Ciao family, friends, and loved ones.
We are gathered here to today to celebrate the amazing life of my family’s American patriarch Salvatore Zarrelli. To fully understand the life and accomplishments of a man like my Uncle Sal, let’s first take a journey back in time.
The year was 1955…
Here in America, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander of the Allied Forces in World War Two, was entering the second year of his presidency. TV shows like the Honeymooners entertained the people on black and white TV sets. Rock Around the Clock was the hit song on the radio. Our country’ greatest generation was enjoying the fruits of its World War two victory. The nation was at a high point. Our country had become the shining city on a hill, calling out to poor and suffering people around the world. It was a call the Zarrelli family could not miss.
In post World War Two Italy, times were tough.
Italy had lost the war and the country was deeply divided. Political assassinations were a regular occurrence as both sides tried to settle post-war vendettas. The nation’s currency, the lira, had dropped to a thirteenth of its normal value and war reparations were being paid. Every day, Uncle Sal’s mother, my grandmother, would walk to fetch wood and water for the family home. While my grandfather and his sons did masonry work to bring in money for the family. Salvatore Zarrelli built his first masonry building during this time. He was 13 years old.
Salvatore, still more boy than man, would soon be struck by the lightning bolt of love.
Sal would regularly tease the brother of the prettiest girl in town, telling him how pretty his sister was and that someday she would be his. The boys would physically fight not once, but twice over the teasing. But this was no joke to Uncle Sal. His love was true, and soon the two families would arrange the young couple’s marriage. Sal, always ahead of the curve, tried to marry the love of his life, Catarina, when he was just 15 years old. The Catholic priests refused, telling the young couple they could not be married until Salvatore was at least 16. In typical Sal fashion, he was not daunted by the setback. Instead married his beautiful l bride Catarina on the very first day he could. His sixteenth birthday.
Though rich in love, the Zarrelli family was poor and wanted to make it to the new world for prosperity.
There would be no honeymoon. Real life started immediately for the newlyweds. Caterina had family in New York and they agreed to be Sal’s host in America. She moved in with Sal’s mother in Italy until he could send back for her to join him. Salvatore, newly-married but still only 16 a boarded a ship to the new world with the fate of the entire Zarrelli family on his young shoulders. His only belongings, two suitcases. One filled with his clothes. The other with wine and cheese for his host family. When asked later if he was scared to travel cross the Atlantic Ocean alone, Uncle Sal replied. “No, it was the best I ever ate!” The ship’s ticket for passage to the new world included meals. For a young boy escaping the poverty of the Mezzogiorno, it felt like a feast. After an eleven-day voyage across the ocean, young Salvatore Zarrellli set foot in America at New York City’s Ellis Island.
Once in the states, Sal acclimated fast.
He didn’t speak the language, so he took English classes at night. He was a mason by trade but still too young to join the advanced New York masonry unions. So he worked three jobs in the meantime to build his family’s foundation here in the New World. When he had free time, he practiced his masonry by building and taking down small brick and block walls in his garage practicing his lines, speed, and corners until he could join his local union.
Soon he would unite his wife and family in the new world.
Once together in the New World, Sal and Catherine planned to start a family. They lost their first child to polio but went on to have three more beautiful children. First Tony, then Rose, then Sue. This was the start of what is now lovingly referred to as the OG, or original family. Combined with Sal’s four brothers, who had also moved to the states, the O.G. family would soon grow to include dozens of amazing new family members. From grand kids to cousins, to nephews, and in-laws. As our family grew and thrived in America, we had Salvatore Zarrelli, the family’s patriarch, to thank. He used his fantastic life experience and unique wealth of knowledge to be our family lighthouse, helping us avoid rocky shores and troubled waters. His judgment and advice were always timely, spot on, and impeccable. He was a pillar of reliability and consistency that we all counted on. His standards set the moral compass by which we lived our lives. With his huge heart, often bigger than his body, Salvatore lived by the words he would always say, “it’s better to give than to receive.”
When losing someone of this magnitude. Someone so important in our lives. Someone so important to our family. It is easy to ask ourselves how will we go on?
And therein lies the beauty of Uncle Sal’s life work. Salvatore Zarrelli was a builder, but not just of buildings. Sal was a builder of families, friendships, and community. Block by block. Brick by brick. Person by person. Good deed by good deed. Salvatore Zarrelli built this family and his friendships out of love, compassion, and hard work. And thanks to the way Uncle Sal built this family, we will always be strong enough to go on.
In closing, Uncle Sal recently said to a loved one.
“I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to say goodbye and leave everyone. That’s hard. It would be easy if I didn’t have such a great family and friends.” You all gathered here today are the family and friends he was talking about. Even in his last moments, when the pain and sadness must have been unbearable. Salvatore Zarrelli thought of all of you. He loved each and every one of you so very much.
So on behalf of my Uncle Sal to all of you, one last time. Let me say, ti voglio benne or in English. I love you!