Q & A with Maria Vezzetti Matson, co-author of Gelsomina’s Story of Caesar Lucchesi. February 14, 2011
San Francisco, CA
Q: Today is Valentine’s Day, is Gelsomina’s Story of Caesar Lucchesi a love story?
Yes. It is actually an international love story. It started in Italy and ended in the United States. Caesar’s father had laughingly prophesized the marriage of the two young Italians when Gelsomina was four-years-old. She was living on their farm in Vecoli, an area north of Lucca, Italy. There is an Old Italian saying, “One day my son may marry your daughter.” Love blossomed years later in the United States when destiny had Gelsomina and Caesar meet again in a small town in northern Michigan.
Q: How much of the book is based on fact?
100 %. The places, people, and events can all be documented through journals, newspaper articles, oral histories, etc. The creative part had to do with describing emotions, sensory images and dialogue; there is a genre called creative nonfiction. The book fits that niche perfectly.
Q: Do you remember your grandparents, Gelsomina Andreini Lucchesi and Caesar?
Yes. I grew up knowing Gelsomina. My earliest memories of my grandparents begin in the late 40s. Nonnie, that is what we called Gelsomina, was active in organizations like the Daughters of Italy, Holy Family Church in South Range and had plenty of friends. I lived in South Range, a block away from them. I was married and living in California when she passed away in 1974. My grandfather Caesar, Nonno, died in 1957 and memories of him are vaguer. He was business-like and interacted with the adults far more than with children.
Q: Did you ever envision yourself writing a book about them?
No. My mother, Norma, the youngest child of Gelsomina, began recording her family’s history on a computer in the late 1990s. The dozen or so pages were a start, but, I did not write this book alone. Lou Ellyn Helman is my co-author. We’ve incorporated many of Norma’s ideas and writing into the story. A family friend, Ralph Raffaelli, encouraged Norma and later, me, to write something down on paper about our family. His father, Mario, had worked for Caesar as a bus driver in the early 1920s and ‘30s. Mario later was employed by Copper Range Bus Lines after Caesar sold them the bus line. My mother told Ralph that she’d have to wait until all of that first generation were dead—too many stories would upset them. Norma joked about there being three sides to a story: yours, mine and the truth.
Q: How did you meet your co-author, Lou Ellyn Helman?
I first met Helman during an event sponsored by the Friends of Fashion in Chassell, Michigan, July 11, 2009.
The groups’ fundraiser that year was a performance featuring fashion and history spotlighting five Italian American immigrant families from the Keweenaw area. Helman portrayed Gelsomina in the show. She along with a young girl, acting as Gelsomina’s granddaughter, reminisced over a scrapbook chatting about some of Caesar’s life’s accomplishments in the area. I had been invited by Elaine Crouter. She and Helman were neighbors. Helman did a fine job of scriptwriting and acting. She covered the highlights of Caesar’s live beginning with tales of the boarding house incident in Baltic Mine, where the Gelsomina and Caesar were both staying. Elaine introduced me to Helman after the show; I was thrilled to hear the enthusiasm she had regarding my family’s history. Ralph Raffaelli was nearby and once again repeated his mantra …”Someone has got to write a book about the Lucchesi family!”
Q: When did you and Helman start on the book?
I thought about Ralph’s statement, I thought about Helman’s energy, I thought I’d give it a try and ask her if she was interested in helping me with a Lucchesi book project. August 3, 2009 I received her email responding she was “delighted” to be asked to help with the book. Little did she know she’d be writing most of it, not merely editing the book. It has been a wonderful creative collaboration.
Q: How did you share information and work together?
Helman has been a joy to work with; always positive, flexible and her writing style has been a perfect voice for Gelsomina’s story. Telephone calls, emails, personal visits; all of the above –plus a lot of materials from the family archives melded into a charming story. We’ve had great synergy.
Q. What do you mean synergy?
Mutual effort-cooperation—the whole is greater than the sum of the parts
As co-authors, we had two minds working toward the same goal, a good book. We made a better story together. Co-authoring this book has been a rewarding experience. Partnering with Lou has been fun. We’ve treated each other with respect, appreciation and honesty.
Q: What makes this book unique?
It is written from a woman’s point of view of the life and times of a successful Italian immigrant, Caesar. He could not have achieved the level of success without a clever, dedicated partner; Gelsomina was always there. She was his co-pilot on land as well as in the air. Caesar was considered a transportation pioneer. They both grew as the country grew. Many books are written describing the path of success to reaching the American Dream, but Gelsomina’s story adds the female insight into that journey.
Q: What words describe Gelsomina?
Hard-working, caring, determined and wise are words that first come to mind. She arrived in a new country at age fourteen. She helped her brother, Emilio Andreini, Baltic, Michigan, run a boarding house for copper miners. She assumed she would be returning to Italy, but Fate had other plans for her. Can you imagine making lunches, washing clothes, cooking for a houseful of hungry miners at that age? That is hard work for any person. She and Caesar met there, fell in love and he literally, carried her away in a secret elopement at age sixteen. By age eighteen she had two babies. Sadly she also had to bury those first two babies. Going through a sad situation like that at an early age gave her a lot of compassion, understanding and determination to survive. In 1908 she had another baby, Alfred, and the family moved to South Range. Gelsomina went on to raise six children. She learned to be wise at times, too. She knew when to speak out and when to remain silent with Caesar.
