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‘That’s Amore’!

Life With an Italian Father, Mother, and Uncles


By Joseph Olivieri, Sr. as edited by Kristine Lowder


Copyright 2017 Kristine Lowder


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Copyright © 2011, 2017 Kristine Lowder. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage or retrieval system without written permission from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in reviews.

Contents



Editor’s Note

Foreword

Introduction: by Joseph B. Olivieri, Sr.


Chapter 1: Dad’s Hometown

Chapter 2: World War II

Chapter 3: Dad Comes to America:

Chapter 4: Goodbye, Coal Mining

Chapter 5: Dad Meets Mom

Chapter 6: Along Comes Joseph, the Firstborn Son

Chapter 7: Dad and the Moon

Chapter 8: My Dad, the Storyteller

Chapter 9: Uncle Caesar-The Big Brother I Never Had

Chapter 10: Mother and the English Language

Chapter 11: Dad Makes Wine

Chapter 12: Uncle Bob Goes to Jail

Chapter 13: Dad Loved a Party

Chapter 14: Gigante

Chapter 15: Dad and the Sink

Chapter 16: Cars

Chapter 17: My First New Year’s Eve Party

Chapter 18: Mom’s Cooking

Chapter 19: Girls and Exams Don’t Mix

Chapter 20: Sweet Shops

Chapter 21: Godparents

Chapter 22: Going Downtown

Chapter 23: Games We Played

Chapter 24: Let’s Go For a Walk on Belvidere


Afterword

From the Kitchen: Favorite Family Recipes

About the Author

About the Editor

A Final Word



















Editor’s Note


I’m not Italian, but my late Uncle Joe Olivieri was – and how. His memoirs brim with laughter, parties, occasional spats, mischief and surprises. Told with rapier wit and a twinkle, That’s Amore! Life With an Italian Father, Mother and Uncles brings to life a bygone era of Ellis Island immigration, an all-day, old-fashioned Italian wedding, concrete laundry tubs, an exploding back porch, Grappa wine and mora games, skate keys, homemade pasta, the “black hand squad” and work at the “Dodgemaina” auto plant in Detroit, Michigan. All told in the first person and topped off with a “guided” stroll down Olivieri’s beloved Belvidere Street.

Beginning in Abruzzi, Italy in 1890, Life With reveals a rare and witty look at close-knit relatives who stuck together through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, meat rationing and World War II, the Baby Boom, turbulent sixties and beyond. Seasoned with an unforgettable blend of humor and pathos, Life With stirs up bountiful servings of reminiscence brimming with warmth, conviviality and the powerful love of family. Told in his own words, Joe’s story introduces us to an “ordinary” Italian family that is as extraordinary as the man who lived it.

After reading this exuberant, engaging memoir, I’m putting in for honorary paisanship!


Kristine Naas Lowder

Spring 2011

Hoquiam, Washington


Acknowledgements


My thanks to my cousins Joe Olivieri, Jr. and Debbie Naas Dunning, without whose invaluable help and cooperation this endeavor would not have been possible. I am also deeply indebted to my mom and dad, the late Tom and Peggy LaFleur Naas, for introducing me to the Olivieri household those many years ago and for focusing on what matter most: faith, friends and family.

And to my husband, Chris. Thanks for keeping “the home fires burning” during many long hours at the keyboard. You’re The Best!


~ Dedication ~




To family young and old, near and far, present and passed on.











Foreword


Somehow, somewhere, some unknown number of years ago, Joseph B. Olivieri, Sr. prefaced an unpublished manuscript with: “This book is being written for my children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces who never knew their grandparents and their uncles.” I am one of those nieces. And I really should clean out my filing cabinet more often.

I received the unpublished manuscript for Life with an Italian Father, Mother, and Uncles from my step-mom, Barbara Naas, who mailed it to me from my hometown of San Diego shortly after my father passed away in 2003. I gave it a quick, cursory skim, stashed it away and promptly forgot about it until just recently. (I am still kicking myself for not giving this manuscript more attention sooner. But as they say, “Better late than never.”)

