The Unexpected Living Room Decor Item That Kicked Off a Family History Lesson

updated Nov 20, 2020
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Wooden Trunk from the 1950s

I’ve always been proud of my family’s history as immigrants. My maternal grandmother emigrated from Lebanon as a young girl, while my paternal grandparents came from Italy with several of my father’s siblings in tow. While many aspects of both my Italian and Lebanese cultures were widely discussed and passed down throughout my parents’ respective childhoods (as well as my own), few tangible tokens or family heirlooms were leftover from my grandparents’ lives outside of the United States. 

Anyone with a history of immigration in their family has probably noticed the same thing, especially when the emigrates in question are grandparents or great-grandparents. Often, the ability to bring any creature comforts from the homeland just wasn’t an option. In the case of my Nonni and Nonno, who made their way from the Italian region of Calabria to Ellis Island in 1955, the only possessions they were allowed as members of the “tourist” class, also known as the third class or emigrant class, were two wooden trunks packed to the brim with everything their family of four needed for the nine-day trip to New York City—and for their life beyond. 

Both my Nonni and Nonno passed away early in my childhood, but in many ways their presence in our family is as strong as ever: in the famous “Nonni cookie” my aunt bakes for family gatherings, in the charming catchphrases of my Nonni’s that my cousins and I repeat to each other frequently still (Our favorite is about as classically Italian grandma as it gets: “It’s a me, Nonni—you eat?”), even in the man I married, who loves plants as much as my Nonno did. Perhaps though it’s that wooden trunk of theirs that has had the longest journey and most staying power in our collective lives, at least in the physical sense. It traveled from southern Italy and Ellis Island to Boston and Connecticut before and now—nearly 70 years later—has landed in the living room of my first house. 

Credit: Courtesy of Alyssa Longobucco

It wasn’t until we set out to refurbish said trunk that I truly appreciated and inquired about this storied history of the piece, from the ocean liner stamps on the interior to the well-worn brass fittings. My grandparents came to the United States on the final successful voyage of the well-known boat the Andrea Doria, which sank off the coast of Nantucket in 1956. The only picture we have of their time on the ship (or from their immigration in general) is of their final night on the boat, which you can see above. They sit at a table with my father’s two brothers, wearing party hats and faces that appear almost ironically solemn. I can’t help but try to imagine what they must be thinking and how heavily starting over in a new country must have weighed on them. Restoring such an important piece—wiping down the wood, cleaning the hardware without working against its charming patina—was a tall task, and my desire to leave it nearly untouched almost makes it seem like we didn’t do anything at all. Honestly, that kind of ended up being the point.  

My grandparents were able to create an incredibly humble yet full life here, a testament to not only their strength as a couple and as a family but also to the possibilities that immigrating to the United States can hold. I can still remember the taste of my Nonni’s Sunday sauce and the cedar scent of that trunk in the childhood bedroom shared by my aunt and father, where it lived until my grandmother’s death over a decade ago. They left behind a legacy of four children, eight grandchildren, and, as of now, five great-grandchildren.

Their trunk has an important legacy, too, currently helping yet another generation get their feet beneath them—this time my son, who I’m convinced will learn to stand by pulling himself up on it in our new living room. A worthwhile task for such an important piece, don’t you think?