CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville, Part II

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

THE CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville

Part II: An Italian-American Christmas, A Golden Childhood

By Gary Conti

An Italian-American Christmas

The Conti Family: my parents, Shirley and Frank Conti with Justine and myself, c. 1968, Sharpsville, PA.]

Among the many things I remember about growing up with Italian blood, the most vivid is the celebration of Christmas. Christmas Day was a big deal in the homes of non-Italians but to us, it was like the dessert. The main course was Christmas Eve and wow! What a main course! When I awoke on the morning of Christmas Eve the scent of Christmas was the tuna tomato sauce cooking. That more than anything was Christmas to me. It became a Christmas Eve tradition many years ago in Italy because tuna could be had by the poor very easily. The smelts, the cheeses. etc. were like singing “White Christmas.” We always had one of my father’s best friend, Rocco Bernard (Bernardo), over for any holiday and he was as much a part of it all as tuna sauce. When he became ill and later passed, it stopped being the event it was.

Midnight Mass was the only time I remember looking forward to attending mass. That’s still not easy to come clean with considering my cousin is a priest and writes books on the faith that are read all over the world. In fact, when we were headed to Italy and my wife wanted to go on a special tour in the basement of St. Peter’s that required special permission, we could not get an answer for six months. Email after email. In a final attempt, I used his name and bingo! Within 36 hours we had the reply.

We would always go to Christmas morning brunch at my Uncle Pat and Aunt Rose’s. In the evening we were either there or at Aunt Theresa’s or Uncle Sub’s. At night the men gambled at the table with piles of coins going to the winners. It ended around 1:00 a.m. as my father had to go back to work at Shenango Furnace that morning. The walk home was short because, like many Italians, we all lived within a rock’s throw it seemed!

The fact that their parents died when the kids were still young had to have made that bond that much tighter. In fact, My grandfather’s lifelong friend, Luigi Gori, wanted to take in my father and Uncle Tony because their older siblings, Theresa and Sub, were only 17 and 18, but they became adults overnight and did a great job.

My Father, Frank Conti

My father, Frank Conti, standing outside car with his brother Sebastian and his wife, Josephine, inside. Taken at Alice Row on Cedar Street, c. 1940s.

For a guy that had to quit school and go to work at 16, my father knew everybody! He would take me downtown from our house on Second Street almost nightly and once on Main Street, it seemed like every car honked, every person waved and stopped and talked.

I will never forget the nicknames of my father’s friends — Popcorn, Slugger, Lefty, Peder, Cho Cho, Moochie, Queenie, Bimbo, Farmer and on and on. Some I knew much better than others, but I remember those names and faces at 55 years old like I did at 8. It was a part of my childhood.

During The Korean War, he trained as an Engineer in the U.S. Army at Camp Rucker, Alabama, and Fort Benning, Georgia.

For over 30 years, my father worked as a millwright at Shenango Furnace, a company that operated blast furnaces in Sharpsville for most of the 20th century. For a number of those years he worked with his father’s best friend Luigi (Louie) Gori who was a crane man at the plant. Luigi was one of the several guys who immigrated to Sharpsville with my grandfather.

A Golden Childhood

One spring afternoon in late 1960s my father and I were coming back from fishing in the river and saw that the DiMarco’s, owners of a neighborhood grocery market on Mercer Avenue, were closing their store. My father knew the family his whole life, having grown up across the street from the bar and store. My father stopped to talk with Mr. DiMarco and, on that day, he gave my father shelves from the store that my father kept until his own house burned in May of 2015.

“Home for Christmas.” Frank Conti and Pete “Lum” Garnick, c. 1950

A handful of years later, Mr. DiMarco’s son became a star on Sharpsville’s football team and became my favorite player mainly because of his name, Dino DiMarco. That was a beautiful Italian name that I loved to hear over the P.A. system! It just sounded Sharpsville. In fact, I remember that, at around 7 years old, I made my father laugh once by asking if everyone in Sharpsville was Italian! It sure seemed that way to me.

Even though my father lost his parents at a very young age, he sure seemed to realize how to be a parent. The guy did everything a father should, little things that a kid never forgets the rest of his life. I remember the day he took me to Farrell to buy my first ball glove. He made an event of it. He picked a Spaulding Carl Yastrzemski Triple Crown model that I think about every day.

As the great basketball coach Jim Valvano once said, Italians celebrate everything by eating! After buying the glove we went to the Eagle Grill. This place, along with his all-time favorite restaurant, the White Rose, were the only places where he would order Italian food: only Italian food made by people with vowels at the end of their surnames!

My father, Frank Conti, with my daughter, Jenna Theresa, 2004.

He would take me to the backyard to hit pops and grounders so many times I lost track. Walks, fishing, coffee stirs! I had a childhood you could not buy from me with gold.

My father is still going strong at 90 years old. He loves history, Sharpsville and its sports teams, as well as Notre Dame. He lived for 35 years on Eighth Street until his house burned down in May 2015. He currently lives in an assisted living home in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He looks back on his life as Sharpsville being his first love. Sharpsville is Heaven to him and Alice Row is a place he wishes he could go back to. They were dirt poor but he thought they were rich because money could not buy happiness.

Over the years family and friends may pass away, but memories never fade. My family had very little when they left Italy but my father to this day, at 90 years old, says he would go back in a heartbeat. It was bigger than rich or poor. The humble beginnings in Pofi, Italy, of Luigi and Mattia have led to grandkids who became a doctor, a leader in the education system in Texas, a priest who is known the world over for his books, and many others who have reached a level that would not be possible without those immigrants building and paving a path.

— Gary Conti, SHS 1981, Sharpsville, PA.

[The last installment of this series will be published next month: “The Conti Family, Part III: Return to Pofi, Italy.”]

See also:

THE CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville, Part I
THE CONTI FAMILY: A Return to Pofi – A Journey of My Own, Part III
Angel’s Casino: Here Came the Bride
Italians in Sharpsville
Mom and Dad DeJulia

 

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