Sunday, August 10, 2014

Lessons from Papà

Today was my father's memorial service in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a beautiful service. Numerous people from the Italian-American Society of St. Petersburg were there, as were members of my family, all in celebration of my father's life. The minister, Tom Lentz, knew my father from the Society, so it was a joy to have someone lead the service who actually knew my father. My "right-hand person," Rose Marcelin, gave a lovely talk remembering the positive and fun parts of my father's life that touched so many people. We played the "Ave Maria" (Bach/Gounod, sung by Andrea Bocelli), as we had at my mother's service eight years ago, and we also played "Miserere" sung by Russell Watson and Zucchero, a song that my father used to sing and loved not only because of its beautiful harmony but because my mother loved the song so much. The message in that song is clear and appropriate for today: although sometimes we go through terrible things, we salute life for all the beauty it holds. We ended with a small group of dancers from the Society performing "La Molisana," a lovely slow dance that was one of my father's favorites when he performed with the group.

The DVD of images from my father's life included many touching moments, but also a few funny ones. I acknowledged the important role that the Society played in my father's life, and the Fountains of Boca Ciega Bay where they helped make his last few years so rewarding and respectful. I also tribute to his dear friend Karin Cline, who was his constant companion the past few years, and to Rose and my cousin Denise for their support and help through the years and at the very end. I've given my memorial talk the title "Lessons from Papà," and I have transcribed the text below. I wasn't sure I would be able to make it through the entire talk, but I'm glad that I did, as I wanted to convey to those present these memories and celebrate my special moments of his life.

Before the memorial service started, I’m sure many of you were watching the DVD of my father’s life. The images tell us a clear story—he truly lived a full life and he took pride in his family, his friends, and things that gave him great joy, like playing the drums and dancing. He also enjoyed himself on stage and performed in drag. I'm proud to say my father did drag! And he was good! For a number of years, my father taught Italian language classes for the Italian-American Society, and although we have no images of him teaching in that DVD, many of us know first-hand how much he enjoyed doing this. He did not have a degree to teach.  In fact, my father’s official education ended during World War II when the Americans bombed his high school in Milan. But even without an official education, his exuberance made him a natural in leading a classroom. Thinking about his role as a teacher, I realized that as my life has unfolded it is my father who was one of my great teachers. So I thought I would share with you some lessons in life I learned from Papà.

When I was 8 years old, I remember struggling to understand why the seasons changed. My father picked up a red apple, removed the stem, and reinserted it at a slight angle. He then began to rotate the apple along the stem’s angle, and moved his hand in a circle in the air. That was how I came to understand how the earth rotates on its axis and how the planet moves around the sun. It was also the first time it ever occurred to me that this man, my father, was rather clever.

When I used to practice the piano, he would teach me about rhythm and tempo, acting as my own personal metronome by clapping his hands to a consistent beat. It used to drive me crazy! But over time I realized how playing his drums wasn't just about making sounds. By playing the drums, he was the foundation of rhythm that made every song sound great.

My father taught me that history was not just facts about the past. He did this by telling stories. He would recount strange tales of growing up under Mussolini, of avoiding bombings, of eating marble dust in bread or marmalade again and again, and of watching Mussolini hung upside-down with his girlfriend after the War. He taught me that history is about an experienced life.

My father taught me about determination and working toward one’s goals. He emigrated to a new country without speaking the language and forged a better life for himself and for his family, in pursuit of the American dream. And he always encouraged me to find my own path and to live my own life, but to always know that he was there for me when I needed him.

One day my father told me about his life before my mother, Chris, and me, that he had been married before and had two daughters. I learned that day about honesty and integrity, but also about fallibility, watching in my father’s eyes a hidden awareness that even though he had tried to do the best he could for his daughters in Italy, he knew he had let them down by not being in their lives the same way he was in ours.

But he also showed me the power of true, unconditional parental love when, during my own personal identity crisis 21 years ago, a time when I even contemplated suicide rather than disappoint him, my father came to me and said, quite simply, “We love you, no matter what, and we are here for you. We will always love you.”

My father showed me through his relationship with my mother the power of passionate love, how it can be romantic, combustible, thrilling, violent, exciting, and extremely painful. But then he showed me the true essence of love when my mother’s sickness got worse and worse. He fed her, he carried her, he cleaned her, he held her. And toward the end, when he could do no more physically, he visited her every single day just to say hello and to hold her hand. After she died, he told me that he had loved her in those last few years more then all the intensely passionate years beforehand.

Everyone here will likely agree that my father was a happy man, someone who always wanted to throw another party, to play music, and to dance. He was not perfect, but he was a decent, hard-working man who wanted only the best in life for everyone. 

My father understood that life is a journey, an opportunity to contribute to the universe with all the gifts, talents, and love that we possess. It is that personal sense of enjoyment and experience, that thing that is not just life but living, that is the greatest lesson from my father that I will keep in my heart above all others. I salute you, Papà, and I say "Mille grazie!"


teddygood said...

What a wonderful tribute to your father!!He seems like a remarkable man.

Tomas Macsotay said...

There is so much love in these words...I am sure you will bring them to the future, and to the ones lucky enough to be close to you

bklynbiblio said...

Thank you, Ted and Tomas. I appreciate your thoughts and kind words. -- Roberto