I was looking for something else in my personal “archaeological dig” (aka: The Dreaded Filing Cabinet) when I noticed an oversized manila envelope wedged in the back. Curious, I hauled it out, blew off the dust, opened it, and found myself instantly transported back some forty years or so to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan and the Olivieri home.

You see, Joseph Olivieri, Sr. was my uncle. He married my Dad’s sister, Charlotte. Their three kids are my cousins. I only met Uncle Joe once, during my one and only visit to Mom and Dad’s hometown of Detroit in the 1960s. (I’d give you an exact date if I could, but I can’t remember it. I do recall, however, that my kid sister, Laura, was about three months old at the time. Laura has a May birthday and she’s fifty years young at this writing, so go figure. She’ll love me for blabbing that all over the world.  )

I was very young and don’t remember much. What I do remember about my Uncle Joe: 1) He was as bald as a billiard ball; 2) He wore glasses and seemed as tall as a giant (everyone looks like a giant when you’re seven years old); 3) He was always smiling or laughing; 4) The smells from the Olivieri kitchen were divine, and 5) there was something about… smoking a cigar.

If only I’d taken better notes!

Fortunately, Uncle Joe did. What I found in that dusty manila envelope was nearly one hundred single-spaced, type-written pages of his unpublished memoirs. The editor in me danced a jig. A word about that is in order.

When working on an edit I usually warm up the ‘ole red pen or pencil, roll up my sleeves and bleed red ink all over dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, incorrect usage and the like. It may sound corny, but I just couldn’t do it this time. The closest I got was adding “That’s Amore!” to the title, because it seemed appropriate and a good fit. But there was something about holding my uncle’s manuscript that was like holding his hand. I couldn’t bear to slash any more red ink anywhere.1 It seemed sacrilegious. So I refrained. The editing and keyboarding process sped along like a gimpy snail on crutches mired in a molasses factory, but it seemed the respectful thing to do, and resulted in minor edits and reformatting for publication by yours truly.

My Uncle Joe passed away several years ago. My Aunt Charlotte continues to reside in Michigan. Unfortunately, the manuscript is undated. Although there is no way of pinpointing its exact date of origin, the paper and type font used suggest it was printed off a 1980s-vintage Macintosh computer. Whatever the date or age of the manuscript, this is my Uncle Joe’s story, in his words. Que bella!


Kristine Naas Lowder

Hoquiam, Washington

Spring 2011

Fall 2017
























Introduction

By

Joseph B. Olivieri, Sr.


As I look back on my childhood I realize how fortunate I was to be raised in an Italian immigrant family which was full of love. Italian children are truly loved by their parents and extended family.

Like so many children of immigrant families, I went through a period of being ashamed, not only of my heritage, but of my parents. I wanted so much to be an American and for them to be Americans. Why did they have to talk so funny? I hated being called “dago” or worse yet, “wop.”

There is humor in everything I am told, and as I was to learn while serving with the First Armored Division during World War II, there was humor in “dago,” “wop,” “guinea,” etc. It seems that when the First Armored was in Africa, a forward artillery observer reported that two Italians were coming over the hill. To the officer on the other end of the radio it sounded like two battalions were coming over the hill. He ordered an all-out artillery barrage. Because of this waste of ammunition on two pour souls intent on surrendering, the order came down from headquarters that from that day on, Italian soldiers were to be referred to as “eye-ties, “dagos,” “wops,” etc., but not as “Italians.”

Then there was the food. Oh, my, what I wouldn’t give now to have some of that homemade sausage on homemade Italian bread. Speaking of bread, as a kid I begged my mom to buy American bread and baloney so that my lunches were like the other kids.

The story begins in Italy and follows the ancestors to America. Most of it takes place on Belvidere on the east side of Detroit. At times I feel like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof and I want to paraphrase his song of his village out loud: “Belvidere, Belvidere, my beautiful tree-lined Belvidere!”

