The war and child adoption separated father and daughter for many years.
About 1912, my father, Joe Miceli, left Sicily, Italy, and came with his mother and a younger brother, Sam, to New York City. The young men had been working in a sulfur mine-a filthy, dangerous place to work.
"When I was about 6 years of age," he later told me, "your mother, Mary, who was my cousin, took a tomato can, added a few beans and gave it to me. This custom was regarded as a sign that she would be my sweetheart and we would someday be married. She and I sent letters back and forth across the ocean."
When Mary was 12, she and her mother, Rosa Rombola, along with two older sisters, Sadie and Millie, and a brother came to New York City and made their home with father's family, the Micelis.
Mary was large for her age and found a job in a laundry. Shortly after that Joe and Mary were married.
"A few months later, my wife, Mary, gave birth to you and your twin, Joseph," Father explained. "Because she was not given the proper care and enough food, she and your brother died.
"I tried to make a home for you, but I was drafted into the United States Army and sent to France. I left without seeing you because you were with your mother's family-the Rombolas. They too were very poor and had several small children. One more mouth to feed was not exactly what they needed.
"Soon you became very ill and had to be taken to Bellevue Hospital. Your grandmother went to visit you as often as she could but because she could not even afford the nickel for the car fare, it was necessary to place you in a foundling home.
"I was sitting in a Red Cross shelter drinking coffee somewhere in France a few weeks before the Armistice was signed. A letter came from your grandmother telling me that she could not take care of you any longer and that the nurses told her you had been taken to a foundling home. They told her that as soon as I came home from the war they would help me trace you.
"Two years later I was discharged. The first place I went to was the institution. They told me how sorry they were, but a mistake had been made in the records. You had been adopted and they could not tell me where you were. I was furious. I lost my head and was arrested for disturbing the peace. From that time on I searched. I wrote letters-hundreds of them. I begged newspapers to publish articles in which pictures of my daughter could be printed. Some of them did, and I will show them to you. I wrote to Fiorello La Guardia, also called "The Little Flower." At that time he was serving in the United States House of Representatives. Later he became famous as the mayor of New York City.
"I wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt. She answered personally to tell me how sorry she was, but there was nothing she could do. Then I picketed the mayor's office and was carried off to jail.
"I continued my search and spent a great deal of money hiring lawyers and detectives. I went to court several times and always the case was dismissed. Because of my frustrations and the actions that resulted I was sent to a mental institution for six months. From there I wrote to Al Capone, my countryman, but received no reply.
"By then I had remarried and had several children. A judge reminded me that I was having difficulty raising my family. He asked me why I wanted the other child. I told him that if he lost his dog, he would have 100 police out looking for it, but because I lost my daughter while fighting for this country, you call me crazy and want to lock me up.
"A month ago a man came into my cigar store. He bought 10 boxes of hand-rolled cigars. On the same day he returned and purchased 15 more boxes. The next day he came in for 20 more boxes and told me that he was a private detective. I gave him $100 and asked him to have a doctor at the New York Foundling Home sign a paper so I could look at my daughter's records. I received a letter from the foundling home. They said that they knew where Mary was. She was well, but that was all they could tell me. However, they would write to her and give her a chance to contact me.
"Two weeks later you called your grandmother. She said they didn't have a daughter named Mary. You were very excited and told them you lived in Ohio, but didn't give them your address or telephone number.
"Two days before this happened, my youngest brother, your Uncle Sam, died. I had closed my store out of respect, but I went over to check my mail. Your grandfather, Angelo Rombola, was there. He offered me a chair and said, 'Joe, your daughter called today. She is coming here to see you.' My heart went up like a broomstick.
"Three days later I received a letter from you. There were pictures of you and your husband. I was so excited I didn't know what I was doing. I bought a few bottles of wine and gave a drink to all my friends with a little special whiskey for me. I closed the store and took a cab to Grand Central Station. I didn't even take time to change my work clothes. I bought a ticket for the first train to Toledo, Ohio. The train was one hour late. I didn't know what to do. I bought a few drinks at the station.
"At 11:00 p.m., we finally left New York City. At 1:00 p.m. we arrived in Toledo. Should I take a taxi? No, I wouldn't want to surprise her and make her sick. I called from the phone at the depot. Your husband answered.
"Who is calling?"
