Standing solidly with her hands on her hips, Anita Del Greco surveys her garden.
She notes the ripening fruit of the fig and peach trees, the big blooms of the hibiscus and the steady progress of the oregano, parsley and rosemary.
Her little piece of paradise fills the empty lot next to the three-family house she owns. She bought the properties for $73,000, which, in 1976, was a considerable sum, especially for an unmarried working woman.
The garden’s prosperity – and Anita’s – are as entwined as the gargantuan grapevines climbing her arbor.
Anita’s a small and self-sufficient woman with a smoky voice, ruby-red nails and a practical cap of grey hair.
She’s never minded doing everything herself; she’s made her life work very well that way.
Born in the tiny Italian town of Orsogna right after World War II, Anita has always been an independent person, what she likes to call “extremely ambitious.”
She really had no choice. (Although if she did, she concedes that she probably wouldn’t have done anything differently. OK, perhaps she would have worked even harder.)
When Anita arrived, her parents had just returned to the town, which is in the province of Chieti. The family had been forced to flee north to Parma during the fighting.
They came back to nothing.
“They had owned vineyards and a house and had been quite well off,” Anita says. “But the town was destroyed in the war. There was not a house standing.”
They built a one-room structure to house them, Anita and her older brother and sister.
“We were lucky because we always had food,” Anita says. “There were people who were worse off.”
As a child growing up in these dire circumstances, Anita decided that she was going to make a better life for herself. Education, she felt, would be her salvation.
“My parents didn’t want me to go to school,” she says. “They were old-fashioned – they didn’t think girls needed an education.”
It just so happened that Anita was such an astounding student that they had no choice but to let her continue going to classes.
“My teacher told me that I was the best in class, and I placed first in my school on the state exam to get into junior high school,” she says. “Everybody in the town knew about this honor.”
By the time Anita was 16, she was taking teacher training courses, with the hopes of going to college.
She was pretty much on her own. Her sister, who was living in Astoria, died and her parents came to New York to help take care of her children.
Anita’s brother had left for Germany – to avoid the draft and look for work.
“I was living in a boarding house,” she says. “I had scholarships, and my brother sent me money.”
Three years later, Anita and her brother joined her parents in Astoria, and Anita set her sights on even higher goals.
“I started working the second day I came here,” Anita says, adding that she changed jobs frequently to get better wages. “I didn’t know any English, so I had to learn real fast. I took lessons and started going to City College. My first two years in America, I only slept two hours every night.”
Her hard work paid off: She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Romance languages and literature from City College and a master’s in school administration from Long Island University.
Through the years, Anita had teaching jobs at various schools, including I.S. 141 in Astoria.
“I wanted my own place, but my parents didn’t want me to have an apartment of my own because I wasn’t married,” she says. “So I bought this house and the empty lot, and we all moved in together.”
In 1976, that was a gutsy thing for a single woman to do. In fact, as Anita discovered, it was an impossible thing to do.
“I could not get a mortgage from the bank, it had to also be in my parents’ names,” she says. “They had to become co-owners even though they were not making the payments.”
In the beginning, Anita and her parents lived together. When one of the tenants left, Anita’s mother and father moved into that apartment.
Her father immediately began clearing the lot, which was a jungle of weeds.
“It was his domain,” Anita says. “He wouldn’t let me help him.”
Anita devoted herself to her job.
“I was too busy working to get married and have children,” she says.
Anita and the garden grew stronger together.
When her parents became ill, Anita took care of them, and in 2002, a couple of years after they died, Anita retired from her teaching job at Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn.
“I was only 55, but I was ready,” she says. “I was OK financially for the first time in my life, and I wanted to enjoy the fruits of my labor.”
She tends her garden for an hour each morning, cooking and freezing its prodigious produce. She has more than enough, so she gives a lot away to neighbors.
“I’m very popular,” she says and grins.
Retiring also has given Anita more time to travel, sometimes solo. In addition to Europe, she’s seen China, India, Vietnam and Cambodia.
“I don’t know what boredom is,” she says. “I’m content.”
Slowing down hasn’t slowed her down.
“I’m enjoying relaxing for the first time in my life,” says Anita, who is 72. “I did things in reverse — I was born old, and I’m dying young.”
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling