To Laura, family is the key to life and the reason for living.
Author’s note for readers
My grandmother grew up with a deep relationship with her family that is still seen to this very day with her sister Virginia. My hope is that this chapter will expose important characteristics and motives, and recurring themes in my grandmother’s early life. The reader should focus on both the importance of family and the sense of independence and dependence that my grandmother exhibits within the first chapter. The reader will also have a chance to see Aunt Virginia’s input on my grandmother’s stories. Her contributions are italicized and I hope they create a more complete picture for the reader, especially because my grandmother’s story would be incomplete without Aunty’s contribution.To retain the true voice of my Grandmother, I leave in as many “I don’t knows” and “imagines” and other quirky personality traits as possible–while also making it easy for the reader to comprehend. My Grandmother’s growing up experience is a great example of first generation children with immigrant parents, resulting in a blending of cultures.
What follows is Laura Lipari’s interview in her words.
Life’s Most Precious Gift (1914-1920s)
Do you know what the most precious gift is in life? The most precious gift is the love of family. Everything else–money, mansions, reputation, being popular, and so forth–nothing counts as much as the love of a family. Even though sometimes we quarrel among ourselves and so forth, when one of us is touched deeply, we all suffer as one.
Early Family Life
I was born on a Saturday afternoon March 28th
, 1914 at 126th St. in Mayfield, Ohio; on the second floor–it was only a two family apartment. I don’t remember exactly, because when I was about seven or eight years old we moved from there and we went to live on the second floor of another apartment. We had the only room upstairs that had space for an office, for my father’s business, underneath it. In other words the house was on one end–like an L shape–and the other end was the office. The office had its own entrance so you wouldn’t go through the house to get to it. When you went to talk to my father at his business, you would come upstairs and at the end of the steps turn right and there was a little hallway that you would go down. At the end of the hallway there was a door that led to my daddy’s office.
My dad had a telephone; we were the only ones that had a telephone in the whole building. The operator would say “Number please!” when you picked up the phone; Garfield 3821J was the number for our telephone. My daddy was in construction; he built the military hospital and he built a couple of the bridges of Cleveland. Imagine, he had two hundred employees! He was well known around town at that time. The work was not there in the house though; the work took place somewhere else in town.
We were on the main street in town and I could see everything from the window. I could go into my mother’s bedroom, look out the window and right across the street was a jewelry shop! The sidewalk had a great big clock and I could tell if I was going to be late or on time for school; I was never late for school though. I loved school and I couldn’t wait to go to school; I always got good grades. Well, in elementary I enjoyed all the subjects.
When I was nine years old my father decided to take us to Italy. His mother was sick and he was going to go and see her before she died. He had remembered when he lost his father, he regretted not going. Thank god that she got better, but we all went anyways!
We were not ready to leave quite yet, since I was in school and so forth but we did leave anyways. While we were in Italy, I wanted to continue to go to school. They put me in the third or fourth grade there since I was in the fourth grade back home in Cleveland; so I went to school for a while in Italy. My father had to decide whether we would return to Cleveland. He didn’t know whether we should stay in Italy
now that his mother was all alone and he didn’t want her to be alone; even though my uncle lived across the street from her and my aunt lived most of the time with her mother, but she also had her own house on the next block.
He did decide for us to come back to the states, so we came back to Cleveland just before Christmas. We were gone from June til November and that took up a lot of time. My sister, Virginia, by that time didn’t speak English anymore! She understood whenever we talked to her in English, but she would only answer in Italian! When we came back to America, our uncle’s wife Josie didn’t speak Italian and she would ask Virginia a question in English and then Virg would always respond in Italian. A couple of months later she forgot her Italian because she was going into kindergarten!
I remembered saying one thing in Italian “I’m hungry!” We were in the kitchen and I had to ask myself “Am I speaking in Italian or English!?”While we were in Italy, Tom, our brother, and I would talk about going to school when we were back in America and we were thrilled.
Back in the states the only relatives we had were my father’s brother, my Uncle Bill and his wife Josie. They had six children, four girls and two boys. Their first two girls were older than I was; the first one was at least five years older than me and the second one was at least two years older; their names were: Lorenza–later becoming Laura, Rose, Josephine, Mary, Anthony, and Ben.
The reason my name is Laura, which I don’t think is a beautiful name–it is very plain– but my mother was reading a book and the heroine in the book was named “Laura.” The Sicilian tradition, which is dying now, is to have the first child named after the paternal family. My grandmother’s name was Lorenza, coming down from the Medici family, and the nickname would be “Enza.” But when they took me to church to baptize me, the priest must have been America and said, “We don’t have the Lorenza name.” And my mother was quick to say, “Well, let’s call her Laura.”
She liked the name and she had an excuse not to use my grandmother’s name and when my grandmother heard of my being named Laura, she was not offended. But Aunt Josie at the time quickly wrote to relatives in Europe and told them. My cousin, who was five years older than I, had been named Lorenza and her mother criticized my mother for calling me Laura
. But she quickly also changed her daughter’s name to Laura too! We were ‘Big Laura’ and ‘Little Laura.’
Aunt Josie was a very beautiful women. When you met her and my dad was present she was the most charming women. But she was honestly the devil in disguise. She caused me a lot of tears and scolded me one night so cruelly that I never forgot it. I never went back to their house by myself because my cousins were also not very nice. We were not close at all. They did their best to talk against me and put me down. Lorenza and Rosie were older than I and since my Aunt did not like my mother they too did not like me.
Anyways, I was ahead of my cousins–even though two were older than I–which created a discord between us. In those days, we had school in two semesters “A” and “B.” If you had class during September through February you were in “A” and February to June was “B.” My uncle said that the school would hold me back because we were gone for a long time. When we returned from Italy it was November, plus with Christmas vacation coming up I didn’t make it in time for “A,” so I was put in the “B” classes. I don’t know how the bet started but my cousins said I wouldn’t be promoted at the end of the school year.
I remember at that time I wanted a piano and my dad said, “Where would we put it? I would have to put it in my office for you to practice during the daytime.” So I said, “Well okay, let’s make a bet, if I graduate by June I get a piano!” Before my dad responded, my uncle said, “I’ll take that bet, if you graduate I’ll buy you the piano!” I shook hands with my uncle and the bet was started.
Well, when graduation came they put the list up showing who in each class would graduate. When it came time to look at where I was, I was at the top of the list! When uncle came, he said, “A promise is a promise,” and my daddy said, “No Billy, you have six kids and I have three.” So my daddy got me the piano after all. I was the first on the list which of course didn’t make me very popular with my uncle’s family, after that it got worse.
My Uncle Bill married a very charming lady, Josie, but very envious, and she was not happy with our mom because my mom was much better educated and so forth. So we never liked to go to their house because when we would go there without my dad she would treat us differently. If my dad was around, she was charming and engaging and everything. But we never had a close relationship because of her. But my Uncle Bill was a nice person. Uncle Bill was my dad’s older brother. In the long run they were an asset in developing how close the five of us (Dad, mom, Tom, Laura, and I) became. We didn’t really feel like we had relatives here in the states to go to. They were the only true family we had in Cleveland, so it made us really close to our parents. We had a good happy life, and great friends.
Please Note that this is the first part in an extended series by Gabrielle Lipari on the life of writer Laura Lipari.