Writing Nonna’s Mulberry Tree is something that my heart and elders tell me I have to do. In our home in Flagtown, I see – really see – my dad, Aunt Catherine, grandma, Uncle Sal and all those Guerreras who lived and played here. A quick flash past a window and I know Uncle Sal is going to check the garden. Arms squeezing me when I just want to lay my head down and cry – that’s my nonna. They are so much a part of me that not telling their story and the stories of their Italian village are not an option.
Some of my readers have told me that their ancestors visit them too and shout out stories of other countries and times. A while back I sent an e-mail to subscribers asking folks to share the immigration stories of their family. Marjory Klein, classical singer and college administrator, not only shared her grandfather’s story but lent me his memoir too. Today, we are honoring Marjory’s nonno, Michael J. Roossin. He left Russia when he was only fourteen travelling to America on the Lithuania.
In his twenties he perfected his English by reading the New York Times. What a brilliant way to learn English! What you’re about to read is just a small piece of his tale – taken from his memoir, The Little Immigrant.
Came the day when word was received from America that my two big brothers were there to receive us. The departure of myself and my sister, who as a year and a half my senior, was apathetic sight. I remember my mother standing at the outer door, her lips quivering, trying her best not to cry. My father went along to see us off at he station in the big city. It was the last that we ever saw of our parents and two married sisters.
Despite the fact that all provisions we were made so that our trip wold be reasonably endurable, we were overcome with nostalgia. But we kept cheering our selves with the thought that we would soon be very happy when our brothers met us.
It was a Saturday morning in mid summer of 1892 that our ship reached New York and the sun was shining brightly. It wasn’t very long before we set foot on the land of the free and I was so enamored of all the sights that met my eyes, that I did not seem to mind the time passing from debarkation to the entering into my married brother’s apartment…
The Roossins were entrepreneurial in Connecticut and in New York. Michael’s brothers had a soda water (setlzer) delivery business. I remember my grandfather and uncle Billy getting the bottles delivered by the case. Remeber those glass bottles – you’d stick them into a holder with a gas cartridge – of course that was in the 1950s – No, I was not alive in 1892.
My brother assigned me the job of helper driver of his wagon. I worked hard at my job delivering cases of bottles to customers, some of whom were situated on the sixth floor of the building where there were no elevators. One day, some boys were trying to steal bottles of soda through the back of the door of the wagon. Ours was a horse drawn vehicle and because we were going at very slow pace, I jumped from my seat and put one foot on the hub of the right front wheel, to leap to the ground and fight the rascals off, but somehow I slipped and the rear wheel went over one of my arms. While convalescing at the hospital an orderly came over and told me that I was going to take a boat ride to a nearby island. When I noticed the men and women on that boat, I got frightened. They were of the class seen around the Bowery missions and some had disfigured faces. I approached one of the boat men to ask if I could go home. He said, “Son, if you are able, do so right now!” It was on Friday I remember. I walked twenty-nine blocks, as I did not have any money for carfare. I finally reached my brother’s apartment late that evening and met with a very cold reception from his wife and not much warmer from my brother. In spite of exhaustion and the pain in my arm, I still held my chin up and smiled with the suggestion that I had better find my self another job.
You know, sometimes you just have to ignore your family and make your own way in the world. That is exactly what Michael did.
That Roossin entrepreneurial gene prevailed and by the spring of 1900 he opened his first store. Micheal rode the ups and downs of the times like a surfer and it wasn’t until 1948 that he retired and sold his last venture – an upholstery shop.
He ended his memoir with a few words of advice:
“A strong will, determination, and a clear conscience, are the fundamental points and the keys to an independence in life…”
Thank you Marjory for sharing your grandfather’s story.
It is not to late for you to send me the tales of your elders. I would love to share them.