Storytelling: San Lorenzo Club prolonged memories of the old country
January 23, 2013 5:00 AM
Mary Ann Sestili, far right, at Schenley Park around 1945 with, from left, her grandmother, Antoinette Casciato, her brother, Bob Sestili, and her grandfather, Nicolas Casciato.
By Mary Ann Sestili
At age 6, I learned my first Italian curse word from my nonna (grandmother). It happened after a wedding reception at the San Lorenzo di Gamberale Men's Club in Oakland.
San Lorenzo was where emigres from Italy's Abruzzo region congregated to reminisce about the old country, compare notes about the new country, complain about their wives, eat traditional foods and drink homemade red wine.
Unlike today's costly receptions, with lavish buffets and expensive decorations, these were humble affairs where blue-collar families nonetheless worked to make their daughters' and sons' wedding days special.
The hall was modest. Wooden folding chairs were lined against the walls for the invited guests. As was the custom, the women sat on the left, the men on the right.
Wearing freshly ironed long-sleeve shirts, cotton pants and laced high-top black shoes, the men, although engaged in animated conversation, never lost control of their drinks, smokes or fedoras.
The women, in high-collared dresses, held squirming children who, when free, inadvertently raised their mothers' dresses just enough to expose garter-rolled cotton stockings. Women bragged about their children, complained about their husbands and boasted of their cooking talents.
My younger brother Bob and I attended one of these receptions with our maternal grandparents, Antoinette and Nicola Casciato. Our parents drove us to the club and then left for another event.
The air was exciting as we met cousins, friends, the white-gowned bride and her groom. Adults embraced and greeted one another in their familiar dialect, even if they had done so earlier that day at work, the Eureka Bank or the A&P.
While the musicians pumped their piano accordions, the men served wine to the other men, highballs to the ladies and pop to the kids. Pairs of women carried new bushel baskets filled with "made-that-day" Isaly's chipped-ham sandwiches wrapped in Cut-Rite wax paper. An abundance of homemade pizzelles and sweets were heaped on trays.
When everyone was invited to dance, the musicians, fortified with food and drink, played faster as guests sang traditional songs, laughed at jokes and danced on the slippery hardwood floor. Men danced with their wives and often with their daughters who, depending on their age, danced in their fathers' arms or perched on their dads' toes as they learned the music's rhythm, dreaming of becoming brides themselves.
Swaying to the music, women circled the room and made sure each guest received a piece of wedding cake. That night, young women kept the gift under their pillows dreaming that the fairy godmother of marriage would bring them a husband. In gratitude, the bride and groom kissed each person and bestowed the traditional favor of a ribbon-tied net pouch filled with candied almonds.
By evening's end, the men were relaxed, children were sleeping and the women were eager to leave. But leaving friends was difficult, so the departure was a drawn-out affair.
My parents were delayed, so we walked about a mile from San Lorenzo to our Juliet Street home. Though still young, Bob and I already knew my grandmother was not a coddler. We did not whimper or complain that we were tired. We silently trudged along holding our grandmother's hands. Grandfather ambled behind us, smoking a strong-smelling stogie and humming softly to himself.
While my grandmother forbade us from walking with or looking at my grandfather, she directed a barrage of angry words at him over her shoulder, repeating an unfamiliar word -- "Ubriacone!" After she repeated it, I realized she was calling my grandfather a drunkard!
Involuntarily, Bob and I became accomplices to her tirade as she pulled our arms in rhythm with her chant: "Ubriacone (yank)! Ubriacone (yank)!"
Finally, with a smile in his voice, my grandfather teased, "Eh, Antoinette, you know what's wrong with you? I had a good time tonight and you didn't."
When we arrived home, my grandfather sat on the porch steps, retrieved a Cut-Rite wax paper-wrapped sandwich from his jacket pocket and pondered when it was safe to enter the house -- the time when two devoted souls would embrace, laugh and make up.
Mary Ann Sestili of Potomac, Md., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Storytelling" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.