Storia Della Famiglia Italiana
The following story was written by my maternal grandfather, William Sdao, about his family history. My family history.
My grandfather wrote this story in several different parts, with afterthoughts scribbled in the margins. I have edited it with the utmost care. Because of its length, the history is separated into sections.
I have always thought my mother and father were the two wisest and bravest people I ever knew. I still do. In one form or another I speak to them every day. Sometimes I think I hear them respond.
I have several purposes in writing what follows. Most important of all, I want my children and theirs to understand the kind of legacy they have inherited. They have a lot to live up to.
Dad, named Gasparo, was born to Bartolo and Matilda Cataldo Sdao on August 31st, 1883, a la compagna, in the countryside of Aiello Calabria, a tiny village about twelve kilometers from the Mediterranean seaside city of Amantea, Calabria, in Southern Italy. Aiello Calabria was actually only some ten kilometers from Mom’s birthplace in 1892.
In 1902, dissatisfied with life dictatorially run by the local Catholic priest and the general poverty of the region, he was recruited by American labor contractors promising work in Pennsylvania, USA. The contractors paid for his passage from Naples to Ellis Island. Within a week, he was working in a coal mine outside of Punxsutawney. He would continue to work in various mining towns in the Pennsylvania area until 1925. Dad became part of a completely disenfranchised Italian community, paid by company script redeemable only by company stores, living in company buildings, eating company food, and wearing company clothes.
The areas around Western Pennsylvania were basically agricultural peopled by Germans, Irish, and Welsh farmers. Then soft coal, bituminous, not the hard coal of Eastern Pennsylvania, anthracite, was discovered.
There was a wild scramble of American investors who wanted to reap the harvest. There was no effective coal mining machinery. So they needed hard labor: men using picks, shovels, and later, dynamite. This produced labor brokers who scoured Europe looking for strong, young men in Poland, Italy, and Wales.
Soft coal mining in the early 1900s was a cruel, heartless business. Coal mining companies operated with little or no government control. The coal was discovered in relatively shallow veins. They were not the well-structured mines of later days with reinforced walls, ceilings, and lighting. The mines were unheated and unlit. The miners were treated with little regard for health or safety. Mine accidents were common.
Miners worked on their hands and knees with no ventilation, lighted only by carbide lamps attached to their hats. (Carbide is a mineral which flares up when drops of water are dripped into it.) They were paid on the basis of how many pounds of coal they dug up. What they mined, they loaded by hand into small bucket trams and carts, which they then pushed to a collection site where it was weighed.
Because the Italian miners spoke little to no English and were foreign in every aspect to the rural farmers they were thrust upon, they were forced to live in crude houses built by the coal mining companies. They developed independent communities almost totally outside of the existing rural Pennsylvania culture.
Dad originally located where the labor brokers placed him. He and his paesanos, “fellow townspeople”, quickly discovered each of their Italian communities was already guided by Italian padrones, usually men able to communicate in some degree with the coal mining bosses. These men quickly became the accepted overseers of all community practices and customs, a system of joint survival in the cruel coal mining world.
Their homes, if we can call them such, had no running water or toilet facilities. Mom talked about papering the bare wooden walls with newspaper glued on by a paste made from flour and water. There were very few Italian women and even fewer Italian family units. Every mining move required a new period of accommodation with their new American neighbors. These forces drove the Italian men into close dependence upon one another. Paesanos became closer than relatives. Although I never heard my parents use the term, they certainly referred to this structure as a necessary arrangement, something “we do together” or “our thing”, cosa nostra nowadays.
In 1925, he and his paesanos heard of the unbelievable opportunity of earning five dollars (approximately $68 today) for only ten hours a day in Niagara Falls, New York. He packed up his meager belongings, eight children, and Mom, and somehow got them all to their new hometown.
Records tell us Gaspero Sdao was 5'4" and about 140 pounds. Somehow, as opposed to my mother, he could read and write in Italian and managed to learn to speak and write in English. He fathered eight children and died in August 1931 of coal mining-related cancer. Any time I find myself thinking of what a tough day I have had, l think of Dad’s typical work day and realize how blessed I am. I thank Dad every night for his courage and dedication to his family.
