Submitted by: Angelina Buonantuono Scarnato
Ancestor / Family Name: Antonio Buonantuono
Ancestral Town: Caserta, CE, CAM
My father, Antonio Buonantuono, died in 1940 when I was 15 years old, and no matter how many decades pass, what I remember about him most are his hands. Without ever having been told the story of his life one could read it just from looking at those hands.
When Antonio attempted to write, even just his name, he clutched the pen tightly and labored over each letter, as a first grader would. He didn’t get much formal education. His mother died when he was a child growing up in Caserta, Italy and so he worked on the family farm each morning before school. When he arrived late for school, usually with dirty clothes and hands, the teacher shamed him. After a while he stopped going; his father needed him on the farm, anyway. There was no place for education in a world where a man and his two sons could barely feed themselves.
Unable to read or write, Antonio worked with his hands for the rest of his life. He left the farm when he was 19 years old and in 1895 he immigrated to the United States to work – first as a dishwasher, then as a cook, and finally buying a small grocery and vegetable store on West 27th Street in Manhattan from his in-laws. His day began by riding the horse and wagon to the market each morning at four AM. Seven days a week, sometimes late into the evening, his hands were busy setting up the produce, waiting on customers, slicing cold cuts, making sandwiches and cleaning the store. His hands were always rough from the toil of his daily life.
But these hands also tell the greater story of a man who loved and cherished his children as no man did. My Mom and Dad raised 8 boys not far from Hell’s Kitchen, and they all followed in their father’s footsteps as hard working men devoted to their own families. Having come from such poverty, Antonio was grateful for the good life he had and was always giving towards those less fortunate. His work-worn hands never hesitated to give produce to those who could not pay him. He especially could never deny a child in need.
Antonio’s son, Gene recalls that when he was 10 years old he was in Bellevue Hospital for 6 months with meningitis and was not expected to recover. Antonio would walk to the hospital every day after work, carrying fresh chicken soup to help heal his son. Gene, who survived into his 90’s credited his father’s chicken soup with his survival but it is likely that the gentle touch of his father’s strong hands helped as much as the chicken soup.
Antonio and Carmela shared the work, each according to their abilities, which was somewhat unusual for that era. Carmela could read and write. The store had been in her family for many years and so she knew all about the business of the store, keeping accounts, etc. Antonio was most happy cooking at the back of the store for people who worked in the area who would stop in for lunch. And so while Carmela was managing the business, Antonio had no problem with washing the dirty diapers in a tub by hand. Stains indelibly etched on skin that was cracked and peeling spoke of a man ahead of his time, who loved and respected his wife.
Although illiterate and uneducated, Antonio loved the opera, and so on Saturday afternoons he would walk from the store to the Metropolitan Opera House on 39th Street and Broadway. His rough hands would pass a dollar through the ticket window for one standing-room-only ticket where he entered into the soaring music of the operas capturing his sensibility about the vicissitudes of life. Yes, with scars that never faded, Antonio’s hands told the wonderful story of a passionate life.