Q: Did Gelsomina tell you stories about her past?
Yes, in a roundabout method. It was while visiting with friends and family that discussions would turn to tales of days gone by---for example: remember our dog, King, the German Sheppard guard dog at the Texaco station in Painesdale. Remember the sound of sleigh bells on our delivery wagon in 1910. Remember how we crashed the plane into Portage Lake and hauled it out in freezing weather in 1926. Remember how dangerous it was during the mining strike of 1913 for all Copper Range deputy sheriffs. I listened and the stories and family friendships created through the years are great memories.
Q: Did you ever get to fly with Caesar Lucchesi?
No. Other grandchildren, especially the older boys can recall going up in the air with Caesar during the late 40s and early 50s. He had many planes. All the family had been involved with aviation. The book shares stories of Ben Wenberg, Harold Skelly, Clyde Wescoat, all the early aviators of the Copper Country. Air fields like the Isle Royale Sands, the Laurium Air Field and Houghton County Memorial Airport are all connected with Caesar Lucchesi’s aviation history. He even knew Amelia Earhart, and, of course, the local aviatrix, Nancy Harkness. She was instrumental in creating the WASPs during World War II.
Q: Who would enjoy reading this book? Who is your target market?
First are my family and friends. Readers living locally in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula will surely want to hear the inside scoop about early transportation on the roads. The Houghton County Road Commission hadn’t been created when Caesar had his first bus line. Caesar kept the roads cleared with men shoveling in front and behind buses. He used Holt tractors and kept trying to invent the perfect snow removal equipment. Yoopers will relate to the snow removal concerns. Being from the Copper Country will add enjoyment to the book, but it’s about American history. Cooks will also enjoy learning about Italian foods, diets and Gelsomina’s chicken cacciatore recipe and baccala recipes are included.
Q: Is this book for an older generation?
No, this book is about family relationships, the day to day challenges faced growing up and life in a small town. It’s a story of a girl from age four to old age. It may remind many of a lost time or their own small hometown experiences.
Q: Did Caesar ever get recognition in his lifetime for his achievements?
Yes, Michigan Technological University, previously named, Michigan Technological College of Mining and Engineering, presented Caesar with an honorary lifetime membership as an alumni for his achievement and foresight in early transportation in the area. I recall the day the whole family attended the event. Caesar never had any formal education…he was a self-taught man from a humble beginning. This was quite an accolade.
Caesar’s involvement with Texaco gas distribution and his many service stations earned him recognition. He also represented B.F. Goodrich for many years and won awards in that department, too.
Q. Is it true Caesar came to the United States in 1899 to work in a copper mine?
Yes, the Copper Range Mines and Calumet and Hecla were seeking workers from many different European nations. Caesar worked in the Baltic Mine and Quincy Mine. It was not to his liking. During the Great Depression his bus line, Cloverland Bus Transit, was used to provide rides to the Globe and Champion Mines of Painesdale. He would rather be a business man than a miner.
Q: Why do you have Gelsomina telling the story versus Caesar telling his version?
Her voice makes it warm and homey; she makes you feel like one of the family. We did take liberties with some of the dialogue. However, some material is from direct quotes of individuals we interviewed that knew Gelsomina and shared an incident or event with her. Helman has done a superb job of bringing the characters to life. It’s a sweet story with tons of local and historical information. We hope it makes you smile and remember a gentler day and time from your own past.
Q: How did you get the material for the scrapbook?
The scrapbook contains personal family photos, some donated, some found in materials my mother owned. Ralph Raffaelli was a great resource. Pictures of Caesar and his brothers as Italian Army cadets date back to 1890s. Included is a photo of Gelsomina; age 11-years-old with her family in Vecoli, Italy.
It was difficult choosing photos to be included. When you have vintage aircrafts like the Waco F-3, the Bamboo Bomber, it is hard. Gino, Leo and Norma Lucchesi are shown standing by their aircrafts. Caesar attended the 1932 Cleveland Air Races and snapped a photo of Amelia Earhart relaxing on the grass with other female flyers.
The photos taken on Gelsomina’s trip to Lucca in 1928 are my favorite. The Andreini and Lucchesi families that lived in Italy are represented. There was a photo taken in Bagni de Lucca, famous for its thermal springs and casino. Gelsomina visited both on that visit.
Postcards and images of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair are in the scrapbook.
The scrapbook could be a totally separate picture/coffee table book—it tells the life story of Caesar Lucchesi’s family in pictures. It reinforces the stories that Gelsomina so poignantly shares.
Q: Is there going to be a sequel?
There sure is enough historical material to do that. Perhaps from a man’s point of view, I’ve got a title ready--- Caesar’s Story of Gelsomina Andreini Lucchesi.
Q: How can a person buy the book, Gelsomina’s Story of Caesar Lucchesi?
It is available on the web: www.TheLucchesiStory.com