The Rogue Voice


June 01, 2007

Love Italian Style

He had been raised a New Jersey Italian where family and loyalty to one’s clan are as certain and sacrosanct as the natural order of the universe.

‘You don’t have to love me, but you will respect me,’ was the message, and as time passed I learned to both respect and love my new father.

Love, Italian style
A father teaches respect and playing the game right

By Stacey Warde

My father recently went to the hospital to have his kidney removed.
The doctors extracted the kidney with a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit.
I spent most of a long weekend with my mother, sitting at his bedside, until he was well enough to return home.
For now, we’re hopeful, fingers crossed, that the man who took on a single mother with two rambunctious boys 40 years ago will continue to bounce back, and regain his health.
My dad, who turns 70 and celebrates his 40th wedding anniversary this month, came into his marriage to my mother with the odds stacked against him. My biological father had abandoned us several years earlier and made clear that he wanted to have little—and ultimately, nothing—to do with us.
We were hurt, angry little boys, and we weren’t quite ready for another man to claim us as his own children. Sure, my brother and I liked him—as a friend—but when mom told us she was going to marry him and that he’d be our dad, we rebelled. We tested him. When the cops came knocking on our door only a few months after the wedding, he stood by my brother and me as we bold-faced lied.
“Did you throw rocks at the old lady’s window?” he asked us, responding to a complaint from the neighbor woman—a cranky old bag who hated kids.
“No, we didn’t do it,” we protested.
“If my boys say they didn’t do it, they didn’t do it,” he said firmly, closing the door and sending the cops away.
Mom came home later that day and got straight to the point with my brother: “Why’d you do it, Nathan?”
“They made me do it,” he wailed, pointing his finger at me.
We both got whooped pretty hard for making our new dad look like a fool in front of the cops. He laid down the law and made clear that his authority was to be respected, or we’d pay the consequences. That was our first taste of fatherly love, Italian style.
“You don’t have to love me, but you will respect me,” was the message, and as time passed I learned to both respect and love my new father.

He had been raised a New Jersey Italian where family and loyalty to one’s clan are as certain and sacrosanct as the natural order of the universe.
We could balk at attending family gatherings but in the end we paid our respects when it was time to visit our aunts and uncles or when it was our turn to host a party. With Italians, my brother and I quickly learned, love is as present in attending a cousin’s wedding, or sitting down to dinner, or celebrating an aunt’s birthday as it is in a good, old-fashioned Italian scolding or backhand.
We learned, eventually, that we could pretend to live on either side of love or respect but that neither one was real until we had both. And the surest way to have both was to put our family first—in all things.
One summer, when I was a teen, my parents threw a big party that included family and friends from New Jersey, as well as our closer, California relatives. It was a rare occasion and a celebration to have everyone there. “It’s family,” my dad said often, justifying his demand that we attend such fetes. By this time, however, I didn’t need to be reminded. I wanted to party with the family.
My father never gave any indication of connections with the mob. If he had any, we never knew it, and I doubted that a man of his gentle disposition could have suffered the losses that such a connection would incur. He was always simply a blue-collar Italian with old-school Italian ways: Respect your mother, don’t curse at the dinner table or talk back when spoken to and be grateful for the food you have and eat what’s on your plate. Finally, always treat your guests like family.
At the party, my best buddy Michael spied a family friend in black leather jacket, slick black hair and slick attitude to match. He was in his 30s, carried himself like a made man, smooth and confident; he chatted it up with the ladies and helped himself to generous servings from the spread of food my mom and aunts had prepared for the gathering: Lasagna, spaghetti and sausage and meatballs, tortellini, salad and side dishes galore and tons of garlic bread—all lovingly cast upon the standard red-and-white checkered tablecloth.
“Who’s that?” Michael asked.
“I don’t know, a friend of the family.”
“Let’s go talk to him,” Michael urged.
We introduced ourselves and Sal told us he’d come with a distant cousin of mine, a good friend, he said, and he liked the party and felt at home. The food’s outta this world, he mused. “Your mom make this?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s good, isn’t it? You like it?”
“It’s the best,” he said. “Just like home.”
“You from Jersey?” Michael asked.
“Yeah. Live near your cousin,” he said, plopping another piece of sausage into his mouth, grinning at me like I was his kid brother.
“You with the mob?” Michael blurted.
I glared at Michael, trying to shut him up with eyes that could kill.
Sal shrugged his shoulders, held up his hands the way Italians do when words aren’t enough and said, “Heh!”
“Don’t listen to Michael, Sal, he doesn’t get out much,” I said.
“Don’t worry, kid. He’s just curious.” And he gave my cheek a friendly slap and pinch, the way my dad used to do when I was young and wanted to get my attention and make a point. “Where’s your cousin?” Sal asked, and when I pointed her out he left us standing by the table.
“You fucking idiot, Michael!”
“What?” he said.
“You don’t ask a fucking stupid question like that, you moron!”
Thankfully, Sal, whether he was a mobster or not, felt unthreatened, he was welcomed into our family circle, and that’s something all Italians—with or without connections—take seriously. I knew instinctively that Michael had crossed the line and that he was being disrespectful but I also knew that no matter what Sal’s station in life, he wouldn’t hurt Michael out of respect for my family and because, thanks to my mom and dad, he had had a taste of home.

