There are welcoming twinkling lights strung through the trees on the front lawn and the door is always open to friends and family at the downtown home of Maria Sisca.
Sisca—born Maria Caroline Spizzirro—is the matriarch of two of the oldest families in Harrison and welcomes children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces through her door at all hours of the day and evening. Locals stop to speak with her when she sits outdoors and the young children in the family love to sit and hear her stories.
On August 26, after more than eight decades of living in Harrison, Sisca will celebrate her 100th birthday surrounded by 200 family members and friends.
Sisca was born in New York City in 1911. As a young child she went with her parents to visit family in Italy, when the war broke out during their stay, making a return to the United States impossible. Sisca spent her subsequent childhood in Italy dealing with war life, food lines and living on rations.
At 17, she returned to the U.S. to live with her brother, who had settled in Harrison. Her family—under the name of Sansone—was already well established in the area and went on to build and run the well-known Walter’s hot dog business in Mamaroneck.
Sisca remembers finding Harrison to be a scenic quiet country town.
“I remember seeing the town for the first time and it was just so beautiful,” Sisca recalled. “Everything was peaceful and green, just like a picture.”
Everyone knew each other and few traveled outside the boundaries of Harrison and its surrounding towns with any frequency. There were gas lighters to light the street lamps on Halstead Avenue, children played ball on all the downtown streets and a wandering organ grinder entertained them on weekends.
Sisca worked as a seamstress for a garment company in Port Chester. She was paid the princely sum of 25 cents per finished garment and would bring work home at night after working long hours, so she could complete more garments. She earned $12 per week.
Sisca tailored many of her own clothes and those of her family. Her European style caused a buzz around town and people would run out to watch her walk to work and to St. Gregory’s Church in her high heels and elegant European-styled fashions.
In 1932, at the age of 20, Maria married Philip Sisca, whose family had settled in Harrison generations before. It was winter when they got engaged, and without a car, the pair walked from Port Chester to Stamford and back to pick out and bring back her wedding dress. Then began a happy 52-year marriage that ended with Philip’s death at age 84.
Philip Sisca was a builder, and as a gift to his wife he built the house in downtown Harrison that she lives in to this day.
“I remember he took me to an empty lot to give me a gift. There was nothing there but a big pile of dirt. I wanted to know why he would buy me a pile of dirt,” Sisca said.
That pile of dirt was worked room by room into the home they moved into in 1948, which has served as a gathering place for family holidays and celebrations ever since.
Though their subsequent life was set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the early death of family members and World War II, the resounding theme of their life was family and joy.
“It hasn’t been an easy life, but it has been a wonderful life,” Sisca said.
Sisca has two children, 10 grandchildren, 18 great grandchildren and local extended family in the hundreds. Her extended family includes well-known Harrison family names such as Straface, Briotte, Sansone and Silano.
Her family was interwoven with the public as well as the private life of town. Sisca’s nephew was on the Board of Education; her son was secretary to James Landis, one of the early town supervisors; and her great nephew, Phil Silano, currently serves on the Board of Education.
Her recipe for a long happy life includes moderation, movement, love of family, faith and continued optimism in the face of difficulty.
“I ate a little, drank a little wine, walked everywhere and did a lot of praying,” Sisca said.
In fact, Sisca continued to walk to St. Gregory’s several times each week until the age of 96.
Sisca’s only wish is to remain in her home, surrounded by the family she loves.
“I want to live in my home until my last days and be remembered as a good daughter, mother and grandmother,” she said.
That wish will be granted, as Sisca's daughter and son-in-law live in the family home to care for her.
At her upcoming birthday celebration, the family plans to make it clear just how she will be remembered, with 100 "thank-yous" being presented by children, grandchildren and family members as a special part of this very special celebration.
Editor's Note: The article has been changed to reflect the following correction: Sisca is Maria's married name. Her maiden name is Spizzirro. The previous article incorrectly stated her maiden and married names.