The Saturday Evening Post, July 7, 1956, p. 30

 

Our Tony

A mother who " adopted" a temporary son from Italy
tells about his memorable year as an American teen-ager....

By MARIAN MITCHELL

To most of us, it is an accepted fact that Antonangelo Pinna was born in Milan, Italy, on March 8, 1938. There are two small residents of our town, however, who maintain that Tony's beginning occurred in the New Bedford, Massachusetts, bus station one hot afternoon in August, 1955.

Whenever we pass that now historic spot, our four-year-old son asks, "Is that where we got Tony, mommy?" And our six-year-old daughter, her eyes twinkling, adds, "Was he a tiny little baby?"

It was not a tiny baby, but rather a dusty, hungry-looking seventeen-year-old boy who awaited us that humid August day in the bus station. This youth from Milan, whom we had never seen before, was to be a member of our family for a year. My husband and I knew that his name was Antonangelo Pinna, that his father was a doctor, and that he was one of 653 teen-agers from Europe and Asia, selected by the American Field Service to live for a year with an American family and attend an American high school.

We had awaited his coming with some anxiety. The evening before he was due, we were busy with preparations. "Will this do for his desk? And I guess we'd better bring down another bookcase from the attic."

A perspiring member of the Massachusetts bar---my husband, Ray---was transforming a flouncy guest room into a young man's bedroom-study. The boy who was to be our son for eleven months would need extra chairs, a bed light for reading, a table. So the four of us, Ray and I, our five-year-old Anne and three-year-old Kim, hurried to gather up the needed furnishings. Yet beneath the excitement Ray and I felt trepidation.

Who was this boy? Coming from a far-off country and an environment unlike ours, how could he become a member of our family? Would we ever understand one another? Questions like these kept us awake far into the night just before Antonangelo's arrival.

Antonangelo Pinna helps his American mother with the dishes-an unfamiliar chore for an Italian boy.

Carol French and Tony in front of Fairhaven (Mass.) High, where he was an A student.

"I'll never forget Tony reading Peter Rabbit to Anne and Kim, with an indescribable Italian accent," says the author.

But we were not the only ones to harbor fears. That afternoon, when we reached the bus station and found Tony, his expressive brown eyes were searching the crowds anxiously for his new family.

"May we call you Tony? Are you hungry?"

The barriers, if any existed, were down at once. Tony Pinna Mitchell, as the children call him, was a member of the family.

"Welcome to New England, Tony." Dad lifted his baggage into the family car. "Our home town of Fairhaven can't be found on every map, but New Bedford, where we are now, is famous. Center of the whaling industry at the end of the century. . . . Now we're crossing Fairhaven Bridge, which connects Fairhaven with New Bedford," dad went on. "And straight ahead is your school, Fairhaven High."

Tony leaned out of the car window in his eagerness to see. "When weel---my school---be o-open?" The words came slowly.

"In ten days," little Anne replied. "There'll be two of us going to school from this family," she added importantly. "I go to the White House kindergarten."

"I'm going to nursery school!" Kim announced.

Tony smiled. Smiles and laughter, we were learning, can serve well when words are lacking.

Arriving home, I reheated the pork chops and tossed the salad while Anne and Kim conducted their new brother to his room and boasted of their work in preparing it for him. Then they brought him to the kitchen.

"I am---hungry," Tony said. "Today I do not know the English to get to eat."

Anne was astonished. "Can't you say 'hamburg' or 'hot dog'?"

For our first meal, I proudly produced a casserole of baked zucchini, the small Italian squash which Ray and I had liked on a visit to Italy, years ago. The dish made Tony's eyes light up, but his enjoyment of such American treats as stuffed pork chops and apple pie proved equally flattering.

The next morning, after breakfast, Tony eyed my sink, full of dirty dishes. "Now I am a member of the family. Could I do something?" For a European youth from a professional family to offer help with dishes was, as I knew, a concession to American ways. Anyway, I tossed him a towel, and together we raced through the cleaning up.

"Now," said Tony, "I shall see my school and then walk to New Bedford. Is that all right?"

"But it's a long walk, Tony. Let me drive you."

"It is not so far," he said. "I like to walk." And he was off, a smile of anticipation on his face.

That evening at dinner the talk turned to music. Tony expressed delight at the variety he found among our collection of long-playing records.

"You sing, Tony?" Ray asked, teasing. "Of course, all Italians are tenors."

"All Italians do not sing," Tony replied. "I do not. But they all play soccer. And here I find there is no soccer." He put on an expression of mock sadness.

