Tag: Vandergrift

Setting the Scene

Pittsburgh_skyline7Most people think Western Pennsylvania and immediately think Pittsburgh. And it’s a good thing that comes to mind. Pittsburgh is one of the country’s Most Livable Cities, and with good reason. It has so much to offer.

Casinos offer not just gaming, but entertainment and great food, as well. Or grab a bite at any of the fabulous eateries from sandwich shops to gourmet restaurants.

The Three Rivers boasts the most bridges in the US, and the city appeals to all water recreationists, from boaters and Jet Skiers to those who prefer fine dining and dancing on the Gateway Clipper Fleet.

There are three different professional sports teams, so there’s something to do and someone to cheer for all year long. If the arts are more your thing, attend one of the performances by symphonies, ballet troupes, or play actors. Looking for something more casual? The ’Burgh offers amusement parks and zoos, museums and science centers, conservatories and observatories. Education to recreation, playing hard or taking it easy… Pittsburgh offers something for everyone.

My new novel, Bleeding Heart, takes place in Pittsburgh, as well as in my hometown of Vandergrift. While Pittsburgh’s claim to fame is all it has to offer, Vandergrift offers all the quiet and camaraderie of small town living.

vandergriftVandergrift is the first worker-owned, industrially-planned town in the US. Planned by famed designer Frederick Law Olmsted, it has curved tree-lined streets, ball parks and tennis courts, a swimming pool and downtown thoroughfare. I can’t think of a better place to have grown up—it had all the charm and friendliness of an intimate neighborhood with easy access to the busy city.

I hope you have a chance to visit Western Pennsylvania and see everything it has to offer. Or you can visit my Pinterest page to see many more Pittsburgh and Vandergrift photos. And I hope you pick up a copy of Bleeding Heart, and check out a new piece of fiction set in a gorgeous part of the country.

What’s your hometown? Or where do you live now? What makes it so special? Let’s talk about it.

Do You Know Where You Come From?

vandergriftIf you’ve browsed my blog, website, or Facebook page, you know I’m from Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, and you know what it’s famous for. If not (or if you’ve forgotten), I’ll tell you. Vandergrift is the first worker-owned, industrially-planned town in America. When founder George G. McMurtry acquired an iron and steel mill on 640 acres of land on the Kiskiminitas River, he had a vision: a town that was unique, attractive… “better than the best.” He contacted Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who promised there would be no better town in the world “for physical health and comfort.”

Vandergrift 1895

“The town would be a site of natural health, wealth, and beauty; drained; graded; flat but convenient; good road and walks; not in squares, but according to the lay of the land; such water as flows from mountain springs brought into houses; sewers; expanse of grass; trees; outlook; modern above and below ground; electric lights, telegraph, telephone… bathtub… . Every man to choose his part with the means at hand of supporting that part; the people to own their houses and control their pursuits. The means of health and enjoyment of life within reach of all inhabitants. Liquor not to be sold there.” (Something Better Than The Best, 1996, p 20.)

That’s the town my grandfather immigrated to. He came to America in 1920 when he was just six years old. Despite the glory of the Roaring Twenties (something he was too young to appreciate), the whole country was experiencing Prohibition, so Vandergrift wasn’t the only “dry” town. But it was a beautiful town.

Vandergrift

Bottom left–Gazebo at Kennedy Park; Center–Houses on Emerson St.; Top Right–Old Casino Theater

Vandergrift was a town of curving streets, green parks, tidy homes with the latest amenities offering the mill and foundry workers all the comforts and health benefits the early 1900s had to offer. The town boasted churches in several denominations (St. Gertrude is now a National Landmark) and Rabbi Reubin Y. Rubinowitz sometimes led the town in holy days of worship. Citizens came out in droves to watch or participate in the many parades held throughout the year, and in the summer, families could always cool off at the community pool.

