A Little Help with Fate
If a stranger said you would be forced from your home, would you believe it?
If a stranger told you to run, would you do it?
Or, would you hesitate?
Those few precious seconds could cost you everything.
Or maybe nothing at all.
When the German Army invaded the small town of Coreno, Italy, Joseph Biagiotti and his family were not prepared for their world to be turned upside down. Had someone told them to run, they weren’t sure how they would react. They might have hesitated. They might not have.
In the end, it would not have made a difference.
There was no outrunning fate.
The soldier, broad shouldered and heavily armed, smelled of cigarette smoke and cheap, day-old beer. It stung Joseph’s nostrils and caused him to suck in a deep, sharp breath. The soldier didn’t seem to notice. His eyes, a blue so pale they looked almost gray, were hollow, as if he were numb to his actions.
As if he had done this a dozen times before.
Now, two months after the Germans had infiltrated their town, they were again being forced from their home. This time, Joseph did not think they would be living in a small mountain home.
“Mama, dove stiamo andando,”his younger sister Josephine whispered, half hysterical with fear and confusion. Where were they going?
“Shhh, Pina, per favore,” Mama whispered as the soldier escorting them glared.
But Joseph knew that wasn’t the only reason for silence as they were half pushed and half-climbed onto a truck. They didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. The first time they had been escorted, they had been forced onto a sweat-smelling, filled-to-the-breaking-point train. This time, it was only a truck, but as the door slammed shut behind them with a bang and Pina let out a small squeak, Joseph wondered which was worse. A cramped truck or a cramped train?
“Mama. Ho paura.” Pina’s rail-thin frame, caused by not eating enough, shook.
Joseph was scared too, but he couldn’t let it show. He must be strong for Pina and his mama. They hadn’t heard from their papa, who had gone to America to make money--in months--and Joseph was starting to think he would never hear his papa’s voice again.
“Silenzio, Pina,” their Mama hissed, lest the soldiers just outside the door hear.
“Come ti chiami,” a gentle voice said from beside them. In the dim lighting through the boxed window, the barbed shadows looked like the elongated canines of a feral beast. Joseph vaguely made out the dim figure of a nun in full habit, a twin figure directly behind her. Why did they want to know his mama’s name?
“Maria. They want to drop us at a refugee camp. We will ask to go to a hospital associated with our order. We will tell them you are our servant,” the nun explained in Italian.
“Perché?” Why would they help them, of all the people they had spent the last two months with?
The nun seemed to stand up straighter at the question. “Perché?Because they will not take the little children.”
His mama nodded, wide-eyed and stiff with fear. But underneath the pin-straight spine, Joseph noted an undercurrent of relief, the hand he felt clenching his own heart releasing just a bit. They were not going to disappear. They would go with the nuns, and then they would find a way to go to Rome.
When the train stopped, Joseph and his family got off the train with the nuns. The gray eyed guard was nowhere to be found.
They did not return.
When Joseph and his family arrived at the hospital, Mother Superior sent them to the convent. After days of waiting, a nun from the hospital came to get them. Joseph did not remember much of what happened that day, but somehow they managed to arrive in Rome. They were supposed to leave right away, but the Italian racial laws declared by Mussolini caused them to lose all their money and property. And so, Joseph had spent three years playing baseball and selling cannellini beans for almost nothing to save enough money to come to America and reunite with their papa.
And now, as he entered la scuola superiore, he was going to be put in a lower class because of his poor English. Because he had missed three years of school.
Well, Joseph would have none of that. He would read all of the comic books in the world if that’s what it took for his English to improve.
The fire of determination lit within his heart, Joseph sat down beside Carlo, his first friend in America. His only friend in America. His paisano.
“Hello, Carlo,” Joseph said, his voice barely recognizable even to himself.
“Ciao, Joseph,” Carlo said in corresponding Italian. Reading the worry on his face, Carlo said, “Do not worry, Joseph. I will help you with your English.”
“Grazie,” Joseph whispered.
Years later and working toward his degree in electrical engineering, Joseph held Sandy’s hand in his own.
“Sandy, let’s get married.”
Sandy paused, her body went still with surprise. “We can’t get married. It’s only been two months!”
Joseph smiled. He knew she would say that. Who wouldn’t say that? But he knew what he wanted, and she was a part of that. He knew how short life is, how the many dips and turns sneak up on you. He had sworn to himself, on that train and then on that truck many years ago, that he would not waste a second of it.
“Yes, but I know what I want and I do not want to waste a second more.”
Her eyes, like sun-warmed soil, seemed to soften at that, and she smiled her response.
Joseph shouldered open the door to their house, Sandy carrying Marguerite in the car seat behind. Their third child and their second daughter.
Their five-year-old son, Emilio, named after Joseph’s father, was waiting by the door. Maria, her grandmother’s namesake, stood beside him, dark curls framing an innocent face. Maria tiptoed over to where her mother now held Marguerite in her arms, staring at the small body. She touched the tip of one tiny toe, as though the child might break at even the gentlest of touches.
Unlike his sister, Emilio approached the newborn child as a boy on a mission. He bent over to speak to her, and the baby opened her eyes, as if she recognized her older brother. Emilio glared down at the child. “I’m the king here. I’m the king.”
On July 20, 1969, Joseph watched as the lunar module, the project he had worked on for several long years as an employee of Grumman Aerospace Corporation, landed on the moon. Marguerite, now three, clapped her hands in that child-ike fashion as Emilio and Maria ran around the room and Sandy rocked Joann, their third daughter, to sleep. He felt tears begin to rise as Marguerite was knocked down and started wailing, not at the momentary suffering of his daughter but at the joy he felt at the scene around him. How had he become so lucky?
“Dad, meet your grandchildren,\ Matthew Joseph and Lauren Samantha.”
Joseph smiled at the twin infants. He reached out a hand for the boy—Matthew Joseph. A gift from God, his middle name Joseph’s own. His eighth and ninth grandchildren. And twins!
His grandson grasped his finger, the boy’s grip tighter than Joseph expected from a premature baby. He was bigger than his sister, although not by much. The girl, Lauren Samantha, named after her other grandfather Salvatore, began to scream with a fierceness that shouldn’t belong in such tiny lungs.
She would be a fierce one, Joseph knew. But the fierce ones always grew up to be the strong ones. His daughter was the perfect example of that.
“May I?” Joseph asked his daughter, glancing down at his granddaughter.
Marguerite just waved her hand, her eyes slipping shut for a moments rest.
Joseph reached for his tiny granddaughter, making sure to support her head. Holding his grandchildren never got old. Lauren Samantha stopped her wailing and opened her eyes as he began to rock her gently back and forth. It felt like only yesterday that his daughter Marguerite had opened her eyes as Emilio leaned over her. He had told his children that story, about Emilio being the king, and one day he would tell his grandchildren. His story would become their story and tales would be added on throughout the years to come.
Joseph could only pray he was there to see them.
If a stranger said you would have four children and thirteen grandchildren, would you believe it?
Would you say the person was crazy?
Or would you call it fate?
Fate often lies within ourselves.
But sometimes, it lies within the stars as well.