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My last living grandparent is my grandmother on my mother’s side. She was born here in Spokane in July of 1935 to my great-grandparents, Lorenzo Scalero and Ellen Menetti. I’m sure those names sound Italian, and of course they are. My grandma grew up around a lot of Italians, and talked at length about what that was like. She was born Patricia Scalero, but changed her last name to Paggett when she married my grandfather, Frank. I was named after him, as my middle name is Franklin—so it was only a coincidence that I was named after one of the presidents.
Before I write about my grandmother’s life, it would make sense to explain what she told me about her parents Lorenzo and Ellen. Unfortunately, my grandmother Pat never really learned a whole lot about her ancestry beyond her parents. As she told me, she didn’t “pay much attention to that sort of thing,” like many other young people. Lorenzo was born in 1897 somewhere in Italy and moved here when he was young—exact dates of a lot of these facts are unknown. My great-grandmother Ellen was born to Italian parents here in Spokane. Both Ellen and Lorenzo of them spoke Italian fluently, and English poorly. Lorenzo went with several other family members—from what Pat told me—to Ellis Island in New York. Some of them stayed in New York, others went to Montreal, but Lorenzo went to Spokane and no one knows why. My grandmother mentioned several times how amazing it was that he was able to make his way to Spokane being unable to read or write in Italian, and not even able to speak English at all. But somehow, he was able to find a job as a bus maintenance worker and buy a nice house for my grandmother and her two brothers. Ellen was able to speak English, and Lorenzo could in his later years, but my grandmother recalls how she always struggled to understand him.
The thing is, my grandmother never learned to speak Italian. Even though she grew up in an entirely Italian neighborhood she never picked up on it. Whenever her parents would try to speak to her in Italian she would tell them to speak to her in English. And this was the case for most of the other first-American born Italian children in the neighborhood—few learned English. But, most of the adults in the neighborhood only spoke Italian. My grandma remembered her mother Ellen, whom had an eighth-grade education, helping several of the neighbors gain their citizenship. I assume they must have had to pass a citizenship test.
Almost every family in the neighborhood had at least one person who wasn’t born in America. Although she didn’t live with my grandmother, my great-great grandmother lived in the neighborhood. This was somewhat uncommon, my great-great-grandmother not living with them. Most families had three generations living together. Patricia recalled her cousins, the Compagnos, having a very old woman living with them who used to rapidly shout in Italian telling the young kids to calm down; her friends, the Miacollos, also had four generations living together. But somehow all these immigrants could afford to live there. The majority of the men in the neighborhood worked for the railroad, while their wives stayed home to look after the kids. Some of the homes didn’t have electricity, or at least not an electric stove. My grandmother didn’t have an electric stove her entire childhood, but got a phone when she was around ten years old. Only one house in the neighborhood had a television. My great-grandmother Ellen used to tell the children to not stare through the Ferinos’ porch window as they watched it.
In terms of American culture when my grandmother was a child, none of it really influenced her. She was born after the depression; however, she felt some of the effects of WW2. She remembers women painting their legs because of the nylon shortage, her family buying war bonds, and certain foods being rationed. I asked her about significant events of the time out of my general curiosity, but she didn’t have much to say about them. From what I understand, my grandmother spent most of her youth having fun; she would have only had access to newspaper, and as a child she wasn’t interested. She would go downtown every Sunday with the other kids and watch a movie. She didn’t pay too much attention to politics, but remembers the adults in her childhood really liking FDR because of his social programs. I believe a lot of the older Italians in the neighborhood received social security, though families were mainly supported by the working father.
Most families were too poor to afford a car, so nearly everyone rode the bus. It was common for a bus to be full, so one would have to wait at the stop until another bus came. My grandmother often talks about how “it was better in those days.” It was normal for elementary school children to ride the bus downtown together, which my grandmother did every Sunday. Now in her older years she criticizes the world for being unsafe; it is hard to say whether or not this is true. However, there was a strong sense of community in her childhood, and my mother’s, that I don’t think exists as it used to. Everyone supported their families and worked hard, even though most were immigrants. And everyone was catholic so they “went to church every Sunday.” When my mom was growing up, my grandmother knew everyone in the neighborhood, as it was the early sixties and nearly every home had a stay-at-home mother with children. In both of their childhoods, the children of the neighborhood would always be out playing with another when they weren’t at school.
Going back to before my grandmother had children, she worked as an usherette while in high school. She went downtown to the movie theater and was hired that day. She didn’t give them a resume; all she did was ask for the job and give a quick interview before they gave it to her. In high school, she told me she majored in typing and shorthand.. I assume high schools must have had majors back then. She stills writes in shorthand, and had to translate some notes she had for this interview to me. After she got out of high school a friend recommended that she get a job as a stenographer at what I believe was a telephone company, but my grandmother didn’t remember the name of it. As a stenographer, my grandmother typed all day and took shorthand notes of memos. She told me she was making $3.30 an hour when she stopped working there to raise my mom in 1961.
While my grandmother was working as a stenographer, a woman in the office was talking on the phone and yelled “that wop!” Immediately covering her mouth when she realized she was next my grandmother. I thought this was funny, as I’ve never heard anyone use the word wop in my life; my grandmother thought this was a funny event too looking back on it. It is strange to me there that was ever racist slang for Italians—if I dare called it racist. There was another time when she was in high school and told her boyfriend that her parents’ last names were Menetti and Scalero, and he said, “Menetti and Scalero? What a bunch of wops!” It wasn’t intended to be offensive, but I’ll say again that it is strange that casual racism against Italians existed back then.
Another event that occurred while my grandmother was working as a stenographer was when she met my grandfather Frank Paggett after being introduced to him by one of her friends. Frank was twenty-two and had just graduated from DeVry in Chicago after coming back from Korea a few years earlier. He went into the air force after he graduated high school and was sent there when he was only seventeen. My grandmother was stunted to note that I am now the same age as he was when he went to war—“no wonder he didn’t talk about.” They married not long after meeting and soon moved to Kennewick, Washington where Frank would manage a Safeway store. He worked his way from moving boxes to being a manager in seven years. They moved back to Spokane a couple years after Kennewick for my grandfather to become a regional manager. At this point, my grandmother had stopped to raise my mother and her younger brother, my uncle. My grandma was promised her job back, but never wanted to go back to work. “Most women didn’t work in those days,” she said.
I suppose there is not a whole lot to mention past my mother and uncles’ childhoods. They moved a few times around Spokane until my grandmother settled in the house she lives in now at age eighty. My Grandfather Frank passed away in the nineties. My grandmother never went back to work, mostly because of my uncle’s mental health issues. It was difficult raising him because not much was known about mental illness of at the time, especially to my grandmother, but things have worked themselves out in the end. I’d already heard a lot of these stories growing up, but it is nice to be able to right these things down so they are not forgotten. I hadn’t known much about my great-grandparents and I hoped to find out more about them, so I was disappointed that she knew little about them.
I desperately wish I could do this assignment with my other grandparents, but I only knew my father’s mother when I was a very young child, and never met either of my grandfathers. My grandfather on my father’s side, born in 1903, lived a very interesting life which he actually wrote a couple books about. Most people on my father’s side of the family had children at a very old age; my great-grandfather fought in the civil war, and I’m only 17. Luckily, I am still able to talk to my grandma.
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