Thursday, September 23, 2021

A well-traveled trunk gets a new home -- Sept. 23, 2021 column

                                                                                            Photo by Abby Davi 


In his memorable short story “The Things They Carried,” author Tim O’Brien tells about the things foot soldiers carried in Vietnam.

I want to tell you about a trunk that carried the things an immigrant family brought to the United States almost one hundred years ago. As improbable as it sounds in our age of disposables, the trunk has a future.

For 15 days in August 1923, Raffaele and Maddalena DeGennaro and their four children under the age of 10 made a voyage of faith aboard the SS Dante Alighieri from Italy to Ellis Island.

In a somber immigration photo, Maddalena holds in her arms a baby who was not yet 2 years old. That’s my father.

The DeGennaros also brought a domed wooden trunk painted green with metal straps. It was 40 inches long, 26 ½ inches high and 22 ½ inches wide and weighed about 47 pounds, empty.

It contained their hopes, dreams and what they needed to start their lives anew.

The family settled in Connecticut and the trunk went to their attic, where the boys slept. The family grew to eight children, and the trunk became a plaything for generations.

The family assimilated. My dad and a couple of his brothers Americanized their names. They served in the military, traveled, pursued educations and careers -- but never lost their sentimental attachment to the old trunk.

In the mid-1980s, my dad, Guy DeGenaro, living in Richmond, worried what would happen to the trunk with the older generation gone. He wanted to keep it safe.

My dad’s older brother, Augie DeGenaro, shipped it by Greyhound bus from New Haven to Richmond. My mother was not as fond of the old trunk as my dad, and it went to their attic for about 35 years.

My dad died in February at 99, and I began going through his and my late mother’s houseful of belongings. When I opened the Italian trunk, I was astonished to find it full of newspaper clippings.

Unbeknown to me, my parents had saved almost every story and column I wrote for Richmond newspapers for decades. My dad stored the pages in clear plastic bags by year.

The trunk’s interior had been restored at some point and covered in patterned paper. Someone – my grandma? – had written in Italian inside a list of the things the family had carried in the trunk. A translator deciphered some of the words:

Shirts or blouses, a knit or jersey suit for Augie, a tablecloth and napkins with bobbin lace, an embroidered sheet, a red skirt with bobbin lace, a bodice, cotton towels, a cover-all and diapers.

My grandma made lace, a lost art, and my guess is lace was the nicest thing they had.

I struggled with what to do with the trunk. My dad had desperately wanted it to stay with the family; so did I. But I live in a small townhouse in Alexandria and don’t have room for it.

Nor does my Uncle Richard DeGennaro, my dad’s last surviving sibling, who is in his 90s and lives in Florida. I asked his son, Rafael, to email the family to see if there was any interest.

Instantly, Abby DeGenaro Davi in Branford, Connecticut, the daughter of my first cousin Gregg, Augie’s son, spoke up. She didn’t even wait to read the entire email. She knew.

“I’m a total traditionalist,” she said. “I want it to stay in the family.”

Abby and her husband Brian Davi and their children Violet, 11, and Colton, 6, live near her dad, who played in the trunk as a child.

She decided to ship the trunk back to New Haven by Greyhound. Christian and Grant Smith, sons of a friend, double-bubble wrapped the trunk, hoisted it into their SUV, and drove us to the Richmond Greyhound station.

Several days later, the trunk arrived safe and sound. It now has a place in the Davi family room next to a highchair Gregg made for his grandchildren.

Violet and Colton play in the trunk, though they say “it smells like old people.”

No, their mother replied, “It smells like 1923.”

They call it a “treasure chest” – and, for my family, it is. A treasure chest that’s ready for its next hundred years.

 ©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



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