America is a country full of immigration stories about ambitious but penniless foreigners who forsake the security of family, friends, familiar customs and a common language to start over for the hope of making a better life for themselves and their children. But Joe DiPietro gives this plot a thought-provoking twist in his play “Over the River and Through the Woods,” and though it was four years ago that I saw the production at Tacoma Little Theatre, the message has stuck with me.
“Every Christmas morning,” Frank said, “on the cobblestones in town, there would appear this—this sea of vendors—their carts covered with toys—and what I remember the most is the colors—bright reds and blues and oranges—like a rainbow of toys. And my father would carry me in his arms and take me to the first cart, and he’d point to some tiny, dark toy, while I’d point to the biggest and most colorful, but my father would shake his head “no” and we’d move on to the next . . . and we’d do that again and again until we had gone to each cart. And then he’d buy me some little gray toy I barely wanted, and I’d start crying, and he’d carry me back into our house. I always resented him for that—hated him for that.”
And when Frank’s father finally did scrape together a few lire, what did he do with it? He put his scared 14-year-old son on a ship to America, all alone, “and said ‘good-bye, that’s where you’re gonna live.’ I hated him for that, too.”
Starting life from scratch in an unfamiliar country is a daunting task, but most immigrants at least do it by choice. They realize full well what they are doing and why. It took Frank most of his life to understand what his own heartless father had been thinking. Frank found a good job, married and had children of his own, though he still remembered with bitterness the hardships he had been through first as a little boy growing up desperately poor, and then being sent away when he was still barely out of childhood. Shortly after Frank came to America, though, his father got tangled in a fishing net, hit his head on the side of the boat and was never found.
“Eight years from the day he sent me away,” Frank told his grandson, “I returned to my hometown so my mother and sisters could meet my new family. It was during the holidays, and on Christmas morning, I took your mother in my arms and carried her outside, and there they were—all the vendors, like they never left—with all their blue and red and beautiful toys. And your mother pointed to the brightest and prettiest, and any one she’d point at, I bought for her. And when we came back in, our arms full with this rainbow of toys, my mother took one look and said: ‘That’s what your father wished he could do! But we barely had enough to buy food on Christmas. That’s why he had to send you away. So you could make for yourself a life he could never give you.’ ”
Every spare centesimi his father saved had gone to send his son to America, where he could escape the condemnation of a life of poverty and desperation. Instead of despising his son, as Frank had assumed, his father had loved him so much that he had been willing to trade a life with his son and grandchildren nearby for the knowledge that he had done the best he could do to give them a future.
“I always thought my father was a bastard who wouldn’t give me anything,” Frank concluded. “Turns out—he was giving me all he had.”
The story is partly autobiographical, so these events likely actually occurred. And while DiPietro came from an Italian family, the story has broader application. In a New York Times interview, DiPietro said, “This is my family, but it’s all ethnic groups.”