The Greatest Grandparents: Up Close and Personal

Published on Home town

I owe my childhood—my life—to my grandparents.

Pietro and Domenica Burzio never imagined adopting the role of parents in their mid forties. The responsibility was thrust upon them by their daughter Vivina’s unexpected pregnancy. As farmers living in a small village at the foot of the Italian Alps, Pietro and Domenica had invested hard earned capital to assure a successful career for their daughter. She had been sent to a Catholic convent boarding school, followed by a teacher’s college. As expected, my grandparents were shocked and disappointed at their 21-year-old unwed daughter’s predicament.

Where could they have gone wrong, they wondered? Perhaps sequestering the young Vivina in a convent did not prepare her for the risky world of dating? As with every young woman from a small village, she yearned for a life in the big city—mostly realized by finding a big-city suitor. Vivina became smitten by a handsome, intelligent young man from Torino. Unfortunately, the magical encounter would be brief and my mother would have to turn to her parents for help to raise her child.

Pietro and Domenica willingly took on the unexpected responsibility. It became their labor of love. Vivina continued to live at home in Pranzalito, a town of 120 inhabitants. Although it was certainly not the first such pregnancy, the Catholic small town mentality created a shameful existence, especially after she gave birth. As my mother put it, “Raising a child alone was considered a disgrace. I felt guilty, worthless, and restless…”

In spite of the socio-economic challenges, my grandparents were determined to become co-parents.

Nonno, my grandfather, used his talents to make my wooden cradle. He grew rabbits and then used their fur to line the cradle for beauty and comfort. My nonna and mother embroidered my sheets and sewed beautiful blankets; the rough marijuana hemp cloth was difficult on the fingers, but nothing was too much effort. They prided themselves in having friends visit from neighboring towns and marvel at the most artistic and plush baby bed and bedding imaginenable!

Nevertheless, my mother was unhappy being dependent; there were few jobs in post-World War II Italy. Since many townspeople were emigrating to the United States in search of higher economic rewards, Vivina made her courageous decision—to obtain a passport and passage to the New World.

Pietro and Domenica willingly accepted their new role as my surrogate parents when I was only 15 months old. After all, they loved me dearly and sacrifice was a way of life during post-war times. They found ways to care for me even as they farmed the fields, cultivated their vineyards, and raised livestock. The townspeople that I still visit yearly remind me:

“While your grandparents worked in the fields, they placed you in the shade and brought along a day’s worth of food for you. When you were a little older, you played as your nonno plowed and your nonna sowed potatoes beans and corn. In the vineyards, you followed your grandpa while blowing in a whistle your nonno made from vines. You were always the best dressed child in town, even while taking the cows to pasture. Your grandparents loved you so much!”

Later, when we returned to the farmhouse, the animals had to be fed and dinner had to be picked, or killed and cooked. Cooking on a wood burning stove or in the black pot inside the fireplace was time-consuming. Even our water had to be pumped from the well in our courtyard. Since the town store only sold dried goods, we had to make other staples from scratch: milk, butter, and cheese, preserves, lard, etc.

For a biannual change of bedding, nonna and I brought our marijuana hemp sheets to the river; nonna knelt by a huge rock slanting toward the water and scrubbed with homemade soap until her knuckles were raw. On the way home, carrying heavy wet sheets in the cart, nonna and I stopped at the brook and catch frogs for a special lunch treat: fried frog legs.

Of course, I had to go to school and nonna accompanied me. During the harsh winters, when the snow reached above our knees, nonna ‘plowed’ in front of me. After school, she always prepared me a ‘merenda’: a late afternoon snack of raw eggs beaten with sugar and Marsala wine (now called zabaglione), bread and chocolate, or bread with butter and sugar.

Then I would go to the barn adjacent to our kitchen in order to keep warm and drink sweet milk squirted into my mouth by nonno as he milked the cows. I loved the feeling of nonno nourishing me this way, but the tuberculosis I contracted from unpasteurized milk eventually made me very ill. I remember feeling awful for years, probably from a high fever. My nonni didn’t know I was sick and rationalized my crankiness as a symptom of not having parents.

This could not have been farther from the truth. In my heart, my nonni WERE my parents! I felt no lacking in nurturing and affection—even though I knew I had a mother across the Atlantic.

As to be expected, my mother missed me and wanted me to join the new family she had established in the New World. This was inconceivable to the three of us who had solidified our own family bonds. With time, the endearing letters crossing the Atlantic became an ultimatum. From Detroit, Michigan, my mother wrote:

“…now you must make a difficult decision: whether to let my Piera come alone or whether you want to accompany her. I’ll tell you again; life is easier here… I know you’ll be happier…We can all live in the same house… you’ll be able to give Piera the love and support she needs. Otherwise, she might hate me forever for taking her away from you. As it is, bonding will be difficult enough. I beg of you, start selling your livestock in your farm equipment! In America, we have grocery stores that provide food—already in packages!

By the way, the Italian Line told me they have a beautiful ship called the Andrea Doria. You can put our entire family trousseau on board and bring it to America…”

To keep our bonds intact, my grandparents decided to make the ultimate sacrifice: liquidate their farm and accompany me to America.

