I wrote recently about my paternal grandfather and his Italian immigrant parents. There is so much more I could say about their family. But today I want to tell a different story from my family’s past. This one comes from my paternal grandmother’s childhood.
That’s the Piccioli family to the right, minus two older brothers. My grandmother, Mary (originally Maria) is seated, at left. This photo would have been taken in the 1920s.
My great grandparents Fortunato (“Frank”) and Francesca came from the Marche region of Italy, as did their two oldest sons. It seems that sometime in late 1906 or early 1907, a pregnant Francesca traveled to France, probably with her sons; I don’t know if Frank went with them as well. Francesca’s first daughter, my great aunt Pierina, was born in France in January 1907. That’s her in the back row, standing between her parents. I have found records that show Fortunato immigrated in November 1907. It was common for Italian men to travel to the United States months or years before their families joined them, working seasonal jobs to earn enough money to pay for passage and living space to eventually bring the rest of the family over.
That seems to be exactly what happened. Francesca and the children remained for some time in France, where she worked as a wet nurse for a wealthy woman who had also just had a baby. Eventually, they were ready to immigrate as well. A passenger list shows that Francesca, her sons Stefano (10) and Mario (6), and her daughter Pierina (2) left Le Havre, France, on the S.S. Chicago, arriving at Ellis Island in April 1909.
My grandmother and the other brothers in the front row of the photo were born in Pennsylvania. You may be able to tell in the photo that Harry, the boy in the middle of the first row, is blind. My grandmother told me the story of what happened. It must have been shortly before this photo was taken. Harry was about 10 years old; she was two years older. Children in Northeastern Pennsylvania coal-mining towns often picked through the debris near and on the railroad tracks where coal was transported from the mines. They were looking for useable pieces of coal that had fallen off the trains, because their families relied on it to heat their homes. While picking coal that day, they found a locked metal box, and Harry was determined to get into it, sure that something valuable must be inside.
In front of their house, Mary helped him try to pick the lock or otherwise pry the box open. Then her mother called her inside to help with something. A minute later they heard an explosion. Harry had struck the box with a rock, and the dynamite inside had blown up. Harry was blinded for life. My grandmother might have been injured or killed as well, if her mother hadn’t called her into the house just then.
I was always close to my grandmother. We traveled to Old Forge, Pennsylvania, regularly when I was a child; usually, my older sister and I and our dad stayed at her house, and my mother and younger sisters stayed with her parents, just a few minutes away. Karen and I got the better end of the deal. My grandmother always had pizza waiting for us (I’ll have to do a blog post sometime about the joys of Old Forge pizza.) I remember her letting us eat peanut butter crackers for breakfast, while across town, my younger sisters at the stricter grandmother’s house were required to eat a healthy, normal breakfast.
Grandma’s house was filled with fascinating objects and crazy colors — the living room walls were Pepto-Bismol pink, and her bedroom was jade green; curtains were hugely flowered, her paint-by-number artwork adorned the walls, and lamps dripped diamond-shaped crystals. In every room and hallway, Jesuses and Marys gazed down at us from the walls or from their own little tables, accompanied by bleeding hearts and other over-the-top Catholic imagery. Walking down to the cellar was like opening a treasure chest; you never knew what you would find down there. I spent hours poring over her albums filled with black-and-white photos of my ancestors and the “greenies,” as she called the young men recently arrived from Italy who boarded with her family until they could earn enough money to bring their own families over, as her father had done.
As an adult, I was often the only one of her grandchildren living close enough to her to visit on weekends. She was thrilled in 2001 to hear that I was pregnant with her great grandson. I was writing a book about Italian-American immigrants that year, and she agreed to let me interview her about her family history. I am so grateful now that I had her tell me stories of her childhood and her parents. She passed away in September that same year, and my son was born a few months later in January 2002, on the anniversary of my Aunt Pierina’s birth. I still miss my grandmother every day.