A lot of laughter
Judging from a recent Friday evening spent at the home of Oscar and Emma Ghirardi, there has been a lot of laughter in their family, often over generous servings of ice cream and home-made pie. Their Friday evening get-togethers have been a tradition for many years.
“Grandma bakes two or three pies every Friday,” said granddaughter Colleen, “and every Friday evening we would come over to eat them.”
They not only share an appetite for dessert, but also an easy, relaxed sense of humor, chuckling or laughing uproariously at family memories.
It’s a different atmosphere from the one Oscar remembers during his early years. He was born in 1909, the youngest of three children, in Brescia, a small town in northern Italy.
“My dad came over here to Farrell before World War I,” Oscar said. “He wanted to bring us over, but couldn’t because of the war. The only money we had was the little he could send us.”
The main memory he has of Italy was being hungry – and sometimes satisfying it any way he could.
“In Italy, we used to steal figs. As kids, as ten-year-olds, we would see these trees with big figs on them. If you got caught, the farmer would knock the heck out of you.”
In 1919, Oscar’s father was finally able to arrange for his family to come to Farrell.
“It took us 19 days to come across the Atlantic Ocean on an old captured German war boat. We came to Ellis Island, and then by train to Farrell.”
Paolo Ghirardi, a janitor in the office of Carnegie Steel, took his children to night school to learn enough English so they could enter regular school.
“I went to the old high school at Haywood Street and Fruit Avenue in Farrell,” Oscar said. “My dad didn’t make much money, so I quit when I was a junior to get a job at Westinghouse. You had to be eighteen to get a job, but I was only seventeen. I lied.”
They were living in a company house in Farrell. The week Oscar got his job at Westinghouse, his father died of pneumonia.
“They told us we either had to buy the house or move out,” Oscar said. We didn’t know what to do – stay here or go back to Italy. We decided to stay and build a house on the lot Dad had bought on Baldwin Avenue.”
So seventeen-year-old Oscar found himself working at Westinghouse 28 cents an hour, and building a house with his nineteen-year-old brother Jim. When Westinghouse didn’t have any work, they would send him home. One two-week period he got a check for $1.50.
“For the next ten years, whatever I made went into the house. All I got was spending money.”
The house served the family well. First Oscar, his brother Jim, his sister Alice, and their mother all lived in the house. When Alice got married, her husband also moved in.
That’s about the time when Oscar met Emma Salae, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants who lived in Farrell. While in high school, she had worked as a cleaning lady in homes. One of them was particularly interesting.
“I would go there one day and the basement would be filled with slot machines,” she said. “The next day they would all be gone. They would show up again sometime later. I used to go down and pull the levers, but I never got anything out of them.”
After she graduated from high school, Emma worked as a coil winder at Westinghouse.
In those times, Farrell had a number of ethnic neighborhoods – Hungarian, Italian, and Romanian, for example. Each had its own church and ethnic organization.
“A friend of mine was Hungarian,” Oscar said. “He said to me, ‘Let’s go down to the dance at the church.’ I said, ‘What the heck, we got nothing to lose.’”
The church was Holy Trinity, the Hungarian church in Farrell.
Emma now laughs about it. “Imagine – an Italian in a Hungarian church!”
Oscar was right – they didn’t lose anything. On the contrary. They both gained more than they ever could have imagined.
“Emma and another girl were dancing together,” Oscar said. “I said, ‘Let’s break them up.’ I ended up marrying Emma, and my friend married the other girl.”
They loved to go dancing.
“All the great bands came to Yankee Lake, Al’s Ballroom, Idora Park, Cascade Park in New Castle,” Oscar said, “bands like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, and Rudy Vallee.”
Oscar and Emma got married on July 30, 1938. They, too, lived in the Ghirardi house on Baldwin for four years. Their daughter Loretta was born while they lived there. In 1942 Oscar bought a six-room house on Budd Street for $5,000. Their son Paul was born a year later.
