No Nickel, No Coal

EIGHTInspired by my grandmother’s strength, intelligence, beauty and independence, I wrote this short biographical sketch of her life. She was a woman like no other, one who remained strong and courageous, despite the early deaths of her parents. She dealt with twelve siblings, an unhappy move from her hometown, fifty plus years of marriage, two children, nine grandchildren and several health issues.

If you take one thing away from her story, let it be this: Cherish your loved ones. Always.


    A little girl with short, dark, curly hair trudged down the street pulling a cartload of coal behind her. There was only one thing on this five year old’s mind and it wasn’t physical labor. She would do anything for a nickel that she hoped this chore would bring her. This little girl loved chocolate and when she thought of that round silver piece, she envisioned the piece of chocolate it would get her.

     Reaching her sister-in-law’s place, she heard, “Oh, good, you have my coal,” from a voice on the second floor.

     “And do you have a nickel?” asked the little girl.

     “No,” replied the sister-in-law.

     “Okay, no nickel, no coal,” said the little girl, turning and lugging the cartload of coal all the way back.

     Ask the grown up girl today about that long ago day and she’ll laugh and say she must have been crazy for lugging that heavy coal back. But she wasn’t going to leave that coal there without getting her nickel.

     Laura Patricia Lanzara celebrates her birthday on September 6th, though her birth certificate reads that she was born on September 7th in 1916. She doesn’t know for sure and her ten older brothers never clarified this mix-up. All they said was they were told to go out for the day and when they came back, Laura was born. Her older sister, Fanny, was no help either because she was married at that time and had children of her own. 

     Laura and her twelve siblings were raised in a middle class neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Clifton Avenue was filled with good Italian people including Susan Aquino and Michael Lanzara who came over to the United States from Italy after having their first child, Fanny. A devoted Catholic couple, they raised all their children with a strong sense of right and wrong and they treated everyone with decency and respect. Laura says her mother was a saint and got along with everybody. Working as a stonecutter, Laura’s father supported his large family financially and was always there when they needed him.

     The Lanzara family was rich in closeness and support, but they lacked material possessions. Laura’s father bought her new shoes but she endured the “old lady” hand me down dresses that friends of the family gave her. She also did without dolls and toys. Instead, she spent her first years helping her mother with household chores and went to the grocery store to get whatever she needed.

     Vicki, Laura’s younger sister, and the last Lanzara child, was born two years after Laura. Two years later, on the morning after Christmas, Laura’s mother lay in bed, failing to catch her breath. While Laura watched, her mother died of a heart attack at the young age of forty nine.

    Left without a mother, Laura took over the role of mother-figure at age six. Since her father worked, Laura did most of the cooking and cleaning. She also cared for Vicki. One thing that Vicki remembers and is still amazed by, is Laura’s strength and devotion at such a tender age. Vicki says of Laura, “She was my protector, my best friend. She took care of me at a very young age when she needed somebody to look after her.”

     When Laura was six and Vicki was four, they would leave the house and Laura would lead her cute little sister to the grocery store to buy bread, eggs and milk. Other times they would travel farther away and visit old neighbors. Laura did most of the talking because Vicki was very shy. One day, a strange man approached them and, sensing danger, Laura grabbed Vicki’s hand and ran across the street to safety. It was up to her to protect herself and her sister.

     There was always laughter in their family. Over half their brothers were married and out of the house, but the few who remained used to scare Laura and Vicki for fun. Andy, always the jokester, used to hide in the closet and jump out and scare Laura as soon as she was in bed. Sometimes he would tease Laura by telling her the brownies she baked were horrible but then he’d smile and eat three more.

     Laura loved all her brothers but shared a special bond with her father. She remembers her handsome and energetic dad getting up early some mornings to make his children beef stew or potatoes and eggs for breakfast. He did everything he could for his family and Laura loves to think of those days she shared with him.

     Like all children, Laura had a dream. “I wanted to be a movie star,” she says. She loved going to the movies and wished she looked like the beautiful and glamorous actresses on the big screen. She had a huge crush on Clark Gable, whom she says was “sexy.” One of her favorite hobbies was to send away for signed movie star pictures and she cherished her large collection. She also loved books and was a bright student. She regrets never going to high school, but at that time it wasn’t possible because of her responsibility to her family.

     But she was proud to be one of the fifty five eighth grade students who graduated from Franklin Avenue School on Wednesday June 25 in 1930. She was awarded her diploma and for this brief time, felt alive and free.

     Tragedy struck the Lanzara family again in March of 1931 when Laura was fifteen. She remembers watching her father as he lay in bed. “He couldn’t talk and he couldn’t breathe,” she says. Laura lost her beloved father to emphysema and that was the time she knew that “life stinks.” Both of her parents were gone along with any remains of her childhood. Laura was all grown up at an age where she should’ve been carefree and in love with life. 


     Laura thinks of herself as even-natured. “I don’t look for trouble,” she says. She was never bashful and she talked to anyone who talked to her. She didn’t fear loneliness but loved solitude.

     Another favorite pastime was taking long walks and she owed her slim figure to this exercise. She walked to stores, her friend’s house, the movie theater, many times by herself and in any weather. When everyone else went out at night, she remained home and listened to radio shows, especially scary ones like “The Shadow.” As a child, I teased her about Wolfman but she’d just laugh.

    “Grandma, aren’t you afraid Wolfman will get you?”

    “No,” she’d reply. “If he gets me, he can have me. Let him eat me.”


     Laura was always fond of animals and one year her family bought a little chick. She treated it like a pet dog and it began to act like one, following everyone around, especially her. One day the chick was on the heels of Laura’s sister-in-law, and without realizing it was there, she let the screen door shut behind her. The chick’s leg got caught in the door and, horrified, Laura quickly made a little splint for it. Although her brothers laughed at her, Laura ignored them and tended to her little friend. 