This is where I grew up, surrounded by loving parents, uncles and aunts. Belvidere is a long street starting at the Detroit River and ending at Duncan, altogether about four miles long. Duncan contained five houses and had alleys at each end which took you to Harper. (Joe inserts here, “See Figure 1.” Unfortunately, said figure has been lost.) As you can see, this more or less isolated us and created a small town within the big city. I remember reading in school how cold big cities were and how no one spoke to anyone. I was sure that someone was mistaken because my part of Detroit (Belvidere) wasn’t like that at all. We knew all our neighbors, and they knew us. Just as in small towns, we helped one another. At Christmas we exchanged baked goods and I learned about ethnic baking.

Belvidere was a real United Nations neighborhood. We were the only Italians. The rest of the families were German, French, Polish, Canadian and English.

















Chapter 1

Dad’s Hometown


Dad was born in a little village in the Abruzzi region of Italy.2 The village, San Martino D’Ocre, is located in the province of L’Aquila about a thirty-minute drive from the provincial capital, L’Aquila. Dad was born on January 7, 1890.

At the age of eleven, he left home to work as a water boy in a construction gang in Germany. As I was to find out later, Germany to my Dad included Germany, Austria, Hungary and Switzerland. While leaving home at eleven may seem terrible to our society, it was the normal thing in his day. Dad was one of twelve children and all had to picth in and help. He didn’t go alone, for some relative who had a job took Dad along and looked after him. On one of thee jobs, Dad got into trouble. One of the men dared Dad to climb a giant pine tree. (Well, Dad said it was a giant tree, and dads don’t lie.) To prove that he made it to the top he was to throw down an eagle’s nest. Well, up he went and threw down the nest. When he returned to the ground, he was arrested and fined. It seemed that disturbing an eagle’s nest was against the law.

Heights held no fear for Dad. I’m sure, as he watched me shivering on the third step of a step ladder, that he wondered how I could be his son. At age sixty-five, he painted the highest part of our house on the east side of Detroit. I have often wondered what people thought when they saw the old man on the top of a forty-foot extension ladder while I, the young man, held the bottom. It scares me just to remember how he would have only one foot on the ladder while stretching out to paint as far as he could reach.

Dad’s mother was a Nardis,3 and this side of the family had once been well-to-do. I remember Dad telling the story of how the money disappeared. This story involves my favorite ancestor, a real playboy. It seems this ancestor would go into town with his drinking buddies, and they would take the best table in the cantina. If the waitress was at all comely, he would make an interesting offer. As I think of it, she probably didn’t have to be at all comely after a few rounds of drinks. One of my friends claimed that when the waitresses all looked good, he had probably had enough to drink.

Before all you ex-Playboy bunnies rise up en masse to hang me in effigy or in person, let me assure you that this friend went to some real scudsy4 bars. But let’s get back to my great-grandfather and his offer.

He would offer to cover all of the bare leg which the waitress would show with lira notes. I’m told that while skirts started at the ground, great-grandpa got to see a lot of thigh. Well, there is where the money went.

Children matured early in Dad’s day, and he was soon a construction worker. By the time he was called in the military service he had become a foreman, which was not too bad for an eighteen year-old. He worked in the construction of tunnels in the mountains. His job was to drill holes for blasting. It went something like this:

Dad and his crew worked the afternoon shift using steam drills to make the holes. The night shift did the blasting, and the day shift did the removal of the rock that had been loosened. One evening Dad’s crew had completed their work and the powder crew came in to load the powder. Dad stayed behind to visit with the foreman of the powder crew. As the blasting crew loaded and tamped their charges, a voice told Dad that he didn’t belong there. This so frightened him that he ran madly for the exit. As he ran, there was an explosion which knocked him down. Dad said they were using some frozen dynamite, which made it unstable. This was the first of many “ESP experiences” Dad had. There were to be others, one of which included me.

About the time Dad reach the age of twenty-one, Italy decided that England, France and Germany weren’t the only ones entitled to colonies. They invaded Tripoli to liberate it from the Turks. I believe that Dad was in Tripoli from 1911 to 1912 and served in the heavy cavalry. They carried lances, sabers and carbines. Dad enjoyed telling about the Italian two-airplane air force in Tripoli. The Turks were terrified by them and ran as soon as one appeared in the air. The planes weren’t too airworthy, so Dad’s unit would gallop under the place to rescue the pilot in the event of a forced landing. I marvel at the fact that Dad’s lifespan included man’s first airplanes and also the moon landing.

