Wow. This entry took a long time. Dad came up the stairs this morning with a very poor photocopy of Grandma Liessman's history of the Vercellinos. It took some deciphering to figure out the words in many places, and to be honest, Grandma's writing isn't that good. To make this easier to read I changed just a few words and added a couple that she almost always omitted but other than that, what you are about to read is just what she typed in her own words (bad grammar and all).
Dad had never seen this before. He found it tucked away in some folder. I'm sad Grandma never finished the history. She stopped the story just when her parents decided to move to South Africa.
So, a few things to set the story. Grandma starts by telling the story of her mother's childhood. Her mother's name was Maria. Half way through the document she switches to her Father's history. At the end she brings them back together.
And now, for the first time, you'll hear the story of your Great and Great Great Grandparents.
My favorite is Great Grandfather John. He was really something - someone I would have loved knowing. Your thoughts?
The Vercellio’s by Elda K Liessman
My Mother was reared in a small coal community called Coal City Illinois, where most of the citizens knew nothing but extreme poverty. As a small child, my mother Maria (which in English would be spelt Marie), along with her older sisters would have to stand in bread lines at the town hall. Her step father, a very kind man, operated a small saloon. The girls acted as the bar maids because a male bartender couldn’t be afforded. Maria, being of a shy nature, disliked this type of work very much. I think this effected her adult life some. Grandmother, made of more stern stuff, had some tenancies that leaned toward cruelty. Which could be caused from lack of education. It was a trait found in so many foreigners. Maria being also stubborn and shy could not be pushed around in his manner, therefore friction always existed between them through the years. Mother never forgave my Grandmother.
Mother remembered so vividly all through the years, her great embarrassment of having to attend school with her hair worn as our crew cuts of today, also barefooted where she would stop at the town pump to wash her feet before entering the class room. Where she was met with stares and laughter. All of this made my mother a very bitter person with other experiences in her growing life that carried into her adulthood.
When Maria was 14 years old, John Vercellino - a handsome man of thirty some years, came to Coal City. One day he stopped at my Grandfather’s saloon. My Grandmother attending bar that day was impressed by his charm and his wonderful gift of gaiety and laughter.. That is not he only thing that impressed my grandmother. She also though it possible he could give a girl more security than most of the other young men in Coal City. This would be a good catch for Maria, the older sisters, being married. John, from that day on came to my grandparents home often.
All this time my grandmother made plans how on how Maria would marry him. Mother often stated how my Father (John Vercellino) enjoyed my grandmother’s company more than he enjoyed hers. One day, Grandmother announced to my mother that arrangements had been made for her marriage to John Vercellino. Naturally my mother rebelled. She was only a child of fourteen and my father was 36. Why, he could of been her father. When she refused to marry she was punished severely by my grandmother. My nice Grandfather had no voice in the matter.
I don’t know the exact date of this tragic marriage. It was some time in the summer months. My father and mother went to Chicago where they were married. Maria was so shy and backward one can just imagine how frustrated she must have been. I remember of her telling how she had never been in a restaurant in her life. After the wedding, John took her to one. She was afraid to open her mouth for the food for fear all would be looking at her. John finally told her all the people in there were too busy eating - leave alone paying attention to her. A tightness comes to my throat when I think of this pathetic little girl. But still in my life I had a great love for my Father that I quite never had for my mother. But the years have taught me that she was a very sad person, as I have stated before, she carried her frustrations all through her life as if she were two persons. Like an angel sometimes and a serpent on others. Her tongue could lash and cut to the quick. My father was the opposite and was always kind, gay and never cruel with his tongue. But I think had my mother married of her choice her life would of been entirely different that I am sure.
So to Bisbee Arizona. John took his child bride where he worked as a miner in a copper mine. Often mother would tell of father coming home from work, she would be outdoors jumping rope with some youngsters across the street and not prepared. One day she put the cat in the oven - no the oven was not heated. When John came home for supper she told him the prepared meal was in the oven. When he opened the oven the cat jumped out. I presume he took all this in a good natured way. Maria never said one way or the other.
At that time it seemed as the desert would often have severe cloud bursts. That is what happened one day after my parents had been in Bisbee about a year. Maria was preparing supper when the rains came in sheets. When John got home water reached to the window sills. He grabbed my mother and raced up an incline just in the nik of time a house floated down the flood waters. A short time after the flood my father decided he needed a vacation. He thought of taking my mother to Italy to visit his home - a good idea.
They arrived in the spring of the year at Susa (?), my father’s birthplace, which is nestled in the foothills of the Alps near the French border. By his telling the small community gathered would be the size of Whitewood (South Dakota). In John’s time homes were built of stones and most homes have been in families for several generations. Sometimes parents and married children lived in the same house. Cooking was done by fireplace as there were no stoves at that time. I remember mother telling of John buying her a stove to take away the morning chill. Folks from the community would come to see the stove, which was a novelty to most, especially the olders that had never far from their homes. In those days most peasants went to a neighbors barn for warmth in the evenings. Benches were built around the outside of the barn with cattle in the center. The cattle would keep them warm. Each neighbor had turns in giving out heat. Women would bring knitting while men would whittle or play cards. Girls entertained their boy friends. Nice evenings were spent during the cold months of winter. I really should say cool, never cold in beautiful sunny Italy. So one can see what excitement a stove would cause.
During spring and summer months most of the peasants would take cattle to the Alps for grazing. Some of the trails were so steep one missed step and your body would hurdle a thousand feet to the floor below.
Thursday’s were marketing day. All would be up and up at the crack of dawn to travel by foot with vegetables, eggs, and poultry to sell. and receive cash so clothing etc could be purchased. They went to Pont and some time Curgone, distance probably twenty some miles traveling all day by foot also returning to their homes the say day. I’m told that all the peasants were so gay they would sing all the way to market and if they had luck in selling their goods they’d sing all the way home.
