Gelsimino Joe Tufo

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My grandfather was born in Verbicaro, a small Southern Italian inland town in  Calabria, Italy. His passport says that he was born in 1892.     His family was quite poor working in the fields.   His mother collected spare coins in a handkerchief over the door sill until she had gathered enough to send her 17 year old son on horseback alone to the New World.  She wanted him to have a better life. He took a steamer to New York and entered the country at Ellis Island.  He spoke no English and had to find his way across the country by train to San Francisco, where there were some Italians in North Beach.  He arrived with a dime in his pocket.  He did not ever return to Italy, so did not see his mother again.My grandfather never did learn to read or write, but was able to make a good life for he and his family.  He was a bootblack in the financial district in San Francisco. He started out working for another Italian, but being hard working and competitive he soon had his own Shoe Shine Stand.   He shined shoes for 10 cents.  It seems he was quite good with numbers and would take the horse racing bets for his customers.   He was also a man that liked to play cards.  The poorer people that worked in San Francisco at that time lived in Marin, taking a ferry over for five cents to work.  My grandfather was later able to buy a house in North Beach.

He met and married my grandmother, also from Verbicaro, though they met here in San Francisco, in 1912.     They had four children.  My grandfather became a US citizen in 1950.

When I was 24 I went to Verbicaro to see my grandparents roots.  My grandmother cried when I left, not wanting me to see how poor they had been.   I was enchanted by this town, no cars, pigs herded in the streets, women with bundles of wood on their heads.  When I told them in my college Italian who I was, they took me immediately to my Great Aunt.   She was dressed in the traditional Italian costume, I was kissed and fed and taken around to meet all of the relatives, each of whom insisted I have something to eat.   Pasta was boiled in the fireplace, wash done in troughs in the village.

I saw many of the places my grandfather had told me stories about and saw relatives using many of the gestures that were so familiar to me with my grandfather.  It gave me such a feeling of my origins.  People in the town remembered my grandfather by his nickname, loosely translated as Bird, for his love of song.     Many of those homes that I visited are now gone.  I feel like I was one of the last to see where my family came from. When I left the town, my family gathered, sending me off with homemade wine, lots of hugs and kisses and a basket of food for the train.  My grandfather was legendary in our family for his love of feeding all that entered his home, lessons learned long ago.It wasn’t until I had a son of my own that I truly appreciated the sacrifice and love that my Great grandmother showed by sending her oldest son off to make his life in America.  He was a brave adventurer, had a big heart and loved San Francisco.

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Shared by: Marilynn Holland of Palo Alto, CA

8 comments

  1. enjoyed reading the article and coincidently my family knew a Tufo family…but lost touch…Grace Tufo ..my father is 97 so several of the Tufo’s…not sure if u are related to those Tufo’…i am also from Verbicaro…and u many know of my cookbook, Flavors from a Calabrese Cookbook, Best, Ken Borelli

  2. hello, I really enjoyed reading your story… I leave in London and I just got back from Verbicaro, I and my family still live there. I too had some family emigrated to America and settled in San Francisco but long ago we lost contact.
    regards
    Francesco

  3. a warm greeting from Verbicaro, this story is very beautiful.

  4. We have been doing ancestry and have found family members that were from here. Pietro Amoroso I would love to visit. I enjoyed your article . I am born and raised I. san Francici.

  5. That’s really thnnkiig out of the box. Thanks!

  6. That’s a cunning answer to a challenging question

  7. It looks like sometimes they do tell us the Truth.“Friedman laughs:I could give you the names of 25 PEOPLE (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war WOULD NOT HAVE happened.”“An nescis, mi fili, quantilla sapientia mundus regatur?”, (Don’t you know, my son, how little wisdom is needed to rule the world?”.Yes, if it takes 25 people to start the war by so called “democratic” country.

  8. Joe, an excellent metaphor that sums up the difficulty with the church the same. If the church stagnates, it can’t grow. I loved in A Generous Orthodoxy how the value of our reformed heritage is reformed and ALWAYS REFORMING… which means we can’t be staying on the same ride.

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