Naccarato home

The whole Naccarato clan in front of the family home

Yes, my grandfather immigrated to a wonderful town. His father died just eight years after they came here, leaving my grandfather as “the man of the house.” He quit school to get a job in the foundry, earning money for the household and helping raise his two sisters and four brothers. And he managed to do just that. They stayed in their home—a home that stayed in the family for generations. He only gave it over to his mother and younger siblings a year after he was married. My grandmother—my ninety-five year old grandmother—is still in the house he bought her. My grandfather’s original home was just sold from our family’s holdings last year.

There’s something about Vandergrift that gets in your blood and doesn’t let go.

Why am I telling you all this?

We were just home for Christmas. The town has changed. A lot. My parents were raised in a different town than the one my grandparents immigrated to. I was raised in a different town than the one my parents were raised in. My kids don’t recognize Vandergrift as the town my husband and I describe from when we were growing up. Times change. Progress? Maybe. I can’t say I see much that changed for the better in my beloved hometown.

But it’s home.

All of us need to remember that we are where we came from—at least to some extent.

And writers, this is especially true for our characters. They all have backstory. It might not all make it into our work, but it’s there. You should know it. And it should shape your characters. If I was a character in a novel, I’d be a girl living in the south who desperately misses the north. She misses her family, misses her friends. She has trouble shopping because she can’t find the right ingredients. She has trouble with colloquial phrases, and sometimes the locals laugh at her because of her confusion. Do I have to include any of that? No. If I choose to, I definitely shouldn’t say it explicitly. I’d just reveal it as the story progresses. She can be sad as she mails a birthday gift because she won’t be at the celebration. She can be confused when someone says, “Damn, Skippy,” and they laugh when she asks who Skippy is. She can be frustrated when she can’t find oil-cured olives and pancetta at the grocery story. The history should come forth in small snippets throughout the story, letting us learn about the character through her feelings about her home. Let it become a character itself.

Pay attention to your history. Embrace it. That’s where the enrichment is.

Where are you from? What makes it special? Share your story with us in the comments.

Times Change — Embracing New Traditions

fourth of july

Backyard Fireworks

We celebrated Independence Day this past week. In addition to the swimming and the picnic food, we set off fireworks. That’s one of my son’s favorite things to do. I think it has something to do with the power of the explosives and the exhilaration the display causes everyone who’s watching. The ones we set off this year were pretty good, for backyard fireworks.

labradors

Excited Casey and
Scared Max

My family enjoyed them. One of my dogs did. The other was frightened, to the point he made himself sick. Maybe next year he’ll adapt better and enjoy the show like his brother does.

My nephew, when he was young, called it a “spectacular extravaganza in the sky.” It’s cuter if you hear it coming from the lispy voice of a two year old. He’s twenty-five now, but I’m pretty sure he still likes fireworks. I don’t know anyone (my youngest dog excluded) who doesn’t like them.

Festa di Italia

Vandergrift Festival

Growing up, Independence Day was spent at the local festival in my hometown. There were food stands, game booths, and live bands for days. Fireworks started around 9:00 on the fourth and lasted for about an hour, culminating in a grand finale that left us all breathless. Most people stayed at the festival to watch the show, but my family always went to my grandparents’ house. Their backyard faced the field where the fireworks were set off.

Those are some of my fondest memories of childhood.

There were the years when I was very young and quite frightened that the embers would land on me. I stood on the porch under the roof and peaked out at the ones that were above my head. There were the years when I was older and stood as close to the field I could, eagerly anticipating the next explosion, and the next, and the next.

We stopped going when my grandfather passed away. My grandmother’s heart wasn’t in it anymore, and if she wasn’t celebrating, it seemed wrong to enjoy the show without her.

As the years went on, I started dating the boy who became my husband. We’d watch the fireworks from his parents’ backyard. It always left me nostalgic for my younger years, but it was nice being with the boy I loved.

