The following story about the life of centenarian Mary Banal Seppi is reprinted with permission from Jean Cole, editor of Home Town Focus, a weekly publication headquartered in Virginia, MN
Mary Banal Seppi of Buhl: This Italian immigrant loves life at 100 years old
By Jean Cole, HTF Editor
After hundreds of guests had offered their birthday wishes to 100-year old Mary Seppi at the Buhl Senior Center last Sunday, it was time for something particularly special. Everyone had eaten by this time, and the mingling and visiting of friends and family was nearly complete. Buhl's Mayor Craig Pulford had presented Mary with the key to the city. The Trentini Club gave her a gift of 100 gold dollar coins. ("Oh, wow!" Mary said.) The card box was full, the birthday cakes ravished. The air still resonated with the lingering tones of "That's Amore," performed by Virginia's I Cantatori singing group. It had been a joyful celebration of the 100th birthday of a special lady, an Italian immigrant at age 4, from this small Iron Range community.
A spoon was tapped on the side of a cup to gather the attention of everyone, and Maria Seppi-Atanasio took the microphone and the stage. "I'm going to sing a song for my grandmother," she announced, and the room hushed. "Grandma," she said, looking into Mary's eyes, "This is for YOU." And Maria sang "You Light Up My Life," a Grammy and Academy Award winning ballad written by Joe Brooks.
Her voice clear and strong, her words full of love and gratitude, Maria sang. A few of the lines were personalized. Never taking her eyes off her grandmother, when she got to the soaring "you give me hope, to carry on" - well, I was overcome, set down my camera, and cried. The grandparents of my children are long deceased. It makes me sad to think of that. So, that's one reason I cried, but I would have cried anyway - happy tears. Like the kind you cry when a baby is born, or when you attend a marriage. I saw others dabbing at their happy tears for this centenarian and
her family, so fortunate to have shared her life this long.
It was a more-than-lovely ending to the afternoon.
* * * *
I met Mary Banal Seppi only days before the birthday party. One of our readers from Hibbing, Jim Jurkovich, called me and suggested Mary might be a good subject for a story. Liking the idea, I called Mary and was invited for coffee and a visit at her home. Mary and her daughter, LoRetta, graciously shared many stories and answered many of my questions. But how can one capture 100 years in a mere couple of hours? Impossible. But I was given a sense of who Mary is, the specialness of her character, and the incredibly interesting life she has led.
* * * *
Mary's father, Enrico Banal, came to America in the early 1900s from Lavis, Italy. He left behind his pregnant wife, Erminia, and young son, Oreste. Times were tough. He and his wife had lost two little boys to illness and jobs were scarce. He worked for a time in Colorado, then in Ohio where he had a brother-in-law. Working in a coal mine, he earned enough money to send for Erminia and Mary, the little daughter he had never seen, in 1914. Their son remained in Italy to stay with his grandfather, who said he would die if they took his grandson away.
Though she was only four years old, Mary remembers the trip across the Atlantic with her mother. "I remember that people were sick," she said. Seeing people hanging their heads over the side of the ship, she asked her mother what they were doing. "She told me they were sick from the sea," Mary said. Mary herself didn't suffer from the seasickness. At Ellis Island, her memories are of great crowds of people, and tightly holding her mother's hand as they went
through lines to receive their shots and papers.
A train took them to Ohio for a reunion with Enrico. Two years later, in 1916, the family moved to Buhl, where they built a home. Mary's brother Oreste, who had remained in Italy, eventually joined them in Buhl after the death of his grandfather. Enrico worked for the Grant underground mine track gang, for one dollar a day, until an unfortunate accident. He was using a pick and shovel to break up rock, and a chip flew up and hit him in the eye, which he lost. He got a glass eye, and every day it was young Mary's job to assist her father in the cleansing and insertion of it. No longer able to work for the mining company, Enrico became a janitor at the Buhl school.
It was a difficult time on the Iron Range and families did what they must to make ends meet. As a young girl, Mary's responsibilities were great, and hard work was required. Her mother took in boarders, and Mary helped with their meal preparations and laundry before and after school. The family had chickens, cows, pigs and a large garden. "My father would take care of the animals when he came home from work," Mary said. I try to imagine a man who comes home from swinging a pick ax against iron ore rock in an underground mine all day, only to face more chores when he gets home. Mary would get up early to milk cows and deliver milk (ten cents a quart) and eggs to customers before she went to school. "Sometimes it was so cold, the milk would freeze and push the bottle caps off," she said. When things got a little better financially, the family was able to buy a horse and wagon, which made that chore of delivering milk and eggs much easier.
She also remembers delivering moonshine, in a baby buggy, late in the evening. "I didn't want to do it, I knew it was illegal, I was uncomfortable," she said. "But I knew I had to do it." And she shrugs, as though there are just things in life one must do, like it or not. Eventually, her father was arrested for the moonshine, and spent several months in jail in Grand Rapids. "He was so displeased with the food there," Mary recalls. "We had to bring him food every day."
While a great deal of hard work was the rule of the day, Mary remembers many simple pleasures during those times as well. As a child she played hopscotch and baseball, and loved to ice skate at the open rink by the school. There was a theater in Buhl then. "My mother would give me a dime to go to the movie. It was the most delightful thing, really. You could get a Holloway sucker that would last the whole movie." Blueberry picking outings were turned into picnics, and “the food tasted so good then." Mary left school after completing the 8th grade, for her mother needed help with the younger children. "She wanted to be a doctor," said daughter LoRetta. "And in fact, she did deliver a baby once. Whenever anyone got hurt, they came to see Mom, and she took care of them."