Oscar was deferred from military service because of his job at Westinghouse.
“During the war, I used to work at Westinghouse until 4 p.m. Then I’d go down to Jennings Manufacturing Company in Masury. I’d work four or five more hours there welding expansion tanks for the Navy.”
Oscar continued working at Westinghouse until he retired in 1972. During all those years, the extended Ghirardi family remained very close. Oscar and Emma lived on Budd Street, while his mother, his brother Jim, and his sister Alice, along with her husband and their children, lived in the house on Baldwin. Later Oscar and Emma moved to Brookfield, behind Valley View. Together the family created great memories for everyone, especially for the grandchildren.
“I remember one time we asked Aunt Alice whether they got treats at Christmas time,” Paul’s daughter Colleen said. “She said St. Lucia would come on her donkey and leave an apple for each one of them on the window sill. She said the apple would last a month. They would wrap it up and hide it under their pillow. It was so sacred to have that apple. They would take a bite of it every day.”
Paul’s son Jay remembers visiting the house on Baldwin.
“Uncle Jim and Aunt Alice and Uncle Vic lived there,” Jay said. “I don’t remember Uncle Vic. There was a barber shop just down the street, so on Saturday mornings my dad would take my brother and me for a haircut. We’d park at Aunt Alice’s house, walk down the street to the barbershop, then come back and visit for a while. For the longest time I thought Uncle Jim and Aunt Alice were married. I didn’t know they were brother and sister.”
“There was a big metal machine in the basement with a tablecloth over it,” Colleen said. “Uncle Jim told me that it was the family secret. ‘This is where we print the money. Don’t tell anybody, because if I get caught, I can’t print you any money.’”
It was believable for her because they got crisp new bills every Christmas .
“Later I found out it was just a grape press!” Colleen said.
They remember Grandma Emma as the extreme homemaker.
“Grandma was a compulsive cleaner,” Colleen said, “to the point where she scrubbed the numbers off the kitchen clock. We would have to climb a ladder and undo all the sealed light fixtures and clean them. My dad told the story that when Grandma and Grandpa were living on Budd Street, he came down, and she was in the basement with rubber boots on, hosing down the basement – even the electric box.”
“But nothing happened,” Emma said. “I had turned the switch off. I hosed the rafters and everything. The basement was very clean.”
They also remember all the great meals prepared by Grandma – and Grandpa.
“We used to have lots of Thanksgiving dinners and Sunday dinners in the basement and in the garage,” Jay said. “For Sunday dinners they made polenta and rizzut. Grandpa was the rizzut cook. Nobody could take his place. You had to stand and stir it as it was cooking for about an hour. He was like a well-oiled machine.”
Colleen laughed. “You had to scoop and stir, scoop and stir. He would say, ‘You’re doing it wrong, go sit down. I’ll finish it.’”
Grandpa taught the grandkids to ride bikes.
“We lived the next block over,” Colleen said. “At eight o’clock Saturday morning, he’d come over and say, ‘Get your bikes out, let’s go.’”
“So we’d play follow the leader,” Jay said. “We’d go up to the parking lot at Valley View and ride between all the lines, and come back and ride all around.”
“Then we would come back to Grandma’s have pie,” Colleen said. “Grandpa rode bike from the time he retired up until a few years ago. He welded up a stationary stand for it. He still gets on it for exercise.”
Oscar still bowls, too, in spite of hands that are twisted form arthritis. He averages 165 in league play. He recently hit games of 200 and 205.
Oscar’s and Emma’s daughter Loretta Pettola has three sons: Michael, David, and Jeffrey. Their son Paul had a daughter and two sons: Colleen, Jay, and Gregory. They have eight great-grandchildren. They all miss Paul, who passed away four years ago.
Whenever they can, the Ghirardis all continue to enjoy not only Grandma’s pies and Grandpa’s stories, but also each other’s company.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008