Despite his early death, I know Dad visited his Pennsylvania friends, maybe even our more distant family members in Detroit where they flocked when they heard that crazy Henry Ford was paying five dollars a day for only ten hours. It now seems incredible, but Mom and Dad took in four children orphaned by the death of one of Dad’s brothers and his brother’s wife in the horrible influenza plague of 1918. They lived with our family from 1918 through 1925 when we moved to Niagara Falls and the four kids — Theresa (who later married a great guy named Tony Juliano), Ralph, Little Tony, and Louis — went to live in Detroit.
Mom led an even more challenging and interesting life. She was born illegitimately, in St. Joseph de Amantea, Italy, a mountainside village about five kilometers from Amantea and perhaps ten kilometers away from dad’s birthplace, on Palm Sunday in 1892. She was named Palmera, in honor of her Saint’s Day, a common practice for illegitimate children. She was given away at birth to a then-childless couple, the Lorellis, and given the name Josephine. They came to America when Mom was eight and ended up in the same Italian enclave as Dad.
Mom’s life is shrouded in mysteries. In 1979 with Joe Bellonte, and again in 1985, I traveled to Italy with the primary intent of discovering more about Mom’s birth and first eight years living with her adopted parents. I searched for her under a variety of names ascribed to her over the years — Lorelli, Scarcelli, Palmeri, Pino — to no avail. In 1985, two Amantea priests joined me in my search — they contacted neighboring parishes. All to no avail.
I believe Mom always quietly thought she had been born to a Pino son; the Pinos were an established Amantea family. However, I never heard of any Pino acknowledgment of her birth or contact with the Lorellis. After further probing and discussion with second-generation Pinos living in Niagara Falls, I am totally convinced Mom’s father was a Pino.
It is unclear how mom was treated by the Lorellis. However, we do know, because she said it so many times, manca nu giorno a nu scoula, “not even one single day in a school.” She remained totally illiterate until grandson Michael, then about eight, taught her how to write her signature so she could become naturalized.
At about the age of 12, she and her adopted parents had been informed by the Italian community leaders that she would shortly have to decide to either be used communally by the Italian coal mining men or choose one of them to marry.
Therefore, at about the age of 13, she married Fortunato Baldacchino, promptly became pregnant, and then was widowed shortly thereafter in one of the many mine accidents. Once again, the padrones gave her the choice. Mom chose to marry my father, Gasparo Sdao, nine years older than she. At age 16, she had been married twice, widowed, and had a child, Ben.
Mom’s pregnancies seemed to keep pace with Dad’s need to change to a different nearby town because the coal veins they were digging became depleted. As I try to reconstruct the dates of birth of two sisters and six brothers, I come out with the following; close but probably a bit off in the earlier dates:
- Brother Ben Baldacchino — 1906
- Sister Katarina (Katherine) Sdao — 1908
- Brother Fiore (Floyd) Sdao — 1910
- Brother Giovani (John) Sdao — 1913
- Brother Vincenzo (Jim) Sdao — 1916
- Brother Federico (Fred) Sdao — 1919
- Brother Gugliemo (William) Sdao — 1922
- Sister Aldena (Deena) Sdao — 1925
- Brother Frank Robert (Bob) Sdao — 1928
Mom never spoke of it, but we are sure she, as well as all of the Italian women at the time, was convinced that as long as they breastfed a child, they were not going to get pregnant.
Every child was truly welcomed. Mom told us after Dad’s death that they were still looking forward to more children. You will note that Bob was only 18 months at Dad’s death and Dad had been sick and bedridden for about 18 months. I well recall when I was about four and ill with something, Mom had me sleep with her and waking up one morning while Mom was downstairs making breakfast, I got up and discovered bloody rags in the bucket of water in her closet… she was still capable of child-bearing!
When we arrived in Niagara Falls in 1925, we started off in a large, run-down brick building on 14th Street, near Niagara Street, opposite what later became a small public library. There were a remarkable number of transient families housed in it. We ended up on the third floor with another equally large family. There was only one working toilet at the end of an outside hall for all of us. I well remember, I must have already been housebroken at three and a half, standing in line dancing from one foot to another waiting my turn. We didn’t live there long.