"How are you and your family?"
"They are all fine. I am in Toledo. I just got off the train." "Stay where you are. I'll be right down to get you."
"Will you know me if you see me?"
"Yes, I think so, because last night I saw your picture." "Where is my daughter?"
"She went to church but will be home very soon, probably before we get there."
"When we arrived at the house you were there. You nodded to your husband and then you saw me. You said, 'This is my father.'
"I was so happy. I told you to call your grandfather and my sister, Racial, who is your godmother. Racial asked where I was. She said that they were holding Sunday dinner for me. I heard you proudly say, 'He is here in Toledo with me, his daughter.'"
The Friday morning after Thanksgiving we arrived in a snowy New York City. Already the stores were raising the heavy black gates to display their wares. Trucks were unloading racks of clothing, which were being rolled into the stores. Street vendors were arranging fruits and other groceries in stalls.
My husband, father, foster-mother, Sarah, and I were en route on the dirty streets of Manhattan by taxicab. I relived the long night on the train. Dim lights overhead created phantomlike figures that silently moved in the aisle. Once my father woke me as he gently placed a fresh pillow under my head.
About 2:30 a.m. I made my way down the perilous darkened aisle, dodging limbs here and there that extended from sleepy passengers attempting to obtain some kind of rest. When I entered the dingy, tiny cubicle of a bathroom, I sat on a short stool and surveyed myself in the cracked mirror. "What are you doing here?" I asked myself. "What do you know about this man and the people where you are going? Will they accept you?"
We alighted from the cab in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge. My father paid the driver. He directed us to a basement apartment on 123rd Street. He signaled me to ring the bell. A lady about my age opened the door. I stepped back. I felt that I was looking at myself.
"My God, it is Mary. Come in. All of you, come in."
My father said, "This is my daughter, Mary, and here, Mary, is your mother's sister, Sadie. Here are your mama's mother and father, Sadie and Angelo Rombola." He then introduced them to my husband, Fred, and my foster-mother, Sarah.
I soon realized that the doubts that had assaulted me in the rest room on the train were unfounded. I was accepted and so was my family from Toledo.
Over mugs of steaming coffee, stories were exchanged. My mother, Sarah, cried as she listened to my grandmother tell how the family had been separated from her dead daughter's child. On another table a jug of grape wine was being dispatched by the menfolk.
White-haired Grandfather Rombola, supporting himself with a cane, told of the countless times he had accompanied his son-in-law, Joseph, to the authorities and the orphanage. He described visits to the mental hospital where Joe had been sent more than once when he was unable to control himself.
Sadie was overjoyed. She said that she had found another "sister" in me. "I must call your Aunt Millie and the others," she said, and immediately took up the phone inviting all the family to "come and see Mary." Grandma prepared breakfast for all of us. French toast covered with powdered sugar, tall glasses of milk and several kinds of fruit were consumed.
After breakfast, Grandma and Sadie began the preparations for dinner. There would, of course, be meatballs with spaghetti. Grandpa was sent out to purchase the meat and more fruit. This was before Vatican II, when meat on Fridays was forbidden. But in all the excitement nobody remembered, and who could blame them? During the preparations my father filled gaps in the wondrous story with vivid episodes from the past.
It wasn't long before Sadie's sister, Millie, arrived with her husband, Charlie. Again more tears and embraces. She was also in her early 40s.
Aunt Millie's son and his wife arrived, followed by more cousins and neighbors. Coffee and fruits were offered, and soon the small kitchen was crowded. The jug of red wine was on the table without a cork. By that time some members from my father's side (Miceli) of the family had arrived. They too were very happy for my father and his daughter. My godmother was excited and said, "Now we'll see Joe smile again."
It was decided to rent a hall and invite everyone who wanted to share the good luck. On Saturday evening, more relatives and friends gathered, some with gifts, all with good will, pasta, cakes, Italian cookies and wine to share.
Our visit lasted three days, with people coming each day. Finally, late Sunday night, my husband and mother left with me. We were laden with gifts and good wishes for our home in Toledo, Ohio.
My father came to the train with us, and the last glimpse I had of him was a smiling face mouthing the words, "I'll come and visit you soon." When I went to the rest room on that home-bound trip, my heart was much lighter; I realized that the reunion was a long awaited answer to my prayers.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.
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