My Great Grandmother
She was stern, I saw her as the head of the family, as did most everyone. She was outspoken (all in Italian) & not afraid to tell you that what you did was 100% wrong in her eyes, but she was my great grandmother and I loved her, cherished her, and miss her desperately. Having said all that, I found out in my teen years, that she was pretty devious.
My great grandfather, Agostino Tomassini, Giovanna and their daughter (my grandmother), Mary Tomassini, immigrated from Acquaviva di Cagli, Pesaro e Urbino, Marche, Italy to Iron River, Michigan about 1911. If you have ever been in the UP, Michigan then you know it snows, a lot and Nonna did not like snow. The boys that were old enough & the men worked in the iron mines. Nonna had 2 boys; Peter, born in 1913 and Americo (Rico), born in 1916. She did not want them working in the mines, it was too dangerous.
In the early 1930’s she was very aware that Peter was old enough, and Rico very close to old enough, to go work in the mines. She did not want that for her sons. Her niece, Mary Parmegiani, and husband, Costantino Zepponi, had moved out to San Francisco, California. This is the story, as told by my Aunt Judy:
The Story (100% dictated from recording)
Judy Bacher: “Well, you know, Mary Zepponi and her husband moved out here before Nonna did and they kept writing back, they kept telling Nonnu how nice it is in California there was no snow, there was lots of sunshine, so Nonna thought ‘Gee, that would be good’ because Nonna hated the snow. Oh, she hated it with a purple passion. And so they kept saying ‘why don’t you come out to California’ so she asked Nonnu and Nonnu said no, he wasn’t going to go out there, he was going to stay there (in Michigan). So she says ‘well, my husband doesn’t want to go, I can’t come’. So Mary and then says ‘why don’t you tell him that you want a vacation and you come out to California and visit us for a week.’ So Nonna thought gee, that sounded good, so she told Nonnu that, and Nonnu says ‘oh, yeah you can go for vacation, then you can come back’ well, Nonna left Rico there, because he was still going to school, but Nonna took Peter with her, and they came here to California, to San Francisco and stayed with Mary. Well, Nonna fell in love with California, so she told Mary to write to Nonnu and say if you want to see your kid and me again you better move to California. So Nonnu says, ‘well, what are we gonna do with all the stuff?’ she says ‘sell everything, come over here’ well, that’s what he did. He sold everything, brought Rico over. And the reason Nonna wanted to stay in California too, is because she didn’t want Rico and Peter to work in the coal mines, she did not want them to go to work in there because Pete was already older and it was time that he could go work in the mines. Rico was still a little young yet. And, so he did. He didn’t want to do it, but if he wanted to see her and Pete he had to move, so that’s what he did. He came all the way to here and that’s how they ended up in California. But then Nonnu got sick all the time in San Francisco, he got what they would call the sinus. So then Uncle Pete would take him up to Sonoma and San Rafael to see if he’d like to move in that vicinity. Well, Nonnu fell in love with Sonoma, so they moved here. He worked for those people with the big ranch, next to the Orlandi’s. He had a two-room house, and he’d work up there. But Nonna didn’t like it. She got sick, she said ‘I can’t stand it’, so then they moved back to San Francisco again. Well, then Nonnu got sick again, so then Pete said ‘Hey, Ma if you want your husband to live you’d better move to Sonoma, because he’s not gonna make it down here’ So then Nonna moved up here and that’s when they bought the house that they were in, in 1930….. well they bought it I think in 1930.. yeah it had to be 1938, because mom was still alive, yeah. So, that’s how they came to here. They come up on the train, that was fun. Get the train from Sausalito. From San Francisco, we got the Ferry Boat to come across, because there was no bridge, then hop the train, got right off at Vineburg and just walk.”
My Great Grandmother was definitely the head of our huge Italian family. Everybody, even those that were not family, called her Nonna. I thought that was her name until my teens, and after research I found that her full name was Giovanna Elisabetta Getrude Pieri. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that name is beautiful! If I had been blessed with a girl, her name would have been Giovanna. Anyway, yes, she was the head of our family. I have seen everyone, even the oldest & toughest of our family, defer to her. A great lady, a great cook, a great comfort when you needed it and a force to be reckoned with if you deserved it! I remember, she was always calling my dad ‘You bum!’ My Grandmother, Mary (Giovanna’s daughter), passed away in 1940 from tuberculosis (my dad was 1 year, 7 months), Nonna told their father, Charles Niemi, ‘you leave these kids with me & go. Do not come back!’ So, Charles was smart & did not come back. I did hear years later that he used to come by the school me, my brother & our cousins went to and watched us play. I don’t know if it’s true, but I like to think it is.