Samantha/Seth toddlers

My Kids as Toddlers Ready for Summer Fun with Family

When we were married and had kids, we’d bring them to the festival and then to my in-laws’ house. They had a blast, and so did we. But time marches on, and things change. We moved away, and getting back for the festival became harder and harder. Finally we stopped going home for the festival, and now we live so far away and our kids’ schedules are so full, we couldn’t go home if we wanted to.

Not that it matters.

My town stopped having the Fourth of July Festival years ago, choosing instead to have only the church festival in August.

What’s the point of this story, you ask?

It’s so you understand that time marches on. Things change, people change, and you should embrace every opportunity that comes your way. Before long, loved ones will be gone, events will have changed or ceased to exist, and you might have to start your own traditions just to have any connection with your past. And connections with your past forge the person you are today.

backyard fireworks tradition

My grown son preparing our fireworks display.
Traditions change, but the emotions behind them remain.

My husband and I do what we can to keep family traditions alive for our kids—even when we have to change things to keep the traditions alive. Do you still keep old traditions alive for your family? Why don’t you share some traditions in the comments section below?

And writers, in addition to the family matters discussed above, consider how to apply these principles to your WIPs. Do you have family traditions that you can work into your characters’ lives? Have those traditions changed over the years? If so, for the better or worse? How do these traditions impact your characters? Don’t forget to include setting, senses, and character reactions. Maybe you could discuss a tradition you’re incorporating into your WIP in the comments section.

How to Best Spend your Summer Vacation

Hi everyone! For those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook (links can be found by clicking the words or in the side panel), you’ll have noticed that I was silent this past week. Sorry for the disappearance, but I was on vacation.

Hilton Head Usually we go to the beach. We’ve been to plenty of them: Jamaica, California, Hawaii, the Bahamas, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and many on the east coast (from New Jersey through Florida). We’ve done amusement and theme park vacations, zoos, cities, and even a cruise, but we always go back to the beach. Sun, sand, surf… it doesn’t get better than that.

Until this year.

This year we spent our vacation in Pennsylvania. My husband and I are both from the same home town, our kids were born there, and we still have family and friends in the area. It’s a two day trip by car, but we stayed with family on the way there and back, so it was kind of like a two-for-one vacation. Sure, I miss the beach, but I have a pool if I want to swim, and I wouldn’t trade my visit home for anything.

pirate baseballWhen we crossed through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, the sight of Pittsburgh greeting us on the other side was spectacular. The only time it looks better is at night. We saw the fountain at The Point, the Gateway Clipper fleet on the river, the city skyline, Heinz Field, the Carnegie Science Center, and after a short drive, PNC Park (where a baseball game was in progress). I would have loved to have stayed in the city. There’s so much to do there—shopping and eating at The Strip; going to the four Carnegie Museums (Art, Natural History, Science Center, and Andy Warhol); visiting the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Allegheny Observatory, and Phipps Conservatory; riding the mt. washington, paInclines (Duquesne and Monongahela); touring Carnegie Mellon University so the kids could see where their parents went to school; attending a Pirate game; spending a day at Kennywood Park or Sandcastle… I could go on, but we didn’t stay in Pittsburgh. As awesome as the city is, we had better things to do.

We went home to see family.

vandergriftWe’re from Vandergrift, Pennsylvania… it’s a little town about forty minutes northeast of the city. Its claim to fame is that it’s the first worker-owned, industrially-planned town in America. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape designer who designed Central Park, was responsible for designing the town. My husband and I met, dated, fell in love, and were married there. We still have a lot of family and friends in the area, and we went home to see them. That beats any trip to the beach, or anywhere else.

family visitWe spent time with my ninety-five year old grandmother, looking at old family photos and hearing wonderful tales of days gone by. We visited my husband’s grandmother and his great-aunt and uncle where we listened to stories of family and friends. We stayed with my parents-in-law, where we played games and enjoyed each other’s company. We ate many meals with my family, trying to celebrate Father’s Day and my dad’s birthday with the appropriate fanfare his holidays deserve. We spent time with siblings and their families, and ate the foods that we’ve been craving but can’t get here—both homemade and purchased spumoniitems. We even attended Mass at our hometown church… a church that is a national landmark and was designed in the gothic style (something that we just don’t see here where the churches are of modern styling).