Several years later, while on a weekend pass from basic training at Ft. Dix, I went to visit my dad’s brother, Uncle Bill, and his wife Aunt Jean, who put me up for a couple of days and made me a part of their family in Somerville, New Jersey.
My first night Aunt Jean sat me at the dining table and began feeding me, my first home-cooked meal in weeks. “Eat!” she commanded, “eat!” And when I felt like I couldn’t eat another bite, she said, “Finish your dinner! What, you don’t like my cooking?”
“Aunt Jean, I love it. I just don’t think I can eat any more.”
“You’re too skinny. What’s the Army trying to do, kill you? Eat!”
“OK,” I said, “thanks, Aunt Jean.”
As Aunt Jean cleaned up the kitchen, Uncle Bill sat next to me and smiled as he watched me finish my plate. And when I thought I’d explode from eating too much, he reached for my plate and asked: “Can I get you some more?” Like my dad, Uncle Bill had a great sense of humor and at first I thought he was teasing me and I snickered until I realized he was serious. I wiped my mouth with a napkin and waved him off. “No thanks, Uncle Bill. That was the best ever, Aunt Jean.”
“There’s plenty more,” she said, “you go right ahead and help yourself if you want more.”
I hardly knew them but because I was family, they treated me as if I was their own son. More important, I was “Jackie’s boy.” And that gave me some added leverage. I always knew, even as a small child, that dad had a way with people, especially ladies. He charmed and teased them and could make them laugh or blush with ribald insinuations without being offensive or embarrassing my mother.
The next day Uncle Bill and I put in a few hours at the Legionnaires Hall setting up tables and chairs, and stocking the cooler with beer and soda, for a gathering later that Saturday night. The party included men, women and children, mostly Italians, of all ages. If I danced with a young woman, I also danced with her mother and grandmother. That’s the way it was. And no one complained. Aunt Jean took me around to meet the locals, and I shook men’s hands and kissed women’s cheeks. “This is Jackie’s boy,” she said.
“You’re Jackie’s boy?” gasped an older matron who threw her arms around me, held me to her bosom and wetted my cheeks with kisses. “You’re Jackie’s boy?” she said again, and then spun me around for a whirl on the dance floor. At the Legionnaires Hall in Somerville, New Jersey, I was an instant celebrity simply because I was “Jackie’s boy.” I did things I never would have done with my friends, like dancing the Hokey-Pokey, and treating the older Italian women like queens and leaving alone their younger lusty daughters to be the perfect gentleman that Jackie had raised me to be.
Not that he didn’t encourage me to pursue the pleasures of a good woman, but I knew enough to be on my best behavior in the company of those who loved and respected him. That’s how it is with Italians. When it comes to family, you toe the line, and you never do anything that would embarrass your mother or your father.

My dad put a lot of stock into “playing the game right.”
One summer, he put together a traveling baseball team, handpicked the players and helped organize the league. It was forward-thinking at the time for kids our age who wanted to continue playing through the summer, an idea that came long before the super-hyped, expensive and prestigious traveling leagues formed many years later with their fancy uniforms and fussy parents telling the coaches what to do.
It was a big treat for us kids, too, getting to play past the usual short season of organized youth baseball; it was a rougher and scrappier kind of game, more in the dirt, and with other talented kids from communities beyond our own whom we’d never met before, and who also loved to play hard and get dirty. It was just the boys and their dads, who helped with the officiating and coaching.
I loved it. My dad instilled in me that summer a passion for the game that went well beyond just playing good baseball. It had everything to do with how I played, and the way I carried myself on and off the field.
“If you can’t play the game right, don’t play at all!” he barked at me once when I’d tried a cleats-to-the-face slide into third base. He didn’t like foul play or cheats; he wanted me to know and play the game well enough to take advantage of my opportunities without resorting to cheating or foul play. “It makes you a better player, and others will respect you more when you play the game right,” he said. “You don’t have to cheat to win.”
And he benched me to drive home his point.
During another game, while pitching, I got increasingly frustrated because I was missing the corners, and throwing more balls, and wearing myself down. I still managed to hold off most batters, but was working too hard at it. My frustration got worse and I let anger take over and started throwing harder, straight down the pipe, but still missing, and digging myself into a hole.
My dad saved me from myself and pulled me from the game. But I was angry and didn’t want to leave and threw my glove into the dugout as I came off the field and he glanced up at me over his scorebook and said, “Do you want to sit out the next game, too?”
That’s all he needed to say, and I stewed quietly until the game was over. On the way home, he said, “I pulled you because you were playing blind. You don’t play blind. You’ll end up hurting yourself, or worse, someone else.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“I didn’t hit anybody,” I said.
“I didn’t say you were wild. I said you were playing blind. You got too emotional. You let your emotions get in the way of your abilities.” I knew he was right and thought about it for the rest of the summer and still think about it whenever I start feeling like breaking down and “playing blind.”
“You play smart, son. That’s how you win.”

I’m trying to play smart now as my dad returns to the doctor for more testing for a tiny suspicious spot on his lung. It’s hard not to get emotional, thinking about him going back to the hospital for more surgery. It’s hard not to get angry and lose control knowing there’s little I can do to help him. Playing smart will be the best way to support him and show him my love. It’s tough to watch someone you love suffer. Now I know how he must have felt, watching me go down the tubes that summer day when he pulled me off the mound and benched me. I want a full recovery for my dad; I want him to stay in the game. For now, we’re lucky to still have him with us, to sup with us at the table he and mother have kept these last 40 years, welcoming their friends and family, sharing their love and respect. §
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