My daddy was the greatest man who ever walked the earth. Really. Honestly. I’d like to tell you a little bit about him so that maybe you will love him, too.
Fifty-two years since his death, and I doubt a single day has gone by that he hasn’t been in my thoughts.
Well, his name was Angelo. He was born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1914, the fourth of 7 children of Italian immigrants. My grandparents, Pietro and Carlotta, passed through Ellis Island on Christmas of 1907. They had with them their oldest son, Antonio, who had been birthed in Italy 3 years prior, and their second son, Vittorio, who was an infant.
The little devoutly Catholic family had crossed the Atlantic on an ocean-liner called the SS Hamburg, departing from Genoa. Their hometown, their Italian “commune” was Treviso which is in Veneto, which is at the upper right-hand side of “the boot.” All I know about my daddy comes from my precious few memories of him, the things my mother said about him, stuff my Uncle Tony relayed to me in the one conversation we had after my father’s death, my genealogical research, and random musings from a few people who knew him. He and his siblings are all long deceased, and his parents died many years before I was born.
I try to imagine what that journey across the ocean must have been like, arriving on foreign shores at the high holy days of Christmas. I wonder what the family must have felt a few years later, when the Titanic met its icy death, another ocean-liner carrying business tycoons and similar hopeful immigrants.
Pietro worked in the iron ore mines in the Upper Peninsula. Let it settle in your bones — the back-breaking work, and the bitter cold at the Canadian border versus the Mediterranean breeze of northeastern Italy. Some time around 1920, the family with more children in tow, relocated to Arkansas. No sand-draped beaches with foaming seawater kissing the shoreline, but a warmer climate, and soil fertile enough to grow grapes.
My daddy was blind. Like me, he had a wee bit of usable vision, but much less than me. So while his parents and siblings tilled the rich earth to raise grapes, he was sent to Little Rock to attend the Arkansas School for the Blind. I think that shuttling between the two worlds — school and home — shaped him into the man he became, more independent, less bound to tradition. And from him, I inherited and learned my own streak of rebellion.
I learned some really fascinating stuff when I began to do my genealogical research. One gem came to me when I read Boy the Stories I Could Tell: A Narrative History of the Italians of Little Italy, Arkansas.
One of the chapters was devoted to the “narrative history” given by my dad’s youngest brother, my Uncle Louie. With his blindness limiting what he could do, my dad’s main chore at home was to go down to the cellar at dinner time to bring up wine for the family meal. Uncle Louie admits my dad may have had a few extra nips while retrieving the fruity liquid. My dad was already regaling the community with his piano playing, and in one scene, he was charming a neighbor family with his music when a fire broke out upstairs.
One of the things I didn’t expect to learn from this book was that I come from a family of “criminals.” Naw, not real criminals — far from it. It’s just that many of the Italian families in the little rural village had made a living by growing grapes — which put them in an awkward but perhaps enviable position during the years of Prohibition. When federal officials came to investigate, children would run from one farmstead to the next, warning the grape farmers to hide their barrels under hay in their barns, like homing pigeons sent out on a mission.
My mother and father met in the 1940’s when they happened to be living in the same boarding house in Little Rock. My mother told me that they had talked about getting married, but always got “cold feet.” When they finally married, my father was already 43 years old, and from everything I can tell, it was my mother who had the “cold feet.” I think she was waiting for a better catch.
By day, my dad was the manager of the concessionary stand at the Federal Building in Little Rock, but the rest of the time, he was a musician. The piano was his first and chosen instrument, and the accordion second, but he also played guitar, and just about anything he picked up. And he was good at it, very good. He could not see well enough to read the sheet music as it sat on the piano, so he would hold it so close to his face that he put nose prints on it. He’d memorize the song, set the sheet music aside, and amazingly play the tune from memory.
I used to troll the contents of his piano stool after my dad died. Thick books of music with 64th notes, trills, and chords that required the thumb and pinkie to stretch farther than my little hands could imagine. He played everything — show tunes from the ’40s and ’50s, classical, contemporary songs on the radio — but my favorite was boogie woogie. My dad played at high society weddings, nightclubs, and for the famous spaghetti dinner fundraisers at the old clapboard St. Francis of Assisi Catholic church in Little Italy, he provided the music for dancing with his accordion.
The band he was in even cut a record in Nashville that got airplay in 1962, just before his death. I think I’ve shared it in a different post, but will share it again. It was a “novelty” song, never destined for greatness. And probably one most people won’t enjoy. But you can hear the expertise of his piano playing behind the lyrics which captured the zeitgeist of the Cuban missile crisis:
So my mom and dad were courting in the 1940’s, but my mom always got “cold feet” at the prospect of marriage… In 1948, my mother took a secretarial position in Washington, DC, working for the Department of the Navy at the Pentagon. She was there for 2 years before returning to Arkansas. My dad flew out to visit her:
My mother told me how some other woman was “flirting” with my dad, and how she thought to herself, “I’ll show her.” But still she didn’t marry him, yet…. My grandmother, Carlotta, passed away in 1949, and my grandfather, Pietro, died in August of 1950. Their farmstead was quite large, though I don’t know how many acres. The farmhouse itself was big and airy — big enough to shelter 7 children. It was sturdy, well-built, the quality workmanship of craftsmen, put together with loving care and attention in those days before McMansions.
My dad and his siblings divvied up the land to determine which child would inherit which plot. They drew straws, and my dad got the parcel where the farmhouse stood firm. How convenient that my mother’s feet suddenly got warmer, and my parents were married in November 1950 by a justice of the peace!! My mom always told me that my dad’s brothers and sisters didn’t like her because she was not Catholic. I believed that interpretation for a long time. I’m sure there was some truth to it, but it wasn’t the whole story. After everything I’ve gone through, I think his siblings smelled a rat, and I smell one, too.
Well, after my parents were married, the old farmhouse in Little Italy was put on the market for sale. My dad’s brother and sisters were distraught. They didn’t want to lose the home they’d grown up in, which held so many memories. So they pooled their money together, and offered to buy the property. My mother impeded their efforts, convincing my father that they would get a better price if they sold it on the market. The farmstead home was bought by a judge — his name was Jernigan if my memory has not failed me — which gives you some idea of the value of the property. I shudder to think of my father’s torn loyalties, the mind games and manipulations, and the seething acrimony….
Then, along came me in 1956.
My dad was a sweet, sweet man, and a loving father. He has left an indelible mark on my soul. When he came home from work, I would go running to him, and he would have brought me home a bag of Lays potato chips or some other treat. We’d take walks to the little grocery store two blocks down the street, and I can still remember how safe and loved I felt with my little hand in his. I adored my dad’s glossy black hair, and he’d sit on the floor and let me comb it. One time I got the comb so entangled in his hair that my mother had to cut it out with scissors. I remember her anger, but I remember his unconditional love.
I was besotted with Tarzan, one of my young heroes, and the African jungles he roamed, so I’d say, “Daddy, pleeease read me about lions and tigers!” My dad would pick a volume from the old Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedia that had been acquired, book by book, from the Safeway grocery store. He’d hold the volume up to his nose and pretend to read, and would tell me happy stories about adventures in “deep, dark Africa.”
Our house was arranged such that there was a “loop” from living room through dining room through bedroom, and back into the living room. I’d squeal, “Daddy!! Daddy, give me a piggyback ride!!” And he’d let me crawl on his back and press my face to his neck, and he’d trot that loop as many times as I wanted.
My maternal cousins seemed to have also loved and adored my dad. He told them jokes that made them giggle. One time, he grabbed an ordinary ballpoint pen and a piece of paper. My cousins were gaggled around him, and he said, “I’ll bet you I can make this pen write red.” They were incredulous, no way!! So with his dim eyesight, he scrawled out, “R-E-D.” Wiggles, laughter, and good times!! Here’s my dad giving my maternal cousins a horseback ride:
My daddy was a funny man with a sense of humor, easy-going, and liked by everyone who knew him. One of my favorite photos:
He’s wearing my mom’s dress and one of her necklaces. Naw, he wasn’t a cross-dresser, though he would have still been a saint even if he was. He was just goofy, and I inherited that same sense of goofiness.
Now, there was an odd “circumstance” just before my daddy died. We had a modest but nice 2-bedroom home. I was 5 years old. And we all slept in the same bedroom. In that bedroom, there was a double bed and a twin bed. The arrangement was that I slept in the double bed with my mother, and my father slept in the twin bed. A very strange arrangement, even if you grew up watching those early episodes of I Love Lucy! and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
I questioned my mother about this many times, and she would only say that I’d been ill, and so she’d had me sleep with her, and the habit continued. When I was older, I found photographs of my mother with an unknown man she called Kelley that I could tell were taken very close to the time my father died. I will never know for sure, but I strongly suspect, that she was having an affair, that perhaps my father had found out, and hence the sleeping arrangements. I also worry that if my suspicions are true, her shenanigans (the sleeping arrangements, possible affair, and others), might have created the stress that led up to my dad’s heart attack at age 48.
On the night before he died, my dad spent the evening helping me string some Indian beads he’d gotten me. We sat together on the dining room floor, cross-legged, putting the plastic beads on the plastic string, one by one. I wish i could remember the last goodnight hug. But I will never forget my last hours with him. Those precious Indian beads are in an old jar, which I’ve managed to keep with me all these years. The next morning, I was awakened by my mother’s voice, speaking to someone on the telephone. I could tell that something was very wrong. My life has never been the same.
My mother told me of the big drama that came with my dad’s death. His brothers and sisters wanted him to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. She adamantly refused. She said she wanted to be buried next to him when her time came, and three burial plots were bought at Roselawn Memorial Park in Little Rock — one for my dad, one for my mom, and one for me. My daddy was laid to rest.
For all my mother’s hoopla, she didn’t bother to even put a gravestone on his burial plot. A spindly metal post with a piece of paper bearing his name marked his grave. We never visited the cemetery, even once, after he died. And i never saw my mother shed a single tear over losing my dad. Never. And oh yeah, my mother wasn’t buried next to my dad. Her ashes are in an urn somewhere in Arkansas.
I have seen some cold, cold hearts in my lifetime, but my daddy wasn’t one of them. And daddy, this is for you, for the example you gave me, the unconditional love, for all the wrongs you may have endured that I will never know. I love you and I will never forget you.
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