I met with Ferdinando firstly. Ferdie, as he is affectionately known, is from Pisa, Italy. He has a great face, one where all his goodness and kindness is imprinted upon it. We talked over lunch at Bar Mercurio about my dad and the other newly arrived immigrants who traveled on that ship. I was fascinated by his enthusiasm and knowledge of the ship. Please see below for a short history of the ship.
In the course of our discussion I mentioned to Ferdie how so many things were leading me back to memories of my father. I had just published my book Made Up of Arias a few months before and the father figure was a key character for me, bringing up a great deal of emotion from the past - some good, some sad. The Saturnia project brought back many memories for me.
This same space now had a brick exterior facade at the front of the house and the windows were removed which shut out all natural light. It felt like a bunker (to protect whom, I wondered, the men from the outside world that had changed so drastically since 1957?) and because of all the modest mementos that were placed on the walls, it reminded me a bit of a small museum I had been to in Holguin, Cuba, more than twenty years ago commemorating the revolution or praising some long dead revolutionary hero. Whose hero? My hero from long ago?
The President's sharp-tongued response had saddened me but it angered me even more. Of everyone in the group assembled there, he had wisely selected me, the daughter of an old friend (now long deceased) to chastise because I was the most appropriate target for his anger. And there I stood, on the wrong side of forty (as a friend of mine would say tongue in cheek), standing like a gob struck teenager who had been caught out doing something shameful.
I am Sicilian, a fellow Racalmutese, and a younger woman, and therefore very low on the totem pole in his eyes – I should have been more respectful, more deferential about our lateness even though it had nothing to do with me and I had never met this man before.
Reluctantly, I admit that all of my musings surrounding the creation of the Francesco character in my novel We Were Like You, the documentary about the Saturnia trip, even my own personal history is largely a romantic fabrication smothered in nostalgia and selective memories. But then that’s how Italian families so famously endure isn't it? We are known for our strong emotional bonds that no one can rip apart. Amnesia is the glue that holds us together and sometimes ... it is even stronger than love.
According to my new friend Ferdie and the Pier 21 website, the Saturnia was built in 1935 and was used as a luxury liner. That year it was also used as a troop transport for the Italian government to Eritrea. During WWII, it was chartered for the International Red Cross for evacuation voyages from East Africa. In 1943, after Italy's capitulation to the Allies it was renamed the Francis Y. Slanger and became a hospital ship. Returned to the Italian Line in 1946, the original name was restored. It resumed transatlantic sailing until 1965, when it was withdrawn from service and scrapped the next year.