My father, Sal with the twins, Joan and Barbara on the streets of Hoboken
And then there were three. My brother Kenneth and the twins with Mom and Dad.
I suppose the first gift to my father, Sal, was his first two children... the "Twins", Joan and Barbara, born three days apart but healthy, nonetheless.
This was the start of my immigrant Dad's entry into fatherhood. Just when other men were being drafted into the U.S. army to fight in World War II, he suddenly was burdened not with one, but two children--this was in 1942 when twins were a mere 1% of all births. His nickname, Sally-Boy was coming to an end. Things had just gotten serious.
When he saw only one baby on that first day, the doctor casually told him, "The second one just isn't ready yet". He couldn't rest assured that everything was OK until the second was born three days later, an event that placed my mother's photo holding the two of them on the pages of New York City's Daily News. The war started and my Dad worked in a defense plant making springs for tanks.
As you can see from the photo above, my father was not only a proud father, but a rather goofy one. Always the joker... that was his first real gift to his children. John and Barbara were to be followed by Kenneth, Joyce-Ann and myself, the "baby" of the brood. Somehow, Dad provided. Before he was married, he and his brother had a "Three Legged Horse and Cart" and sold fruit and vegetables to the seamen down at Hoboken harbor. He had dreams of having his own Italian delicatessen or market someday, but he opted to have security for his family, always working for others for a steady salary. He clothed and fed us by being a grocery and deli man his entire life. This was another gift to us all.
Always the clown, even as a young man
Dad always played the fool, constantly at the ready to play a joke on us, to get us to laugh, putting us close to sheer embarrassment. At the beach he always insisted that we bury him under the sand, head exposed with his shoes stuck out 12' away from his head under a ridiculously long body of sand. Everyone passing by loved it. After a while (and his nap) we'd mockingly wind up stomping on his sandy "stomach" (safely clear of his real one) to the amusement of others around us, aside from my mother, who always made like she didn't know him.
When we were the only Italian family going to a New Jersey mountain lake previously only frequented by Germans, my father offered them meatballs, sausage and spaghetti and became the biggest clown in the middle of the lake, making his infamous sea monster growl that echoed from the mountainside. He taught us to put small, rounded stream stones into the barbecue so they would explode and scare the heck out of Mom when she was grilling burgers and hot dogs. He came up with the idea to put the watermelon in the stream to keep it cool all afternoon--which worked great except for one day when my sister and I had to run, splashing down the stream to recapture it after it got loose. These were also gifts from Dad.
Fishing on the Hudson with Dad, myself and Joyce on the rocks
Dad always took me fishing and crabbing down the abandoned docks and piers along the Hudson River. He taught me how to get past chain link fences and avoid guard houses to find the best fishing spot. I remember long, hot afternoons, the smell of fish and tar, and the pinching of the crabs we'd catch in our box crab nets. Some days we'd be there so long until the tide shifted on the Hudson... in the morning the river would be flowing out to sea, and in the afternoon it the river would actually flow upstream.
He'd also drop some bait lines from the wooden pilings using little screw-in springs with bells on them. A big "Mama eel" would latch on to a hook, the bell would ring and Dad would have dinner for him and Mom. One day we caught a big eel in the crab net and a big Jersey blue crab on the drop line. At the end of a long day, we'd head home with a bucket full of beautiful blue crabs and perhaps a few eels to fry up.
Again, more gifts from Dad.
Sally Boy and Me
Of course, we all bought Dad gifts for Father's Day. I remember saving the deposit money I earned from collecting empty soda bottles and buying him a bottle of shaving lotion or a pair of socks. A I got older, my gifts were many and varied: bottles of Amaretto, a fishing rod, a lop-eared rabbit, a 3 foot tall basket woven bottle of Chianti, a turquoise pocket knife, a trip to Caesar's Palace in Atlantic City, and odd assortments of power and garden tools.
But looking back, my gifts never matched the gifts he gave to me. He gave rock-solid, undeniable love and pride toward me. He gave simple, sound advice when I most needed it. He even gave me the gift of my wife and son when one day challenging me, "So, when are you going to marry that girl? You spend all your time with her anyway!"
When I lived in Paris years ago, one of the most unexpected pleasures was when I visited the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Often, people regard this unusual site as a place of pilgrimage, to pay homage to the likes of Chopin, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde or even rock legend Jim Morrison (his grave littered with graffiti and drug paraphernalia was distasteful to me). But I went for a different reason... the art. Admittedly, wealthy families could possibly afford to commission a granite temple, travertine pyramid or marble sculptures to honor a lost beloved member--and truth be told, perhaps the effort is really a monument to perpetuate the myth of their family's importance for the ones still living and yet to come.
In any case, I didn't visit to pay homage to any heroes of mine. I went for the art itself. In Italy, it's also possible to do the same as a number of cemeteries contain some amazing monumental art.
Photos of family members passed are lovingly cared for
Most modern Italian cemeteries sit on the outskirts of their towns and consist of a mix of traditional graves and headstones and multi-level rows of vaults, a method used by the both the ancient Etruscans and early Christians. The vaults are simple affairs, sealed with a marble stone, names and dates with a small medallion containing a photo of the individual as they appeared in life.
However, over the years, many wealthier families commissioned architects and artists to create chapels, tombs and sculptures resulting in many Italian cemeteries becoming open-air museums of funerary art, known as Cimiteri Monumentali (Monumental Cemeteries). I've put together a collection for you to enjoy...
Cemeteries Worth Visiting
Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno One of the largest cemeteries in Europe, the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa covers nearly a square mile on the hilltop district known as Staglieno. It was opened in 1844 at a time when Genoa was home to affluent bourgeoisie businessmen, politicians and artists. To honor their accomplishments, realistic sculptures were commissioned for their tombs. This is without doubt, one of the most visited monumental cemeteries in Europe.
San Michele Cemetery, "Island of the Dead", Venice After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, Napoleon prohibited any burials in town centers and in Venice, this meant that a new walled cemetery was commissioned on the island of San Michele, within reach of gondolas from the Venice waterfront. The island is landscaped with tall cypress trees, a 15th Century church and cloister. The shallow graves are occupied a dozen years and afterwards are exhumed with the bones interred into mausoleum niches or dumped into a communal ossuary.
You'll find graves of 19th and 20th Century foreigners, including celebrities like Ezra Pound, Serge Diaghilev (whose grave normally is decorated with a ballet slipper), and Igor Stravinsky.
Cimitero Monumentale di Torino The Monumental Cemetery of Turin was commissioned in 1827 to replace the small and ancient cemetery of St. Peter in Chains. It contains numerous historical tombs and 6 miles of porticoes adorned with sculptures of artistic interest.
Cimitero Monumentale di Milano One of two large cemeteries in Milan (Cimitero Maggiore is the other), Milan Monumental Cemetery was designed by architect Carlo Maciachini and contains a multitude of sculptures by renowned artists: Giò Ponti, Arturo Martini, Lucio Fontana, Medardo Rosso, Giacomo Manzù, Floriano Bodini, and Giò Pomodoro.
Visitors enter through an impressive Medieval style building of marble and stone that contains the tombs of the country's most honored citizens. Besides having mostly Catholic graves, there are also sections for Jews and other non-C Catholics. The cemetery contains the tombs of composers Corelli, Verdi and Toscanini.
Cimitero Monumentale di Messina The Monumental Cemetery of Messina, in Sicily, is one the best for funerary art. In 1854, it was designed as a urban park and gardens as well as a cemetery. The cemetery is divided into the Jewish cemetery, the Catholic cemetery, and a monument to the victims of the First World War. The art in this cemetery is second only to Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa.
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