It was fabulous!

scalzott familyThe best part was the reconnecting with family. We heard stories and histories that reinforce who we are and where we’re from. Some of the stories I’d heard before, and some were new, but they were all new to my kids, and watching them absorb their heritage was a golden experience.

I’m not sure what your vacation plans are this year. I could certainly recommend a trip to Pittsburgh. There’s plenty to do, to see, to eat… You wouldn’t be disappointed. But instead, let me recommend a trip where you can connect with your roots. That’s where the real memories will be made.

My entire family enjoyed our trip (adults, kids, and even dogs!), but I’m definitely going to benefit from our visit home. Not only were the areas good for me to revisit because my novel series is set in Western Pennsylvania, I now have fodder for several other stories as well. I bet a visit home would give you some ideas, too.

Have you ever taken a trip where you got ideas for a story? Why don’t you share the experience with us in the comments.

Why I’m Thankful for the White Tornado

It’s a few days early for Thanksgiving, but I always post on Mondays, so I’m posting today about what I’m thankful for. God has been good to me. I’m truly blessed. I have a loving husband and a wonderful son and daughter. I have two adorable dogs that bring us joy every day. We have a beautiful home and, given all the areas of the world that have been hit with disasters in recent years, it would be wrong of me to complain that it’s too far from my extended family… but that’s really the only thing that bothers me about my house. It just isn’t in my hometown.

Mary NaccaratoAnd that brings me to the topic of this post. I could write about so many different things this year, but what (or I guess I should say who) this blog post is focusing on is in my hometown. I’m going to tell you about one of my favorite people in the world: my grandmother, Mary Naccarato. I know almost everyone thinks they have the best grandma, but I have to tell you, this lady is one in seven billion.

Gramma, or Nana (as the great-grandkids call her), is a ninety-four year old dynamo. Because of her bright white hair and her unlimited supply of energy, she’s earned the nickname “The White Tornado.” This is a woman who still climbs ladders to polish the crystal on her chandelier, sweeps and scrubs her porches, and adheres to the same weekly housework schedule she created when she first got married… probably the same one she learned from her mother, because it’s the one my mother uses and it’s the one I (kind of) follow.

Her parents came from Italy when she had just one sibling. She was born in Colorado and spent her early childhood there, where she developed a love for horses and the wilderness. At a young age her family (which eventually became seven children) moved to New Kensington, Pennsylvania, where she eventually met my grandfather. She had other suitors, but it was my grandfather who won her heart. He used to walk the fifteen to twenty miles from Vandergrift to her house just to see her. When they married, she knew he had to take care of his mother and younger siblings (his father had died at a young age and he was the man of the family since he was fourteen), so she acquiesced her position as woman of the house, letting my grandfather continue to support his family.

His siblings were eventually able to care for themselves, and my grandmother got her own home. She lost her only son in a difficult stillbirth, but she went on to have two wonderful daughters: my mother and my aunt. The way I hear it, their house was the town hangout. She would make cookies or pizza roll or any number or wonderful treats and the kids would congregate there. There were times my dad and his friends dropped by when my mom and aunt weren’t there, just to visit and grab a snack. Why wouldn’t they? She’s the world’s best cook and she tells the best stories. She’s a great listener, too.

Things didn’t change when Gramma’s children were out of the house and her grandchildren were roaming the town. My friends and I used to drop in all the time for a snack and a visit. So did my brother, my sister, and my cousins. Sometimes our friends would drop by without us. It turns out, no one can go past my grandmother’s house without saying hello. And hello leads to a visit. And a visit leads to food, so…

When I got my license, I had a built-in shopping buddy. She was my good luck charm. If I needed something, really needed something, I’d take her with me. I always found what I was looking for if she was with me. Even if it took a while. Once I told her I needed to take a quick run to Staples for some things for my writing portfolio. We were there for two hours. To this day when she sees a Staples commercial she thinks of me. But I did manage to get everything I needed. She’s my good luck charm.

