52 Ancestors, Week 4: Mary’s Beauty Shoppe

My grandmother sits beside the car that bears a sign for her beauty shop services. I believe the man in the car is one of her much older brothers, either Stefano or Mario Andrew. When this photo was taken, probably in the early 1930s, both men were married with baby boys, so the child could be one of theirs. It could also be her sister’s son Ernie (who grew up to resemble his uncle in the car here). This is too early for the baby to have been one of Mary’s own sons; she married in 1936 and had her first child, my father, in 1939.

For the fourth week of the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge, the theme set by genealogist Amy Johnson Crow is Education. This was a hard one for me. I like to post something visual, and the thing that came to mind first was yearbook photos of my mother and father. But those didn’t seem particularly interesting, except for what they represent: the first people I know of in my family to finish high school. And my father went on to get a college degree and a master’s degree. But the real story, I decided, is their parents, who were never able to get an education. All four of them left school early to contribute to their families’ finances.

The photo shows my paternal grandmother, Mary Piccioli. I have been told she left school in the ninth grade, the latest of all of my grandparents. By this time, her parents owned a grocery store. She worked in that store from a young age, eventually learning to cut hair and opening up a hairdressing station in the shop. As you can see in the photo, she even had a sign on the family car to advertise her services.

My other grandmother, Norma Tomassoni, left school after eighth grade. She worked in a clothing factory, making pants. In fact, she is one of several female relatives I’ve found from that time period, the 1920s and 1930s, who worked in the local pants factory in northeastern Pennsylvania. I guess it’s a familiar story: teenage girls, immigrants and the daughters of immigrants, working in a textile factory to contribute to their family finances.

My grandfathers left school even earlier. My maternal grandfather, Ralph DeRicci, could have stayed in school longer, but he didn’t see much use in it. He was thirteen and had finished sixth grade when he told his mother he was dropping out. She said that was fine, but only if he got a job and turned over all his wages to her. His first job was working in what he described as a nuts and bolts factory. He said his job involved sitting with a big pile of nuts and bolts, and sorting them into buckets for different types and sizes. He told me it was tedious, but to his mind, it was a lot better than sitting in school.

My paternal grandfather’s story is the most harrowing. He was eleven years old and in the fifth grade — a bright boy, a hard worker, and an excellent student. He must have loved school. Then came the flu epidemic of 1918. His parents died on the same day that October, and he saw no option but to leave school to support his younger sisters by working as a coalmine breaker boy. Despite his lack of formal schooling, he learned. He read widely, became fluent in three languages, and eventually, was elected to increasingly responsible public offices, including county sheriff and town mayor. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.

So at first glance, this post seems to be not as much about education as it is about the lack of an education. Formal education — and childhood — ended early for all four of my grandparents; nonetheless, they learned quickly. They learned the value of money and of hard work. They learned to place their families’ needs above their own. They learned that nobody would step in and make their lives easier for them, so it was up to them to do it themselves.

Their own children all finished high school; some went to college and graduate school. And every one of their ten grandchildren is a college graduate, some of us with graduate degrees, including a doctor and a lawyer, among others.

Most of their parents — my great-grandparents — don’t seem to have emphasized formal education. That is not surprising. In Italy, children whose families did not have much money tended to leave school after age 10. Their social and economic system did not offer opportunities for poor kids to use an education, even if they could get one. And their families needed as many paid workers as possible, just to survive. But a generation later, my grandparents had seen enough in the U.S., and struggled enough as children, to understand that here, education was the key to a better life for their own children. That lesson is part of the legacy they left to my generation.

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