Whenever I think of space flights, I think of the different reactions from my parents. Mom was convinced that if man landed on the moon, the world would end. Dad’s reaction was, “Joe, how does it work?” What a good and inquisitive mind he had.

Dad must have been quite a cut-up in the army. Tripoli still had slave markets in those days. The Italian soldiers would attend these markets as there was little else to do. The women were sold in sacks, something like a pig in a poke. On a dare from his buddies, Dad bought a slave. Owning slaves was forbidden for soldiers. When he opened the sake, out came a toothless old crone. Dad tried to release her, but she wouldn’t leave. He bought her so she would serve him, but on the other hand he had an obligation to care for her. When his captain discovered Dad’s slave, he was court-martialed and convicted. The penalty was to be tied to an olive tree for two days and two nights. So much for Arabian Nights, romance and mystery.

Dad had a favorite story about the time spent in garrison in Italy. It seems there was an old solider long past retirement age. He would be the equivalent of our master sergeant. He never bothered to salute the officers, preferring instead to nod to them. His son had attended the Italian equivalent of West Point and after being commissioned, was assigned to the same post as his father. The son’s fellow officers convinced him that it would be great fun if the stopped his father and insisted on a proper salute. While his friends watched, the son stopped the father and said, “Soldier, have you forgotten your military courtesy? Remember, you are supposed to salute your superior officers.” The father drew himself up straight and saluted saying, “As a solider, I salute you. As your father…,” (wham). He slapped him across the face.


















Chapter 2

World War II


The Libyan campaign ended and Dad was discharged Dad’s older sister, Giuseppina (Josephine), his older brother, Giuseppe (Joseph), and his younger brother, Baptista (Bob), had emigrated to the United States of America. Dad decided to join them, but fate intervened. Uncle Giuseppe wrote Dad and suggested that he wait for a year because the USA was in the midst of a recession.

Before the year was up, Italy was conned into the war by Britain and France with promises of the restoration of the border areas that Italy believed were hers. Dad was called back into the army and rejoined his old cavalry unit but soon found himself a foot solider. You don’t need cavalry in a war locked in trenches.

Dad managed to avoid injury or death for two years. Then an Italian nobleman general got a brilliant idea. From Dad’s viewpoint, it was about as brilliant as the charge of the Light Brigade. Dad and his troops were pulled out of the trenches and remounted and prepared to make a glamorous charge into the Austrian lines to break through much as the Germans did in World War II. You might call it a blitzkrieg on horseback. The idea had some merit for it was, after, all, the technique used by General Grant in the Civil War.

Here comes Dad’s second experience with ESP. They had completed their training and were bivouacked, waiting to mount the attack. They were asleep when at the foot of the bed appeared Uncle Giuseppe, who had died in the United States the previous year from a burst appendix. “Don’t be frightened, Emidio,” he said, “for I have come to warn you that tomorrow morning, you will attack at dawn and will be wounded but not killed.” With this, the ghost of Uncle Giuseppe disappeared.

Dad woke up his buddies and told them what had happened. They all laughed and accused him of taking too freely of the grape. Dad could not get back to sleep. He lay awake until four in the morning, when they were aroused and told to get ready. Shortly after daybreak they charged.

What a sight it must have been. What a failure it was.

Horses charging into a narrow mountain pass are no match for artillery. An exploding shell killed all of Dad’s squad and wounded him in the arm. He was riding low on his horse and most of the shell fragments passed over him. Controlling his horse with his knees, he returned to the rear. After first aid, he was taken to a rear-area hospital. The shrapnel had shattered part of his elbow and he was certain his arm would have to be amputated. He was sure that in a city hospital, where there would be more time and skillful surgeons available, his arm might be saved. He turned on all of his considerable charm, according to his story, and sweet-talked a nursing nun into transferring him to the hospital in Venice. There his arm was saved.

