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November 28, 2013

Remembering her 1st Thanksgiving

Native of Italy arrived at age 13

HERMITAGE — Vincenzina Grasso grew up in Calabria, Italy, and immigrated to the United States when she was 13. Her father Francesco Spadafora had already moved to the Shenango Valley and eventually moved his family here. Vincenzina came over on the ship Saturnia, with her mother, Maria, and her brother, Steve, and sister, Maria, and 2,000 other immigrants.

Upon arriving in America, she was placed in first grade because she didn’t know the language but quickly advanced through the grades as she caught up with her classmates.  

After graduating from Sharon High School, Vincenzina worked at Westinghouse Electric Corp.’s transformer plant in Sharon in the payroll department.

She left that job to raise a family and 20 years later began working again as a teacher’s aide in Sharon City School District, where she frequently spoke to students about life growing up in Italy.

After retiring, she joined the writing group at the Shenango Valley Senior Community Center in Hermitage, where she compiled stories of her early experiences.

She and her husband of 55 years, Sebastian, live in Hermitage. They have four sons and seven grandchildren. 

Cherished Memories of My First Thanksgiving in America

By Vincenzina Grasso

I will always cherish the memorable Thanksgiving of 1947. My father came to New York to meet his family that he had left behind in Italy many years ago. We arrived in Sharon, Pennsylvania by train, where my father’s distant cousin and her husband picked us up. We went directly to their home. A traditional Thanksgiving meal was ready to be served, welcoming us to America, even though it was not the actual date of this American feast.

 I was famished. Crossing the stormy Atlantic Ocean for two long weeks, I was seasick throughout the entire trip. My only refuge was to lay in bed, daydreaming what it would be like when we at last arrived in America.

After being separated by the Great Depression and World War II, I was going to meet my father when I was thirteen years old. What an unimaginable joy that would be to hug my Papa for the first time!

Soon we all sat down for an unforgettable meal. I could not take my eyes off the succulent turkey on a platter. Since I had never seen a turkey before I thought “Wow that is a huge chicken.’’ Everything on the menu was unfamiliar to us. The turkey with fluffy mashed potatoes and gravy was delectable. I did not even know that sweet potatoes even existed. That day I learned that the pumpkin pie was made from a pumpkin. Amazing!

Another strange item was the Jell-O mold. When I tried to eat a spoonful, I was intrigued; it trembled, wobbled and wiggled all the way to my mouth. After a couple tries, I finally mastered to take smaller bites and it worked! I will never forget that fabulous meal.

Soon, another special event happened when my twin sister Maria and 17 year old brother, Steve, started out public school education. My father took us to Sharon High School to register. When Doctor Musser met us, he drove us to Wengler Avenue Elementary School and enrolled us in first grade.

The perplexed, wide-eyed school children I am sure wondered why these three teenagers, who did not speak English, were coming to their classroom. Our teacher, Mrs. Shilling, had to scramble to find larger desks for us. The next day, she came to the classroom armed with two large Italian-American dictionaries. Thus, the saga of my education began, lasting seven years, until I graduated in 1954.

The teacher and classmates were incredibly kind and helpful. Some children took turns during recess staying indoors with us, helping us read the “Dick and Jane’’ books while my brother went out to smoke a cigarette or two.

To this day, when I hear patriotic songs, I vividly remember those classmates encouraging us to memorize the words of those songs; while the only word we recognized was the word America.

When Thanksgiving Day approached, I learned so much about the origin of the American feast. Seeing the children dressed with their pilgrim attire for the special occasion was impressive, and I learned my first American History lesson. I discovered that Thanksgiving is a day of religious celebration and an occasion for family reunions with bountiful dinners and festivities in the home.

 In our home, this first Thanksgiving was truly special. We had so much to be thankful for. We were grateful that God had spared us during the horrors of war. We had overcome hunger, epidemics, and the fear of being bombed. It was during those trying times that we doubted we would ever meet our father. Without communication, he constantly worried about our safety.

Now we were finally reunited enjoying a special Thanksgiving meal prepared by our Papa.

Through the years, I have been blessed with innumerable memorable Thanksgiving feasts. But, the one I cherish the most is the Thanksgiving of 1947.

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