Traveling salesmen were common in those days, and sold goods not available at the local general store. They sold cloth, wall pictures, and tent medicines. Mary's mother would often barter an extra piece of cloth for a meal. She made all her own dresses and aprons and many other items. She never bought the medicines, as she made her own. As fate would have it, Mary eventually married a traveling salesman who sold men's suits. As Mary's daughter LoRetta tells it, "Mother was darning socks when he came to the door, and he thought to himself, 'She must be a pretty good woman if she's darning socks.'" It's not surprising that the two would fall in love, with their common backgrounds. Ernesto Seppi was also an immigrant from the Trento region of Italy and the little town of Seio. They were married in 1934; Mary was 24 years old. Ernesto worked on WPA projects, for the county, and eventually for the Hanna Mining Co., for whom he did painting and interior decorating of company homes. The couple had three children: LoRetta, Ernest (Larry) and Richard. Today there are six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Mary and Ernesto had a busy and happy life together. Mary continued to practice many of the skills she had learned from her mother – gardening (even winning awards at the St. Louis County Fair), sewing, knitting, crocheting, cooking. They made wine, loved to fish, and were avid curlers for many years. Mary collected and sold antiques. The couple opened a store, the Seppi Off Sale and Grocery in Buhl, which they operated for five years, then sold. "We earned enough money to go to Italy," said Mary. It was their dream, finally fulfilled, in 1964. It was a huge milestone for them: retirement, a 30-year wedding anniversary, a return to their homeland and, for Ernesto, reuniting with his three siblings he hadn't seen in 42 years.
Mary kept a daily journal for the three and a half months she and Ernesto were in Italy. I was allowed to take the journal home and read it. Mary's attention to detail, her inquisitive mind, and her love of adventure radiated from the pages of the book. She wanted to make sure that nothing about that most important journey was forgotten. Days after reading the journal, I found myself thinking about certain passages: When they got off the boat and Ernest sees his sisters for the first time in 42 years, and everyone sobs. When they arrive at brother Ferdinand's home and the two men embrace, last known to each other as boys. When Mary and Ernesto buy gold bands inscribed with each other's name for their 30th anniversary from a small jewelry shop in Fondo. When they sleep in Mary's grandparents' bedroom, where her own mother had been born. When they go to Rome and see the Pope, and experience a deep feeling of grace.
I asked Mary if there was a period of her life she could repeat, what would it be? And she said, "Going back to Italy the first time with Ernest...I was so excited for him, and I didn't know what to expect." Her last journal entry, Nov. 18, 1964: "As I look back at the last three and a half months, at times it doesn't even seem possible that Ernest and I were on the long journey that we have yearned and hoped for so many years!!! For both of us it was one of the happiest times of our lives, in the thirty years of blissful marriage!! No one knows how grateful I am that Ernest and I could take this trip together! I assure you, that I appreciate every moment of it. In gratitude, I prayed and thanked God for this wonderful opportunity that was granted to us, that we could see again the land of our birth, the birthplace of our parents and ancestors!" In 1970, six years after their trip to Italy, Ernest passed away. Mary has now lived longer without Ernest than she lived with him. She has returned to Trento in Italy 10 times, and is planning another trip in her 100th year. I asked Mary which feels more like home to her - Italy, or Buhl? "Buhl is my home," she said. "It is wonderful to visit my homeland, and I enjoy every moment of it, but the best part of going away is coming home." How has she lived so healthfully and long? She shrugs, as though there really is no answer, and she is somewhat amazed herself. "I can't believe it, really," she said. "It's a whole century! Wow!"
Her life has encompassed almost everything that can be fit into a person's time on earth: hardship and bad luck, good luck, love, strong family, friends, and faith. She doesn't dwell on the hardships. She's matter-of-fact about it all. "It didn't seem so hard...you accepted it." Her Catholic faith has been a cornerstone for her. "It means everything," she said. "When in need, where do you turn? When you are grateful, you thank Him. When you reach a destination after traveling, you thank Him no matter how far you were going. When you first awaken in the morning, you thank God for another beautiful day. My religion is comforting and very meaningful," she said.
At her birthday party, Mayor Pulford said, "She's like an 18-year-old when she zips down the aisle at church every Sunday" at the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church. "She's very special," he said, and reflected that she represents much of what we've lost in today's society. "We've lost scruples and common sense," he said. "But not that lady." I asked Mary if there were anything she missed from those difficult times when she was a young woman - the "yesteryears." She thought for just a few seconds and said, "People used to have time to visit, and help one another. Now people are too busy - sitting in front of their TVs." She said it's become a confusing world, where with all the modern conveniences "all your work is done for you" yet people are still so busy. Mary's greatest reward for living so long is, "To be healthy and able to enjoy my life and to see all my grandchildren grow up to be wonderful young men and women."
And she has advice for anyone who might be interested in the wisdom of a 100- year old: "Walk the straight and narrow path...don't stray from it. Where there is a need, and if you can - help. And, if you can't say something good about someone, don't say anything at all."