My Italian Heritage, Mama Modesta
Submitted to The Union
Editor’s note: As Nevada County prepares to celebrate the third annual Italian Festival at Western Gateway Park in Penn Valley, Valentina Parkman shares a bit of her own Italian heritage with The Union.
On Aug. 8, 1920, Mama left her hometown of Piegaio (Lucca), arriving in the United States nearly a month later on Sept. 2, stopping at Ellis Island for three nights and a day.
The trip was a difficult experience for many reasons. Mama had the responsibility of her 16-year-old sister and 18-year-old brother.
In those days, 18-year-old men were to have served in the army, and this added to the pressure of such a trip because of not knowing until the last minute if he would be leaving for America, as well.
Grandpa Elia had already been in Chicago working with Grandma’s brothers for several years at The Nuti Bakery.
Out of those magnificent ovens came the finest bread in Chicago. Their first bakery was in the vicinity of the famous O’Leary barn fire; then it was moved to Sholto Street, which is now Carpenter Street.
Papa followed in 1921 and resumed courting Mama. A year later, on Oct. 13, 1922, Mama Modesta Stefani and Luigi Bartolomei were married. On Jan. 5, 1924, my sister Alice was born, and four years later, my sister, Rena.
I came into the Bartolomei family at the age of 18 months. My birth mother, who was Mama’s best friend, passed away at the age of 35, leaving six of us behind. My birth father had to place my four brothers in an orphanage temporarily, and my older sister with another friend.
Papa and Mama took me in, knowing that I was a medical risk and treated me with all the love and care as if I were their own. The financial struggle for most families in those days was a hardship. Papa delivered bread and Mama took in the laundry for the whole Nuti clan, as well as managing the care of the elderly and four other motherless children whose fathers worked in the bakery.
My birth father lost his house; as a tailor his pay was minimal. The boys remained in the orphanage until each reached the age when they could attend school and work whenever possible. My sister took over their care, and I was to remain with Mama Modesta until I was stronger.
As the years sped by, the Bartolomei “family” attachment to me was so strong that whenever my father came to visit, Rena and Alice would hide me; in a drawer, under the older footed tub, anywhere they could think of, for fear I would be taken away.
At the age of 7, I was to be returned to my father, and again and again the attempts were made, but he never succeeded.
Each time something hindered my father, my being ill or his fear of upsetting me too much. It was a difficult task to break up the only family I ever knew and reunite me with family I didn’t remember and hadn’t met since I was 18 months old.
Mama made sure that the communications between the families remained positive.
At the age of 18, I wanted to change my last name to Bartolomei, but a lawyer advised me it would be a short matter of time before someone special would come into my life and change it for me.
Today, Mama is 94 years old and as loving and giving as ever. I thank her for taking such special care of me and teaching me about Italian heritage.
We attended the Italian classes at Our Lady of Pompeii, and, of course, my sister and I walked off with all the medals. I think the other students were happy when we graduated. Of course, we can’t forget that Papa taught us how to dance those beautiful Italian steps.
So many beautiful memories, and last, but not least a thank you to my birth father for choosing such special substitutes, Mama Modesta, I love you.
Valentina Parkman is a volunteer of the Nevada County Italian Cultural Foundation.
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