By Coleen Hanna
My Aunt Jeanne married my uncle, Aldo Celotto, in 1953. I didn’t attend the wedding; I was born two years later. I don’t remember ever not having Uncle Al in my life. I was blessed to have had many terrific aunts and uncles. Uncle Al was unique among them.
Like many people, I didn’t really get to know my elders. By the time I realized how important it was to learn about them, it was too late. I regret not having seized opportunities while I had them.
Uncle Al was an immigrant. I remember clearly when I asked him a few simple questions about himself. He told me he and his family had emigrated from Italy when he was five years old, and that he spoke no English. They settled in Buffalo’s lower West Side.
Uncle Al died prematurely, at age 64. Many years later, his daughter, Cheryl, gave me a newspaper article about her father’s family that she had found online. It was from the Buffalo Courier Express, dated Friday, Dec. 29, 1939. The front page article was titled, “Girl Dies as Barred Window Traps Her in Blazing Room.”
We did not know about this piece of Uncle Al’s history. I remember my mother remarking once when I was a child that she believed Uncle Al’s childhood was tough. She thought he had spent some time in foster care. But she had no other information.
Reading about the fire helped me put some pieces together. And created more questions. I have always had a soft spot for immigrants. It is hard for me to imagine leaving the only home one has ever known, to take a difficult and uncertain journey on the hope that one will find a better life. Add to that not knowing the native language and customs, finding housing and work, and trying to protect the children. Uncle Al’s parents did just that, with the added almost unimaginable burden of watching their 12-year-old daughter burn to death. It’s no wonder I continue to be preoccupied by this story.
Cheryl and I decided to set out to find the house at 63 Efner St. But it, along with the entire neighborhood, was gone, probably to make room for the Niagara Thruway. I felt sad. I wanted to stand where this proud, brave family once stood. But it was not to be.
According to the article, the fire started when the father, James, accidentally spilled kerosene which “slopped over on the floor and flowed beneath the door into the bedroom” of his daughter, Mary. James sustained “severe burns on the head and cuts on the hands in a rescue attempt.” The fire chief sharply criticized the presence of iron bars the owner had installed across Mary’s window. It was the only possible means of escape.
Uncle Al was only seven, with another trauma added to that of the immigration experience. How did this affect his parents and the six remaining children? And how did Uncle Al manage to be so funny and optimistic as an adult? Those and other questions continue to trouble me. But the image that won’t leave is the haunted faces of the three children and mother in the photo. I badly want to be able to hug them and tell them that it will get better.
The Celotto family’s ordeal was not in vain. They left behind a legacy of bright, hardworking descendants who I am honored to know and to have as relatives. God bless them and all of the immigrants who continue to enrich our country.
Coleen Hanna feels fortunate and blessed that her Irish and Swedish ancestors came to America.