My Two Fathers, Part I

I know that title sounds like some sit-com from the late 1950s/early 1960s starring Fred MacMurray & Bill Bixby but I wouldn’t have cast either of those two actors in the roles. No, it would be more like Ben Gazzara and Joseph Cotton. And the real star of the show would be the woman they both were married to, though, of course, at different times: my mother. But she deserves a whole ‘nother memory piece all to herself. So this will be about the two men in her life and the two who served as role models for me in what a husband should be.
First, there was my father, biological father, that is. A first generation Calabrese Italian who, if you know anything about the people from Calabria, you know when saying that you are supposed to bite the knuckles on your left hand and rap your right on a wooden table or whatever else is handy that’s hard and say “testa dura”, which translates into English as hard-headed. And, in the case of my father, passionate, intelligent, and compassionate. And tough, Not in the sense of someone who walks around looking for a fight but in the sense of someone who could endure hardship. And there were hardships in his life: his father died of pneumonia before he was two leavng his mother a widow with 2 infant children. She remarried Vincente Ruggiero and had 6 more children with him before he died, too, which meant my father never made it past the 8th grade but, being the oldest in the family, went to work to help support his mother and 7 brothers and sisters. And that became the pattern of his life: work and responsibility and more work.
He worked at the Downtown Athletic Club which was an exclusive private men’s club up until the women’s movement finally caused it, like many other private men’s clubs, to open their membership to women. He did not live to see that happen, though, and the club was, in his time, filled with well-fed Republicans. The club was famous for sponsoring the Heisman Trophy which American football fans know as the award given each year to the most promising college football player. The club was in an historic building in Battery Park, which, though not physically damaged on 9/11 was one of many businesses in that part of lower Manhattan that fell victim to the fallout that followed the attacks and it finally went bankrupt in 2002. But he didn’t live to see its doors close, either. When he died, it was still an exclusive private men’s club that people like Richard Nixon belonged to.
He read three newspapers a day and loved to discuss politics and sports with whomever was available. The members of the club loved him, and the other employees thought enough of him to elect him shop stewart to negotiate with management on their behalf. I learned at an early age that opinions were worthless unless you could back them up with facts and once when I said I didn’t understand the way some people thought or acted, he told me to always try to stand in the other person’s shoes and look at things from their perspective before judging anyone.
I never really knew him since I saw so little of him. He was up early and out of the house before I went to school and came home sometime between 9-9:30 every night. He could have been home faster if he took the Long Island Rail Road but took the subway and buses instead in order to save money on the commuting. That commute was the main reason he never wanted to leave Brooklyn but my mother, as usual, won that argument. Weekends and vacations he worked around the house, doing the chores my mother assigned him. We only took one vacation during his lifetime: 2 weeks in East Hampton where my brother Johnny and I fished almost every day and I remember only catching an eel that we actually ate. We did go crabbing, though, and had better luck there. And, of course, we swam. He barbecued and made friends wherever he went. People always seemed to take to him and he was respected.
In his family, he was the patriarch and he had heartache raising his brothers and sisters (all 7 of them lived with my parents after his mother died) but they would generally all obey him. When he died, the funeral parlor was packed the three days of the wake and everyone cried, including every single man that was there. There were over 40 cars in the funeral procession and not a dry eye at the burial site.
He loved to socialize. There were always people at our house on the weekends or we drove to New Jersey for family gatherings at my Uncle Mike’s who had a large property and a brick barbecue pit that I actually helped build. He once wanted to buy a bar that was for sale in the town we had moved to after the war–Massapequa–thinking it would allow him to actually be home more, or at least in the neighborhood, but my mother was against it. Many years later, when I wanted to open the bookstore that was to become Intellectuals & Liars, she supported my idea and had my stepfather lend me the $3000 I needed for my share of the original capital investment, telling me she regretted standing in my father’s way for his dream so would not oppose me in mine. Of course, my mother was always supportive in everything I did but her saying that said more about her relationship with my father than with me.
He had periodic strokes caused, it seems, by a calcium deficiency and it was one of those strokes that happened in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve, 1962, that resulted in his being taken to the hospital on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1963. He went into a coma that same day and died 5 days later on Jan. 5th at a little before 6am. I still, even today, can hear that phone ringing to give us the news and my mother shrieking, refusing to answer it, knowing no good news comes at 6 in the morning, and my Aunt Mary had to pick up the phone as we all crowded around on the stairs and got the news. January became a dreaded month for my mother after that, and, in her final illness, she feared dying in January herself. Ironically, she did die in the same hospital as my father on January 29th, 2001. It became a cursed month for me afterwards. I still find it is hard to shake the sadness January always brings.
Though my mother was devastated by my father’s death, and there was a long period of financial instability in the family causing both my Aunt Mary (my mother’s older, widowed sister) and my grandmother to leave Brooklyn and move into the house with us to help, it did, in many ways, result in some of the fondest memories I have of my teenage and young adult years. But those memories I’ll save for another post and I will also postpone flashing forward from the early 60s to the early 70s to introduce the other father I was blessed with: Charlie Russell, my stepfather. His story I think I’ll save for another time. My Part II, as it were. or will be
Now I will say that though I really never got to know my father while he was alive since he was always working and thus a shadow in my early life, I did get to know him after his death from the stories my family and family friends who came around told me. It was almost as if he had to die for me to know him and to realize the depth of my feelings for him and the debt I owe him in terms of my character. For my father taught me not to be afraid to love someone with my whole heart, to stand up to schoolyard bullies for they were the real cowards in life, to have the strength of character to follow my dreams, to never give up unless admitting defeat was better than being too stubborn to know your own limitations, but to learn from those limitations and to turn them into strengths, to be empathetic and to never judge another human being without first trying to see things from their perspective, to value education, to be knowledgeable about more than just my own field of interest, to never start something I wasn’t willing to finish, and to be proud of who I am and the people I come from. Finally, maybe the hardest lesson was to learn to forgive those who do you injury, but not to forget. And to paraphrase my father, it’s more important to be honorable and right than it is to be materially successful and wrong. It is, after all, my own face I must look at in the mirror and, as he told me once, that person staring back at me in the mirror was the only one I had to prove myself to.
I still see my father in dreams now. He visits me on those nights and we talk. The sleeves of his white shirt are rolled up to his elbows, his tie is loosened, the top button of his shirt undone. Sometimes we are sitting at the old dining room table drinking wine, or we’re walking down a street toward a subway stop so we can go to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers finally beat hell out of the Yankees, or we’re in the backyard and he’s grilling Sabrett hot dogs and I’m telling him about my day, maybe asking for advice, but probably just having that heart-to-heart conversation I never had the chance to have. And I say Dad, in those dreams, I am your son.

18 thoughts on “My Two Fathers, Part I

  1. Len, your story brings back vivid memories of my father who died in 1984. Although divorced from my mother when I was 2 years, I went on vacation each year and saw my dad and stepmom almost every weekend. So, in that respect, I spent valuable time with him. However, since he was a Class of 45 man, being a dad was a more formal affair than dads of today. Like you, I grew to appreciate him and know him better after he passed. I look forward to Part Two.

  2. A wonderful tribute to your Dad. Reminded me of mine…

    Memories of my father are always entangled with memories of the garden. He loved his garden, and often stayed outside until it was too dark to see. I can picture him still – a small, grey man, fingers stained with earth, making his own peace with the world.

    concrete steps
    an old man rolls cigarettes
    with shaking hands

    (published in my first poetry book)

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