what she felt she was meant to do. But an inexperienced girl like Amelia who could not afford training but would have to learn on the job simply was not at the top of the list as far as job opportunities went. Being an Italian immigrant did not help either, since they were largely discriminated against by much of American society.

Although her father did a good job at hiding the family’s financial condition, Amelia knew that they needed money. The restaurant was barely hanging on, and it was only a matter of time before something else happened and finished it all together.

She also hated the constant fear that weeks later she would receive one of the dreaded letters telling her that her beloved Cesare was gone. Forever. Fresh tears began to slip down her cheeks, but she did nothing to wipe them away. She knew exactly what she needed to do.

***

Early the next morning, Amelia set out on the sleepy streets of downtown New York City dressed in the nicest clothes she owned, her hair pinned perfectly in place, and a modest bag on her shoulder carrying her few belongings. She was still too exhausted for the realization of what she had done to really sink in. She had left her family a note telling them what she was doing and promising to send money. That is, if she could really find what she was looking for. Her only medical experience came from helping family and friends and the few books she had hidden under a broken plank in the floor of her bedroom.

The first hospital she found turned her away without explanation. She continued searching, refusing to let anything dampen her spirits. She had to do this. For herself, for her family, and for her brother.

But every hospital turned her away, either saying they didn’t need the help, didn’t want an immigrant, or needed someone experienced. By the end of the day she was absolutely exhausted and her clothes were filthy from walking the streets.

She could not decide whether to go home or keep trying. She did not want to give up yet, so she decided to find a motel room for the night and keep looking the next day.

She was only a couple of blocks away from the motel when a voice spoke behind her. She jumped, startled, and spun around. It was a young man she had never seen before, although he was Italian like her. “Are you a nurse?” he asked in Italian, his voice guarded. She nodded without thinking, too surprised and exhausted to answer aloud.

“Please come with me,” he said, “I need your help.”

“I don’t understand,” she replied, coming to her senses. “Who are you?”

“There’s no time to explain,” he replied urgently, taking hold of her arm and leading her down an ally.

“What?!” she barely choked out. “What is going on? Where are we going?”

“Just come with me,” he said, taking a left and then a right. Amelia was beyond confused, “Where are you taking me?” He didn’t answer her, taking another right and then another, zigzagging through the intricate web of alleys and streets. Amelia’s thoughts began to blur until he suddenly stopped, pulling her up some a metal staircase outside one of the buildings. She struggled to keep up with him.

They stopped suddenly, and the man began pounding on the door at the top of the staircase. An elderly woman answered the door and looked surprised to see Amelia but stepped quickly out of the way as the man lead her inside.

The breath went out of Amelia the second she walked into the room. On a bed was a young girl of maybe eleven who was ghostly white, she didn’t know if she was alive or not.

Amelia simply stood there, not entirely sure what she was expected to do. She glanced back at the man with a raised eyebrow, expecting an explanation.

He nodded for her to inspect the child, the worry evident in his face. She stepped forward and laid a hand on the her forehead. “What happened to her?” she asked, “Is she your sister?”

“Yes, her name is Arianna. She’s had this raging fever for three days and I’m afraid that it will take her life. The doctor is treating another patient who was severely injured and can’t make it until tomorrow morning.” He came up on the other side of the bed, “Our parents died two years ago and she is all I have left. I don’t know what to do.”

“Why do you think I can help?” Amelia asked, still not understanding. “You don’t even know me.”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “You just look like a nurse, and you are Italian. I don’t know English, so it would have been difficult to get an English doctor. I didn’t want to have to take my sister away from home unless I absolutely had to… Can you help her?”

“I will try,” she said, recalling the things she had studied in her books. “Her fever is extremely high and we need to bring it down. I think the first thing we should do is give her a cold bath, that should help. We’ll also need a change of clothes—something lighter.”

The man turned to get what she needed, but Amelia said, “I still don’t know your name, and you don’t know mine.”

“I’m sorry, I. . . My name is Daniele.” he replied, blushing. “This woman is a good family friend, Mrs. Marzano. She has been staying to help care for Ari. And yours is?” he asked.

She smiled at his expression and said, “I’m Amelia.”

“It’s a pleasure,” he replied. “I’m sorry about all of that. . .I didn’t mean to frighten you. But thank you for coming. We will pay you, of course, for your help.”

Amelia smiled. Here was a chance for her to do what she was meant to do—to help people, starting with the people in her community. Although she had not been able to find work in a real hospital, she didn’t see why she could not start her own if she wanted to. With enough hard work, she believed anything was possible.

Works Cited

Pozzetta, George. “Italian Americans.” everyculture.com. n.p., n.d. Web. 1 March, 2016.

Rapczynski, Joan. “The Italian Immigrant Experience in America (1870-1920).yale.edu. 2016.               Web. 1 April, 2016.

Bibliography

Colella, Nicola. “Southern Italian Immigration.” italiamerica.org. n.p., n.d. Web. March 1, 2016.

Gavin, Lettie. American Women In World War I: They Also Served. Colorado: University Press of           Colorado, 1997. Print. 1 March, 2016.

Markel, Howard. “When Hospitals Kept Children from Parents.” nytimes.com. n.p., 1 January, 2008. Web. 1 April, 2016.