A retired professor of astronomy and astrophysics offers a fictionalized debut memoir about a young family’s holiday that becomes a love letter to Pittsburgh.
It’s 1977 and 5-year-old Jean Capriotti is adjusting to life since the birth of her brother Chris. Still the only girl in a family of five, she has sacrificed youngest child status. When her parents announce the clan will be spending Christmas with her grandparents on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Jean’s main concern is that Santa Claus will not find her, although her well-meaning parents, her father in particular, believe her concern is attributable to jealousy over her baby brother. Her father, the first-person narrator of the story, attempts to overcompensate, and his plans seem to go awry. But with the support of his wife, Carole, and three older sons, he manages to convince Jean they can leave their home near Columbus, Ohio, for the holiday. The family embarks on a harrowing journey from Ohio to the Pittsburgh area—a trip complicated by snow squalls and high winds that make driving the VW bus a challenge. The father distracts his family from the scary, cold drive by telling them stories of Pittsburgh’s history. Upon arrival, he wastes no time in going to the Saxon Inn, where he eagerly partakes of Iron City Beer and Old Overholt rye whiskey and runs into none other than Santa. Santa’s subsequent visit to Jean restores her faith in her father. Eugene R. Capriotti, a Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, native, captures the true essence of Pittsburgh—not just in the late ’70s, with its obsession with Steelers football, but with comments such as “Pittsburgh is the capital of Western Pennsylvania.” His loving descriptions of the food of his Italian family and his wife’s Slovak relatives, the unique terrain of western Pennsylvania, and the glorious entrance to the city via the parkway will ring true with those familiar with Pittsburgh, and should induce others to want to visit. The author also skillfully evokes late-’70s family life, including watching “Happy Days” on TV and sending children to catechism classes.
A short novelistic gem that delivers a time capsule of 1977 Ohio and western Pennsylvania.