My sweet Aunt Jo, my mother’s older sister, passed away last November. She was 88. For many years she talked about writing a memoir. She wanted to share some of the stories she remembered about our family. About ten years ago, she put all the pictures and stories she had collected into a single document and had copies printed and bound for all of us. It is such a treasure, and I’ve read it many times. The stories and pictures are truly incredible.
After she died, I asked her children, my cousins, if they had any objection to my posting portions on this blog. They did not.
But first, a little history. My grandparents on my mother’s side were married in Agrigento, Sicily, in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I. A German ship had been captured and renamed the Woodrow Wilson. Italian veterans were offered free passage to America, and my grandfather and his new wife, who was now pregnant with their first child, were on board. They came through Ellis Island and eventually settled in Buffalo, New York. Their first child died in infancy; they had five other children, three girls and two boys. All were named after family in Italy, as was the custom.
Here are just a few excerpts in her own words:
The period I am writing about, the late twenties and early thirties, people did not have phones in their homes. There were no supermarkets and very few people had cars. They either walked or rode the streetcar. This vehicle rode on tracks and was powered by electricity….it was similar in appearance to a trolley. The fare was three cents for children, five cents for adults…
There were neighborhood grocery stores, fish markets, butcher shops, chicken markets, and when the weather permitted, street vendors who were still using a horse and wagon. They usually sold fruits and vegetables. The milkman delivered door to door early in the morning. He usually left the milk bottles on the back steps or inside a door. He would leave full bottles and pick up the empties from the previous day’s delivery…
The grocery stores and other shops and markets were usually family owned and operated. There was at least one grocery store on every block. If you needed something, you had to go to the store, usually every day, because no one had refrigerators…
When a parent felt they no longer wanted to send their children to school, they just stopped sending them. As soon as the children in a family became the right age, they were expected to go to work. On payday, they brought the money home to their parents. The Italian way was that everyone worked for the family, and the man of the house ruled…
At that time, Hoover was president, the Great Depression was starting, and prohibition was still the law of the land. The property we were living in consisted of two houses with a wide driveway between them. We were renters and Mr. and Mrs. Perrone (the owners) lived there too.
In the back of this property was a huge barn. In this barn was an old carriage we children played on and several laundry trucks usually parked in there, along with Mr. Perrone’s car. In the house we lived in was a basement. No one was allowed to use the door to the basement. When the weather was warm, the door was open. There was always a man there that we children would visit. He was very friendly and usually busy. I later realized there was a still and the nice man was making alcohol. The laundry trucks delivered the alcohol.
The properly was next to a school. At election time, voting took place in the school basement. That is when there was a lot of activity in our backyard, especially along the driveway. All kinds of men, including policemen, came in that driveway, took out a hidden flash and sneaked a drink. That was also a busy time for the owner of the house. There was a lot going on. There were also comments made by my parents. Years later in history class, I realized what was going on in that house. I remember Mama saying, “She brags, she gives her son steak for lunch. With only one child and the kind of money she handles, why not?” I can still hear Papa say, “I’d rather die poor but honest.”
In our house, all holidays were celebrated, both church and national holidays. New Year’s Day was Papa’s birthday. The celebration would begin on New Year’s Eve. Mama would fix an early dinner for us children. Papa stayed open later at the barber shop. Whenever he got home, he ate something. The dining room table would be set with bowls of nuts and nutcrackers, cookies, celery and sweet anise, olive salad and more, all at midnight. Glasses would be clinked together as everyone said saluti, bon anno attutti (good health, Happy New Year’s to all). Even children had a sip of wine.
On New Year’s Day, we would have company for dinner of soup, macaroni and sauce. This was followed by a meat course, then the greens, which included salad, celery, sweet anise and olives, followed by nuts and cookies. Always there would be chestnuts. This would be the noon meal. As soon as this was all served, a large capon was put in the oven to bake for the evening meal. The noon meal was served at exactly twelve noon. The evening meal would be served at six. The men would play cards, the ladies would be washing dishes and preparing the next meal. It would be another big one. This one would usually finish with birthday cake. Many times there would be drop-in company who would be expected to join in the festivities, lots of noise, lots of food, lots of confusion. Sometimes the Victrola would be played, furniture would be moved, the rug rolled up. We danced and sang. Other times we might all sit around the tables and nibble on goodies. Everyone joined in to play the card game, 7 ½ , for pennies.
In later years:
The winds of war had started. Hitler was in power with his Nazi regime. He started to invade and hold in his power smaller and weaker nations. Mussolini was in power in Italy. He was allied with Germany. Lend lease with England was begun with President Roosevelt. Jobs were available as war production had begun. Finances were not great in our house.
