California Blues: Going West Italian Style

Family on the Road
The Di Bella family in 1946

I'm a fourteen-year-old girl filled with wonder. World War II is over, and everyone takes to the highways—in search of new lives and so will we.

Trailers are the fad in 1946, big beautiful shiny ones like the Spartan and Air Stream. Dad decides to build his own.

He takes the eighteen-foot rusty trolley bed that sits on the back part of the property of our first home on Fairlawn Ave, and reshapes it into our future. When he finishes building the aluminum, wheeled, cottage, it has a cast iron sink in the front end, a new stove, four Bentwood barroom chairs and a table, salvaged from the sale of Club Paradise. All our clothing, linen, and bedding are piled on top of Dad's precious tools. This is Mom and Dad's bed. My four-year-old brother, Nicky sleeps between them and I have an army cot in a small area between the stove and sink.

The Trailer
Dad and the trailer

My dad says it'll probably take a month or two to get us to California, and we'll see palm trees again, just like Italy, and we'll see Indians, the desert, and movie stars.

Father sells everything. The soft velvety armchair that I curled up in when I needed hugs—the one where I rubbed the nap of the fabric and dreamed while Salvatore and Antonietta battled out life.

Even my piano is gone. I can't believe it's gone. I think I will never be able to play on another one since I learned my lessons on this one. It's sold, probably to another little girl. I watch as they lower the beautiful instrument over the side of the upstairs balcony.

Everyone is watching the gypsies. The Di Bellas are on the move again. Mom is taking her cream, satin bedspread, the one she uses only when company comes. All our houses have been sold: Fairlawn Avenue, three on Buchanan Street, the duplex on Allen Street, and finally this duplex on Pine Avenue.

My little brother is leaving his best friend Donny, and I say good-bye to my first year in parochial high school, miserable Algebra, to Albany, where I was born and all I have known. I have spent reasonably happy early years here, but since I've moved so often I have become a loner. I don't have many close friends to miss or say good-bye to. But I am excited to go forward and not look back. As usual, I am an optimist and think my life will be good and plentiful.

Dad's new, green Buick, a Roadmaster, does the heavy work. It is quite brave, dipping low when the trailer is hitched. Even though I have just turned fourteen, I am thrilled at the prospect of being the navigator and relief driver for my dad. Mom will sit in the back seat as is typical. I have never seen her in the front, she is always too fearful, probably with good reason. Her rosary helps. With this move she leaves her entire family, old friends and security behind. Another Di Bella chapter closes.

Just before dark, most times we find a trailer park where we can stay the night. Mom makes dinner on the new butane stove. Usually pasta—sometimes chops or steak. She even tries to make her spice cake in the oven. My cot is pretty hard. Dad smokes a lot and it makes me cough.

As we drive on Route 66, we hear the first strains of cowboy music on the radio, and I know we are truly going west. They play Dad's favorite, The Yellow Rose of Texas. Somewhere along the way, Bobby Troup's new song, Get Your Kicks on Route 66 welcomes us, we hear the wonderful sounds of Mexican brass bands and guitars.

I've never seen such night skies like these, filled with unfamiliar stars. It is all dream-like. The darkness is enveloping, and the quiet, yes the wonderful quiet, is womb-like. We do much of our driving at night. During the day it's magic when the heat ripples in the distance, as if we are coming to an oasis.

We stop at the sign that says, “See the two-headed Snake - Gila Monsters - Reptiles!” Mom is afraid of snakes and won't get out of the car. Navajo Indians sit by the side of the road with their exquisite wares of jewelry, blankets, and baskets, the lines on their faces like a map to their souls. Most speak only their native tongue. I can't contain my excitement. I feel a special place in my heart for these impressive, gentle, gifted people.

Burma-Shave signs guide our destination. We've been on the road sightseeing for several weeks. There is cactus and tumbleweed as far as our eyes can see and the air is pungent with the smell of sage and old hot earth.

It's just like the movies. Just like the movies!

In Oklahoma City, we buy Nicky a western hat, boots, and a new fake gun in a holster. Now he's ready for the Wild West. He imagines he sees cowboys and Indians coming over the hills.

I think I see them too.

Heat waves on the highway continue to race ahead of us; the horizon glimmers like water. I have never felt such hot, intense temperatures, 115 degrees in Yuma, Arizona. The family suffers adjusting to the heat. I am light-headed and troubled with nosebleeds. Dad makes us sit on top of a block of ice until we are cooled. More often than not, it is Dad who nurses us. Even our Buick has a burlap bag filled with cool water hanging over the grill. Everything is so different. Each turn brings new thoughts.

I thought living in Italy and all my days before this were unique, now, this is to be our new life. An adventure I will never forget.



Venera Di Bella Barles
The Author

Venera Di Bella Barles lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington and is an active member of the writing community.

The passage above is excerpted from her memoir, Marriage, Kidneys, and Other Dark Organs, published in 2002.

Learn more about Venera at