Antonio Gentile packed his personal belongings and left the tiny Italian village of Atena Lucana, bound for a new life in America. He arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1919, and was greeted by his brother, Alfonso, who had recently emigrated as well. Antonio trained to be a machinist like his brother, and worked diligently for Van Norman Machine & Tool. He learned to speak English and became a U.S. citizen.
In 1920, Rosina Mango (also from Atena Lucana) joined Antonio in America and they were married. Over the next eight years, Rose gave birth to five boys: Luigi, Alfonso, James, Carmen, and Mario. (Years later, they became known to me as Uncle Louie, Uncle Al, Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Carm, and Dad.) My grandfather bought a duplex on Hancock Street in Springfield, where his family of seven lived in a two bedroom, one bath apartment on the first floor while renting out the second floor apartment.
The house had a cozy front porch, where the family would sit and chat with neighbors after supper on warm evenings. True to her name, my grandmother kept beautiful rose gardens in the front yard. My dad recalls folks from the neighborhood coming to the yard to take photos on special occasions like first communions, confirmations, and graduations. I’m sure my grandmother was proud to share her gardens with the community.
The Gentile family made their own wine at home by cranking grapes through a crusher they kept in the basement. They also enjoyed homemade root beer, pasta, tomato sauce, bread, and pastries. The back yard flourished with vegetable gardens and fruit trees, providing tomatoes, pears, and peaches to be canned by my grandmother. The house had two back porches, one upstairs and one down, connected by a flight of stairs. The entrance to Rose’s kitchen was on the lower back porch. I can picture her sitting there with a basket of vegetables, pulling the stems off her carrots and green beans.
The kitchen table was big enough to seat seven comfortably. The kitchen also had a gas stove, an ice box, and two sinks: one for washing dishes and one for washing clothes. (Rose didn’t get a wringer “washing machine” until about 1940.) My dad remembers the house being very clean. He and his brothers helped with cleaning on Saturdays. There were five rooms on the first floor: a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. My dad describes the boys’ bedroom as “just big enough,“ with three beds, a dresser, and a closet for the five of them.
The formal dining room had a mahogany dining set, which my Uncle Al was assigned to polish every Saturday. A special gold cross hung on the wall. The room was only used for holidays and times when family came to visit from Worcester.
The Gentile home sat in a bustling part of town called Six Corners, named for a large intersection of several streets, just two minutes from the house on foot. Six Corners boasted three gas stations, two barber shops, a florist, a drug store, several grocery markets, and more. My dad remembers going to the drug store’s soda fountain to sit at the counter and drink milkshakes with his friend, Harry Vatousiou. Danielli’s market was just across Hancock from the house, and carried foods imported from Italy. Another shop sold nothing but chickens. Rose would give my dad some money, and send him to buy a chicken. The place was full of live chickens, which would be weighed, killed, plucked, and cleaned while the customer waited. At home, the Gentiles also kept a few chickens for eggs. Milk was delivered by the milk man, and the ice man brought ice for the ice box (before the family bought their first refrigerator). Rose placed a sign in the front window, indicating the price of the ice block she wished to buy, and the ice man would deliver it to her kitchen.
My father remembers sitting in the family’s living room, listening to the news on the radio in the evening. After church on Sundays, they would listen to an Italian radio show featuring music and programming entirely in Italian. Their radio had a Victrola on the top, so they also enjoyed listening to Italian records.
The Gentile family attended mass with an Irish congregation. Holy Family Catholic Church was a 15-minute walk from their house. For special occasions, the family took the bus to the south end of Springfield to Mount Carmel Catholic Church, an Italian church where the Gentile boys received their first communions and made their confirmations.
All of this was part of life in the 1930’s. Sadly, at the same time, the future of the American economy looked grim as the country slid into the Great Depression. Fortunately, my grandfather kept his job at Van Norman, but in 1932, he became very ill. A bout with the flu 15 years earlier had left his organs damaged. He died at the age of 36. My dad was only four years old. Since Dad carried Antonio’s name as a middle name, friends and family started calling him “Tony.” To this day, everyone who knows him well knows him as “Tony.”
By the grace of God, my grandfather had the foresight to purchase a life insurance policy from the same bank that held his mortgage. This provision allowed Rose to keep her boys, rather than separating them and sending them to live with relatives. A few years later she married her second husband, Antonio Delli Priscoli. Not long after they married, war broke out in Europe. My uncle Louie was 18 years old when Germany invaded Poland.
To be continued…