     The chick grew up strong and healthy under Laura’s care. Quickly spoiled, it learned to perch on Laura’s shoulder. But, knowing it was too big and messy, Laura sadly brought it to a chicken market. A few days later, Laura went back to the market to visit her friend and the man there asked her, “What kind of a chicken did you bring me?” Apparently while the man was working, Laura’s pet would fly onto his shoulders to rest, nearly scaring him to death. Laura laughs to this day about her unique chicken. 

     Later in her teenage years, Laura began to date but she didn’t have a lot of boyfriends because she didn’t want them. She enjoyed going out but she also liked her solitude. She was appealing to boys not only for her dark, curly hair, bright smile and tall, slim figure, but because of her indifference to them. She could take them or leave them.

     She went on a blind date once and describes him as “An octopus in the backseat.” She struggled with him the entire night and at the end of the date the “octopus” wanted to know if he could see her again. She told him, “If I never see you again, it will be too soon.” She still laughs about his reply, “Well, can I call you?”

     Finally, Laura met a man who captured her interest. She was visiting Fanny and her nephew introduced her to Anthony Cassese. Tony was seven years older than Laura, but the age difference didn’t stop their friendship from turning into romance. Tony was an optometrist and a dreamer. He wanted to travel, to find a place for himself that wasn’t New Jersey. Laura didn’t share his dream but overlooked this difference and loved him anyway.

     In 1940, when Laura was twenty three, Tony asked her to marry him. They married secretly in Irvington New Jersey on June 17th. The only two witnesses in their quick ceremony were friends Rosario Marcheroni and Henry Bosset. Wanting time to earn money and buy things needed for their new life together, Laura and Tony kept their secret from family and lived apart for six months. 

     However, as practicing Catholics, they decided to tie the knot a second time in Sacred Heart Catholic Church on December 7th in 1940. Their union was blessed by the Church and God. Laura received a second wedding ring and she and Tony were ready to begin their life together as husband and wife. 

     To Laura’s dismay, her new husband decided to follow his dream and travel across the country to California where he believed a better life was waiting for them. Laura gritted her teeth and followed him but hated every minute of the long car ride, eating in cheap restaurants and sleeping in motel rooms. When Tony decided to leave California after a mere week, Laura considered leaving him.

     But they traveled back home together and on April 19th in 1944, Irene Victoria was born. Janice Susan followed on August 20th in 1946. Janice’s arrival gave Laura a test of strength because Janice was born with only a fifty percent chance of survival. Janice’s blood conflicted with Laura’s, a condition known as RH Factor. Laura left the hospital without her daughter but prayed and kept her faith and Janice survived.

     Laura stayed home and raised her two girls, even though a second income was needed for their family. But Laura refused to let anyone else raise her children and she says, “I wouldn’t trust anybody with my girls.” When the girls were older, Laura finally went back to work as a cashier in Kress Five and Dime and later she sold (and ate) chocolate in Fanny Farmer.

     Unhappiness struck Laura again when Tony decided to move his family to Washington D.C. Laura did not want to leave her life in New Jersey but she and the girls moved with Tony to the city. Two years later, they moved to Maryland where they remained. 

     Laura missed her family, especially Vicki, but they visited each other often. Laura and the girls rode the bus to New Jersey frequently. She wanted her daughters to know and appreciate their family.

     Laura’s role as a mother was the most important one in her life. She was happy raising her girls, teaching them, playing with them, taking them shopping and to the movies. They learned everything Laura believed in–God, honesty, hard work, decency, family values and her strong belief in human nature.

     She was an overprotective mom and took charge of the discipline but her girls loved and respected her. Laura was strict to the point where people would comment on how well behaved her children were. Laura never laid a hand on them because she had “the look.” Janice remembers, “All she had to do was look at us and we became statues.”

     Mother, wife, friend, hostess, cook, nurse and helper were several of the roles Laura played in her life and she loved them all. Laura and Tony were a normal, moderately happy couple. They had a traditional family and got along fairly well. There were a lot of quiet periods in their marriage because they had more differences between them than they originally realized. Plus, their personalities clashed. Laura always spoke her mind, much to her husband’s dislike. However, they shared duties, had mutual respect and neither one ruled over the other. Their marriage lasted nearly fifty one years. Tony passed away on November 19th in 1991.

     One of Laura’s favorite roles was grandmother. Irene had seven children, Janice had two and Laura loved every minute with all nine of her grandchildren. She wasn’t a rocking chair kind of grandma but an active babysitter, teacher and helper in any way she could. She gave her daughters advice when asked and calmed them when things got crazy. She would tell them, “Cherish your children.”

     Laura’s grandchildren adored their fun grandmother. Always a cook and baker, they never knew hunger and demolished her hot lunches, fried bread, chocolate chip cookies and lasagna. She baked a special cake for every grandchild’s birthday and taught each child to always keep your faith and show strength. I remember her telling me, “Speak your mind. Stand up for yourself.”

     Laura now resides in a small apartment close to her family. But she’s happy about living alone now. She says, “I love to be all by myself. I can do anything I want, when I want.” But she spends most of her time with family and friends. 

     Laura survived the deaths of her parents, a move away from her hometown and family, eight surgeries and she can tell you when it’s going to rain by the pain in her feet. But most of all, she’s still beautiful, loving and caring. Still strong, independent and inspiring. Every time she talks to one of us on the phone, she ends the call with, “I love you.”

     Love you too, Gram. 


     –By Patricia Kirsch


















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