From Tuscany to the Mohave

by Emily Underwood

Name
Guiseppena Bellandi Perry

Current hometown
Needles, Calif.

Favorite opera singer
Luciano Pavarotti

 

At midnight in the Mohave Desert, the wind is blowing so fiercely that Guiseppena Bellandi's husband, Harry Jolly, has to brace their broken-down truck to keep it from rolling over. Sand whips through the windowless cab and blots out the stars over the Needles Peaks. The couple and their baby girl, Frances, haven't eaten in three days.

It's taken all the money Guiseppena made from selling two Italian encyclopedias and her father's watch to get them this far from their troubles in Arizona, wherever this far is. Her knowledge of Western geography is as limited as her English. Then, a pair of headlights slowly approaches through the dust storm. A man pulls up beside them, yelling something in English Guiseppena can't understand. Trust me, she thinks he says to her husband. Give me your wife and the baby. I have a cafe not too far from here. I'll take care of them.

It's been more than 50 years since the truck broke down in the Mohave Desert and Guiseppena -- known to everyone as "Pena" -- got stuck in nearby Needles, Calif., where she still lives. One of the hottest places on earth, Needles is a husk of a desert town -- the "ugly stepchild" of San Bernardino County. The only reliable tourism comes from the elderly snowbirds who hobble across golf courses irrigated by the sullen, exhausted Colorado River, itself a few hundred miles shy of giving up completely in the Mexican desert. To most people, Needles closely resembles Hell. Pena, still petite and curvaceous in her 80s, her brown eyes bright and affectionate, apologizes for her thick Italian accent as she tries to explain how she got here, and why she stayed.

The only daughter of an engineer, Pena was a teenager when her home in the small medieval town of Pistoia, in northern Italy, was taken over by Nazi soldiers. Although Italy was allied with Germany until 1943, Pistoia was known as a center of anti-German resistance. When the S.S. invaded, Pena starved. A picky eater before the war, she ate wormy peaches from the trash and broke her tooth on an olive pit she found on the ground. Hunger, however, was one of the lesser terrors. To this day, at an unexpected noise or the smell of a damp, gray morning, she hears the screams of a pregnant woman as a German officer extinguishes his cigarette in her ear. She remembers 21 Italian men slumping against a wall, shot by an S.S. firing squad. There are other things she still can't talk about. Covering her mouth, she shakes her head, raising one hand as if to ward someone off.

When the opportunity to escape arrived, Pena seized it. She married an American soldier named Harry Jolly, who proposed to her when she was living in a bomb crater fortified by two-by-fours. Pena had misgivings about Harry but knew he might be her only chance at a better life. While she was waiting for her papers to clear, he sent her a postcard of what he said would be their future home: a domed mansion, topped by an angel with its wings outstretched against the Arizona sky. Nineteen years old, she boarded a ship in Naples and sailed to New York with 3,500 other war brides. In Chicago, she was shepherded aboard the Super Chief train and began the four-day journey to Arizona. As the train hurtled West, the land changed from green to brown, like a photograph turning from color to sepia. In the dead heat of August, dressed to kill in long black gloves and a wide-brimmed black hat, she arrived in Ash Fork, Ariz.

The town was little more than a cowboy trading post. Pena's mother-in-law -- a huge, disheveled woman -- picked her up in a filthy car and took her to a broken-down shack that held 14 people. This was it; the postcard Harry had sent her had been of the Arizona Capitol building. Pena collapsed on a dirty sofa while children rifled through her suitcase. After a few weeks living with the Jolly family, she walked into the desert with a pair of scissors and tried to slit her wrists.

Today, Pena's home in Needles, built on a ridge overlooking the Colorado River, is spacious and immaculate, a far cry from the Ash Fork shack or the chicken coop in the slums of Phoenix, where she lived with Harry Jolly before giving birth to their first child. A small chandelier hangs over the dining table, mirrors with floral etchings line the walls, and Italian-style arches frame the doorways.

Pena's second husband, newspaperman Lee Perry, built this house for her before he died 22 years ago. Lee could not have been more different from Harry Jolly, who she divorced after the couple arrived in Needles. "Mr. Jolly was ... not horribly mentally retarded, no," says Pena. "But very slow. When I realized ... it was too late." According to Pena, he lost one of many jobs by running someone over with his ice cream truck while ogling a pretty woman. Lee Perry, in contrast, spent hours staring out the window, smoking his pipe and ruminating over editorials for his newspaper, The Desert Star. When she met Lee, Pena was struggling to make ends meet as a single mother. Lee Perry hired her to clean his office and do chores for him, and after seven years of friendship, they married. "I will make you a good home," he told her. "I will restore you."

The marriage was not entirely idyllic. Sometimes Lee, stoic Westerner that he was, could be cold and distant. "I've never been loved by an Italian man and I'm mad about it!" Pena exclaims. "The American man is cold, honey bunny! The Latin men, they lie to you but they make you feel ... ah! Very romantic." Pena could not embrace the West the way Lee did. She hid and even sold some of his Western trappings -- a wagon wheel, pounds of turquoise jewelry, priceless Navajo rugs -- and planted cypresses all along their terrace to remind her of Italy. "This is raw desert, Pena!" Lee would cry. "Get it through your head!" Despite the operatics, Lee "made a woman out of me," says Pena. "The little that I know, I know through him."

Pena believes that her life has been miraculous, despite its tragedies. She recalls running through the streets of Pistoia barefoot as bombs fell, and never getting a scratch. After her house was blown to pieces, the only thing left standing was a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by rubble and broken glass. Her gratitude for the life of relative comfort she eventually found with Lee helps temper past horrors, but she is still haunted by regrets about the broader life she might have led. "What am I doing in Needles?" she asks abruptly. "I had talent! I have an imagination that could kill a horse!" If she had stayed in New York, she could have become a translator, perhaps, even an opera singer. But she has made an uneasy truce with Needles. She likes the moonlight over the Mohave Valley and the rainbows. But she still doesn't love the desert. She misses the colorful confusion of bodies walking close together in crowded streets, the way they do in cities -- like in Italy. Still, she says, in a softer, slightly proud tone, "I am surviving, don't you think?"

 

For more information, please see:

Interviews with Montana war brides

A World War II bride reunion in Seattle

The Needles Desert Star

A brief history of Needles, California

 

© High Country News