Janey Way Memories: Remembering My Grandmother

When I was growing up on Janey Way in the 1950s and ’60s, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house on 52nd Street and 14th Avenue.  We were there for all the big holidays:  Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and day and Easter.

In addition, we went to Grandma’s house almost every Sunday evening for cake, coffee and conversation.  Sometimes the conversation got heated, but she always calmed things down with her quiet authority.  A tiny woman, she cast a big shadow in our family.

It wasn’t until much later in life that my aunts related her incredible story to me.

Born in the late 1800s, she immigrated to America in 1912.  She came on a passenger ship from Palermo, Sicily to New York City. She was only 14 years old at the time.

Her future husband had booked her first class passage to avoid her being detained at Ellis Island.

From there, she traveled by train to Chicago.  To the best of my knowledge, her marriage had been arranged by her parents.  So, when she arrived in Chicago, she probably met her husband, Severio Relles, for the first time.

The marriage worked out well, though.  By 1915, she had given birth to three sons: George, Ross and Marty. Her new life seemed perfect; then tragedy struck.  In 1919, she lost her husband in the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic.

So here she was with three young boys to raise and no husband.  She kept her wits about her though, moving quickly to Sacramento, California where family had settled.  She and her sons stayed with relatives there until she married her second husband, Rosario Petta, in 1920.

Soon, the young couple and their growing family bought their lifelong property on 14th Avenue in the Colonial Heights Area of Sacramento.  It featured three lots.  They built houses on two of the lots and retained the other for farming.

All went well for them until 1929 when the stock market crashed and the country sank deeply into the great depression.  Rosario soon lost his job with the Southern Pacific Railroad and fell to doing day labor to make a living.  He was not unlike one of the guys you see standing around in the Home Depot parking lot hoping to pick up a job.

It’s funny, but this setback proved an opportunity for Grandma Petta.  She soon obtained a job working at the Del Monte Cannery.  It provided seasonal employment from the spring through the fall.  She would continue to work for Del Monte until age 65 when she earned some sort of pension through her union.  That and her social security would see her through the rest of her life well into her 90s.

Grandma was truly a good worker, but so much more than that. She kept a chicken house on her farm for eggs, and a cow for milk.  She made cheese from the milk the cow produced.  She made her own bread almost daily.  She cooked unbelievably good pizza from that same dough. My dad visited her once a week to pick up bread.

She canned apricots, pears and tomato sauce from fruits and vegetables that came from her garden.

In addition to all this, she was a great (not just good) cook.  She taught my mother and my aunts how to cook.  Mom then taught my brother Terry and I grandma’s recipes.  Terry went on to attend the Culinary Institute in New York and become an executive chef.  All this came from the little women who migrated to America in 1912 to marry and start a new life.

Her story is one which I think about often, another truly inspirational Janey Way memory.

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