Giacomo Gerardo Costa: Patriarch. Farmer. Landscaper. Labourer. Born Oct. 30, 1925, in Maierato, Calabria, Italy; died Jan. 16, 2019, in Toronto, of pneumonia; aged 93.
In Calabria, Italy, Giacomo Gerardo was the second of seven children born to subsistence farmers Antonino and Palma Costa. Like most children of his social class, he went to school only until Grade 5. As a young boy, he helped on his family’s small plot of land. He gathered acorns to feed the pig that the family kept, and snails in hedges to provide delectable contributions to the family dinner table. He experienced loss at an early age, when an infant brother died.
As an adult, he worked as a day labourer on farms owned by large landlords, cultivating their wheat fields and olive groves. It was a precarious living, a vicious circle with no future. Giacomo wanted to break the pattern of servitude into which he was born. He leapt at the opportunity to go to Germany in 1960 as a seasonal guest worker. He was 38 and had never travelled before. He learned German, worked as a landscape gardener and understood the possibilities that life offered outside the confines of his antiquated hometown.
A few years earlier, he married his childhood friend – Caterina (Nuzza) Pietropaolo. Unlike many of his generation, he saw little value in separating women’s and men’s roles in running a household. He reasoned that if the husband and wife both worked outside the home, they should both share the more mundane chores of life. They would do just about everything together, until her death in 2017.
While Giacomo relished his work in Germany, he could not bear to live away from his wife and children, Antonino and Palma (named after his parents). But economic prospects at home were dim. There were no industries in southern Italy where he could find work. In 1968, the family sailed to Halifax aboard the Queen Anna Maria. They settled in Toronto’s Little Italy, where he worked as a labourer in construction until the age of 55, and later, at housekeeping in a hospital.
Gardening was Giacomo’s life-long passion, to which he devoted most if his free time. His garden became legendary in his Toronto community. He installed a row of wooden stakes along the edge near the sidewalk and cantilevered them toward the inside of the property. In this way, he could both create a green privacy screen with his pole beans, and maximize their yield. The structure was permanent and prevented him from rotating his crops, so he resorted to rotating the soil instead, every year. He loved work and to feel the rich black soil in his hands. He grew seedlings from his own seeds in the greenhouse on his verandah. His ingenuity was as deep as his generosity and he freely shared his harvest and ideas.
His crowning glory was an Italian fig tree, which he would bend down into the ground and bury every autumn and would unearth in the springtime in an annual ritual that ensured the survival of the tree in the Canadian winter. But he always said that his greatest achievement was to have raised a family away from the tyranny of poverty and enjoy the fruits of his labours with his four grandchildren. Giacomo tended his garden until the age of 90. A void has been left in the neighbourhood.
Vincenzo Pietropaolo is a friend of the Costa family.
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