Far from home, he reached out to strangers

Far from his home, he reached out to strangers

May 26, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Once on a train - this was long ago, about 30 years ago - there were six of us playing cards, young men and young women, all mobile in some way, literally and figuratively, upwardly and outwardly, socially and professionally. Everyone in that group had a job in a town or a city that was not the one in which they'd grown up. Everyone was from somewhere other than where they were headed. I got off the train in Baltimore.

I've been here ever since.

Something happened in America during my time - people moved. They moved far away from home. They moved to the West and to the Sun Belt. They went for opportunity and better weather. Not everyone certainly, but more than ever, we became a mobile society, a generation of college-educated, professional migrants and transplants, constantly scouring the horizons and turning our backs to the familiar.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

It's just that it's not easy for everyone.

Unless you have family to greet you at the new destination, you're basically starting from scratch. You have to make new friends and, if possible, find surrogate relatives, a family away from home.

Mine was the Mannetta family of Little Italy.

They literally tapped me on the shoulder as I stood beneath a street lamp near St. Leo's Church one night - I think it was the Feast of St. Joseph in March 1976 - and invited me into their home a few doors down Exeter Street.

I've pretty much been there ever since.

I was lucky. It didn't take long for Alfonso and Gioconda Mannetta to declare me Numero Due, their Number Two son, and they watched out for me.

Their real son was Elia, their daughter, Rosalinda. The family was well known throughout Little Italy. Mr. Mannetta was famous for being the man who stood guard over the statue of St. Anthony during the annual procession through the neighborhood in June. People pinned or clipped money to the statue in tribute, and Mr. Mannetta made sure it stayed there. He also made sure that receipts from the sausage and spaghetti concessions got to the church coffers. He liked that role.

Mrs. Mannetta made more evening gowns and wedding dresses than anyone can remember. She was the most fabulous maker of Italian food - soup to nuts - I've ever known, a woman with a personality I want to describe as joyous.

The Mannettas fed me. They gave me shelter. They even clothed me.

Mr. Mannetta, who died last month and who will be remembered this Memorial Day weekend in a church service, was a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. In 1981, The Evening Sun assigned me to cover the royal wedding of Charles and Diana in London. I needed a suit - fast. Next thing I know, Mr. Mannetta had me in the back room of his downtown union shop, surrounded by short, Italian-speaking guys with measuring tapes in their hands and pins in their mouths. They made me a Navy blue, summer-weight, three-piece suit in a day. I wore it to the wedding.

Holidays, the births of children, summer picnics - the Mannettas were always there, my second family, with Alfonso serving as patriarch.

He was a strong, quiet man who could come across as stern and aloof. But that really wasn't so. His mind was full of Italian poetry, opera libretti and European history. He loved gardening and appreciated children. He was kind to strangers.

Sometimes, as when he sat on a bench and sliced a pear carefully with a knife, he could seem distant and sad.

I always assumed he was quietly reminiscing about his home in Italy, the little town of Gesualdo, Avellino, and the people there. It is a beautiful village, with olive orchards and fields dotted with sheep. It seemed to me that Mr. Mannetta returned there many times in his reveries. I think he frequently recalled the biggest experience of his life - his move to the United States from Italy after the war - and the all of it gave him mixed feelings that leaned heavily toward sad.

He had joined the Carabinieri, Italy's special police force, when he was 18. He served in Albania and the Balkans during World War II. After Italy's surrender in 1943, Mr. Mannetta and other Caribinieri were free to fight with the Allies; he was assigned to the command entourage of Gen. Mark Clark of the U.S. 5th Army and entered Rome with that unit on June 4, 1944, liberation day for Rome. It was Mr. Mannetta's experiences during the war, and right after, that persuaded him to emigrate to America.

He loved this country. But saying goodbye to Italy was hard for him, and all those feelings - leaving Gesulado and his large family there, moving to a new world and a new culture - must have come back to him many times. He never forgot the experience. That must have been why he and his wife were so kind to strangers, their house always open to patients and doctors visiting Johns Hopkins Hospital for the first time, or those of us who, for work or love, landed in Baltimore and had to start from scratch.

Grazie, papa. Rest in peace.


Alfonso Mannetta died April 22 in his native Italy. A memorial Mass will be offered at St. Leo Church in Little Italy at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow.

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