A Life Worth Living

A family stands dressed and posed for a photographer. A mother and father and their three young children.
Family photo from approximately 1926. Left to right: Libero, Maria, Avanti, Giuseppe, and Alta.

I was once told that my great-grandfather never had a Christmas tree in his house after the fall of the stock market in 1929. My father told me that the decision to forgo a Christmas tree was made out of fear-fear that he might lose all of the things that he had worked so hard for. I should not have been surprised by this story because I know how superstitious my family can be, but I couldn’t help it.

The stories I have been told about this man have melded together to form a picture of a person who exemplified happiness and success. He has been glorified and memorialized through the stories that have been passed down through the years. He could do no wrong. As I sifted through articles, census documents, and records I dreaded the idea of finding a flaw in the perfectly painted picture of him that exists in my head. I knew him to be determined, hard-working, loving, and a beacon to the rest of the family. It shook me to find out that he had so much fear left over from that difficult time.

His name was Giuseppe Defilippis. I never did get a chance to meet him or ask him why he chose to abstain from this holiday tradition, but I feel as if I have gotten to know him personally through the stories lovingly told by his eight children and fourteen grandchildren. He and his wife were affectionately known to their grandchildren as “little grandpa and little grandma” because of their short stature. These nicknames stuck, and as a result my siblings and I still refer to them in this way despite never seeing them in person.

I have learned a great deal about Little Grandpa from hearing shared memories and stories that are exchanged at holidays and family gatherings. He was a bootblack on Wall Street for most of his life and continued to work until he was unable to. I know that he was smart, not just smart in an academic or financial way, but smart with people. Every day of his life he built strong and lasting relationships with neighbors and colleagues. He was a trusted friend and helpful sounding board. During his limited free time he enjoyed discussing philosophy and politics with friends and theorizing how the stock market would ebb and flow. The version of Little Grandpa that lives on in our family is that of a loving father and husband who worked to ensure a life for his family that was worth living.

In 1905, before he was Little Grandpa, Giuseppe had just turned fourteen years old and boarded a ship by himself headed to America with fears and American dreams floating through his head. America promised opportunity and a new kind of life that was unknown to his family members who came before him. When he arrived in New York through Ellis Island, he quickly found work doing odd jobs around the city to pay for food and a place to stay.

A few years following his arrival in America, Giuseppe’s younger brother travelled to the United States through Boston. Although the Italian community in New York was large and generally welcoming, Giuseppe left for Boston to be with his brother. He stayed with him in Boston for just over a year. Together, they spent their time working and finding their place in the established Italian immigrant community. The two spent their Sundays with fellow immigrants including a pair named Sacco and Vanzetti. These men would lead philosophical conversations that inspired my great-grandfather to form opinions regarding the state of the political world and religious traditions.

Both of the Defilippis brothers would be forced to leave Boston abruptly because of the actions of Sacco and Vanzetti. Although free thinking philosophical individuals, Sacco and Vanzetti were too public with their anarchist thoughts and were arrested for robbery. Because of their Italian origins and America’s issues with immigration at the time, the court made an example out of them, having them both executed. This display of cruelty by the American justice system shocked the communities of Italian immigrants in the northeast.

Upon their return to New York City Giuseppe and his brother were once again at the mercy of the job market. In approximately 1917 Giuseppe began his freelance work as a bootblack. Fascinated by the stock market, he chose to work in the financial district, getting stock tips from traders while they got a shoeshine. As he continued to make money as a bootblack he chose to invest in the stock market. The stock tips that he got from the traders allowed him to learn the way the market functioned and how to invest his money in a lucrative way.

In 1921 at 30 years old, Giuseppe married my great-grandmother Maria. Once the papers were signed, they moved into a small apartment on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, where they would come to raise their eight children. Libero, their first child who would later come to be known as Steve, was born in 1922. Concetta (1924), Avanti (1926), Leone (1928), Tullio (1929), Sylvia (1931), Lillian (1937), and Lorena (1946) would grow up together in the space between apartment 160 and 164 on the 1300 block of Utica Ave.

The 1920s in New York City brought about opportunities and success for Giuseppe. Following his marriage and the birth of his first son in 1922, his investments in the stock market were coming to fruition. He continued to work as a bootblack despite his success in the market so that he could maintain his relationships with the traders on Wall Street. By 1928 Giuseppe and Maria had four children and were living happily in Brooklyn.

