|Words and photo by F LoBuono|
Stella is truly a child of what is known as The Great Depression.
Born in 1924, she was the eldest of four in a family of Sicilian immigrants. Her father, whom she adored, was a stone mason from San Salvatore di Fitalia, a small, Baroque village high in the mountains above Messina. When he came to New York as a young man he brought with him a skill that virtually doesn't exist in the States anymore: he did the fancy plaster-work friezes that adorn some of New York's most exclusive buildings. Ironically, despite the meager wages he earned in his day, they now say it's a dead art because it's just too expensive to reproduce today. And, he worked hard - very hard for his meager wages. My mother would regale us of stories of her father, coming home after a ridiculously long day with his underwear in a bag because he had sweat through them.
Even with all of his efforts, times where still lean. He had my grandmother, my mother, and her brothers and sisters to feed - a total of 6 mouths. Living in the Brooklyn home he had toiled so hard to buy, they struggled to get by. But, my grandfather and grandmother made sure that they were safe and fed. And, as is the tradition in Sicilian families, food is life, in every sense of the word. Meals may not have been fancy, but with my grandmother's skill as a cook and my grandfather's persistence as a laborer, they were always hardy and they NEVER went hungry. Still, there were many other of life's pleasures that were denied them.
One Christmas Eve at the height of the Depression, my grandfather, as the story is told by my mother, gathered the family together and said, "I'm sorry, my dear ones, but times are just too hard and we just can't afford a tree or gifts this year". Understanding, but, still, disappointed, the children went to bed. When they woke in the morning and made their way downstairs, much to their amazement, they found a Christmas tree, fully decorated in the living room. And, instead of presents UNDER the tree, pinned TO the tree were dollar bills - one for each of them.
When I saw her today and we discussed what plans we might make for the holidays she told me the story again and added this: "Frankie, to this day, it's the best Christmas present I've ever had". She's going to be 93.
Merry Christmas. All.
This all happened before I was born and my brother Charlie was still alive. My parents were happier then, even though money was tight., if barely existed. After Charlie was reported drowned, they changed, so Stella tells me. I didn't know them before this personal tragedy, but I do remember that we always had a tree, a live one, and celebrated Christmas in a big way with my aunt's family. When my father died, things again changed but my mother and I still had a Christmas tree and she and I decorated it together. The family has grown now including my parents' great, grand children and every Christmas that we all spend together is a treasure to store as memories.
Anna Maria Vitanza-Gagliardi
Prior to the depression they were far from poor. They had three children in the 20's and went from the village to Boro Park to Ave W where they purchased a house and I believe either bought or assisted in the purchase of his sister's house. Grandma said he was pulling in around 120 a week at that time and they were able to afford such luxuries as good furnishings and a player piano. He also had a used Packard. I don't know if you can remember, Chris Sheldon, but he did the arches and the crown and dental moldings and ceiling medallion s on Ave W. The walls were always oil painted and rag rolled. In the WPA years Grandpa worked in the Empire State Building and did stone work on one of the bridges that cross Coney Island Creek. I know he traveled out of State to get work at this time.
Frank J. Vitanza