After several months, he had recovered sufficiently to return to action. The decision on whether a solider was fit for combat was made by a commission of doctors. Dad was sent before the commission along with others to await their fate. He was third in line for examination. He had decided to claim his grip was too weak for him to return to combat. He hoped that removal of half the bone in his elbow would substantiate his claim.

The first solider claimed that he could only walk forward and not backwards. The head doctor said, “That’s great. We have too many who can only walk backwards in retreat. We need you.” Off went the first solider back to his regiment.

The second soldier came in on a crutch. He claimed his right foot was stuck six inches off the floor. His knee was permanently locked at an angle that prevented him from placing his right foot on the floor. “How interesting,” commented the head doctor. “Put him on the table, as he surely can’t get up there by himself.” When the solider was flat on the table, the doctor gave him some chloroform and the solider went to sleep. As he was drifting off to sleep, his leg slowly straightened out. Off to the front he went.

“Well,” my dad said to himself, “perhaps my idea isn’t so hot.” He decided to go out in a blaze of glory. When the head doctor asked him what was wrong with him, Dad replied, “Nothing. I am a fighting s.o.b., and I want to get back into action.”

This knocked the doctors back on their heels, as they were accustomed to the opposite reaction. In a kindly tone, the head doctor asked Dad where he was from. Dad answered, “Abruzzi.”

“Ah,” said the doctor, “that explains it. We Abruzzi are all brave men. As the great poet from Abruzzi, D’Nunzio, said of the Aruzzi, ‘Forte e gentle’” (brave and gentle). The doctor went on, “It says here you are a cavalryman, and in the cavalry you need a strong grip. Let me test your grip. Squeeze my hand.”

Dad very weakly, but with much effort and great acting, squeezed the doctor’s hand.

“Just as I thought,” said the doctor. “You are a brave man, but not ready to return to action. Here is a three-month furlough. Go back to your father’s farm and work hard. We will see how you are doing at the end of your furlough.”

The furlough was extended for three more months. The war ended and Dad left for America in 1919.
















Chapter 3

Dad Comes to America


Dad came to the USA with two friends, John Pizutti, his cousin, and a man known only by his nickname, Formage, which means “cheese.” In all the years Dad talked about Formage, I never heard Dad use Formage’s given name. The name came about because of his love of cheese. The three had been friends since childhood. John Pizutti and Dad remained close friends until John’s tragic accidental death. Formage stayed with Dad in he little coal mining town of Ellsworth, Pennsylvania for several years and then moved on, never to be heard from again.

According to my dad, the journey from Naples, Italy to New York, New York was pretty bad. Between sea sickness and the close quarters in steerage, they were pretty sick. Finally they were processed through Ellis Island and on a train to Ellsworth, Pennsylvania.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to travel in a strange country not knowing a word of English? They had to change trains in Pittsburg. They arrived in Pittsburg on the Fourth of July very hungry, because by now the effect of the sea sickness on their appetites had worn off. There was only one problem. Everything was closed because of the holiday.

In desperation they went out of the station onto the street and there found food in the car of a push-cart peddler. All he had left to sell were bananas. They had never seen bananas, but they were desperate and bought the whole bunch, a stalk about three feet long. They went back into the station, Dad carrying the bananas slung over his shoulder, the three of them pulling off a fresh banana as they finished the previous one. All in the station were laughing at them because they were eating the bananas skin and all. They sure must have been hungry. Dad’s story reminds me of a story told by the late Danny Thomas.

It seems this young Italian emigrant somehow got a job in an auto plant even though he couldn’t speak or understand English. His job was a simple one and his foreman communicated with him by the use of sign language. There was only one problem. He was slowly starving to death because he couldn’t speak English. Finally one day, during the shift change he heard someone from the day shift speaking Italian. He rushed over to the man and said, “Please, you gotta helpa me. I’m starving because I can’t speaka English. Pleasa teacha me how to order somethinga ina the restorante.”

His new friend teaches him to say, “apple pie and coffee.” The starving Italian rushes over to the nearest restaurant and has six helpings of apple pie and coffee. For the next two weeks and three times a day he orders apple pie and coffee. By now he is pretty sick of apple pie and coffee, so he watches for his benefactor every day at shift change time. Finally he spots him. He rushes over and asks his new friend to teach him something else, because hesa sicka apple pie and coffee. The new friend teaches him to say, “bacon and eggs.”