December 7, 1941. The Japanese government had their fleet sailing the Pacific, armed for battle. Most of the American Fleet was anchored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Early that morning, Japanese planes launched from aircraft carriers bombed Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt declared war on both Germany and Japan. We were at war on two fronts. The depression was definitely over. The whole country became busy, all for the war effort. People were working again. So was Papa, working in a factory sorting nuts and screws and stuff. Our young men were being drafted into the armed forces. All the young men were leaving. When we saw them again, it was usually after basic training. They all looked so handsome in their uniforms. When it was time, they would leave again, some never to return.
I was eighteen on December 5, 1942. The country had been at war for a year. Women were taking over men’s jobs, men were going to war on two fronts. When walking down the street and looking around at the houses, every home had a banner in the window. The number of stars on that banner would tell you how many boys that family had in the armed forces. If it was a white banner with a gold star, that meant their boy died in the war.
I was a first in the Dupont factory. I was an eighteen-year old girl whose classification was apprentice machinist. As the word spread that there was a little girl working in the tool crib, all the men had to come and take a look. Some decided that a good girl would not be doing that type of job. At the end of the first week, I was ready to quit but didn’t dare. I could not go home and say I’d quit. So I stayed and did my work. When two men would tell a dirty joke, I acted as though I didn’t hear it or did not know what they were talking about. There was one man who had a bad mouth. One day I asked if he had a daughter. He said, “Yes.” I very calmly asked how he would feel if my father spoke to his daughter the way he spoke to me. He walked away. When he came back to the tool crib, he apologized profusely.
For the rest of the time I worked there, he was my friend. Gradually, I was fondly spoken of by all the men as the little girl in the tool crib. They would bring me cookies their wives baked, or in summer, flowers from their garden. They never hesitated to introduce me to their families if the occasion arose. I worked there until the war was over and the boys started to come home.
This is but a brief look at history through the eyes of one woman, my Aunt Josephine Lombardo. May she rest in peace. Special thanks to her children, my cousins Phil, Charlie and Isabelle, for allowing me to share this. There are a multitude of pictures reprinted in her memoir. I have chosen just one, my Aunt Jo and Uncle Tom on their wedding day. She was a beautiful bride.
Robert A. Vella said:
A great story of a lost time. I am a first-generation Italian-American. My parents are from the little town of Montallegro, Sicily in the Province of Agrigento. My father’s family immigrated to the U.S. around 1908. My Aunt Jenny published a book about her experience in America during the same time frame as your Aunt Jo’s. It’s titled “The house on Grant Street” by Genevieve Altieri.
Susan Sutphin said:
It looks like our families are practically neighbors in Sicily! I still have family there, and I was lucky enough to visit about 37 years ago. I hope to go back again in a couple of years. Sicily is so beautiful. It truly is a lost time and an important part of our history.
Robert A. Vella said:
Much of my family is still there too. Unfortunately, I passed up on two opportunities to visit them. Big mistake. I may not get another chance now. My brother said it was very beautiful and scenic also, and that the food was unforgettable!
Susan Sutphin said:
I am very much looking forward to going back. Can’t wait.
More! More! Sounds a lot like my Italian-Irish family gatherings. Oh, the stories! Lots of food (always food!), laughter, & a whole lot of noise. Joyful noise! Thanks for sharing these beautiful memories!
Susan Sutphin said:
Thanks. I have plenty more and may post Growing Up Italian – Part 2 at some point. I think the Irish and Italians are similar in the way they express themselves–loudly, arms waving, lots of laughing–and yes, the whole food thing too.
Arms waving is right! Looking forward to Part 2. 🙂
Susan Sutphin said:
Thanks. It will be soon.
Nice story. Although i am not a first or even second generation American, i was born in 1940 and do recall some of the events mentioned.
Susan Sutphin said:
I have been known to think that the second half of the 20th century was historically superior in so many ways. But the first half was full of history-making events that literally changed the course of all our lives, mostly in a good way. There is so much we can learn from history.
You never know what you can find digging into the past. While doing some personal genealogy at the DC National Archives in 1997, I stumbled onto a reference of a box of miscellaneous paper clippings and letters decided to check it out.
At first I thought I was probably doing another dead end search and wasting my time. Then suddenly I noticed a letter inside the box dated 1882 from Brockport, NY and the signature “Esther Church”. This was my great(3) grandmother who was writing the Federal government to request a free tombstone for her late husband Samuel Church, a Civil War fatality. Further current web research produced a picture of that gravestone from a group of NY local volunteers who photographed gravestones.
Here’s that web URL source and photo of my ancestor’s headstone:
I’ll now have to visit, pray over, and probably replace that headstone before time and the acid rain make the headstone unreadable. My ancestor served with the 8th NY Volunteer Cavalry, a unit that lost over 300 lives in Civil War engagements and
losses to disease.
– William P Church
Susan Sutphin said:
Wow, that’s a great story. Thanks for your comment.