One hundred years ago today, on August 20, 1917, my great-aunt Dorothy Anna Ardisson was born in her parents’ second-floor apartment in Jeannette, Pennsylvania. She was the first child and only daughter of John Ardisson and his wife, Maria Julia Oswald, and was the oldest grandchild of her Oswald grandparents (Anton and Mary Adamic Oswald, immigrants from Slovenia) and second grandchild1 of her Ardisson grandparents (Stefano/Étienne/Steve and Maria Silva Ardisson, immigrants from Italy). The nations of old Europe were then still locked in the terrible combat of the Great War, which the United States had entered on the side of the Allies2 only a few months prior (April 6th).
Aunt Dorothy (about whom I have already written once this year, for Women’s History Month) inherited the determination of her parents. She attended high school, graduating with high honors, even though her father thought girls did not need a high school education. Early in her life, she had decided she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up; she finished nursing school at St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing just in time for the start of what we now call World War II, and she joined the US Army Nurse Corps. After a few stateside postings (including at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC), she and a few fellow nurses decided they wanted to see more action and sought transfers to a unit being shipped overseas. There, she worked in a field hospital near Oran, Algeria, during the invasion of North Africa, helping in the civilized world’s fight against Nazis and Fascists.
After the war, Aunt Dorothy took advantage of the GI Bill and obtained a BS in Nursing Education from the University of Pittsburgh (later on, she also obtained an MA in Education from the University of Michigan). She then took a head nurse position at Mount Carmel Mercy Hospital in Detroit, where she was responsible for training new nurses, and then served as a professor in the nursing department at Mercy College until her retirement. In her early years at Mercy, she shared an office with Kay Wenzel. At one point, both women needed new cars, and Aunt Dorothy had a house but needed living room furniture, while Kay had furniture and needed a new place to live. To save money, the officemates became housemates, and then lifelong best friends, as a two-year arrangement continued for several years, and then off-and-on again until Kay’s death nearly half a century later. During those many years, Aunt Dorothy also welcomed her nieces and nephews to Michigan each summer for a week of fun and family, and she continued travelling the country (visiting all 50 states) and the world—including a trip “back” to Baldissero Canavese, the village north of Turin from which her Italian grandparents had emigrated at the end of the nineteenth century.
Because I lived in Georgia and Aunt Dorothy lived in Michigan for most of the years we shared on this earth, I didn’t see her very often or know her very well. Still, she would send a card at Christmas and on my birthday, and sometimes a small gift or bit of knowledge. Aunt Dorothy was not responsible for my love of genealogy—I had always been curious about the world and where I was “from”—but she was most definitely responsible for much of my success in it. The Christmas I was 12, she sent me a genealogy workbook, into which she had inserted, between the relevant pages, handwritten notes about her parents and grandparents. While I was young, I did not work in earnest on the book, but I did enough to keep filling in blanks and wanting to discover more. Later, Aunt Dorothy organized two Ardisson family reunions, started collecting and labeling various family pictures, and eventually started corresponding with a distant nephew in France, who in turn was in contact with Ardissone and Silva cousins in Italy, and she funneled each new discovery to me. When she moved back home to Pennsylvania after Kay died in 1997, I got to see Aunt Dorothy a bit more often, and we also continued to correspond with genealogy updates. On one particular family trip to Pennsylvania, she and my grandfather took me around to the various cemeteries in Export, Delmont, and Denmark Manor where their parents and grandparents are buried, ensuring someone would know where to find them in the years to come.
Ardisson Family Thanksgiving, Murrysville, PA, November 22, 2007
This is the last picture I have of Aunt Dorothy (seated, middle), when we brought her over to my grandparents’ house for a family Thanksgiving in 2007.
Like all people, eventually age caught up with Aunt Dorothy, and she passed away on August 15, 2009, five days before her 92nd birthday, leaving behind a legacy as a much-loved educator, friend, daughter, sister, aunt, and great-aunt. In those 91 years and 360 days, she lived and worked as a single woman, carving her own path in a world which for many of those years was not quite ready for the idea of an unmarried career woman, and served as a quiet example to those of us who knew and loved her.
She continues giving gifts even now. In the past few days, I came into possession of the trunk Aunt Dorothy’s grandmother Maria Silva Ardisson brought with her when she came over from Italy; among the items found inside was a framed Steve Ardisson family portrait, circa 1919 (above). My parents and I could identify about half of the people in the photo, but the other half were a mystery (we had guesses, but some turned out to be wildly incorrect). As I searched through my files, I found that after one of my visits, Aunt Dorothy had sent me high-quality photocopies of a handful of significant family photos, including that one, and she had sent along a sheet of captions, making it possible to correctly identify everyone from now until the picture ceases to exist. Thank you, Aunt Dorothy, for all you have done for the world and the Ardisson/Silva/Oswald families, and happy 100th birthday! ♥