A few days ago, my family marked the 46th anniversary of my paternal grandfather’s death. I was very young when Bernardo Bettinelli died, and I only have one or two memories of him as an elderly, silent man who spoke very little English. I do remember that he was a master gardener who turned a small backyard in Cambridge into an incredibly prolific food producing farm that could have fed an entire village with all the tomatoes and squash and grapes and all the rest.
My grandfather led a remarkable life. He was born in 1889 in Augusta, Sicily. His biological father was a prominent Italian statesman and his mother was a chambermaid, who was sent back to her Sicilian village after she became pregnant. After he was born, he was adopted into a local family, although he kept his father’s name as was the custom. His family were fishermen as were almost everyone in the village. When he was a boy there was a massive storm on the Mediterranean that wiped out much of the fishing fleet, including his father and brothers.
But young Bernardo continued into the family business and he traveled far beyond the Mediterranean. He first came to the United States on a fishing trip when he was 15. By his mid-teens he was working on fishing boats in the Bering Sea. Keep in mind that this was the beginning of the 20th century, before diesel or gasoline engine boats and modern safety gear. If you went overboard, they didn’t bother turning the boat around for you because you were already dead and there was no sense risking the whole boat.
Later, my Nanu served in the Italian navy during World War I. Before that, in 1913, he married my Nana Francesca. Her family were from the same village of Augusta, but her father was a salt harvester, and she was young, at 17 years old.
He continued to travel back and forth from the US and Sicily, even as Francesca began having kids. She had six boys who didn’t survive past infancy, but she also gave birth to my aunts Tina and Jenny and my uncle Joe. When they decided to move to the US in 1928, she was pregnant with Frank, her 10th pregnancy. And after they arrived, she would have four more: Bernard, Domenico (my dad), Mary Ann, and Josephine!
They were supposed to go to San Francisco to settle, but when the ship arrived in Boston, my grandmother was very ill. They were just going to stay until she felt better, but ended up settling permanently in the old West End of Boston, a multi-ethnic neighborhood of apartments and triple-deckers that no longer exists, a victim of urban renewal.
About my grandparents: Nanu was a serious card player. He would play a card game called Sweep with Nana, and he would study his cards carefully before he would throw a card down. But it would take Nana just a few seconds to throw hers. And she would win most of the games. It was said that Nanu would throw the cards across the room when he lost, but that may just be apocryphal, although I have also heard that he once threw the whole deck of cards out the window.
Nanu continued to fish, both from the fish pier in Boston and from Gloucester. He would be gone for days at a time, and when the boat returned to port, he would go to a local fraternal club or other such place nearby, where he would shower and dress in his suit so he would come home looking handsome and respectable for Nana. Wherever he first saw her, he would stop to kiss her whether it was in the kitchen or on the doorstep or in the street. Aunt Mary Ann says her friends would taunt her, “I saw your daddy kissing your mommy in the street!”
When Nanu retired from fishing in 1965, the boat captain said he would need two men half his age to replace him. But Nanu wasn’t done working and got a job at Mass. General Hospital as an orderly, where he worked for another decade.
In January 1976, he was admitted to that same hospital to deal with blood clots in his left leg. On January 22, he was released to go home and his daughters-in-law Lee and Nanette picked him up to take him to my aunt Jenny’s house, which was just down the street from Nanu and Nana’s house. He walked up the stairs to see Nana waiting for him and walked right up to her, embraced her, and kissed her as he always did when coming home. But this time when he kissed her, he fell at her feet, dying from an aneurysm. My aunt tells me that his wedding band flew from his finger as he fell.
I’ve heard many stories about my grandfather, a man who was short in stature and tall in confidence and pride and love and dedication to his family. Like how he worked in the Ford Motor plant in Detroit on the assembly line for a time, where he had to stand on a box to reach his work, which was noticed and commented on by Mr. Ford who had come to tour the plant.
But perhaps his greatest legacy is the family he and Nana made: 14 children, 27 grandchildren, 55 great grandchildren, 14 great, great grandchildren (and counting), and 1 great, great, great grandchild (and counting).
Corrections: The family was headed to San Francisco, not San Diego. There’s also some question about whether there were three sets of twins or just six boys. I think the twins is more plausible given the amount of time involved, but just saying six is also correct, if more vague.
More Corrections: They came to the US in 1928, not 1929. My grandfather was born in 1889 and my grandmother in 1896 and were married in 1913. He first came to the US when he was 15 in 1904. His job with Ford was in Detroit.
- Lulu-Nanno-Nanna.e09ba234ccee47ecb5d5a37184cd63bb: Own photo