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Nicholas Ambrose

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Nicholas Victor Ambrose (Vito Nicola Ambrosecchia) was born in Corleto Perticara, Italy in 1904. When he was eight, he migrated to the United States with his mother and brothers to rejoin his father in Connecticut. He lived in Boston, California, Virginia, Panama, and Argentina before marrying his wife Anna and raising a family in Brooklyn.

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My grandparents lived in the town of Matera, in Southern Italy, at the top of a hill overlooking the dry valley of the Gravina River. They lived in i Sassi, neighborhoods built right into the side of the mountain, where thousands of people lived in unsanitary, primitive conditions. The shocking poverty of this place inspired a remarkable description in Carlo Levi’s famous memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli.

“I could see into the caves, whose only light came in through the front doors. I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds, and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lay dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs. And there they sleep all together; men, women, children, and animals…

… I saw children sitting on the doorsteps, in the dirt, while the sun beat down on them, with their eyes half-closed and their eyelids red and swollen; flies crawled across the lids, but the children stayed quite still, without raising a hand to brush them away… They had trachoma… I saw other children with the wizened faces of old men, their bodies reduced by starvation almost to skeletons, their heads crawling with lice and covered with scabs. Most of them had enormous, dilated stomachs and faces yellow and worn with malaria.”

Over time, almost the entire population emigrated. Today, quiet and picturesque, this is a Unesco World Heritage Site, but for the people that left, it was a heritage to be erased and supplanted.

My grandparents, Angelo Raffaele and Paola Rosa, were married there and in the year 1900 had their first child in these desperate conditions, at their home with the unlucky sounding address of Street of Seven Sorrows, number thirteen. But like so many others, they felt compelled to move in search of a better life. They joined a group of neighbors who walked every summer 60 miles to a neighboring province, where work could be found on large plantations. That is where my father, Vito Nicola Ambrosecchia, was born, in the town of Corleto Perticara, in 1904. Two years later, the young couple had saved enough money for one transatlantic ticket in steerage. And so on March 30, 1906 my grandfather landed in New York, with twenty dollars in his pocket, enough to ride to Wethersfield, Connecticut, to join his brother Cosimo. 6 years later Angelo Raffaele would be able to bring Paola Rosa and their three growing sons to Connecticut.

My father was eight years old when he came from Matera to live in the big wooden boarding house in Wethersfield. He was enrolled in the local one room schoolhouse a block away, where everything was new to him, the education, the customs, the language. Vito Nicola had the silent stoicism of the mountain people he came from, and I imagine that it was a long time before he uttered much at all in English to these strange classmates.

The decision to settle in Wethersfield was a lucky one for this family. Angelo found work at the Comstock Seed Company as a farm laborer, thus allowing him to continue to work the earth as his ancestors had done for centuries. But it came at a price, and the two immigrants, Angelo and Paola, remained isolated from the world around them, and seemed strange even to their own children. Angelo worked every day in the fields, and Paola cared for their seven children, but they never learned enough English to become a part of this town, and they never saw another town again for as long as they lived.

The children, on the other hand, became Americanized very quickly, and established themselves in the community, starting their own businesses and families. The exception was my father, who had brought a brooding aloofness with him from the other side, from the Street of Seven Sorrows. He left home as a teenager and went alone to Boston. Now Nicholas Victor Ambrose, he joined the U.S. Army for awhile and afterwards drifted from California to Virginia, to Panama and Argentina. On his return here, he met my mother, Anna. She was the daughter of immigrants from Matera, but she was a native of Brooklyn.

My uncle, John Ambrose, born in Wethersfield, my mother's beloved cousin, Giulia, from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and my parents, Anna and Nicholas Victor Ambrose.

Anna got him to settle down in Brooklyn, but on his own terms. His difficult nature made it impossible for him to integrate into the Italian American community he found there, and so he and my mother lived apart from her relatives and compatriots in Bensonhurst and Williamsburg, raising their five children in the dilapidated wood frame neighborhood of Weeksville in Central Brooklyn, among strangers, without the benefits of community and in a poverty few would dare to visit. It was as though they were repeating what their parents had done, working silently and alone, for a future they would never see.