Sometime in his 6th year, my father Giovanni came from Sicily to America. Over the sea, in a ship, accompanied by his mother (my Grandmother Stefanina), and his grandmother, (my Great Grandmother Virginina) they entered a foreign land through Ellis Island. Six years earlier, in 1923, his father (my Grandfather Mario, who we grew up calling Daddy Mario) preceeded his wife and infant son, immigrating to America and settled in Chicago. When Daddy Mario left Palermo, he was by trade a barber. The story goes to make extra money, he began cutting hair for his neighbors, including the women, in the one room “apartment” he’d rented in a small suburb outside the city of Chicago. After a variety of odd immigrant jobs, he took a big risk and opened a barber shop. Mind you, this was a rather risky venture for a young man who barely spoke any English and had few contacts in a country and a culture he was struggling to know. But the women were the ones who came for haircuts. They loved Mario, who was a dashing young man, who coiffed and permed and doted on them. By the late 1920’s he had saved up enough money to send for his family. Can you imagine spending six years away from your wife and only child? Once again the family was together and Mario’s business now thrived as Mario’s Beauty Shop. My father, of course grew up, met and married my mother and in the 1940’s they moved to southern California to settle and raise their family. Los Angeles was a long way from Chicago, and I don’t remember exactly how old I was, probably around 4, when I first met Daddy Mario and Grandma Stefanina, but I grew up hearing the stories of Mario’s Shop and all the women who were “in love” with Mario.
In 1962 when I was 10, Grandma Stefanina came by train to visit us in California. It had been many, many years since my father had been back to Chicago, and he decided he would drive Grandma back. I was the youngest of the four Lupo children and the “chosen one” to accompany Dad and Grandma to Chicago. We loaded up the Cadillac and hit the road, back then it was along the infamous Route 66. But the trip could not begin until Grandma had her hair done for the road trip. I remember her putting on her hair net each night as we settled into our hotel room so her hair would look the same in the morning. When we arrived in Oklahoma to visit cousins, the first thing we did was get her to a salon. There, her hair was washed and once again coiffed, and that was how it stayed for the remainder of the trip.
Finally, on a day of thunderstorms and humidity like I had never experienced, we arrived in Chicago. The house on North Nordica Ave was filled with VERY nice things, artwork, glassware, vases, a piano, a large television set, even jewelry and watches, and many other items. It turned out that many of these luxeries were gifts from Daddy Mario’s wealthy clients. On my third day in Chicago, Daddy Mario took me to the beauty shop with him, and Oh My God, that was an eye opener. These beautifully cut, dyed and permed women pranced in and out of that salon all day long. I lost track of the number of hugs and kisses, flirtations and gifts that Daddy Mario received throughout the few days I got to spend there with him. I never smelled so much hair spray, perm solution and perfume again in my life!
Daddy Mario outlived Grandma and even outlived his own son, my father. He continued making women beautiful until he was well into his 80’s, when he finally sold Mario’s to a young gay couple. Many of the women who were his customers in the early years, remained his customers until the day he retired. I’d guess that many of them, even still had the same hair style. When he died at 93, my mother attended his funeral in Chicago. Much to my dismay, I was not able to attend. The end to this story is best conveyed by the number of beautifully cut, dyed and permed women in their 80’s that were in attendance at Mario’s funeral, most of them in tears throughout. Daddy Mario’s wisdom of how to make beauty for who knows how many women in all those years is beyond my comprehension. What I know is that, whatever it was, he had the spirit.
And then there was the time…when he came to visit in California…I was about 7 years old with beautiful long wavy hair, that he CUT…SHORT, when my parents were at work, yikes, he ought not have done that!