"Then it's up to you to teach us," dad said. "New Bedford High has a soccer team---that's our rival---but no team has been started here."

The next day, Tony did not appear for dinner. Could he be lost? Dad thought not. "But I'll drive around and look for him."

Within ten minutes he was back with Tony, apologetic but happy. Dad had found him on the playground of a nearby elementary school, teaching a group of youngsters to play soccer.

Ours is a neighborhood of children and dogs, all sizes. Tony was soon known and beloved by all of them. As the teen-ager of the family, a role of which he was proud, Tony took over such traditional older-son jobs as cutting grass and carrying out rubbish, helped at every step by a swarm of admiring youngsters. From the kitchen window one morning I watched him trim the hedge with the assistance of a dozen small fry. With a tenderness which generally comes later in life, if at all, Tony replaced sharp instruments in small hands with harmless ones, yet gave to each child a feeling of importance.

We had delayed our family vacation until Tony's arrival; soon we were hurrying to pack the station wagon for our annual jaunt to our New Hampshire cottage. With dad, Kim and me sharing the front seat, Tony and Anne in the second, and the rear occupied by luggage and our mammoth collie, we presented the spectacle of a typical American family on wheels.

Our summer cottage, surrounded by the White Mountains, provided a perfect setting for getting acquainted. There were long walks in the woods, complete with lunch pack, to Ray's boyhood haunts; and invariably both Ray and Tony carried a sleepy child on the return trip.

"I heard Anne say, 'Kim bited me,"' Tony remarked one day. "And Kim said, 'She shooted me.' Is that good English?" Although his English was improving daily, Tony was often puzzled by the speech of two little people. But even that mystery was solved in time.

After our return from the mountains, a polio scare caused a two weeks' delay in the opening of school. Eager to begin his studies and meet boys and girls of his own age, Tony found the postponement irksome. We made a couple of phone calls, and got immediate results. Boys began arriving at the house in twos and threes.

"Hi, Tony. Guess we'll have some classes together. Are you interested in sports? Do you play football?"

Among the first to call was Bill Reed. As editor of the school newspaper, clarinetist in the school orchestra, tennis player and record enthusiast, Bill struck responsive chords in our boy from Milan.

A daily scene at 34 Oxford Street opened with the ringing of the doorbell at eight A.M., and the appearance of Bill's well-scrubbed face at the door. Tony rushed for his jacket, a half-finished cup of coffee in his hand, and the two departed hastily in the direction of Fairhaven High, five blocks away.

Almost inseparable, the boys generally double-dated for school dances and occasional Saturday movies. During the late fall Carol made her appearance; soon she became Tony's special girl friend. Carol, one of the prettiest seniors, was also a talented violinist and a bright student.

"I like girls who are intelligent," Tony told me during one of our confidential sessions in the kitchen while I prepared dinner. "Carol is very smart," he said. Then his solemnity broke up. "Also," he smiled, "she is pretty."

One day Tony came home from school and rushed into the kitchen. "You can never guess! I, too, am an Italian tenor." He laughed. "Mrs. Johnson has asked me to sing in the high-school double quartet. She says I sing very well." We hugged each other.

On many occasions we were to hear the double quartet sing at special events. And there was an unforgettable weekend when the group traveled to Pittsfield to take part in the All-State Music Festival.

Bill Reed, Tony's best friend, will never again be plain Bill. To the school and the town he will be forever "Beel." And "ciao," pronounced "chow," an informal Italian equivalent of either "hello" or "good-by," has become a part of Fairhaven's vocabulary. For his part, Tony has tackled American slang with zest. There are, of course, baffling occasions.

"Do you know what 'go ape' is, mom?" he asked one day. I had to admit my ignorance. "Beel" enlightened us; it seems that "go ape" is teen-age talk for going overboard for something or someone. Meanwhile, Anne and Kim became proud of their ability to say "Per piacere passami i pomidoro," meaning "Please pass the tomatoes," and "Scusatemi" for "Excuse me."

I'll never forget the day when Tony rushed home with an all-A report card. Or the evening he read Peter Rabbit to Anne and Kim, with an indescribable Italian accent. Or his birthday night, when a beaming Tony stood holding a lighted birthday cake, surrounded by thirty classmates.