Four months before the stock market crashed in 1929, my grandfather Tullio was born. Much like other Americans, when the market crashed the family lost everything. All of Giuseppe’s earnings from the market were deposited in the banks and there is no record that he was able to get any of his money out of the banks before they failed. Giuseppe and Maria had five children who needed the money that they lost for food, books, and clothes. It wasn’t uncommon for families to sell some of their possessions in order to afford basic necessities during these turbulent economic times. Appliances and nonessential items were sold from the family home in order to supplement Giuseppe’s earnings as a bootblack.

My grandfather, Tullio, known to most people as Pop-pop, used to tell stories about his time in the family’s small city home. He spoke of memories of the family huddled around the radio that sat on their kitchen table, as they listened to the Brooklyn Dodgers play their weekly games. Or the afternoons spent on the roof of their apartment building rough-housing while their mother strung wet laundry to dry before Giuseppe got home from work.

The depression caused food in the city to become limited and prices of what was available to increase. This forced Giuseppe to go to work every day of the week to be able to afford enough food for his wife and now seven children. Although he worked as much as he could, there were times when the only food the family had in the house was a loaf of free bread that Giuseppe waited for in line at the bakery around the corner. If the family had vegetables at meals, they were canned and served sparingly. On special occasions, like birthdays and anniversaries, Giuseppe would put together enough money to buy fresh tomatoes for tomato sandwiches. My PopPop described these sandwiches with the most vivid detail, and as I recount the story I can almost taste the sharp acidity of the tomatoes. The bread, although free, was white, perfectly shaped, and just a touch stale, making it more prone to shedding crumbs around the kitchen. The fresh tomatoes were cut into thin pieces and placed on each slice of bread, their pink juices leeching into the white ridges of the crumbling slices. Although times were difficult for the family they never lost positivity or hope.

PopPop was a rather food-oriented man and most commonly recounted stories of the depression through meals. Because of his depression-stricken childhood when he joined the Army just before World War II he had rave reviews about the military’s culinary exploits. Giuseppe was only able to supply meat for the family once a week and it was shared by the eight children and two parents.  So, PopPop was shocked and excited that he could eat meat not only every day but as much as he liked. In 1943 journalist Norman Kuhne published statistics asserting that military personnel consumed twice as much meat as civilians during the war. This displays the severity of food insecurity in New York City during depression America.

Giuseppe was fortunate enough to keep his job as a bootblack throughout the entirety of the depression. Many depression era Americans were not this lucky. The unemployment rate in America peaked in 1933 at 24.75% leaving approximately 12,830,000 Americans out of work (United States History, 1). Because of his continued self-employment Giuseppe was able to allow his children to remain in school rather than asking them to work to support the family. Each of his children attended school daily so that they could have the best education that was available to them. I have always been told that he valued education more than any profit or material possession. His education was less than formal. He attended primary school overseas but was unable to read and write in English until later in life.

Nearly 30 years following his death, I grew up hearing his words that “you can have everything taken away from you in life except for your education.” He was right; in 1929 he lost everything he ever worked for after the crash but retained the knowledge to persevere and bounce back.

Giuseppe would continue to rent the same apartment through the depression until he was able to get back on his feet financially. When the market finally turned around he began to trade stocks here and there for steady profits. In the mid-1950s he had built up enough capitol to purchase the building that he had been renting in since his marriage in 1921. He continued to live in this apartment building until he ultimately passed away in 1967.

His achievements and life’s story ensured the success of his eight children and the rest of the family for generations to come. Seven of his eight children attended universities and have gone on to make contributions to the academic, medical, and engineering communities. Their success can be directly attributed to the life and example that he provided for them. Giuseppe never did put up a Christmas tree following the stock market crash in 1929. But his decisions and perseverance following the depression allowed his children and grandchildren to never have to feel the fear and financial insecurity that he did. He made it possible for the family to never have to miss a Christmas again.

Works Cited

Kuhne, Norman. “Where Our Food Goes.” Saturday Evening Post, 13 Mar. 1943, pp. 78–78. Academic Search Premier [EBSCO].

“United States History.” Unemployment Statistics during the Great Depression, www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1528.html.