The emigrant rushes to the nearby restaurant and excitedly says to the waitress, “bacon and eggs.” The waitress says, “How do you want them eggs?” He sadly replies, “Apple pie and coffee.”

Well, back to Dad’s adventures and his lack of English. The train for Ellsworth arrives and they board it. Unfortunately, they get off too soon at the stop just before Ellsworth. By now they are hungry again and decide not to go on until they have had something to eat. They find a grocery store, but again the language problem. They look around and pick up three boxes of marshmallows, another new food to try. Whenever Dad told this story, he always talked about how honest the storekeepers whom he met were. They always showed them the price on the box and showed them how much change they had coming. He always said, “America, shesa a greata country, everybody isa so honesta.”

Fortified with their marshmallows, they resume their journey down the railroad tracks to Ellsworth, which fortunately is only five miles away. As they pull into town they are spotted by my cousin Clara, Aunt Josephine’s oldest child. Clara runs home to tell her mother that she has found the missing Uncle Emidio and his friends. Little did Clara know that someday she would marry Dad’s best friend and cousin, John Pizutti.




















Chapter 4

Goodbye, Coal Mining


After the celebration of his safe arrival in Ellsworth, Dad went to work. Uncle Bob got Dad a job in the mine where they worked as partners. The miners operated under a piecework system. You were paid so much a ton for what you mined. You could work alone or as partners as Dad and Uncle Bob did. Dad told me about his first day in the mine and how it was almost his last.

He and Bob had no sooner arrived at the area where they were to work when a large section of the roof gave way and a large piece of slate fell, narrowly missing them. Uncle Bob and Dad were hard workers and, according to my dad who never exaggerated, the most productive. Dad claimed that they were consistently the highest paid miners.

Uncle Bob tired of coal mining and moved to Detroit and got a job at the Dodge plant. How he got to Detroit I never learned. I suspect that one of their friends wrote them and told them that working in an auto plant was a lot safer than coal mining and paid better. Being the more conservative of the two, Dad decided to stay behind. Then fate stepped in. The miners went on strike and as still is the custom in that part of the USA, it was a bitter one. Dad decided to quit mining and join Uncle Bob. He wrote his brother, who urged him to come.

Dad arrived in Detroit and moved into the same boarding house as Uncle Bob. Dad’s first job in Detroit did not have a happy ending. He went to work as a laborer in a construction gang. The University of Detroit was building their new campus in northwest Detroit. All of the buildings were connected by utility tunnels which carried steam lines, electrical power lines, etc. All of the men in the crew were Italian, but not all Abruzzi. Dad was the only one. The rest were Sicilians. Please keep in mind that the Italians of that era had a stronger allegiance to their region than to their country.

The Sicilians resented Dad because they wanted the job for one of their people, and they threatened him. While Dad was a quiet man, he was not one to trifle with. He had survived two wars and knew how to protect himself. Using his shovel as a possible weapon, he made it clear that (if they tried anything,) he would not be the only one hurt. That night at home he discussed this episode with Uncle Bob who told him not to go back and that he would get him a job at the Dodge plant.

I am sure that you can imagine what it must have been like for my dad to enter a factory. His work until now had been in construction and mining, and so I am sure that the noise alone must have been traumatic. He was put to work on a spot welder welding lug nuts onto a wheel. This operation had not been going well, and a lot of “scrap” resulted. Somehow my dad reasoned that the problem came from too much electricity, so he experimented with putting a piece of cardboard between the wheel and the welding head. This reduced the power just enough so that he could easily make his required quota.

Because there was no incentive for him to increase production, he kept his solution to himself. He made as many pieces as his co-workers, but with much less effort. In fact, he could do eight hours work in just one hour. He just took his time and looked busy for the whole shift. This reminds me of another story Dad enjoyed. It was one which I heard somewhere and shared with him.

