About Ignazio Caleca
From Anita’s Ancestral Spirits collection, excerpts from an essay (A Fig Tree Grows in Brooklyn) about the gentle, soft-spoken Ignazio Caleca
With all the wisdom and experience I thought I had as a precocious 8-year-old in 1969, I recall assuming that my elderly great-grandparents were poor, because they lived in a basement with sparse furnishings, exposed pipes in the ceiling and linoleum floors. This impression was reinforced by hearing my grandmother Sadie Caleca Pellegrino complain that her dad was often darning his socks, and she would periodically have to buy him new ones since he would not. She described him as “thrifty”; in my vocabulary, that meant “cheap.” Looking back through more mature eyes now, I see that my great-grandparents were tremendously “successful”. Ignazio and Anna Caleca had all the material things they needed in their basement apartment at 1645 81st Street in Brooklyn. They owned the town house (purchased for $7000 cash), but chose to rent the spacious main floor apartment to their daughter Sadie for only $15/month (an offer she couldn’t refuse), so their grandkids would always be underfoot. Their table had food, and their offspring were close by to share it. My aunt Sara shares warm memories of her private breakfasts with Grandpa of “last night’s stale Italian bread dunked into warm milk with a little bit of coffee”. (At Starbuck’s, this would be called a biscotti and latte.) Here, Sara got her little “history lessons”, in Ignazio’s broken English: “Ata first, we thought Mussolini was a good man...but then…(with a shake of the hand)..what a sonnnamabitch…!” By renting out two apartments on the top floor of his town house at market rate, Ignazio was able to retire with good health in his early sixties. He was on hand as a quiet stable comfort in the home of his daughter’s family. After family meals, so many recall being mesmerized by his quiet ritual of peeling an orange, making one large spiral of the rind. Wasting nothing, that orange rind was placed on the gas stove burner to fill the home with fragrance. Ignazio gave his granddaughters the most priceless gift of his time. My mother “Joanie” felt secure whenever it started raining while she was in school. She knew she’d find her precious grandfather waiting at the school door with an umbrella. I truly believe that the ground Ignazio gave them, and the shelter he provided literally and figuratively, helped Joan and Sara become the strong, self-reliant women they are today, after surviving many shifting paradigms in their young adulthood.
My generation was raised with an expectation of achieving education, careers and many material comforts. There are many buzz-words to describe other esoteric goals we struggle to incorporate into our hurried, harried lives. Looking back my great-grandparents succeeded in these venues all along: Ignazio was never seduced by the rampant consumerism that drives so many of us to work harder, commute longer, have more stuff. He was a tree-hugger before it was fashionable, lovingly wrapping his backyard fig tree to survive the harsh winters in New York. Ignazio “Reduced, Reused, & Recycled”, leaving minimal impact on his environment. He and Anna embraced cultural diversity by living, working and having children on three continents. They retired young enough to enjoy quality time with their offspring. Ignazio Caleca’s legacy goes far beyond the house he left behind, and the drawer filled with unopened socks inside of it. I feel the spirit of Ignazio inside me every time I take pride in squeezing an extra week out of an “empty” toothpaste tube about to be discarded by a family member. And he is with me when I take my morning coffee into the backyard, in pajamas, to watch my tomatoes grow.
Anita Ruffino Stiffelman, September, 2004
From granddaughter Joanie 2009: One of the fondest memories that Sara and I have is the fig tree in our backyard at 1645 81 Street in Brooklyn. Every August we would get the most delicious purple figs to eat. I still recall the delight in eating them fresh off the tree. Sara has already planted one in her backyard. Yesterday she helped me pick out two fig trees. Mike has planted them this morning. My grandfather would lovingly cover his fig tree with Tarp every Fall because the New York weather is rather harsh in fall and winter for this type of species. South Carolina’s weather is just fine and the tarp will not be necessary. Wouldn’t Ignazio Caleca be thrilled that his girls are carrying on his tradition?---JCPR-2009