Winter 2021 Our Heritage Volume 17 Issue 1
This multi-period historical fiction novel, written by Frances Schmidt, is about her 121-year old-apartment building, Fred, and its tenants, who lived in the West Side industrial neighborhood of Buffalo from 1900 – 2020. Fred, built in 1900 at 1469 Niagara St, tells the oral history and legacy of generations of its ethnically and culturally diverse tenants and their families, who arrived in America from all over the world during the span of a 120 years. The excerpt below, told by “Fred,” describes the relationship between Anthony Consiglio, a widower, his son Sammy and an Irish family. The novel is scheduled for release early Spring of 2021.
Anthony and his son, Sammy, arrived in Buffalo in 1914 from Palermo, Italy. Maria, his wife, and two younger children stayed in Italy waiting for them to earn enough money to send for them. The father and son left home to start a new life in America because of Sicily’s crop failure, high taxes, and unstable Italian government.
Soon after they arrived in the Canal District, they found a place to live in an overcrowded tenement house on Dante Place. They both continued working many part-time jobs, Anthony as a carpenter and Sammy a plasterer, mainly at the Welcome Hall Settlement House, until 1923. During that time they also searched for fulltime jobs closer to the West Side because it was getting harder and harder to go back to where their hearts were broken.
When Anthony’s wife Maria and their two youngest children first arrived in Buffalo in 1917, she carried a small statute of Saint Joseph in her baggage, along with a fava bean in her purse for good luck. It was a tradition Maria learned from her grandparents in Messina, Sicily. Her family were peasant farmers and the fava bean was fodder for the cattle during a famine. When they had no food to eat they prepared the fava beans to feed their family.
In 1918, the Consiglios’ youngest daughters, five-year-old Rose and six-year-old Sophia, became sick with influenza. They tried to protect them from the other sick children in the tenement house, only no matter what they did it was in vain. Both girls got sick with the illness, were hospitalized and died unexpectedly of complications. Maria cried, sobbed and wailed, in shock while Anthony and Sammy were numb with grief.
Weeks later, Maria became sick with influenza and had a terrible time breathing. She was hospitalized, and the prognosis was poor. Anthony and Sammy spent every moment they could with her.
Mrs. Consiglio died along with her younger children and unborn child a month before the influenza epidemic ended on November 3, 1919. Her husband Anthony was grateful for the caskets given free to his family from the City of Buffalo and vowed to help other families someday. “Anthony, promise me that you and Sammy will save money and someday buy a home with another family in honor of me and our babies. Sammy, you promise me to have a family too.”
It was now 1930, and Anthony and Sammy had never met the other second-floor tenants because they were both up and out before dawn and home after dusk, except in the winter when it was dark. Then, they had their weekly English class with Louise, church, a Sunday dinner to cook, an occasional Italian Society meeting to attend. Early one Sunday morning Sammy was opening their stuck kitchen window when he noticed a pretty young woman walking by with a small child. She stopped right in front of the building and was talking to Louise, his English teacher.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her. I wonder if she lives in my building, he thought. The following Sunday he rushed home from church and told his father he felt like going for a short walk. Every Sunday he started going for a walk right after coming home from Holy Cross Church. When Sammy saw Maggie and her little girl he would smile and say hello. Gradually, they made small talk and he found out they both lived in the same building and on the same floor.
When Sammy first saw Maggie and Molly walking in front of me I could tell that he was attracted to her. There was something about her that made her special. I remember this because when he first told his father about Maggie, I heard Anthony ask Sammy, “Is she Italian?” When Sammy said, “No, she’s Irish.” Anthony yelled at him. “You have to fall in love with an Italian woman, not an Irish one.”
It’s funny now because, at the time, Maggie’s mother felt the same way about Italian men. I smiled to myself knowing I was responsible for the beginning of a love affair between two young people who experienced great personal sadness in their short lifetimes.
Sammy never had time for a girlfriend, and Maggie vowed to give up men forever. It took Sammy a couple of months to even mention Maggie to his father. He already knew he’d be angry because she wasn’t a nice Sicilian girl. Maggie didn’t tell her mother about Sammy for a couple of months either, knowing she would not be happy to find out she was interested in a Sicilian man. Meanwhile, Sammy had to deal with his father’s anger and Maggie had to deal with her mother’s ranting, too.
“Papa, she’s only a friend; she’s nice and a good mother to her daughter Molly. She’s divorced and works hard to support her. They’re like us, Papa. Trying to get ahead, saving money, and trying to better themselves. They’re just like us, Papa.”
“No, Sammy. I don’t like it. We don’t mix!”
“Papa, we are in America. We are alike. We’re immigrants. Please Papa, let’s invite them here for Sunday dinner. Saint Joseph will be upset with you for your closed mind.”
“Sammy, I’ll pray about it, but I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Our family died, Papa, and we have each other, but we need to make more friends. We came to America to be free. Momma would understand, and Saint Joseph would too.”
Sammy’s father eventually relented and agreed to make a big spaghetti dinner.
It didn’t take long before Sammy and Maggie were spending more time together. Little by little I could see their attraction toward each other grow. Soon Sammy, Maggie and Molly were taking walks together. When I saw them walking toward me they were smiling, laughing and holding hands. Then, I saw them kissing in my hallway. I couldn’t believe it! I was watching a young couple fall in love—something I would never be able to do. I wondered what a kiss would feel like? It seemed like it was something magical. When I came back to reality, I was happy for the three of them because maybe someday Sammy would become Molly’s father.
Both families continued to enjoy Sunday dinners together. Grandma Margaret even hosted an occasional Irish Sunday dinner for everyone, too.
The Consiglios’ money grew into thousands of dollars, and they knew they would soon be able to buy a two-flat house with a cottage in the rear for extra income. Life was getting better for both men. Anthony met a young Italian widow with three small children at church and began an official courtship with her. Her husband was an Italian immigrant who was killed in a trolley accident in 1924. Their relationship brought back memories of Maria and his babies, and he knew it was time to fulfill his promise to Maria.
Being with Jane, his widow’s American name, and her children made Anthony feel loved again, and it would give him a chance to help raise another family that needed him. He told Sammy that Jane agreed to marry him as soon as he could buy them their own home. The timing was perfect because Sammy told his Papa he had asked Maggie to marry him as soon as they could purchase a double-family home with a cottage in the back.
“If you agree, Papa, Maggie’s mother Margaret could move into the small cottage behind our big house. She can pay us a reasonable rent.”
“Yes, my son, we will all become part of a new American family.” I was happy for the Consiglios and Murphys and sad that I’d probably never see them again. My only consolation was I knew both families had heartaches in their lives and now it was time for new beginnings.
America was still in trouble, and I couldn’t help but listen to the news on Louise’s radio when everyone came home from work. She even let tenants go into her apartment to listen when she was working. It was the worst of times for our country and all I could do was watch events unfold through the lives of my tenants. I wished I had the power to make the world a better place for everyone.