It seems that right after WWII ended, an Italian bishop came to Detroit hoping to raise money which he planned to use to build an orphanage. As I am sure you realize, the war left many homeless children. The late Cardinal Mooney assigned a young seminarian to act as an aide to the bishop and drive him to the various parishes. Each Sunday they visited a different parish where the visiting bishop would say the first Mass and make his plea for money. The rest of the Mass he just made his plea.

In one parish there chanced to be a poor, demented soul who thought that he was Jesus Christ. He had a beard, wore his hair long and curled, wore sandals and flowing robes. He looked just like a picture out of the Bible. The bishop and the seminarian were vesting in the sacristy, getting ready for the first Mass when the seminarian looked out the door. There to his surprise coming down the aisle was Jesus Christ himself. You can imagine how shocked he was. He rushed over to the bishop and said, “Bishop, bishop, I just saw our Lord coming down the main aisle. What shall I do, what shall I do?” The bishop, true Italian all the way, merely shrugged his shoulders, lifted his arms palms up and said, “Eh! Looka busy! Itsa the boss.”

That was Dad’s philosophy: looka busy, itsa the boss. Therefore, no one ever knew that he had found a way to make a hard job easy. About this time Dad received a few days off so that he could go to New York to marry Mom. (More about this later.) He was asked by the boss to show his temporary replacement how to run the spot welder. Dad, full of the milk of human kindness because of his upcoming nuptials, showed his replacement his trick, warning him to keep it a secret. Well, the darn fool replacement did his day’s quota in an hour and spent the rest of the day wandering around the plant visiting friends. He got caught and the quota was raised by a factor of eight. Dad could have killed him for killing the job.

















Chapter 5

Dad Meets Mom

It was 1924 and Dad was thirty-four years old and lonely. He wanted to get married, but between his shyness and the lack of Italian girls he was not doing so well.

One of Dad’s good friends was the tailor Tony Di’Bartholomeo, respectfully called “maestro sarto” (master tailor) or “maestro” for short. I don’t know why Dad went to New York, but Tony suggested that Dad visit his cousin, Ranieri Giuliani, who was Mother’s uncle by marriage and with whom she was living. This might all have been the start of an arranged marriage for all I know. At any rate, Dad visited Uncle Ranieri and he met Annunciata Cattivera, my mother. Dad stayed in New York for three days. When he left, they were engaged to be married on July 3,1924.

There were times when I am sure that they were sorry that they told me that story. Whenever my parents thought I was getting too serious about some girl that I was dating, out would come the lecture. They were so afraid that I would marry and give up college. Whenever the pressure got too hot I would say, “Tell me, how long did you two know one another when you got engaged?” In a whisper they would say, “Three days, but that was different.” In reply I would say, “Ha! The old double standard again.”

As I said earlier, this could have been an arranged marriage, but it was without a doubt a beautiful marriage. I never saw two people who were more devoted to one another. How do you judge how much in love two people are? When I was young I wondered if my folks were in love, for I never saw them kiss. But there was love, and lots of it. There was love in the way Dad, whom you would expect to be an Italian macho man, would help with the house work in order to make things easier for Mom. Dad did dishes, cooked, did laundry and yes, even scrubbed floors on his hands and knees because Mom wanted a clean house but was too ill to do it all herself.

Yes, Mom was ill. Very ill. She had uterine cancer in about 1935. She survived, but was very weak for several years. Dad did all these things which most immigrant men considered unmanly, out of love.

Did Mom love Dad? She certainly did. How could I tell? I couldn’t when I was young. But the signs of love were there when Dad was left a virtual vegetable by a series of crippling strokes which robbed him of speech, left him paralyzed and unable to care for himself. Did she put him in a nursing home? No. She took care of him herself for eleven years. By this time Mom had had three more surgeries and had a case of angina. Every night as part of her night prayers she would ask God to let her live long enough to close her man’s eyes. God granted her prayer, for not long after we buried Dad she herself had a stroke which required full-time nursing care in a nursing home.