Our next stop was to rent the first floor of a small home on 18th Street near Niagara Street. Small, but we had our very own bathroom equipped with the first bathtub with running water I ever remember. Our landlady, Nuzik, was a survivor of the Turkish Massacre of Armenians in 1915 when some million and a half Turks were killed by Ottoman Empire forces. At about the age of 4 or 5, Mom brought me up to the second-floor bathroom to view Nuzik in her bathtub to see the puncture marks all over her body made by Turk swords and lances as they drove the Armenians out into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. Many years later, I was invited to one of the local Armenian Church functions featuring testimony by Armenian survivors.
Our next stop was 1005–17th Street, right across the street from the old 17 Street Elementary School. Our own whole house, rented of course, had three bedrooms, our own bathroom, cellar, and front porch. It still stands. The school is where I went to kindergarten for half a year.
The only clue I have of how Dad got to Niagara Falls in 1925 with eight children, empty pockets, and could only dream of buying a house seems to be the miracle advent of one Mr. Graff, a benevolent Jewish land developer who had faith in the work ethic of recent immigrants, largely Italian and Polish in our neighborhood. With the assistance of Mr. Graff to work out financial arrangements in order to make home ownership a possibility with Power City Bank, Dad bought a home on 445–17th Street in 1927 for $4,500 (approximately $61,000 today).
It is impossible to describe what a monumental event the purchase of a home was for my parents. There is no way on earth that ownership of a plot of land, let alone a private home, would have been possible in Southern Italy or in Pennsylvania.
I distinctly remember my mother’s description of our home: three “huge” bedrooms, living room, dining room, and a sun porch. Actually two bedrooms were about nine by twelve feet and the “huge” one was twelve by about twenty-two feet. It was enough room for three double beds with Fred, Jim, and me in one bed and the four oldest in the other two. The baby slept with Mom and Dad. Katherine shared her own room with whichever baby graduated from Mom and Dad’s room when a new baby arrived. I went from Katherine’s room to the “big” bedroom at about the age of five or six.
Although Mom and Dad spoke of our home at 445–17th Street as a mansion, it was really quite basic with marginal electric and plumbing facilities. The bathroom had a tub with a drain to a sewer, but until the advent of the electrical water tank in the 1930s, there was no hot water. The result was a constantly plugged-up sewer line that was too small and Mom truly believed hot, hot water would solve this critical problem. Her faith in hot water extended to laundry, dishwashing and dirty necks — she was constantly rubbing her thumb up my neck and coming up with a surprising roll of direct. I think of her romance with hot water, the fact that we bathed once a week as kids in a big canning tub in the kitchen, and that I was number two or three in the water used by older siblings, every time I currently take a shower.
Moving was not easy. How Mom survived, I will never fully understand. She had to feed, clothe, and nurse all of us with none of the appliances or amenities we take for granted these days. No washer, no dryer, kerosene stove, and no regular supply of heated running water… all while she was breastfeeding one or another of her brood.
I recall using a scrubbing board to help Mom launder mountains of clothes with a bag of Fels Naptha soap and a lot of muscle and wrinkled hands and then hanging the clothes to dry, sometimes in freezing weather. Ironing clothes was a rarity. Mom had a series of flat-pointed iron plates which she heated on the stove for that purpose.
In winter, the only heated room in the house was the kitchen. Going to bed was a mad dash only made tolerable knowing I would have the body heat of two brothers as I slept. My favorite place to read was in the kitchen against a wall behind which the furnace chimney ran.
Yet I never remember feeling poor or disadvantaged. Mom and Dad instinctively created a warm, safe, and stable family community, no matter how hectic it really was. In Niagara Falls, we lived in largely Polish-Italian neighborhoods. Walking down the street you could easily distinguish by odor which home was Italian and which was Polish, either garlic or cabbage. Families clung closely to those who spoke their native tongue. Dad, conversely, due to the prejudice he had experienced because of his broken English, encouraged his children to speak only English at home. He spoke Italian, in its corrupt Calabrese form, to Mom and his paesanos.
