Sunday, May 29, 2016
Word Count – 813

In the early sixties when my parents moved to the west-end, it was full of young families and new homes. The Italian immigrants rebuilt the old frame-houses giving them a new skin of brick and mortar. Rainer, Ron, Frank and I were in our early teens and we spent our off-time playing softball in the empty fields and street-hockey on the newly paved roads.

Left Image
The image on the left is the path between St. Veronica School on Balfour and McFadden Avenue. Back-then, the alley wasn’t paved, but it didn’t matter, it was a short-cut. (We all walked home at noon and were back in the school-yard for 1:30.) It’s still an east-west short-cut for a number of dead-end streets north of Douglas.

Today, all those kids are in their sixties and many don’t live in Sault Ste Marie. Rainer and Ron are in the Windsor area, Frank is in Toronto and I’m in Pittsburgh. As my mother says, the neighborhood is now mostly old people – many not in good health, many without family to turn to. (My mom is 89; my dad is 90.)

St. Veronica is all boarded up and covered in graffiti. The other grammar schools in the neighborhood are closed or torn down.

Middle Image
The middle image is Franco Middonno’s photograph titled colazione, mattina delle palme – breakfast, Palm Sunday morning. And that could be my dad sitting in his basement kitchen having an old-world breakfast.

The immigrants that left Calabria in the 1940s/1950s rarely went back. There was little family left and little money to go visit. Also, if we wanted to see our relatives, all we had to do was drive down to Toronto or St. Catherines.

Almost 3 million people left Calabria between 1945 and 1985. And close to 70% of Canada’s postwar immigrants were Italians. They were from Calabria, Abruzzi and the agrarian parts of the north-east – Veneto, Friuli. In Ontario, they mainly settled in Toronto. The Northern Ontario cities of Sault Ste. Marie and Fort William were quite heavily populated by Italian immigrants.1

My family and the other immigrants began creating a Calabrian culture in Ontario. But the culture they build was based on their remembrances. Their Italian dialect became fixed. No new words were added and new ideas were described with English words. The immigrants began to speak a blended Italian-English dialect. And the new culture also became a blend of Calabrian family values and Canadian efficiencies.

My relatives in Aprigliano love to hear me speak the old Calabrese dialect. There, it’s a treasured artifact. On FB, the Apriglianesi are writing in the old tongue. It’s no longer an embarrassment rather it stands side-by-side with standard Italian. Also, there’s pride in their regionalism.

In present-day Sault Ste Marie, young families have made the west-end hip again. But none of these hipsters grow gardens or speak Italian. Manicured lawns and flower-beds surround their homes. The old Calabrese dialect, the blended Italian-English are avoided. This generation identifies as Canadian and this generation is less interested in the extended family.

Right Image
The image on the right is the steel mill that defined our young lives in Northern Ontario and the rooftops the Italian built when they moved into the west-end. The bungalow was the design of the times. And what the immigrants added to this simple plan was a basement with an eat-in kitchen, a cantina, and a cold-cellar. The kitchen mirrored the cucina rustica of old Calabria. The cantina was for their wine barrels and demijohns; and the cold-cellar was for the salami, the tomato sauce and the preserves. The salaries at the steel mill made it all possible.

But what the immigrants didn’t know was that back in post-war Calabria their fellow countrymen were abandoning the old ways, the old hilltop towns and moving into cities with supermarkets and super-highways. The immigrants’ remembered-world belonged to the past.

The steel mill also gave us children the option of a university education. And my generation ran to Windsor, London, Waterloo, Toronto, the United States. We ran from the isolation; from the immigrant community.

My mother believed that immigrating to Canada would offer opportunities to maintain the extended family, the close-knit community she grew up with. We went to Northern Ontario because her parents were there; we went to Northern Ontario because others from Aprigliano were there. But the economic flush of the 1960’s changed all that. Her son went off to school in New York City and her youngest daughter settled in Toronto. She didn’t understand the moving away and when she’d ask me, I would say that my leaving Canada was like her leaving Calabria. She explained that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way; that it wasn’t what she had expected.

But as I walk the streets of the west-end with my cameras and attitude, I’m OK that it happened this way.

1  Wikipedia, Canadian Government website