And I Think to Myself…What a Wonderful World
By Paul Loatman, Jr.
February 13, 2010
In 1910, George V ascended to the English throne; China abolished slavery; Halley's Comet made its first appearance in seventy-five years; and Barbara Michele DeVito was born on February 13. Of course, these are all matters of variable historical import, depending upon your point of view. Six years later, the Michele family left the "paese" of San Marco dei Cavoti, traveling to Naples in a covered wagon. Ever afterwards, Barbara has remained haunted by the specter of her beloved grandfather whom she saw collapse in exhaustion after following the wagon for miles, bidding the family farewell. She recalled recently: "That was like his funeral for me; I realized then that I would never see him again."
Barbara's father and older brother, Antonio, had come to America many times, "birds of passage" like millions of their countrymen who never expected to leave the Old Country permanently. But, by 1916, southern Italy had been so ravaged by war that in desperation, the government began drafting 12-year-old boys like Barbara's brother Angelo into military service. Mama Michele then decided it was time for the family to come to America. Accompanied by their five children, with another on the way, family members were compelled to split up after booking steerage on an over-crowded passenger liner. Although almost all Italians coming here passed through Ellis Island, the Micheles were diverted to Boston because of the throngs of people pouring into New York during the peak years of immigration.
Crossing the Atlantic in the middle of World War I, the Micheles experienced a number of submarine scares that caused panic in steerage below deck. Barbara's mother attempted to calm peoples’ fears by leading the frightened passengers in singing folk songs and reciting the Rosary, unaware at the time that she was inaugurating a family tradition. For years afterwards, the Micheles gathered after dinner on their front porch on Saratoga Avenue each evening to sing many of those same folk songs that had brought them comfort while sailing on the high seas. Before long, neighbors were joining them on a regular basis and communal folk singing became a tradition on “the Avenue.”
Throughout the years, Barbara has often related her experiences while holding court with rapt audiences of grandchildren gathered around the dinner table. Invariably, she begins by asking the rhetorical question, "Did I ever tell you the story about…?" Blessed with a photographic memory, a lively sense of humor, and fluency in two languages, Barbara weaves yarns of personal adventures in a manner that would make the Greek bard Homer proud. Recapturing the pathos and drama inherent in the life she has led, her stories speak not only to the experiences of one individual or one family. Beyond that, they provide her listeners with a bird's-eye view of one of the greatest migrations in human history.
Barbara likes to recall many of the memorable experiences of her youth. Soon after settling in Mechanicville, her father hired a car and driver to take the family on an excursion to Ballston Spa and Saratoga. Entering Ballston, she was overpowered by the strong aroma emanating from the chocolate factory then located there. Later learning that workers sometimes threw chocolate out of the window to children waiting below, she tried to persuade her parents to move there. But greater wonders awaited her upon arriving in Saratoga, then still a wide-open gambling town dominated by larger-than-life hotels catering to the rich and famous rather than the sedate middle-class resort it has become today. Quite a sight for an impressionable six-year old girl recently arrived from an Italian village lacking indoor plumbing and electricity. Even today, Barbara's voice conveys a sense of awe as she recounts that first visit to Saratoga.
In a more serious vein, her parents were panic-stricken a few years later when she was found lying unconscious on the sidewalk near Viall Avenue hill. Unable to determine what had happened, the family doctor held out little hope for her after surmising that she had been struck by lightening. However, she came out of her coma a week later, greeting her amazed family and physician by saying, "I'm hungry." Her survival without permanent after-effects was regarded as nothing short of miraculous.
Barbara entered school soon after arriving in Mechanicville. Teachers and most students spoke English only, so immigrants found themselves in a "survival of the fittest" arena. Gifted with natural intelligence, Barbara quickly became bilingual, a talent she used to advantage later in life by transcribing letters in English and Italian for local families corresponding with relatives back in the Old Country.
Although a target of prejudice and bigotry herself, Barbara never responded in kind, and long before it became fashionable, she taught her children to treat all people as equals. At an early age, her experiences led her to speak up on behalf of those who were mistreated. Although she was always respectful to adults, she nonetheless challenged a teacher who delighted in taunting another immigrant child whose poverty was evidenced by her tattered clothes. As young as she was, Barbara confronted the teacher, warning her to "Stop - or else!" Amazingly, the taunting ended, the issue never arose again, and to this day, the victim expresses gratitude to Barbara for speaking up on her behalf.
Barbara attracted attention in school in other ways. Her quick wit and natural curiosity stood out so well that her principal offered to pay her way through college. However, at the time, most immigrant parents believed that formal education would ruin a girl's chance to marry and have children. Barbara's father rejected the principal's offer and ordered his daughter to quit school. Obediently, the following day she entered the workplace as a seamstress in a local shirt factory at the age of fourteen. As much as this outcome might offend modern-day sensibilities, Barbara could not imagine challenging her father's authority in this regard.
The end of her formal education hardly marked the end of Barbara’s "learning curve," however. An avid reader throughout life, she visited the local library on a weekly basis well into her late nineties. 20th century history holds a special interest for her, and she loves to compare her own recollections with the analyses of professional historians. Her anecdotes often add substance to the bare-bones abstractions found in textbooks, and she is a veritable encyclopedia of local history.
