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Una Mamma Italiana
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An Italian Love Story
A Tale of Triumph in Times of Trouble
Una Mamma Italiana
Oftentimes, when times are tough, we fall into a mode of depression, assuming that things just can't get any worse. It is precisely in these moments that we must depend on family to get us through. In light of the difficult economic times our country faces, I engaged in a conversation with my grandmother, who went on to explain what hard times really meant. What I got out of our conversation was not only a valuable life lesson, but a tale of true love that tops any romantic Valentine's Day story in history.
The story begins at the beginning, with my great grandmother, Josephine Strati. She was born in Italy in 1905, but settled with her family in Boston in 1910. There, she immediately learned that the other children made fun of her accent. She was therefore determined not only to learn English, but to speak it without an Italian accent. After showing a keen interest in the piano, her parents sent her to the Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she became an accomplished pianist.
Upon graduation, she traveled to private homes in the suburbs of Boston to give piano lessons to children and adults. It was in one of these homes in 1925 that a handsome boarder noticed her. He introduced himself as James Savino. He was a marble and terrazzo worker in and around Boston, where many beautiful buildings were being built. He was making his way in America all by himself, as his mother was waiting back home in Italy.
The two had a short courtship and soon decided it was time to ask Josephine's parents for their blessing on a marriage. This was no easy task, since Josephine's mother had long since decided that this daughter (Josephine was one of five girls) would spend her life taking care of her mother! James, being a very charming man, spoke to her parents and assured them that since he had lost his own father and would probably never see his mother again, he would be happy to build a two-family home that they could share. The condition was, of course, that they agree to the marriage!
So, on September 26, 1926, James and Josephine were married. After a year, they had their first daughter, Dorothy. Josephine then continued piano lessons in her own home, on a beautiful baby grand piano that James bought her as a wedding present. The next year, 1928, Helen was born. Helen is my grandmother or, as I affectionately call her, my "Grammy." Oftentimes, Helen would only fall asleep if rocked in her cradle beside her mother's piano as she taught lessons.
By 1929, the year of the "crash," opportunities for work became very scarce. By the Great Depression, no jobs in James' field were available. He, like many other men in that time, took small jobs in any line of work - most of them dirty and very demeaning. He would even travel to other cities for work and return home after his shifts. My Grammy still remembers watching out the window for his return from the trolley. The pay he received from this work was not enough to carry their mortgage, and eventually they lost their home.
They soon moved to Worcestor, Massachusetts, where he found a job for three days a week at a loom making factory. They lived in a three story tenement near the factory so James could walk to work. There, Dorothy and Helen attended St. Peter's school, where they were the only two Italian girls (everyone else was Irish or French). They were tormented often by the other children for a whole year before everyone got used to each other.
With the girls in school, Josephine had a little more time to herself, so she hung a sign outside her home which read "Piano Teacher." But, of course, no one had money to spend on such luxuries, so she had to give it up. Still in need of work, she took a trolley downtown and saw a sign that said "Stitchers Wanted." She was very gifted with embroidery and beadwork, but that, too, was a luxury in those days. Nonetheless, she took a chance and applied for the stitcher job, and the boss gave her a blouse to put together. When they saw that Josephine had sewed the sleeve on upside down, they let her go and asked her to come back when she had more experience.
Depressed and dejected, she started to walk towards the trolley when she saw a building that said "School of Dress Design." Eager to take some lessons, she approached the owner, who was an immigrant from Russia teaching a class of a few women. When Josephine found out the cost of the classes from Olga, the Russian owner, she was again disappointed. The two ladies said their goodbyes, and Josephine made her way out the door. Before she left, she noticed a small side room with a piano in it. She asked Olga if she knew how to play and she replied, "o, but I would love to learn." From that moment forward, the two women decided to trade skills and would become the closest of friends for many years.
Upon graduating from the School, Josephine was planning on going back to the stitcher's job at the nearby factory. Much to her surprise, Olga instead offered her the position of assistant in teaching dress design, which she was now very talented at. Josephine accepted gratefully and planned an elaborate graduation ceremony at the best hotel in town, The Bancroft. She even planned a fashion show in which her two daughters modeled the dresses she made.
Josephine remained at the school with Olga until it closed, and ironically enough, returned to the dress factory to be a stitcher. In those years, she saved enough of her earnings to pay of all of her and James' debts. By the time their two daughters were grown and married, they had saved enough money to build their own home, where they both lived until James passed away in 1974 from Pneumonia and Parkinson's disease. He was 78 years old. Josephine went on to live in nursing homes until she joined James in death in 1995, at the age of 90.
That home that this remarkable couple shared in their last days was designed by none other than my grandfather, Frank Pusateri, who made Helen Savino his wife over 50 years ago. Their strength undoubtedly comes from that of the examples before them.
Perhaps James and Josephine Savino have a story that many can relate to. They faced unexpectedly difficult times, and they made it through together. Many families are being called on to do the very same today. The important thing to remember is that hard work does pay off. The reward of their labors was simply the joy of their family, who saw them through it all. In these difficult times, we must never forget that there is always someone out there who doesn't even have as much as we do. We must be thankful for what we can do, and count our blessings everyday. Because at the end of the hard road will be a reward, and who better to enjoy it with than la famiglia.
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