52 Ancestors, Week Two: Piccioli Family Portrait

It’s the second week of genealogist Amy Johnson Crow’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” project. Last week, for an ancestor I would like to have met, I climbed my mother’s branch of the tree and talked about her remarkable maternal grandmother, Mary Bartucci. This week, I’m moving over to my father’s side — specifically, to his mother’s family, the Picciolis. (In case you haven’t guessed it by now, my ancestors are entirely Italian and Italian-American.)

This week’s prompt asks for a favorite photo. I have many favorite family photos, but this one certainly ranks up there. My best guess is that it was taken around 1924, but I could be off by a year or two.

The Piccioli family, probably taken around 1924. The names in the margins are in my grandmother’s handwriting, which is one of the things that makes this photo special to me. She is the one seated on the far left, and is about 11 years old here.

Fortunato Piccioli and his wife Francesca were born in Marche, Italy, in 1878 and 1879, respectively. After immigrating to the U.S., they went by the names Frank and Frances! They had ten children altogether.

The oldest three, not in this photo, were born in Europe. They included two older brothers Stefano and Mario Andrew, not shown here. The third child was a sister, Anna Rosa, also born in Italy, who died as a toddler; my family knew nothing about her until my research uncovered her birth certificate.

The fourth child, Pierina, stands between her parents. Aunt Pierina, whom I remember well, was actually born in France. When Fortunato left for the United States in 1906 to begin working to raise enough to bring over his whole family, Francesca found a job opportunity in France. I am still piecing together the details, but it seems that they may have traveled north together from Italy. Already pregnant with Pierina, Francesca remained in France with her older sons and baby daughter, while Fortunato continued north to the Netherlands and from there embarked for the U.S., with $10 in his pocket. I hope to discover someday why he traveled to the Netherlands at all. Perhaps he was considering settling there.

In France, Francesca lost her daughter Anna Rosa and gave birth to Pierina, who must have been named Pierina after her father’s mother, whose maiden name was Pierini. Francesca worked as a wet nurse in France while she waited for her turn to immigrate. That finally happened in 1909, when she traveled to the United States with Stefano, Mario, and Pierina, to join her husband, who had been back regularly to visit her, in between seasonal jobs in the U.S. The family settled in northeastern Pennsylvania, where Francesco, like most Italian immigrant men, worked for the coal mines. A few months later, their son Amerigo was born.

Children arrived in quick succession over the next few years. First came Nicholas, then my grandmother Maria, called Mary, in 1913. Next came Harry and then Edward, not shown here, who died sometime before his sixth birthday. Ernest was the youngest.

You may notice that something seems odd about Harry’s eyes. I don’t have a date, but sometime probably shortly before this photo was taken, Harry suffered a terrible accident. He was probably about 8 at the time. As my grandmother told it, she had been walking along the railroad tracks with him, looking for coal that had fallen off the trains; families often used such scraps to heat their homes. Harry found a locked box and wanted to know what was inside. He brought it home, and they tried to open it but could not. Her mother called her inside, and Harry, outside the house, decided to hit the box’s lock with a rock to break it open. The box exploded. It must have been filled with dynamite or other explosives for use in the mines. Harry was blind for the rest of his life, but was eventually able to live independently and to marry.

Brother Amerigo passed away about two years after this photo was taken. His death certificate says he died of a gunshot wound, killed in a hunting accident at the age of 17.

So life was difficult for the Piccioli family in those early years, but it did get better. In the 1920 census, Francesca is listed as not having a job — not surprisingly, with all of those small children to look after. By 1930, her husband was still a miner, but she was a store proprietor. And in the 1940 census, her husband was working in the family store, as well. They sold groceries, and my grandmother Mary was still in her teens when she opened a hairdressing station within the shop.

I don’t have clear memories of Uncle Harry or many of the other children, though I must have met most of them when I was young. I do remember Aunt Pierina and Uncle Ernie well. And I was close to my grandmother; she was one of my favorite people ever. She passed away in 2001, and I miss her every day.

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