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Families

Michael Supino

On August 19, 1954, approximately one month shy of my sixth birthday, my mother, Teresina DiGirolamo, and most of my siblings, Michelina, Joseph Carmela, Domenico, and I (Michelangelo) left the small rural town of Provvidenti in the Campobasso region of Italy. We were heading for Naples to embark on a ship to join my father, Francesco Supino, and older brother Antonio in Montreal.

Southern Italy was an economically depressed region. Out father, with a growing family and limited resources, had no other option than to immigrate to Canada as countless thousands had done before him.

Three years prior to our departure, he set out for Canada with his strong faith in God and a relentless drive to succeed. Our father's vision of a better life for himself and his family was such that he left his loved ones and those that were dear to him. How difficult and heart wrenching it must have been for him…to uproot oneself from everything that is dear to one's heart and to begin all over in a new land!

When our father finally sent for us, dozens of our relatives and friends joined my aunts, uncles and grandparents in a farewell embrace. Oh how it must have hurt my grandparents knowing that they would never see us again! Amid all this commotion and tears, I was left on the periphery and snatched up at the last minute so that I would not be left behind.

I remember the bustle of Naples and the streets crowded with people. My grandfather accompanied us to Naples. He was a veteran of many a crossings between Naples and Halifax. He spent over 30 years working in Canada and returned home very few years to visit. He retired to Italy just the year before we left. He helped us find a "pensions" that catered to people emigrating from Italy.

This was a fascinating experience for a six-year-old boy. We stayed on the third floor of the pernsione. It was the highest building I had ever been in. To buy fresh produce form the third story, a basket was lowered on a rope from the balcony to the vendor below. He took the money and replaced it with whatever you yelled for.

On August 21, we boarded the ship “Homeland.” The decks of the ship were full of people waving frantically back. My mother kept telling me to wave to my grandfather but I couldn't. I could not see him in that sea of humanity. I remember being very disappointed at not being able to see him.

The crossing of the Mediterranean Sea was calm and uneventful. Soon we came to an enormous mountain. My older brother, Joseph, told me that this was Gibraltar, our last link to the European Continent.

For the next ten days we crossed the Atlantic and encountered motion sickness. I seem to recall that everyone was ill. No one was eating. Even to this day the smell of vegetable soup can still make me feel queasy and turn my stomach.

My mother was very concerned about her young brood. The ship was huge and she was afraid that we would get lost, hurt or fall into the ocean. Her fewer of such a vast body of water did not make things easier. I can still recall one dark cold night when the ship's captain ordered everyone on deck with his/her life jackets. It must have really affected my mother. I'm sure it crossed her mind on how would she cope in the event of an emergency with five children to worry about. The motion of the ship going up and down seemed endless. Just when it felt like the voyage would never end, the Canadian coastline was spotted.

On September 1, we arrived at the Port of Halifax. The confusion of disembarking and collecting luggage at Pier 21 was just excitement to us children. I can recall as if it was yesterday sitting on the slated wooden benches, waiting for our turn to be processed. During this waiting period, we tasted our first carbonated orange pop and the mulit-flavoured and colored "Life Savers" candy wrapped in a roll of equally colored paper.

In the confusion of trying to speak to the custom and the immigration people, we were helped by a Roman Catholic priest that my mother had befriended on the ship. He translated to the officials the necessary pieces of information that are imperative for such procedures. He was able to expedite things for us. He wished us well as he referred to us as the little sheep and to my mother as the Shepard.

The last part of our trip was the long train ride from Halifax to Montreal - of sleeping on coach seats and anticipating seeing my father and older brother, of whom we had not seen for a couple of years. We arrived in Montreal in September, the beginning of the school year. A few days later, my siblings and I found ourselves in different classrooms not speaking a word of English and not understanding anything going on around us. We must have either been terrified or dumbfounded. Either way it was not much of a difference.

This ended the beginning of our journey. The rest of the journey would be for us to integrate into the Canadian family with all its values and richness. A year after our arrival, my older sister Lina, and her husband and baby girl would join us in Montreal. Later, in 1957, the youngest member of our family, our sister, Anna, would be born.

Most of us were educated in the public school system. Some of us obtained University degrees and even Master's degrees. These are things that we value, for we know our father could not have provided this for us in Italy. Adjusting to Canada was not easy. There were some hard times. But we stuck with it and worked at it. We value the opportunities ahead of them. They are still too young to realize the great transformation that I, their father, went through. They have a mother who is of English-Irish-Germanic-French background going back many generations in Canada. This reflects the richness of Canada. They are fortunate that their father and grandparents took on this precious challenge to come to Canada to make a better life for themselves and their descendants.

Today forty-eight years after arriving in Halifax, I still am enthralled at the luck we have had in coming to this country and of being accepted by Canada. I often wonder what would have been our fate if we had stayed in Italy. Would we have achieved as much? I don't think so. I am now in my thirtieth year of teaching mathematics in St. Lambert, QC. Hardly a week goes by without my thinking about this wonderful journey that we undertook so long ago. I often think of how integrated I have become. My students have no knowledge of my background. I have no accent or stereotypic features. Just my name is "different". I have become one of 'them'. Occasionally, one of my students will ask me if I'm Italian. I reply, 'I'm Canadian', just like them. That a little boy, who left Italy for the grand adventure full of fear and wonderment, is now their math teacher and is accepted as normal part of their lives is truly amazing. Would they be surprised if they knew this about me? Or, would they accept this as being typically Canadian?

My siblings have done equally well. One of my brothers is an accountant. The other two brothers are partners in a successful landscaping business. Three of my four sisters are married to equally productive and successful men. The number of Canadian-born second-generation children in our family is an astonishing nineteen. They are professionals in engineering, nursing, banking, education, and merchandising. They in turn have 12 children of their own. All are fully integrated into the Canadian way of life. They love being Canadian citizens. They often travel outside the country. Some have been to Italy. But, they are always happy and content to return home to Canada.

We owe a great deal to our father. More than fifty years after his arrival to these hospitable shores of Canada, we still marvel at his courage, his ability to adapt to a different language and culture, and succeed in raising a family with the same morals, values, and work ethic with which he was raised. This was his legacy to his children.

To our father and mother, for their boundless sacrifices and support, we are truly grateful and thankful. For without them our lives would most surely be different today.

To Canada, we are also grateful, for allowing us the opportunity to become part of this great nation; for accepting us for what we were and for allowing us to become what we are, proud Canadians.

Michael A Supino, BA, M.Ed, 2002