In the spring of 1915, the world was at war, but the hills above Naples were as sleepy as ever. An uneducated, illiterate woman in a tiny town called Briano, province of Caserta, is gathering up her four small children for a long journey. She will be taking them away soon, leaving the village so many have fled to work in the Americas or to go to war.
Her husband had gone before, and come back, as many of the young men had. Now he was working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and had finally sent enough money for steamer and train fare. She would go with her sister and their children and join him in the hard to pronounce town of New Kensington.
It took a day to reach Napoli, where the ship awaited. It was the biggest thing the children ever saw. The six-year-old, Lazzaro, had a great time running up the gangplank and down the decks until his mother scolded him and took him down the steep staircases to their cramped cabin far below the decks of the Duca d’Aosta. Lazzaro and his brothers and his sister wouldn’t see much of that deck for the next ten days.
It was ten days of tedium for a boy who loved to run around and play, who lived outdoors nearly year round in the warm Mediterranean climate. He was now in a dim, cramped, stifling hot space, sharing a bed with his siblings and eating poor food.
Then, a flurry of activity. Everybody was packing bags, cleaning up and getting dressed in their best clothes. They were leaving the ship, and standing in big lines in a big building that looked like a church to Lazzaro, but there were no seats. And people were speaking in words he couldn’t understand. It was very bewildering.
Eventually, somebody who he could understand said that he and his momma and his sister and his brothers could stay. And after a long train ride that took another day, he finally saw his poppa again, and could remember what he looked like after so many years. And, though New Kensington and Jeannette, Pennsylvania were colder than Briano, and the people looked at him funny and sometimes called him “dago”, Lazzaro was happy, especially when a new baby sister was born.
But when Lazzaro was eight, Poppa was killed in the mines. The next year, Mamma had a stroke and died while carrying the new baby. New homes had to be found for all of the children, and Lazzaro saw his brothers and sisters taken away.
He was alone, in a land where everybody spoke English but him. Everything he knew had vanished.
But the new family he lived with spoke Italian, and loved him very much, and he would grow to love them. Like many Italians, they would give him an American nickname, Louie. It stuck so well that, years later, he would actually use Louis as his legal name.
Louie moved with the new family to a steelmaking city south of Pittsburgh. And the rootless, orphaned boy, adrift in life for several years, rediscovered the thing most important to him, family. This need would drive the rest of his life.
Louie finished high school, and married a local girl named Theresa. They immediately set about to having children, as good Italian Catholics do. Louie supported them by doing any odd job he could find as a laborer. During the Depression, when work became especially scarce, Louie supplemented his income by making and selling wine, running card games with his brother-in-law, and running numbers. He would continue running numbers to support his modest lifestyle his entire life.
Amazingly enough, around this time, with the help of a priest that had recognized him, Louie was able to track down his brothers and sisters. They were reunited and would keep close touch for the rest of their lives.
When another war came about, Louie was too old and had too many children to go, so he went to Baltimore instead and helped build Liberty ships at Bethlehem Steel. This is where his sixth child, my mother, was born. Immediately after the war, he returned to the same steelmaking city he had left.
The family was well known in town, especially for the rambunctious house on the hill that Louie and Theresa shared with their children, plus some of Theresa’s relatives. Louie’s passion in life besides family was bowling, a sport where he gained quite a reputation as a skilled player and innovator. He kept his average above 200 until the age of 87, and took teams to the ABC tournament for more than fifty years.
Louie and Theresa had seven children together, and were married for thirty-five years. Theresa died in 1964, a horrible blow to Louie, who loved her very much. He remarried within a few years a wonderful woman named Carole. She had a son that Louie adopted as his own, and they then had a daughter together, his ninth child. He was now 57 and his oldest daughter was 35.
Louie and Carole have now been married 37 years themselves. The house they live in is within blocks of the one Louie shared with Theresa. Three of his daughters live in the same neighborhood, the rest live close by. Only one of his children lives out of state.
The boy who once was left with no family at all has 22 grandchildren, more great-grandchildren than I can count right now, and 4 great-great-grandchildren.
My grandfather is now 94, very ill with congestive heart failure, and in the hospital. He is declining pretty rapidly, but he’s comfortable. Up until three months ago he was doing well, living at home with Carole, watching the Steelers lose, enjoying his family. He is still amazing the nurses with his physical condition. He’s a very tough old guy.
I just wanted to post this little tribute to a remarkable guy. It was the strength of his character that pulled him through those tough times. I’m not sure I could have done it.