Depression and World War Couldn’t Keep Good Italian Families Down

Family is all we ever needed.

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor 

One Italian Kid’s Day

I offer glimpses about what life was like with my Italian migrant family not to be self-serving. No! There is no doubt that many of you who read these articles have lived through the same experiences.

My purpose is solely to share these stories of Italian immigrant life, for the benefit of our descendants…so they know!

With that in mind, let me describe daily life, as a child, growing up in an Italian immigrant family in the 40s. They say times were tough, “certo, che le cose erano difficil!” There was the Great Depression, followed by another World War.

By any standard, many Italian families, “nel vicinato,” in the neighborhood were poor. But they didn’t dwell on it. For some, it was worse.

The day started out with a light breakfast, nothing fancy—but filling.

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Typically, it consisted of a couple slices of toasted homemade Italian bread, slathered with homemade jelly.

We dunked our toast in a big “tazza di caffe e latte,” a cup of coffee. Cereal in a box was a “merican” thing, and outside of the budget.

But, at Mr. Rocco’s little Italian store, he sold it loose in drawers. You just scooped it out.

I loved the local Italian stores, where dry foods like pasta, beans and cereal were stored in drawers.

While olives floated in barrels, and rounds of cheese, and prosciutto hung from the ceiling. As one entered these stores, the aromas mouthwatering. More importantly, THEY SOLD PENNY CANDY!

Eggs for breakfast were an exception; they were reserved mostly for cooking, baking and the sick.

If one of us were ill, you got an egg a day until you got better. It wasn’t fried, boiled, or poached. No siree! It was sucked dry through a small hole in the shell of a raw egg! Then followed with a good dose of castor oil. We weren’t sick for long!

On school days, we had carried our brown paper lunch bags with their unmistakable, revealing grease spots. Inside, was a delicious sandwich of either fried baloney, eggs and peppers, or a heaping pile of garlicky greens.

There were no yellow school buses to pick us up. Nope, we hoofed it! So, off I’d go with my Sunday best, ankle top “clodhoppers!” Of course, Dad insisted, even though a shoemaker he was not, on adding metal cleats to the heels.

This, to prevent wear, alert the world that we were approaching, and occasionally cause us to slip on our tush.

After school, I rushed to deliver newspapers, then home to dinner and chores.

There never were any shortages of duties; they were seasonal.

If it wasn’t planting and cultivating the garden in the spring and summer, it was shoveling coal, or chopping logs, in the fall. And because Pop worked for the Forestry Division, he would get truckloads of free timber.

It helped by cutting back on the cost of coal. While he chopped, we stacked. Me! I couldn’t even lift the metal wedge, let alone raise the sledgehammer! “Lazzaron,” lazy bums, we were not.

Following dinner, it was time to relax. While the adults sat on the porch chatting and sipping coffee, “o più tosto uno digestivo,” the kids were in the alley playing games. When night fell, everyone went in to listen to their favorite radio programs.

Very few families had a TV.

On an occasional weekend, we made it to an afternoon movie for a nickel. Hey! A nickel was a lot of money in the ’40s, considering the minimum wage of a laborer, then, was only about .40 cents an hour!

“Allora cari paesani,” it was what it was, and we got through it.

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