Dad, because he somehow had learned to read and write some English, had acquired a respected position in our Niagara Falls Italian Community. From time to time, a group of Italian paesanos would get together at our house, most of them illiterate, and Dad would update them on American and Italian affairs. Mussolini was a favorite of theirs. Each of them was deeply anti-clerical and resentful of the Italian government under which they had lived. In the almost total absence of central or local government interest or presence, the Church had, perhaps out of necessity, chosen to impose and enforce customs and daily practices. They had some heated discussions in Italian, of course, which I somehow understood. I have found little of this life in my readings but heard from time to time the bitter distaste my Dad and his friends had for priestly standards and intrusions into personal matters such as marriages, illegitimate births, infidelities, internal family disputes, etc.
I have personally chosen to be guided in this by the community life portrayed in the movie Cinema Paradisio, a sanitized version of a typical southern Italian farming village (my lifetime favorite movie) at the turn of the century. Politically and geographically, Southern Italy bore very little resemblance to Alto-ltalio, Northern Italy. North of Rome was where the wealthy Italian and Spanish and French landholders lived. It was very rare for a Southern Italian farmer to own the land he tilled; they were sharecroppers.
Dad’s painful last months of cancer were a long, cruel family event. There was no existing available health care facilities, so our only big bedroom became his hospital room: his bed, cot, a chair, and a small table. John, Jim, Fred, and I were assigned to the attic, for a year or more, which was unheated and without ventilation. Each morning we had to come down the attic stairs into the bedroom where Dad was suffering terribly. Mom, Ben, Katherine, and John took turns attending to him at night.
There was little or no treatment for cancer in those days. Morphine was the only resort. When $5.00 was available, we would go to the pharmacy on the corner of Niagara Street and 19th, get a packet of morphine (no prescription needed), and John would administer the injections.
I don’t recall any doctor’s visits during the last six or seven months of the more than a year of agony. What had been a stocky, cheerful, intelligent parent painfully became a withered, barely recognizable stranger before our very eyes. At the very end, during an unbearably hot July and August, his painful howling could be heard throughout the house. The rest of the family had to accommodate to this reality.
Only recently have I come to understand that Dad’s anguish was doubtlessly compounded by the realization that he could no longer fulfill his primary function in life: the care and nurturing of his wife and children.
The level of healthcare science at the time is well illustrated by two efforts of our poor, totally uninformed mother. In one instance an American Indian in full feather regalia, riding in a huge open car, came in, mumbled something absolutely unintelligible, sprinkled some leaves on Dad and left. I have no idea what Mom paid him. Ineffective, of course, but it sure provided the neighborhood with a welcome spectacle.
On another occasion, a different shyster came into our house. He demonstrated for Mom how he could make metal particles on a cloth dance around when he passed a magnet beneath the cloth and swore it would cure cancer. Mom was desperate and fully aware of what our lives would be like without Dad.
Dad’s wake and funeral were in our home. Three long, horrible days with crowds all day and night. I was nine at the time and was farmed out to Jim’s apartment those nights. Dad’s funeral was made unnecessarily difficult because Dad never attended church services and Mom was determined to have a funeral mass at St. Joseph’s Church on Pine Avenue. The big, big problem was the very Irish Pastor, Father O’Neill. The good Father had been inundated by a flood of Italian congregants, mainly women, of course, who really wanted Mass said in Italian. I only heard later of the inevitable battle. l guess Mom must have won because Dad did get his mass, but Father O’Neill did not officiate. The last skirmish was over whether or not the central church chandelier would be lit. Mom won again but I think it cost her dearly.
One lasting result of Dad’s illness was the symbolic anointing of John by Mom for his truly excellent care of Dad. He was awarded a lifetime plenary indulgence by Mom for all his future mishaps and tantrums, and there were plenty of them.
It took years for all of us to truly realized how dramatically Dad’s death changed our lives. It is only in recent years when I hear from contemporaries of how they satisfactorily survived that I came to recognize how different our experience was… they were never really part of our Great Depression.