Monday, January 3, 2022

Poem: The Children of Immigrants

Maria, brother Alex, and sister Laura

The Children of Immigrants  

The children of immigrants don't know their ancestors
except through blue airmail letters—
my father's mother, my mother's mother.
They are vague outlines that will never be filled in
except in a photograph.
They are all dressed in black, always in mourning,
so they had to wear black for a year or two
even if they were young women,
black through hot Italian summers, even black stockings.
My mother's mother was thin and frail-looking
with a sweet face. My father's mother was sturdy
and full-faced, her long thick hair pulled back
in a knot at the back of her head. She was not smiling.
We have another picture of her,
a studio photograph in a mahogany frame
where she is posed next to my grandfather.
They do not touch. She is wearing a black dress
with a small lace collar. He is dressed in a black suit,
a shirt with a stiffly starched collar, dark tie.
They are both staring into the camera.

At ninety-two, my father told me his father had deserted
my grandmother and their children when she was twenty-four,
that he had gone to Argentina and had never come back.
My grandmother's face had revealed nothing.
Pride had kept her head held high in that mountain village
where everyone knew her husband had forgotten her,
where she had to support her children by doing fine needlework
while the priest's housekeeper brought them food from the rectory.

Children of immigrants pick up bits and pieces
over the years to create a picture.
My father had tried to protect his sisters
from my grandmother's rage. She would beat them,
his sisters who were all six feet tall.
My five-foot-three-inch father would step
between his mother and sisters
and he would end up tied to the bed.

My father was blessed with a forgiving nature—
he never was angry with my grandmother.
My father wrote to her often,
sent packages of food and clothes
that my mother would wrap in white cloth,

then sew together and seal the edges with red sealing wax,
so no one at the post office could open the package
before it reached my grandmother.

We also heard my grandfather had a new wife in Argentina.
What part of these women might also be a part of me, part of my children?
What did they love? How much had they cried
when their own children left home for America 
and they never saw them again? 

This poem also appeared on

Maria Mazziotti Gillan's new poetry collection is When the Stars Were Still Visible (2021). Other recent publications are the poetry and photography collection, Paterson Light and Shadow and the poetry collections What Blooms in Winter and The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets which pairs her poems with her paintings. Maria's artist's website is and her poetry website is

No comments:

Post a Comment