The week before my wedding, when my husband had his bachelor party, all of my bridesmaids had something else going on. One was underage, two were out of town, one was at the hospital with her fiancé, and two were moms with young kids at home… I wasn’t having a bachelorette party. I could have gone out with other friends or hung out with my parents for the last time. But I chose to spend the time with my grandmother. We went to my new apartment, papered my kitchen shelves, reminisced about my grandfather and other family moments, and then we went out. We had a blast. We talk about it to this day. It was one of the best nights of my life. I wouldn’t trade that memory for anything in the world.

Once all the grandkids were married, the great-grandkids came. We have traditions to carry on. Sure, we are learning them from our mothers, but Gramma is still there helping us, reminding us what is truly important. She came to my house and helped make homemade ravioli for the last Easter I hosted before I moved out of state. She still shares recipes and tells stories. She shows us pictures and gives us heirlooms. She is a living tradition.

I don’t get home very often. I miss seeing her, hugging her, baking with her, sharing these things with her. But then I remember, when her family left Italy, that was it. They never went back. They never even called home—the cost was too much. Because of technological advances, I can talk to her whenever I want. I have the luxury of hearing her voice. No, it’s not the same. I can’t sit at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a few pizzelles, but I haven’t lost touch with her.

And as long as I have her, I will give thanks for that.

I hope this Thanksgiving you all have someone in your lives for whom you can be as grateful as I am for my grandmother.

A Legacy is More than Boxes of Photos

My grandfather was a photography nut. I won’t go so far as to say he was a photography buff or an amateur photographer, but he was into taking pictures. Of his family, mostly, and friends. I never saw a picture of interesting buildings or pretty foliage. My grandfather took pictures of people. Often twice, because he’d forget to take the lens cap off.

He was so excited when my sister went to the prom that she and her date had to repose for all the pictures. Because he left the lens cap on. (I secretly think he was just stunned she got a date — just kidding, sis!) I’m not sure how you and your family pose for prom pictures, but in our family, it’s just short of a wedding shoot. Pictures of the girl alone, pictures of the guy alone, pictures of them together. Pictures of her getting the flowers, pictures of him getting the flowers. Pictures with the parents, pictures with the siblings, pictures with the whole family. Pictures with the grandparents… you get the idea. Is it an Italian thing, or was it just my grandfather setting a tradition in my family?

It wasn’t just the proms, though. In the summers, he’d have me and my cousin stand in the flower beds to take photos of us by whatever was blooming. They usually planted geraniums and impatiens. When my grandma wasn’t looking, my cousin and I would bend down and pop the impatiens’ seed pods, and my grandfather would laugh. If Grandma would see, she’d yell and we’d run away, and he’d just laugh louder. And then usually he’d realize he had the lens cap on and we’d have to come back and do it again. Afterward, we’d get Gram’s lemonade and cookies, so who could complain?

There were always photos at holiday mealtimes. We have some wonderful snapshots of tables laden with food and everyone is gathered around them, forks or glasses raised in salute of a toast having been made. But someone is always missing from the photo, because someone was behind the camera. Usually it was my grandfather. I have one nice picture where my grandfather is actually at the head of the table… my uncle took the shot; he’s absent from the photo. When I grew up and started hosting meals, I took a photo at my home. I wasn’t in the shot. It was kind of depressing, because it reminded me that my grandfather wasn’t, either. He’d been gone from us for many years at that point. I never took another photo at the dinner table. Really, at some point one of us should have learned to use the timer function on the camera.

My grandfather’s gone, and all we have now are boxes of his photos. Half of them are black, thanks to the lens cap. He’s in so few of the photos, because he was always behind the camera. But still, he gave us so many memories to remember him by. Not the big trips or the gorgeous monuments. It was the little things.

