by Betty McDowell, LSW, LAS
Vice President of Ministry Services, Heartbeat International
Mary Anna Russo LaRosa (pictured on the right with her two oldest sons, Frank and Al) could not have imagined how the decision she made 100 years ago in 1921, at the age of 25, to sail from Italy to Ellis Island, NY would shape generations to come.
My grandmother Mary was born in 1896 in Caltanissta Province to Liberio and Concetta Russo and was married off at the age of 13 to my grandfather, Alfonso, who was 13 years her senior. My understanding is that life was very difficult for this young woman as poverty, war, and hopelessness surrounded and invaded her life. Alfonso, my grandfather, headed to the United States in 1914 leaving behind his young wife and two small boys. He left to start a new life in the land of opportunity. The seven years apart proved to be very difficult for Mary and her two young sons as they lived without support from family and suffered hardship upon hardship. As a single, vulnerable mother, Mary became a victim of rape which resulted in a pregnancy and the birth of a son. The shame of rape, the pressure to hide this shame, and the anger of my grandfather (who was informed of the rape and birth of a child through a letter sent to him in the US) resulted in Mary placing her son in the care of another. Mary and her two other sons had to say goodbye to this child, never to see him again.
I have tried to imagine what it must have been like to kiss a baby goodbye, board a ship headed to a land with a language unknown to me and sail the ocean with two young children in the hopes of making my way to a husband not seen in seven years. The anguish, the grief, the fear she must have experienced fills me with compassion for a grandmother I never had the privilege to meet. Mary passed away before I was born but I have cherished the grandmother memories of my older siblings and cousins.
After arriving in the United States and making her way to Cleveland, Ohio, Mary and Alfonso went on to have three more children, my father being one of them. I have been told stories of what a sweet, kind, faith-filled, loving woman my grandmother was. My father once shared with me that his mother lived with a great sadness, but it was not until my adult life that I became aware of just how deep the sadness and how great the pain was she bore throughout her life.
My brave grandmother left quite a legacy. Due to her faith, love of family, willingness to bear shame, poverty, loss, pain, inequality, and prejudice, she provided for and shaped the lives of her six children and 18 grandchildren. Mary’s life has continued to shape the lives of generations she never met, those of the 26 great grandchildren and those of her great great grandchildren as we share her stories with them.
My cousin shared a precious childhood memory of often seeing my grandmother kneeling and praying. I would love to know what Mary carried deep in her heart of faith and I wonder if she prayed for the future generations of her family. I’m guessing she never thought that 100 years after she boarded a ship to America her story would be told, and her bravery celebrated.
This Mother’s Day my family and I will take a moment to honor the memory of brave moms like my grandmother, Mary Russo LaRosa, and pray for the brave moms of today and their future generations.
Happy Mother’s Day 2021!