Barbara recalls the great 1919 “Victory Parade” stretching for miles that welcomed home more than 400 local veterans who had fought in World War I, her brother Antonio among them. She also remembers the pain and anguish experienced by friends and neighbors who were stunned to find that their life’s savings had evaporated overnight when the First National and Manufacturer's banks "failed" in the early days of the Depression. Take a ride around town with her, and she will point out to you homes that were foreclosed during the 1930s that went begging for sale for less than $2,000 apiece. She well remembers how quickly word spread through the community that mournful Sunday in 1941 when the news came over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese. As an aside, she recalls that Mechanicville's importance as a railroad hub had the small blessing of allowing local parents opportunities to visit their enlisted sons on military troop trains that laid over for a few hours while passing through the local rail yard.
Barbara can tell you what it was like to live without electricity, attend silent movies, buy penny candy that only cost a penny, mail a postcard for the same price, and have a milkman pour his delivery into a bucket on your front porch. And, believe it or not, what it was like to experience that new invention - the radio! How did families entertain themselves before the advent of the television, you may ask? For decades, the centerpiece in most local households was an upright piano, and family and friends gathered around to entertain themselves singing tunes they had heard on the radio, or after 1927, in the new "talking" movies! The list could go on and on, and although it sounds like a cliché, it’s no exaggeration to claim that "Barbara has seen it all."
Of course, she now admits, there were times she used her youthful energies in creative ways to escape parental oversight. Dissatisfied as she was with the meager portion her father allotted from her wages in the shirt factory, she worked additional hours while arranging to collect her extra earnings "under the table." This enabled her to acquire a large wardrobe, and her father was always puzzled how she could manage so well on the pittance that he gave her.
Barbara was no homebody in her youth, admitting that she sometimes climbed out her bedroom window at night to attend dances. She needed the help of her younger sister, Mary, to let her back in while returning home. Alas, Mary fell asleep one night, and Barbara found herself at the mercy of her brother, Antonio, who threatened to expose her scheme to their parents after reluctantly opening the door for her. Despite his threats, he never revealed his sister’s late-night antics, and she remained forever in his debt. Of course, Barbara laughs heartily today when asked what she would have done if her own daughters imitated her behavior, remarking: "They wouldn't dare!"
To anyone who was there, every social event or party Barbara attended was enlivened by her spontaneous performances that included dancing, music, songs, mimicry, and practical jokes. Parish bazaars, Senior Dante get-togethers, and women's club meetings were always regarded as occasions for her to make other people laugh. With more than a small grain of truth, she now says that had she not been so devoted to her family, she might have traveled the vaudeville circuit.
Within a few years of leaving school, Barbara married Angelo Devito and their union was blessed with five children. However, when Angelo unexpectedly passed away, Barbara suddenly found herself a widow at age 36. Angelo's death impacted the entire community. Widely admired for his generosity, he regularly ingratiated himself by performing favors for clients while making his rounds as an insurance agent in an era when policy payments were collected directly from customers. The Daily Saratogian reported that the Church of the Assumption was filled to overflowing at his funeral in September, 1946. A similar outpouring of community support marked the funeral of the family’s youngest son, John, a 24-year-old father of two, who was killed in an accident in 1960.
At the time of Angelo’s death, Barbara was prostrated by grief, but she came to the realization that the only thing standing between her children and the orphan asylum was her own good health. Following this epiphany, she put aside her own burdens and devoted herself to raising her family alone, relying on tireless energy, hard work, creativity as a gardener, chef, and seamstress, and most of all, on her religious faith. The warmth, humor, and enthusiasm that she infused into her family environment led many of her children's peers to gravitate to the Devito household where they always knew they were welcome.
After successfully raising her five children, Barbara was not content to rest on her laurels, whiling away her "golden years." In fact, the older she got, the more energy she seemed to display, while transforming herself into the quintessential "Nana." She could play pinochle, UNO and other card games until all hours of the night with her grandchildren, long after their own parents had gone to bed. Discussing the latest happenings in baseball and football, her two favorite sports, with them was a daily occurrence. And, most of all, tutoring them in the joys of making homemade macaroni, pizza dough, ravioli, braciole, and cavatelli and lots of other foods that are much easier to eat than to spell was a labor of love for her. Her Italian cookies and desserts you could kill for. As recently as a few years ago, Barbara was still supervising "The Feast of the Seven Fishes" at her grandson's house on Christmas Eve, and she continued gardening until she moved to Maplewood two years ago.
Beginning in her childhood, Barbara knitted and was a talented seamstress who outfitted family members with her handiwork. One granddaughter whose college suite-mates regularly shopped in Manhattan boutiques asked who designed her dresses. When she told them they were "Created by Nana," they offered to pay her to outfit them as well. However, Nana DeVito catered to an exclusive clientele - her grandchildren - and the only wage she ever requested was a simple "thank you."
Barbara takes great pride in her Italian heritage, but she is equally proud of her American citizenship that has enabled her to vote in every election since reaching voting age in 1932. She attributes her longevity to a number of factors, starting with good genes. Four of her five siblings lived active lives well into their late eighties and early nineties. Certainly, a keen sense of humor and an insatiable curiosity marked by a desire to learn new things have been hallmarks of her life. Despite experiencing the heartbreak of losing a husband and a son, she firmly believes that the Good Lord never burdens anyone with a cross that is too heavy to bear. She always practiced what she preached, committing herself to emulating the Faith of her heroine, the Blessed Mother. Rather than dwell on life's disappointments, she often repeats the refrain from a favorite song by Louis Armstrong: "And I think to myself… what a wonderful world."
Her four surviving children, Dominick, Pasquale, Angela, and Barbara, nineteen surviving grandchildren, forty-five surviving great grandchildren, and six great-great grandchildren wish "Nana DeVito" a blessed 100th birthday. She has inspired all of us.