A lot of good folks from old Sopris town, their homes inundated by the deep waters of the Trinidad Dam, relocated in Trinidad. Mary Zancanaro is one of them. I clearly remember Miss Mary from my school days at Lincoln High. She was our hot lunch cook, and, in my opinion, the best cook in the whole wide world. Mary had unquestionably attained a high status amongst the student body of Lincoln
School. She certainly was grandiose in my eyes. A few of us would sneak down
into the lunchroom in the school basement, during recess or class breaks, to badger
the world's greatest cook into providing us with delicious pastries and spectacular
home baked cakes and pies that would make a pet rock salivate. Mary always
succumbed. She was always a pushover for our hungry, begging eyes.
Mary was born in Sopris in 1903. Mom and dad were Frank and Mattia Diatti. The Diatti's emigrated from Italy.to Louisiana where Frank worked in the cane fields cutting, you got it, sugar cane. The first child born to the Diatti family was Nance, or 'Charlie' as he was referred to by his closest friends. Frank and Mattia
decided that cutting sugar cane was not conducive to their good health, or to earning a good living, so they moved on to the wild and woolywest, on to Sopris where there was plenty of work in the coal mines and the coke ovens. With 'Charlie' in tow, Frank took a job at the coke ovens. In his spare time, he nurtured a small garden from which he harvested vegetables that he peddled in Segundo and Valdez, two smaller coal camps near the foot of the Sangre de Cristo's. And here they settled down and nurtured three more children. Mary was born after Nance. Then came Margaret, and Bessie,and then Frank. All were born and reared in Sopris, at least for a while. When Mary was a tender eight years of age, the family moved again, this time to Madrid. They purchased a small ten-acre parcel, on top of the hill beyond the little Catholic Church, just a stone's throw south of Highway 12. To this very day, the old church is still there!
"Dad worked as an operator in the coke ovens in Sopris for several years,"
explained an articulate and highly lucid Mary. "He worked the ovens and worked
long hours in the garden. We had to help him in the garden and tie the harvested
vegetables in bundles that he hauled off to sell up the river. To make things go, I had to work in the garden and take care of the house too."
Mary had some time for school, too. She attended the Madrid grade school
through the sixth grade. Dad was killed in 1916 when Mary was a mere thirteen
years old. Papa Frank was raking a field of alfalfa on his little ten-acre farm on a
mechanism pulled by a horse when, suddenly, a passing train inadvertently blasted
its warning whistle. The horse pulling the rake spooked, and papa Frank fell off the
machine and was impaled by the rake. A fork on the rake penetrated his stomach,
protruding through his back. A most traumatic experience for Mary and her family.
Times were bad, but now ... The fami ly breadwinner was gone. Mom took Mary out of school, for she now was the key homemaker for the family. She had to help care for the farm, and the house and garden, and all the rest of the kids.
The next two years were hard-really hard, and then she met Angelo. She was a mere fifteen. Back in those days, it was the parents who would make suggestions or decide who their daughters should marry, and Angelo was a nice guy. He came to America from northern Italy in 1921 to work the coal mines and make a lot of money. And so he found his way to Sopris. Like many of the immigrants of that day, he wanted to work in the mines and earn a bundle of cash to take back to his family in Italy. Unfortunately, Angelo never did make it back.
"Mom had a friend in Sopris and Angelo was visiting Mom's friend." said a pensive Mary. "She had some friends over for dinner one Sunday at the Majeries.
Ms. Majerie said he was a nice man and I ought to marry him. She talked to Mom
and Dad about him. I talked to him and I talked to Mom and Dad too. They really
liked him, so we got married. It was pretty quick."
And quick it surely was. Just two months after Mary met Angelo, they wed. It was a good match, and mom and dad liked it. The relationship worked well, albeit there were some hard financial times with five kids to nurture. There was Jane, Grace, Louis, John, and Marlene, in that order. All the kids live close by, except for Louis, who lives in California, and John, who currently resides in Chicago.
The Zancanaro's did not have a lot of money, but back in those days, it really didn't matter. They had each other. Angelo worked hard to care for his family, in the coal mine in Sopris, and on the small ten acre spread in Madrid. Then he was stricken with illness, and had to have his ulcers and gallbladder removed. That ended his tenure in the coal mine. All of this occurred during the Great Depression. He took employment with Franklin D. Roosevelt's noble democratic experiment, working a year or so in 1930 with the Works Projects Administration, and ultimately, at the age of twenty-five, he was hired as the custodian at the Lincoln
High School in Sopris. Mary would often help him sweep and clean the school
buildings, for he alone was in charge of this monumental task, meager salary and all. Angelo retired from his custodian job in 1960, after eighteen years of work as a
custodian, with a monthly retirement of $200.00 dollars a month. So Mary took a
job to supplement the family income. She was hired as a cook for the hot lunch
program at Lincoln High School in 1943, for the princely sum of$3.50 a week. Her
wages were eventually increased to $7.00 a week, then to a gratuitous $9.00. When
the school ceased its operations in 1963, and as the construction of the Trinidad
Dam uprooted the lives of the residents of Sopris forever, she retired. Her wages by
then had increased to $13.50 a week.
"It was a hard time, and a hard job," mused Mary. "The wages of a janitor were not too good, so I had to work to supplement his income. There were two of us who had to cook for one-hundred fifty kids. We did everything; cooked all our own food. We washed the dishes with the help of some of the kids, baked our own bread, made our own noodles and stew. But there were good times too. The kids were great. I would sneak freshly baked cakes and pies to them. And we had the family."
In 1969, the Zancanoros moved to Arizona Street in Trinidad. "They had to chase us out," said Mary. "We hated to leave Sopris, but the government bought
all those houses and we had to go."
Angelo passed away in 1979. I remember Angelo well, too. He was our counselor and therapist at old Lincoln High. The only one! And after Angelo passed on, the always enterprising Mary just kept on truckin. At ninety-three years young, her work ethic remains undiminished. She cooks Sunday spaghetti dinners for all her kin. Dick and Frank Modica and their families are perpetual dinner guests. So are Dick and Shirley Compton and their three girls. Mary is elated to have them with her. She doesn't mind the cooking, and neither does her family. In her spare time, during the warm summer months, she prunes her beloved flower
garden and mows her lawn. During the frigid depths of winter, she can be seen out
on her frozen sidewalks, shoveling snow.
"My flowers are my pride and joy," confided Mary. "I love being out there
working in the yard."
And, yes folks, at ninety-three, the best is yet to be. And should you some time drive by her home on Arizona Street in good old Trinidad in the summertime,
there she'll be, mowing her immaculate lawn, and pruning her beloved flowers.
Life is still good for little Mary Zancanaro.