Throughout these months, Ray and I were receiving bulletins from the American Field Service, explaining the objectives of this unique student-exchange program. In a period of many exchange projects, the AFS sponsors the only one working exclusively with high-school boys and girls. Last year the American Field Service made it possible for 653 teenagers from twenty-four European and Asiatic countries to spend their senior year in American high schools, living with American families. Simultaneously, the organization opened the way for 605 American boys and girls to spend the summer in Europe and to live with European families. Now eight years old, the program aims to bring here more than 800 foreign teen-agers for the 1956-57 school year. European students on the AFS plan are selected on the basis of maturity, intelligence and ability to get along with others.

The American Field Service was not a new organization to us. It became a part of our lives in January, 1943, when Ray sailed from New York to drive an AFS ambulance in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy.

In World War II, 2000 AFS men, attached to the British Army and the Free French, carried more than 1,000,000 casualties from the battlefields. They worked closely with troops from France, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Canada, Poland, Greece, Palestine and Italy. From this experience there grew in the AFS a strong belief in the common decency, courage and aspirations of men of good will throughout the free world, despite differences of language, custom and color.

With the war's end, the Field Service's director, Stephen Galatti, a New York stockbroker, organized AFS strength behind the development of a student-exchange program. "Uncle Steve," as he is known to thousands, maintained that in the hands of high-school students lay the greatest potential existing for world peace.

The first AFS boys and girls landed in the United States in 1948---seventeen of them, representing four European countries. Since then the project has expanded rapidly. Local organizations and individuals raise the money. It costs an average $650 to bring a boy or girl here for a year. Families opening their homes to exchange students are not reimbursed for giving them bed and board. On the other hand, medical expenses and pocket money for each student---twelve dollars monthly---are taken care of by the American Field Service.

I remember Christmas Eve, when Tony returned from midnight Mass and found us arranging presents beneath the Christmas tree. He came in offering packages to us.

"Buon Natale, Mom and dad! I want to give you these tonight!"

For me there was a bottle of perfume, guaranteed to make any middle-aged woman sparkle, and for dad a handsome necktie. Another gift was an LP recording of Swan Lake, our favorite ballet. Tony's stocking hanging over the fireplace bulged as importantly as those of Anne and Kim, and a tall pile of packages for him lay under the tree.

Just as we shared our Christmas customs with him---including a dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at the home of Grandfather Mitchell---so Tony enriched the season for us in Milanese style. During Christmas week a tremendous panettone, similar to our fruit cake, arrived from his family. In Milan, Tony explained, there is a panettone on every table during the holidays. This one weighed eight pounds and provided refreshment, together with cups of caffe espresso, for a score of our friends.

Also, a few days before Christmas, I received a note from Tony's mother, Elvira Pinna. Translated by her son, it reads in part:

Dear Mrs. Mitchell:

I should like to know perfect English in order to express directly all the feelings of gratitude, admiration and affection that I have for you and for all your dear family.

You are a mother, and you can imagine how I think of my son far away, especially on holidays of an intimate and family nature; but I am so sure of his joy in being with you, surrounded by affection, kindness and comprehension, that I am happy---happy for him and grateful to you and your dear family who are making life in a foreign country so pleasant for him.

I hope with all my heart that these ties of affection, born and grown in one year, will continue in the future. Anne and Kim will grow up remembering the big brother who certainly will never forget his little brother and sister and his American parents,

Tony said over and over, of many things he found in America, "It is really wonderful!" His discoveries ranged from the great variety of children's books and records to the availability of college educations for Americans of all classes.

"That is not so at home, I am afraid," he said. "There are not the scholarships in Italy. The bright boy of a working family does not even think of the university. It is not for him. But here he would go to college. It is really wonderful."

In preparation for the university entrance exams he will face in Milan, Tony took senior courses here in mathematics, physics, Spanish and English literature. But there are other subjects he must study at home, so he can compete with classmates who spent the year at Milan's Classical Liceo---philosophy, Latin, Greek and Italian literature.

"I like my school in Milan," Tony said, "but there are not the clubs, the outside activities that you have here."

He returned from school happily tired from tennis practice; he was on the school team. Once a week there was a rehearsal of the double quartet, and many hours were devoted to collaboration on the school paper and yearbook. After graduating with his class at Fairhaven High School in June, he joined other AFS students for a bus trip covering more than a dozen states. Then, Europe.

For our family, letting Tony go has been inexpressibly difficult. And yet, so that the full purpose of the AFS program of international understanding may be achieved, Tony was ready to return to his country and his own family. But, as Mrs. Pinna said in her Christmas letter, I am Tony's "American mother." And I'm going to miss him terribly.

THE END