Family marks 50 years of Fourth of July gatherings

Janice Vella, middle, with her granddaughter Sabrina Vella, and friend Tannea Nelson as they watch the Independence Day Parade with family in Modesto, Calif., on Friday, July 4, 2014.
Janice Vella, middle, with her granddaughter Sabrina Vella, and friend Tannea Nelson as they watch the Independence Day Parade with family in Modesto, Calif., on Friday, July 4, 2014. aalfaro@modbee.com

Modesto’s Fourth of July parade marked its 140th year on Friday. And for the past 50 of those years, members of the Vella-Ferrini family have been on the sidewalks cheering on the veterans, dignitaries, marching bands and others who roll or stroll the downtown route.

The matriarch of the group is Janice Vella, 70, whose history with the parade goes back even farther than 50 years. “I used to come to the parade when I was a little girl, long ago,” she recalled. Her parents were Aldo and Thelma Ferrini, and her dad owned and operated Ferrini Brothers Candy and Tobacco, a wholesaler, from 1936 to 1972.

But the uninterrupted tradition of family and friends gathering for the parade, heading their own way afterward and then meeting up again for fun, food and fireworks in the afternoon began in July 1964. “They bought a house in Modesto on Madrone, and moved in on July 1,” Vella said. When the Fourth came around, “they were still unpacking all the dishes and pots and pans. But all of the cousins came to the parade and then went back to the house and went swimming and had sandwiches.” Later in the day, the group had a barbecue, and then went to a fireworks stand, where people chipped in to end the holiday with a bang.

That set the template for a tradition that hit its 50th year Friday, Vella said. The Madrone Drive home now is occupied by Vella’s cousin Susie Wiens, who was in her mother’s “tummy” back in ’64, so in a way is marking her 50th year at the gathering, too. Folks still meet at the parade – Vella and others were out setting up their spots before dawn – go their separate ways for a while and then gather on Madrone to swim, eat (homemade ice cream always is a hit), visit and light those fireworks. The group picks a booth to support each year, and this time bought from the Gregori High School music department.

Looking around her at the parade, Vella counted 25 family members and friends, and figured another five or six would be joining the group later in the day at the house. She pointed out a “daughter by love,” then elaborated: “I have no children, but I have all these children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren by love.”

Most are locals, but the number included folks from Oakland and Oakley and as far as North Carolina. Those East Coasters are the parents of Josh Johnson, who’s lived in Modesto four years. His parents came out to visit from Raleigh two years ago, were invited to the holiday gathering and were hooked, he said. “They come out here specifically for the parade. I’m dead serious,” Johnson said.

The number swells and ebbs from year to year – Vella and Wiens estimate the greatest turnout has been 40 to 45 – and some of the names and faces change, of course. For example, cousin Ron Freitas, 80, was at the 1964 gathering and many since, but couldn’t come this year, Vella said.

The presence of younger generations should ensure the gatherings keep going for some time, she said, but the older generations get just as excited. “I’m probably the biggest kid here,” Vella said, wearing a stars-and-stripes top, a glittery “USA” sticker on her face, and waving a flag steadily as the parade passed.

“The parade, we say, is the equivalent of the Rose Parade,” she said, “and the fireworks are the equivalent of being in New York. We have great imaginations.”

Wiens has been the hostess at the Madrone house since she moved in 15 years ago. She doesn’t mind the work that comes with the role; everyone’s great about pitching in for the potluck meal and cleaning up when the night comes to an end. “I just love the tradition,” she said. “As long as we can keep it going, we’ll keep it going.”