Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Think You Have It Tough?

Our idea of "want" has changed over the years. Some people today feel deprived when they can't afford that third plasma TV, but it wasn't always that way. The ancestors, on whose shoulders we stand had it a lot tougher. For so many of them, "want" meant something to eat, or a coat to keep them warm. Those who lived through the Great Depression knew hardships most of us can only imagine. It would have been easy for them to just throw in the towel, after all, there were few jobs to be had, and unlike today the government wasn't giving away free money as fast as they could print it. They didn't quit though, instead they tightened their belts and found a way to get by. Here are a few "Now vs. Then" comparisons to illustrate:

We get impatient when our automated central heating or air conditioning systems don't make the house comfortable fast enough. My grandfather Pasquale got up before work every morning at 3:00 AM and walked along the Long Island Railroad tracks in Brooklyn picking up coal that had fallen off the railroad cars hauling it to the freight yards. He burned what coal he was able to gather in the coal stove to heat their cold-water flat on Dean Street. Grandpa worked as a steamfitter, a laborer laying sewer pipes, and finally for the old Brooklyn Union Gas Company before using the family's meager savings to invest in his own business, a hat shop and shoeshine parlor. Not only did Pasquale make a good living for himself, but created jobs for 5 or 6 people during the worst depression this country had ever seen.

For some modern women, their $50,000 kitchen is the least used room in the house. My grandmother Caterina , in between sewing linings in coats, baked bread and pasta, bottled tomato sauce, made and preserved sausage, made her own root beer and sarsaparilla, and even home brewed beer. She was not only a talented seamstress, but also had a keen knowledge of electrical, plumbing and carpentry repairs, and could handle a paint brush better than most. Every day she made a hot lunch and carried it to my grandfather's shop on Rockaway Avenue where they ate their mid-day meal. During her "relaxation" time, she did crocheting and embroidery.

We board ships to take lavish cruises with endless meals and extravagant entertainment. If we hit a bit of rough water we are downing Dramamines and complaining to anyone who will listen. My wife's grandmother Gelsomina was also a ship's passenger when, as a girl of around 14, she was sent to America by her parents to work as a domestic for a family in Brooklyn. Sadly, her people in Italy could not support her, and so, huddled in the rough accommodations in steerage class, she made the lonely journey to a foreign land where she knew not a soul. She later married, gave birth to eleven children, and became one of that amazing generation of immigrants who helped make America great.

Gelsomina's husband Vincenzo also came to America from Italy, and worked as a ship's cook for the Merchant Marine before saving enough money to open his own candy store on Hicks Street in Brooklyn. Vincenzo did a little bootlegging during Prohibition, and like many Brooklyn candy store owners, took a few "numbers" bets on the side. As an older man, Vincenzo walked his granddaughter (my wife) to school, and she remembers him asking her to pick up discarded bus transfers from the street so that he could enjoy a free ride downtown to pick up his groceries.

I think a lot about how hard it must have been for my grandparents' generation to survive the Great Depression. I also think about their courage and resourcefulness... how, despite the lack of even basic necessities, they managed to provide for their families and helped pull the country out of its tailspin. They didn't look for a bailout or handouts, but rather pulled themselves up by their bootstraps got things done. Their motto preceeded the Nike commercial by about 80 years: "Just Do It." I didn't want this blog to be about gloom and doom but rather a tribute to the amazing men and women whose indomitable spirit lives on in us. If only a small part of their strength survives in us, I think we'll be OK.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association


Anonymous said...

Great post! We are truly blessed but yet seemed to have all gone our own way!... hope your New Year is filled with good wishes!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks, and the same to you.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

It boggles my mind to think that my grandmother, with no English came to America at 15! I wouldn't trust today's 15 year-old to go around the corner and come back!
Nice post, and Happy New Yer to you and your lovely family!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks Joe, same to you and your wonderful family.