Joe Pisani (opinion): A day to be thankful for the resolve of my ancestors

The Statue of Liberty in New York.

The Statue of Liberty in New York.

Kathy Willens / Associated Press

A few weeks ago, I drove to St. Michael Cemetery in Stratford, where my grandparents are buried. I hadn’t visited them in years, so I figured All Souls Day was a perfect time to pay my respects and say a few prayers.

The gravestone was worn and weathered, but their names were still legible. Angelina and Anthony, two Italian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island when Italians weren’t especially welcome.

Like other immigrants, they came to the United States looking for opportunity but had a rough start in a new country during 10 years of the Great Depression. Later, their sons went off to war to fight for America and the rest of Western Civilization and did so without complaining.

Maybe the Greatest Generation was willing to die for this country because of the freedom and opportunity it gave them. Have future generations been as grateful, as appreciative? Or have we taken everything for granted, or worse, scorned what we’ve been given?

The gravestone told my grandparents’ story. My father’s father, Anthony, died at 48, and his wife, Angelina, whose name means “little angel,” had to carry on in a strange world. In those 35 years after her husband died, she lived up to her name.

As a single mother, she raised nine children without the benefit of a safety net in a second-floor flat on the East Side of Bridgeport. They ate a lot of pasta, fruit and vegetables. I guess you could say they were following the Mediterranean Diet long before it was fashionable.

When her sons weren’t shining shoes or getting into trouble, my grandmother sent them down to the harbor to pick up coal that had fallen off freighters so they could heat the apartment.

They lived on Sherman Street across from St. Mary Church, and although they had no money, they got a Catholic education from the nuns, who lived in the convent next door.

As I looked at my grandmother’s grave, I couldn’t help but wonder how she raised all those kids alone in an era of deprivation.

This Thanksgiving, all of us who came from immigrant families should be thankful that someone in our past decided to come to America in search of a better life.

I recently heard a speech by a politician and businesswoman whose father journeyed here from Jamaica with $1.75 in his pocket, driven by the promise of the American dream. He found a job, he went to school, he succeeded. Then, he returned to get his 6-year-old daughter, who later joined the Marines even before she was a naturalized citizen. She was thankful to him and thankful to America.

Her story reminded me of my father and his brothers, who went to work at an early age, shining shoes on the streets of Bridgeport. When I commuted to Manhattan, I’d pass rows of shoeshiners in Grand Central Station, many of whom were immigrants also pursuing the American dream.

Even in old age, my father appreciated a pair of well-polished shoes. It was a skill he mastered as a poor kid on the streets of Bridgeport, and from the time I was 7, he made me shine my shoes, as if it were an initiation into the family business, sort of a rite of passage so I’d remember my roots.

There were no shortcuts. He taught me the same meticulous process he used during the Depression — buffing the shoes, applying leather conditioner, wiping it off, buffing the shoes again, applying spit polish and rubbing it into the leather with my fingers, and buffing them again with a horsehair brush and finally a soft cloth.

More than once he grumbled, “You’re not doing it right.” He wouldn’t let me leave for school if my shoes weren’t polished. I didn’t realize how privileged I was until years later when I saw the pathetic condition of my friends’ shoes at college.

Growing up, I lived with my grandmother, a hard-working woman who endured a lot of suffering in her life. With her broken English and my broken Italian, we managed to get by. I still cherish those years ... and as I stood over her grave, all I could say was “thank you.”

So this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful to my ancestors, I’m thankful to America, and I’m thankful to my family members who endured more adversity than I ever could to make a better life for those of us who followed.

Happy Thanksgiving and God bless America.

Former Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time Editor Joe Pisani can be reached at