Did the aerobics class. Then at 9am, I sat down for a lecture on Ragtime piano! Stephanie Trick is a pianist that I’ve been a fan of since, I don’t know, the first time we went to the Sacramento Jazz Festival, maybe 2015? Earlier? Stephanie and her husband Paolo have developed a wonderful four-hands piano act (watch that link, it will brighten your day). They both play in the styles of the early 20th century: ragtime, stride, boogie.
Naturally their performing career has been stifled by the pandemic. But in a recent newsletter they offered a series of three online lectures on Ragtime, Boogie, and Blues, and I immediately signed up. The first lecture was excellent, rich in information but with lots of happy piano examples in between the facts. They told about the history of Ragtime, the career of the great composers, how the form was largely forgotten when popular taste changed to Swing, how it was revived in the 1970s.
That brought me to 10:30 and it was time to sign on to the writers’ group. The previous week I the prompt had been “someone who was an immigrant” and I had started a synopsis of my father’s life, and didn’t finish it. This time I finished it and got a lot of flattering comments. Nothing else happened the rest of the day, so here is that piece.
Everyone in my life has been a native-born American except one: my father. His life was remarkable for several reasons, not least that he’d had a full, productive life before, at age 50, he met the woman who would be my mother, and started an entire new family and career.
Emilio Cortesi was born in 1890 in the tiny village of Ponte Buggianese, a wide spot on the road from Lucca to Firenze. At age 16, he decided to emigrate to the United States, as many young people from the region were doing. He obtained a passport, borrowed passage money from relatives, and embarked with a party of other young men in April 1906. A few days out, his ship received, over the Marconi wireless — high-tech equipment only installed the previous year — news of the great San Francisco Earthquake and fire.
He came through Ellis Island, and went directly to work for the Northern Pacific Railroad, which shipped him and his cohort of young men to Utah to build new railroad track. For the next several years he did railroad work; then sawmill work; railroad again; and then found out that coal mining paid better, and for fourteen years worked in the coal mines that dot the Western flank of Mount Rainier above Tacoma.
Around age 24 (1914) Emilio completed the paperwork and examination to be a United States citizen; and soon after married Blossom, a divorced woman with a son; and soon they produced Emilio’s first son, James. In 1916 America went to war, but the coal company classified their miners as essential workers, so he didn’t have to go. In 1917, Blossom was ill with the pandemic flu for nearly two weeks, but Emilio didn’t catch it, and nursed her through it.
With the end of the War, demand for coal slackened and Emilio was out of work. His brother Baldo was now in the States and working coal in Colorado, so in 1920, Emilio spent a year mining coal in Pueblo. Returning to his family he obtained work by fortunate timing: Washington State was constructing its new Capitol building in Olympia, and had mandated that the stone should be the type quarried at a site nearby. Emilio, now age 31, got work in that quarry.
The quarry was demanding, manual labor, and no advance on mining, but Emilio had conceived another idea: education. He had had only five years of schooling before emigrating from Italy. Now he set his sights on a college degree. First he had to get an eighth-grade certificate, which he did over the course of 1921 and 1922. From 1923 to 1926 he studied at home and took quarterly examinations that the local Department of Schools offered.
Throughout this period his now ten-year-old marriage was deteriorating, finally ending in separation and divorce. So he was a single man when in the summer of 1926 he found he had enough high-school credits to enter the College of Puget Sound in Tacoma, and in September he started classes.
Studying nights and early mornings, taking only morning classes so he could work nearly full-time at a neighborhood grocery, Emilio completed his course-work for a degree in education in four years. He graduated at age 40, in the spring of 1930, just as the Depression settled in hard. He sent out applications for teaching jobs and got no responses. The bank where he had an account closed, freezing his money. Fortunately he could continue to work at the same grocery, which he did, although with increasing boredom and dissatisfaction, for the next three years.
In 1932, with the election of Roosevelt and the onset of the New Deal, the banks re-opened, the national mood changed, and Emilio’s boredom reached a climax. He decided to re-make himself for at least the third time. He quit his job and put his small savings into the purchase of twenty acres of land covered with second-growth brush about 25 miles south of Tacoma. He set up a tent, and began clearing this tract by hand, and planning where to build a house on it.
Over 1933 and 1934 he lived on his land, clearing brush and building first a small log cabin, then a 40×18 garage and storage building. He started a garden and dug a well. He got by on his dwindling savings and by doing casual labor for neighbors, and at age 45 he felt the best he’d felt in his life.
By 1935 the W.P.A. was ramping up, and it sponsored a variety of evening courses, which needed teachers. Emilio applied and was hired to teach Spanish and English classes for adult learners. For the next two years he commuted every afternoon to Tacoma to teach, earning $85 a month.
In 1936 he became friendly with another WPA teacher, Mrs. Cecil Hubert, a divorced single mother living with two daughters, ages 7 and 8, and her mother. In 1937 Emilio and Cecil married. He hastily threw up a two-room cabin on his farm and started planning a larger house.
By 1938 the whole family, Emilio, Cecil, the daughters Joyce and Eleanor, and Cecil’s mother Anna were under some kind of roof on the property. Cecil continued teaching WPA English and Citizenship classes, mostly to Japanese mill-workers in nearby Eatonville, while Emilio cleared land and built the new family house.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 precipitated the nation into war, and changed the status of the local Japanese who would soon be hustled off to concentration camps.
Further excitement entered Emilio’s family in the fourth year of their marriage when, to everyone’s surprise, Cecil announced that she was expecting a child. A year and a day after Pearl Harbor — and on the same day that, in Chicago, Enrico Fermi ignited the reactor with the first man-made controlled nuclear reaction — I was born. Which begins a different story entirely, one in which Emilio’s part continues several decades, into his 99th year.