The grandkids in the flower beds.

His daughters in the kitchen with their mom.

His sons-in-law in the alley washing a car.

The family at the table.

We don’t have to worry about lens caps anymore when we’re taking the photos. But we should all learn to use the timer.

What Do You Do With All Those Tomatoes?

Vandergrift, Pennsylvania when I grew up had a decidedly Italian presence. It was even more so when my parents were kids, and probably even more when my grandparents settled there, but still, when I was young, Vandergrift was pretty Italian. Even to this day they have the Festa di Italiana once a year, so the presence hasn’t completely faded. But I digress…

vegetablesThere were a lot of things I looked forward to in the summer, but one thing I hated as a kid. Gardening. There would be weeding and planting and peat-mossing. And then the picking. And picking. And picking.

Italians plant everything. We have huge gardens. We have to have parsley and basil, those herbs are staples, and they will take over your garden in a nanosecond if you aren’t vigilant. Of course we plant tomatoes.

On that rare occasion that we wanted something no one grew, we’d go to an orchard or farm and pick it ourselves. There was no reason to get bruised produce from the store when we could get what we wanted cheaper fresh from the vine. I spent many June weekends in Erie picking cherries right off the trees.

Many of my friends growing up were Italian, so they worked in their family garden, too. Everyone ate zucchini twenty-eight different ways all summer long. If you’re Italian, you know what I mean.

My friends today don’t understand. My kids barely understand. We don’t have a garden where we live, but we try to get the freshest produce we can. Meanwhile our friends and the kids’ friends are eating frozen dinners and sauce from a jar, or, even worse, just getting take out all the time. When my kids have friends for dinner, I always make sure to have a home-cooked meal instead of letting them order pizza (the pizza here isn’t great, anyway). At first my kids were mortified, but their friends loved it, and now everyone looks forward to eating here. They don’t get food like this at their homes.

Who knew fresh tomatoes were for more than sandwiches and salads?

Are You Thinking Godfather or Jersey Shore?

I know, I know. You hear Italian-Americans and you think Capone and Corleone or The Situation and Snooki. And you are either fascinated with one or both of those lifestyles or couldn’t care less about either. And then you don’t think about them at all.

There’s so much more to Italian-Americans than that.

My heritage is rich and full. Like so many Italian-Americans, we aren’t at the head of a major crime syndicate, nor are we stars of a reality TV show. My family came from Italy because of the same social, political, and economical reasons most families came to America. My great-grandfather came here alone, like so many men did, to find work before sending for his family. Once he was settled in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, he toiled until he had enough money to bring his wife and son over. And once they were here, he kept working. He worked in the mill and grew his family and continued to provide for them until he got sick and died at a terribly young age, causing my grandfather, the youngest, to quit school at fourteen to support his mother, himself, and six brothers and sisters. And he did it without complaint.

That’s the thing about Italians. It’s all about family. You do for family. No matter what.

So my grandfather became the head of his family at fourteen. And even when I was born, the aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews all still treated him like the head of the family. Because he had earned that respect.

My grandfather isn’t with us anymore, but my grandmother still is. She tells me stories of how the wages were different for Italians then, particularly the dark southern Italians like we are. She tells me how the Italians were beaten in the streets and mistreated by other nationalities who had already settled here. That’s why Italians formed their own communities and started their own clubs and shopped in their own stores. It was a matter of safety in numbers and protecting their own. I’m grateful that it’s a different world today.

My family is almost all still in the Western Pennsylvania area. I’m the only one who has had to leave — much like my ancestors, for economic reasons. We went where the jobs were. We now find ourselves in an area without Italian markets and even the closest church is twenty minutes away. We are once again the minority, but it’s not like before.

And I am grateful.

But I haven’t forgotten my roots.

And that’s what I try to breathe that life to in my writing. So no one else forgets, either.

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