Poor Dad had an embarrassing thing happen to him the day before he was to leave for New York to marry Mom. Dad’s suitcase needed some repairs, so he took it to the shoemaker shop owned by a paisano. It was a hang-out for young Italian males, and so Dad met many friends there. The shoemaker assured Dad that the repairs wouldn’t take long., and so he could wait for it. Dad decided to get a shoe shine while waiting and climbed into the shoeshine chair. Just then the police came in to the shop. It was the black-hand squad. This was during Prohibition and Detroit had this “elite?” squad. Why were they called the “black-hand squad”? Because the Mafia’s way of telling you that they were unhappy with you was to leave a drawing of a black hand. While most Italians are very law-abiding, there was group who took advantage of the stupid Prohibition law to smuggle liquor into the States. The police of that era treated Italians of that era the way many Blacks are treated today. Just being Italian was enough to get you jailed.

Well now, let’s get back to the shoemaker’s shop. Dad was getting a shoe shine and three or four other Italians were passing the time of day. The shop door opened and in came the black-hand squad. It seems that a child had been kidnapped that morning. Standard police procedure, check out the “dagos.” The sergeant in charge asked one of the young Italians, “What’s your name?” The Italian refused to give his name, so the sergeant said, “Take them all in.” This included poor Dad, whose only crime was being Italian and being there. Poor Dad, he was to leave the next day for New York to get married, and here he was in jail. He was not permitted the single phone call, and so there he sat. But Dad was lucky for a change. At four in the afternoon the shift changed and the new lieutenant was Dad’s next-door neighbor. He asked Dad what in the world was he doing in jail? Dad explained as best he could and the lieutenant released him.

















Chapter 6

Along Comes Joseph, the Firstborn Son


Dad and Mom returned from New York and moved into a flat on Benson Street near the Italian section of Detroit. They moved into another flat on Heidelberg sometime before I was born. Not long after they were married they made a visit to Ellsworth so that Mom could meet Aunt Josephine and her family. My cousin Yolanda, better known as “Vi,” fell in love with her new aunt, so much so that she returned to Detroit with Mom and Dad. She stayed with them until after I was born and rejoined her family after Aunt Josephine’s family moved to Detroit.

A month after I was born, the family moved to Belvidere. I say “the family” because it consisted of Mom, Dad, Uncle Bob, Uncle Caesar, cousin Vi and little ‘ole me. This move occurred on April 1, 1925.

The houses on Belvidere were built about 1900 and in most cases had the same or similar floor plans. They were two stories high, with a giant attic. The second floor had four bedrooms and a bath and the first floor a reception hall, living room, dining room and kitchen. The houses had only a partial basement which was equal in area to about a fourth of the first floor. The rest of the house was built over a crawl space. No central heating in these houses. They depended on a coal stove in the reception hall and a combination gas range and coal or wood stove in the kitchen. As I remember, it had two gas burners, a gas oven and a coal or wood cook stove equal in area to the two gas burners.

One of the first things Dad did was to construct a full basement. I believe they did this the first summer that they occupied the house. This was no easy undertaking. First, the house had to be jacked off the foundation and supported on a temporary foundation. Then the basement was excavated by hand. There was no way that they could have used a steam shovel.

Dad and my two uncles did not do this alone. In those days the Italian community was close-knit and you just asked your friends to help. The only cost was for food and drink. Often the whole family would come and Mom would have ladies with whom to visit and to help with the cooking. When the basement was completed, Dad had a coal-fired gravity warm air system installed.

While they were at it, they built a new enclosed back porch with a basement. This basement was a combination wine cellar and fruit cellars. They also converted the pantry off the kitchen into a powder room, with a toilet and wash basin but no bathtub or shower. When the four of us got older, having two bathrooms even if one was only a partial bath sure helped.

The front porch was left with a crawl space for a number of years. I was about fourteen or so when Dad decided that he needed a better coal bin and decided that under the front porch was the place for it. This time the work crew was Dad and me and really, mostly Dad. What a hard worker that man was! I do remember helping to mix the concrete by hand. When we were all done, I asked Dad if I should start tearing off the old wood siding from the front porch. “Of course not” came the answer – in Italian, of course. “If I take the wood off, the city will see my new coal bin and raise my taxes.” Years later I had the coal furnace removed and a gas furnace installed. The coal bin then became an auxiliary wine cellar.


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