In the spring of 1956, we bought three tickets on the Italian luxury liner, with my mother’s support. The ‘unsinkable’ Andrea Doria represented the finest tradition in art, craftsmanship, architecture, and technology. I know this didn’t relieve my nonna; she was simply paranoid of water.

Nevertheless, on July 17, 1956, my grandparents and I boarded the Andrea Doria. Pietro and Domenica felt much trepidation, while I felt only excitement. What could be better after all? I would be with my nonni and soon with a new family: a stepfather, a mother, and a one-year-old sister. What I didn’t know is that nonna and my mother had never gotten along, and my nonni knew they were about to confront a sensitive personal situation.

The voyage on the Andrea Doria was pleasant, except for one day of rough seas. By the eighth day, we felt secure about arriving safely in New York—in spite of the dense fog—along with all the possessions from our former life in Italy. Nonna was relaxed enough to suggest joining other immigrants for merriment in the Social Hall. Nonno went to sleep in his third class cabin below in preparation for early arrival the next morning.

What happened next was about to obscure my nonni’s sacrifices and drown our immigrant dreams. At 11:10 p.m., the Swedish liner Stockholm indiscriminately broadsided us at full speed, penetrating one third of our vessel.

“We swayed rigidly from an abrupt jolt, accompanied by a thunderous noise. Those who were on the outer deck witness startling fireworks created by grinding steel… they watched in horror as the perpetrator tried to withdraw from the hole that had creating, slicing through the thick walls of steel that had once protected passengers from the dangers of the ocean. In the Social Hall, these gruesome theatrics were magnified by the crashing of hundreds of bottles that landed on the bar floor, as if thrown there by the devil’s rage. Every fiber in our spines reacted to the scraping, screeching, and crunchy noises from an indefinable source.”*

Although greatly traumatized, we eventually made it to shore on the French passenger liner, Ile de France—with only the clothes on their backs, my nonno’s briefcase, and my nonna’s purse. Then we flew to Detroit, arriving exhausted, distressed, and scared.

I finally ‘met’ my mother. Since my nonna had instructed me to hug my mother when I saw her, I did so immediately with all the emotion I could muster.

Then we all crammed into one car which brought us to our new home. Frequent interviews by the media made our daily life a disquieting public affair. There were other challenges too: our house was small, my stepdad didn’t speak Italian, one-year-old Marisa cried constantly, and we lacked belongings, friends, and community ties.

The fact that we head been part of the greatest sea rescue in history was never discussed—nor was anything relating to the Andrea Doria tragedy. On a day-to-day basis, life was about surviving a difficult family situation. My nonni felt like useless baggage and small quarters; disputes became the norm; acts of jealousy over me ensued between my mother and grandmother; the woman who had curled my hair and dressed me like a princess just to go to pasture no longer had a say over my life. Nonno felt unworthy as an unemployed farmer.

Fortunately, both my grandparents got jobs: nonna as a seamstress, and nonno worked in a lumber yard. Nonna learned English fairly well, unlike nonno, who spoke only Italian with coworkers. He was treated badly by his Italian boss. Feeling unappreciated, he relinquished his only source of income—which luckily spared him a daily 10 mile walk to and from work.

The Promised Land promised only disappointment for my grandparents. Although they eventually moved into a home just down the street from us, the family unit moved toward disintegration: my grandparents went through a bitter divorce, and soon after so did my parents.


Reflecting upon our tragic voyage, a challenging new life, and difficult family circumstances still evokes pain. But mostly because I was the source for uprooting two loving people in their mid-50s who gave up their past–only to lose all that remained on the Atlantic crossing!

To keep me grounded, I focus on the gratitude I feel for my grandparents’ love, upbringing, and sacrifice. I was the most fortunate grandchild in the world. Often, I wonder if I could ever be so grand as to give selfless love, leave my country and community, and start a new life in a strange land for a grandchild. Honestly, I don’t know; fortunately, I will never have to know. All that I’m sure of is that Pietro and Domenica Burzio, my nonni, made the ultimate sacrifice for me.

*Excerpt from Alive in the Andrea Doria! The Greatest Sea Rescue in History, by Pierette Domenica Simpson, New York, with Morgan James publishing, 2008.

NB. This account has been written in honor of my grandparents on Grandparents Day, September 13, 2009.

For publication, it can be edited for length, take on a different focus: today’s challenges of grandparenting, include photographs and other resources.

Grandparents Day can be traced back to the first national Grandparents Day in 1978. With the efforts of Marian McQuade of Oak Hill, West Virginia, she has been recognized nationally by The United States Senate, in particular Senator Alphonse D’Amato, and President Carter as the founder of National Grandparents Day. McQuade made it her goal to educate the young in the community to the important contributions senior citizens have made, and to the important contributions they are willing to make if asked. She also urged the young to adopt a grandparent, not for one day a year, not for material giving, but for a lifetime of experience and caring just waiting to be shared with others.

Later that year, Senator Jennings Randolph (D-WV) introduced a resolution in the United States Senate to make Grandparents Day a national holiday. Five years later in 1978, Congress passed legislation proclaiming the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day and then-President Jimmy Carter signed the proclamation[1].The statute cites the day’s purpose as: “… to honor grandparents, to give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children, and to help children become aware of strength, information, and guidance older people can offer.” (from Wikipedia)

Comments Off on The Greatest Grandparents: Up Close and Personal

Comments are closed.