By Dan Shine
Loretta’s Christmas Memory, 1929
(With thanks to Valerie Forte Vitali)
In her years as Librarian, Loretta BonTempo Forte had a knack for selecting books that suited the avid readers who patronized the library. Her love of reading from the time she was a child guided her choices for both adults and children. Books that she enjoyed as a child were sentimental and involved family life during times of hardship, and Loretta often noted that, frequently, the stories started with the death of a mother.
Loretta wistfully joked that she herself had lived the riches to rags to riches story of The Little Princess! And no better way did she document that personal story than by telling a Christmas story about being orphaned during the Great Depression and finding herself, in 1929, in a cold apartment in Allingtown with nothing to celebrate the holidays other than a string of lights and a box of ornaments.
Loretta’s mother, Josephine BonTempo, had died in February, 1928, in the hospital in NH of complications of diabetes, and the following summer, her husband and the father of their eight children, Nicholas, left his job and young family and went to Italy.
He had returned at the end of the summer with a young and very Italian bride (Josephine was raised in the US from infancy, had American ways and American friends). Loretta was 15, and her 6 siblings who still resided in the family home on Derby Avenue ranged in age from early 20s to age 13. On the anniversary of their late mother’s birthday, Dec 13, there was a huge argument between father and sons, and the children all left, with a few belongings, Loretta carrying the pet canary in its cage. The younger children went to a cousin’s house while the older brothers stayed with friends, and the family, split apart, spent a miserable holiday.
During the next year the older brothers secured custody of their minor siblings and found a flat in Allingtown, moving into a neighborhood of mostly Italian American immigrant families, who were hard working, but it was 1929, not a good time for anyone. As soon as the neighbors heard, however, that a family of young people without parents had moved in, they began to gather what they could spare. Some brought coats to be used as blankets, the brothers bought a wood stove and acquired bed frames while the neighbors brought bundles of wood and some food. Recalling those hard times, Loretta used to say that she would never want others to know how it was to go to bed hungry.
Loretta had one dress to wear to school that year, until WHHS Principal Seth Haley called her in to his office and asked her how she managed with only one dress, since the female teachers had described the situation to him. Loretta said that she washed it carefully every week-end. He then handed her an envelope, in it was some money, “our faculty wanted you to have another dress”. Later that year, she won a gold piece as a prize for an essay she had written. Everyone said it was something to be kept. She quickly spent the gold piece on another durable dress.
By Christmas, 1929, the BonTempo children were living together in the second floor flat on Orlando St in a house owned by Mrs. Campaniolo. One day in December, returning home from WHHS, Loretta and her younger brother, Peter, found that someone had left a cut Christmas tree for them.
They dragged it upstairs and secured it in the stand they had recently gotten, along with some ornaments, from their former home, which was on the market, their father intended to go back to Italy to live. Then Loretta announced that they were going to decorate the tree to surprise their siblings who would be returning that evening from their jobs in New Haven.
Peter adamantly rejected that suggestion. He insisted that the family tradition was to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. Loretta told him that that was a ridiculous plan, and since there would be no gifts under the tree, they might as well enjoy the decorated tree before the actual holiday. Peter said, “NO”, and ran from the room dragging the box of ornaments, trailing ribbons of tinsel garland.
Loretta ran after him and grabbed the box. He grabbed it back and then she grabbed him and they rolled around and fell into the tree, knocking it over. There was a huge crash, and then they stopped, when from the back hallway they heard Mrs. Campaniolo yelling, “Hey, what is going on up there!!!???”
Together Peter and Loretta ran to the door, and with enormous nerve, shouted back at her, “MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!”. And it was then, THEN that they realized that the kind but skeptical woman (who had reluctantly rented the flat to a bunch of kids) could evict them, or at least tell their older brothers how rude they had been to her. Loretta began to cry with shame. She thought that she would be the cause of their second Christmas without a home of their own…She and Peter were sullen and silent when they heard their family members coming up the stairs. They listened for the landlady’s door opening. They were sure that they had embarrassed their family and would cause them to be evicted. But, as far as they ever knew, the landlady never spoke a word about the event.
Sometime later that week the tree did get decorated. A stranger delivered a turkey, sent “from a friend”, which Loretta reluctantly accepted, embarrassed by their plight. Word came that it was from May Carrigan, and they did enjoy it. The neighbors continued to send what they could spare, and the economy finally began to create better jobs…living on Orlando St helped the BonTempos forge lifelong friendships with the neighboring children. And when their father left for Italy, he let them take some furniture from his house and some books as well. The boy who lived next door in their new neighborhood, who loved to read, was eager to borrow books, befriending the brothers whom he knew from ice skating at the Lagoon, all the while grinning helplessly love struck at Loretta…whom he would marry in 1940.
Times would quickly change. The industrious BonTempo children would work to improve their plight, and the economy improved as well. The following Christmas they proudly bought their own turkey! Friends from the neighborhood took the place of their once loving parents, and support from teachers and co-workers meant everything…when Loretta reminisced about the ‘troubles’ that the BonTempo children had endured, it was with humor and pride, along with a few bittersweet tears, remembering their love for each other, their stamina and grit, and the loving help of the Orlando Street neighbors.