Ben Lariccia on his Eastside Grandfather, Giangregorio Mendozzi


As a young child, I was certainly more attuned to the sensory world than I ever would be later. Now, as an older adult, I have come to appreciate the fact that our strongest memories have a marked olfactory component. So as a youngster I was drawn to his stuffed armchair. It’s presence, even without the retired steelworker in it, filled the room with strong hints of Parodi cigars and old man. In that space I would sit on his lap or play at his feet. He was my East Side Italian grandpa and I loved him.

This man, my mother?s father, was a survivor of a string of bad luck that had begun with his wife’s death in childbirth and had worsened a year later with the stock market crash of ?29. Grandpa and half of Youngstown lost their full-time jobs only to find themselves turned day laborers soliciting work outside the mill gates that they had so easily entered just a short time before.

Italian families, circa 1928, Charlotte street, Youngstown East Side, Giangregorio Mendozzi, third from the end, last row. Daughter Carmela Mendozzi, front row with baby.

The bereaved father sent his motherless newborn to live for ten years with a nearby Italian woman and her family. He paid them childcare in potatoes and other foodstuffs. Without steady employment, Grandpa fed the rest of his brood the public assistance legume cuisine of the Great Depression—pasta fazool, beans and greens, lentils and potatoes, pasta with canned peas. During the very worst part, as my mother would tell it, in order to provide an income, her father took in a young family of unrestrained boarders. Poverty compounded with chaos.

Not only the stock market went south in 1929. Granddad?s assessment as a father dove, too, as he gave in to bouts of depression followed by drunken episodes. Neighbors’ teenagers would find him passed out, once on the Oak Street Bridge, and drag him home. His children would encounter their father unconscious on the kitchen floor, bottle in view. One impossible day he set fire to the old trunk packed with family photos. Up in smoke went the wedding portraits from the old country and the baby pictures. There were other forgettable moments, too. As you can understand, my East Side grandpa came out of the 1930s with not a few emotional wounds. In addition to these, a detectable familial reproach would accompany him into old age.

He didn’t live entirely under failure’s cloud. He was the first on both sides of the family to fly in a passenger jet, all the way to Nevada, where his oldest daughter had raised a family. Proud grandfather, he showered his gifts of quarters, Hershey bars, and Ludens sweet cough drops on us with every visit. He didn’t let a trip to Nevada go by without returning with a toy gun and holster set for me and die cast western horses for my sisters. He loved life and good company. This included afternoon toasts with paesans at DeMain’s Royal Oaks, the neighborhood beer garden. The man played a spirited game
of morra and caused a hell of a ruckus the first time we admitted him to St. Elizabeth Hospital, where he wouldn?t let nurses undress him for a sponge bath, screamed putane, putane at them. “Papa, those nurses aren’t whores. It’s their job to wash you…all of you!” By the late 1950s, most of the East Side white families were leaving for Girard, Poland, or Struthers. But Grandpa never sold the home where he had outlived the Great Depression.

I jump to the early 1970s, when advanced age and disease were beginning to undermine his connections to the real world. His single child with whom he lived, Uncle Joey, sold men?s clothes at Strouss?s during the day and didn?t want to leave him alone. Consequently, he would stay a week or two with us in Girard, then the same at my aunt’s, and then at another son?s in Struthers. Away from home, Grandpa began cycling through his past in Capracotta, the Italian shepherd?s village of his birth. One day, Mom found him in a senile panic staring out our suburban picture window trying to spot his donkey. It had gotten lost on our street of one-story ranch styles. If only we could help him find the animal!

Just before his children began babysitting him in their homes, I paid my grandfather a visit. I arrived wearing the newest craze, a quality cotton jersey from McKelvey’s that displayed the name Coca-Cola in a very familiar font across my 22-year-old chest. It happened just a few feet from his old stuffed armchair where now he held court with his memories. His eyes caught the words on my fashion statement. “And who paid you to wear that shirt?” he asked me in an accusing tone. I froze for the obvious wisdom of his remark. What could I say to refute him? I was a walking ad for a soft drink company. A couple of years later he left the old East Side home for good, entering the phase of revolving visits among his children, and finally landing in the hospital where he died.

So the old man WAS lucid near the end, really more lucid than most of the country where millions of us were donning ready-to-wear billboards for companies that did not love or pay us. This is my most treasured memory of him, really an inheritance.

Ben Lariccia
June 2011

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