I’VE BEEN WATCHING A social science experiment unfold over the past few decades. Yeah, I’m old. But the subjects of this experiment were older and have recently passed away. I’m writing about my father, Nuccio (formal name Antonino) and his slightly older brother Ignazio. It’s heartbreaking that we lost these two wonderful souls in the space of just a couple of months, but it’s given me a chance to don my political scientist hat and reflect on the lives they led. [Post continues below the photo.]
FIRST, THE CVs. Ignazio, born October 1928 in Palermo, Sicily, and a resident until his recent death. He was a widower, married to a great woman named Elena Beghin, who came from Treviso in the Veneto, within bike riding distance of Venice. The other was my father, Nuccio, born March 1930, also in Palermo. He emigrated to the United States in 1955 and was also widowed, married to my mom, Angelina Ancona, born on the Lower East Side of New York City. Nuccio lived in Brooklyn, then Staten Island, and finally moved to Eastern Pennsylvania when he retired. Ignazio lived in the same neighborhood all his life, bar a stint in the Italian army.
The two brothers might as well have been twins. Looking at photos of them from the mid-’50s, Elena told me she couldn’t tell them apart. (I can; Ignazio had angled eyebrows while Nuccio were rounded.) Ignazio was studious and high-strung. Nuccio was a party animal, not so studious. As a boy, he was tasked with guiding his brother back to bed when he sleep-walied around their apartment . As a result, my father was always a light sleeper. Their voices were almost identical—Ignazio, who was an army radio operator, spoke passable English, making the voice resemblance even stronger.
The two brothers each had three children. You can almost say that we kids came in pairs. So, my cousin Giorgio and I are only a little more than a year apart. My sister and Giorgio’s sister Assunta were born the same year, as were my brother Chuck and our cousin Loredana. Both brothers worked in electronic factories, too, serving in various foreman/supervisory capacities. They made enough to support their families, and weren’t rich but never were hungry. Both families lived a middle-class existence.
I’ve established that these dudes were remarkably alike. So how were they different? Simple: Ignazio stayed in Italy, and Nuccio left. And it’s fascinating to see how that affected just about everything in their lives. I’ve been tracking these two over the decades, as first unconsciously, but in the past couple of decades I thought more methodically of their parallel lives as a sort of horse race. Who led a more comfortable, spiritually richer life? Was there a winner? Can you even call the race?
I’ll get to the verdict straight away. Ignazio started out in a more precarious place materially, but all things equal, he ended up ahead. And it’s entirely due to how the United States and Europe treated their populations over the year. In fact, I’ll go further and say that Nuccio was far ahead early on, but the lack of worker protections and a comprehensive healthcare scheme in the U.S. eroded his lead decades ago.
LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING of the race. Both brothers served in the Italian army in the 1950s, but my father was discharged in 1955. That will serve as our opening shot.
Nuccio married my American mother and moved to New York. I was born shortly after, and we lived at first in the same neighborhood my mother called home, Brooklyn’s East New York. My father first worked in a shoe factory, and then, happily for me, found a job at a small, family owned toymaker. After obtaining U.S. citizenship in 1960, we moved to a little Cape Cod house on Staten Island. My sister had come along by then. The house was what was called a starter home, with an unfinished basement and attic. My parents were constant home improvers. The attic became terrific big bedrooms for my sister and me Patios were built and expanded. A huge garden supplied a lot of our vegetables.
Materially, we weren’t deprived of anything. My mother was really good at controlling the budget and my father got a better job after the toy company. (I was proud of him, but at the same time hated that I wouldn’t be a test subject for the toymaker’s new products.) The used cars eventually gave way to new, bigger models. And our backyard kiddie pool turned into a bigger one that we could actually swim in, so our childhood summers were basically spent in water and outdoors in general. It was a good life, and my father, while working hard, was living a version of the American Dream throughout the 1960s, into the early and 1970s.
Meanwhile in Italy, Ignazio was still in the army and he and Elena were a number, They had a kid but kept it on the down low because he wanted to stay in the army; Palermo at that time wasn’t a good place for a young guy to find a good job, In fact, the early 1960s, once he hung up the uniform, was a time of writing letters to employers and friends of friends who might help him get a job. The young family lived with my grandparents, which was not an easy situation for my aunt, who was used to the personal freedoms enjoyed by young women up north. Finally, at some point Ignazio got a job at a factory run by the Italian state telephone monopoly, and the family moved to apartments of their own, not far from where the two brothers grew up,
At this point, for my American friends, I should describe apartment living in Italy, Most Italians don’t live in freestanding houses; they live in apartments in cities and towns. But the dwellings aren’t transient places where young adults live while they save up for a house in the ‘burbs. They tend to be bigger than most New York apartments, which multiple bedrooms, baths, and terraces. A lot of them have doormen and gardens. Italians tend to be more social in their daily lives in general, with outdoor bars and spaces frequented as an integral part of daily life. You can almost say it’s the Italian Dream, except Italians are too realistic to think of everyday life as a dream; they believe that they’re fully entitled to what they have.
So at this point, the brothers are evenly matched. But not for long. Ignazio’s wife worked for some years too as the kids got older. They had family living in the same apartment complex who could keep an eye on them. They bought their apartment when it went up for sale; they accrued a nest egg. Regular raises and a new national healthcare system solidified these gains. One of Ignazio’s kids went to the local university, which was free to attend, except for fees and living expenses. He got a degree. In Italy, homeowners don’t pay real estate taxes on their primary dwelling. In general, Ignazio and his family were part of the general rise in the standard of living for most Europeans. He retired with most of his pre-retirement income, and was able to help his kids out.
Meanwhile, Nuccio saw his wages stagnate, like a lot of American workers did. The new cars became nearly unaffordable. My sister and I did go to college, but we went to the city university because our parents couldn’t afford to send us away Nuccio actually was subjected to a salary cut while the family-owned company he worked for sold its Soho headquarters for millions; he was eventually forced out and retired on Social Security with a small nest egg. It was a humiliating end to a lifetime of work. My parents sold their house in Staten Island and moved to a much cheaper one in the Poconos. Still, they had to pay hefty real estate taxes, largely because of the decentralized way schools are funded in the U.S. Life for my parents was much more of a struggle than it was for his brother, in general.
Ignazio was part of Italy’s highly rated national healthcare system. Nuccio and his wife got Medicare, which they had to supplement with Part B insurance. My father, dutiful as always, was left paying a huge hospital bill for my mother’s terminal stay,
Every now and then my father would express regrets that he left his homeland. His English was never great, and I think that, along with a general fear of new environments, held him back. He did tell me once, “Maybe I would’ve lived better over there. But I made my choice with you and your mother, and I did my best to make sure we had a good life.”
You can make your own judgment about this tale of two siblings. There are lots of variables, and the big one is how being an immigrant in the U.S. shapes the life you lead. But I also believe that it says a lot, and nothing great, about how a guy who worked hard all his life and did all the right things, found himself in much worse shape as he got older. He had to leave the home he raised his family in, and ended up living in a much harsher environment just to make ends meet.