Holding Still

Holding Still

The stories a family photo tells

The Savino family poses for the camera. Nine-year-old Maria (my mother) stares ahead, a small hand resting on her father’s shoulder. Her pregnant mother, Rosa, grasps the other; the younger children fidget. My grandfather Donato holds baby Tony, the first child born in America.

In 1922, when this photograph was taken, the family lived in a railroad town in Pennsylvania. Rosa had grown up in Brazil, but her parents had brought her back to Italy to find a husband. Donato, too, had returned from the New World to find a spouse. After the two married, war broke out. Donato was drafted.

At war’s end, Donato went back to Pennsylvania to earn passage for the growing family. Maria, arriving at age eight, was put in kindergarten because she didn’t speak English, an insult she never forgot or forgave. Around her, adults whispered about Sacco and Vanzetti, while newspaper headlines ranted about Al Capone.

Her fear is palpable in this picture. Yes, people had to hold still for photos in those days. But Maria’s face reflects the weight of responsibility. She doesn’t know the half of it.

Rosa will die soon after the birth of her ninth child, and Maria will postpone college to care for the family. A year later, her dying father will insist that she accept the scholarship she has won and go! The youngest children will be adopted by relatives. Maria will keep the teenagers together while commuting thirty miles a day to college.

But in this moment, in a country where her people are considered mentally inferior, politically suspect, and criminally inclined, I imagine that the little girl stares determinedly into the camera and vows, “I’ll show them!”

Maxine Phillips is editor of Democratic Left and former executive editor of Dissent.

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