When my father first came to America he was surprised that all seem to take life so seriously. No one was singing to and from their jobs as he and his friends did in Italy. Most of their real singing took place after Mass on Sunday. That was their day to raise cain. After Mass, dances were held on the streets which was the city square. If a girl refused a gentleman a dance, she left herself open for a hard slap across the cheek.
When my father reached the age of fourteen, he decided on crossing the Alps into Belgium to see if any work could be had. He family was in such a state of poverty. His mother was a widow with small children to raise. She had to even sell her mattress in order to clothe the children. That is the reason John set out into the world. Exactly how many days it did take him to cross the Alps I do no recall. I remember of him stating how he spent one night with Monks, how they sent Saint Bernard's to the rescue of travelers over taken by blizzards.
At Belgium he worked in coal mines. He stated that most women accompanied their husbands to the mines and worked all day along with their men. I can see myself working in a mine. After two years of this type of work John thought the would try his luck by coming to America. So at the ripe old age of sixteen and one half he set sail for America which took exactly thirty five days to cross. He arrived at Ellis Island. That is where most foreigners where ridiculed mostly in manner of dress.
Naturally most of them did not speak speak the language and their manner of dress as I already said brought on much ridiculing. My father wore a long red wool stockings which his mother had knitted for him. But he said it never bothered him that people stared and laughed at him. He had another shy and very timid Italian boy with him that it did bother . John told him to do as he was doing and laugh right back at them, soon they will stop. One day while they were walking the streets of New York they passed a pastry shop. John had never seen a pie before. Seeing them on display he thought they were omelets which he liked so well. I should of mentioned that he thought a pie was an egg omelet. John and his friends proceeded to buy the pie and some mustard for an omelet is no good without mustard. He was surprised at the first bite to find fruit! He was surprised the Americans did not understand the art of making omelets.
From New York he traveled to Utah where he had heard of the lead mines. He didn’t understand the language but some meanings he did. Work the same all over so to Utah he came. What part of Utah I do not recall. He did stay for several years. One evening he became quite ill. The lady at the boarding house where John stayed called the doctor. He was told by the doctor that he had what was known a lead stomach. Some of the miners contracted it some did not. He was one that had. So to a Catholic Hospital he was taken where he received treatment for one month. On a morning after the nurse had served him breakfast he decided to leave the hospital. Why wait for dismissal? So that is what he told the nun at the desk. She advised him against, but John told her he was out of money. Not stubborn huh?
Fidel, a younger brother had also come to America to seek his fortune, but he had headed straight for the “Black Hills” of South Dakota at Lead where gold had been discovered. Se he thought it a good idea for him to start a saloon where the tired miners could come and spend their money. He called the saloon “The Columbus”. John thought maybe it was a good idea to also try his luck at Lead. He arrived the spring of the year where if one had to cross from one side of the street to the other you had the privilege of walking in mud up to your knees! So John again went to mining - this time for gold. Their lives were in serious danger. At that time nearly 80 years ago [I don’t know when grandma wrote this] there were there were no Safety First programs like today. Many miners lost their lives or were seriously injured which happened daily. John said that when miners wives would hear an ambulance siren most of them would become hysterical.
After a few years John was injured quite seriously. When her recovered, Fidel offered him a praetorship in the saloon, which my Father refused. He did not care for liquor in any form. He didn’t approve of smoking either always saying that our body and minds were not given to us to abuse. He decided to leave Lead but he did return years later.
He thought being that he would soon be called to serve in the Italian army he would bo back to Italy and see his older brother Tonie, who was a photographer at Turino. His mother had passed away. John often said he only wished he could of given his mother a better life. I remember of his telling how in Italy the peasants were given coffee to drink on their death bed. Therefore one thing he did send the poor soul was money so she could have a few luxuries as coffee, which I guess she had enough to drink to her hearts content. After a short visit with Tonie, he went to Berlin where he stayed until he was called into service. What type of work he did I do not recall. I remember him saying how well he liked the German people, how neat and clean their homes where. Also the streets were so well kept. Above all he thought the Germans so very intelligent in fact more than any other European country. During the war (World War I) he often stated it made him sad the Germans, of all people, had to be taken in by the Kaiser.
After serving three years in the Italian army as a ski trooper, which he enjoyed much for he loved skiing in the the Alps, all his time in the army was served in the Alps. He returned to America and Coal City where he met and married my Maria, my mother. After their stay in Italy he thought it would be interesting for my mother to see miniature Switzerland. I remember mother saying how all things seemed to be on such a small scale, the farms and trains seemed like toys. But the Swiss people were very ambitious and efficient in all they accomplished. She loved Switzerland and hated to leave the other place that had taken her heart so completely “The Black Hills”. She said of the Hills “Here is where I will always want to stay and die.” Her wish was fulfilled and is now sleeping here.
During this time England had her eyes on the diamond mines of South Africa, which belonged to the Dutch. So England declared war on the Dutch which was known as the Boer War. Yes England won the Diamond mines. One day, while still in Switzerland, my father heard that England was looking for experienced miners for the diamond mines. John thought he had the experience from his time in Lead, coal, cooper and gold mining, so why not try diamond mining. He loved the thrills. So they set off for Liverpool England where they would be able to get all the information needed on their adventure to dark Africa. It has slipped my mind to mention before this that in their many travels had time to have Remigo, now two years of age. No, he never answered to the name Remigo, instead he adopted the name Ray. Of course Remigo does mean Raymond in American. My parents really wanted him to be called Remigo But Italians were so ridiculed that Ray thought he had better just be called Ray...
End. She never finished the story.