Sunday, May 10, 2009

I still miss my Dad

It was three years ago today that my father passed away. I am thankful that he lived to a good old age and we had a great relationship, and I have nothing but fond memories. But I still miss him.

Yes, losing loved ones is part of life, and time does have a way of tempering the loss. Furthermore, my faith assures me that I will be reunited with him. But every once in a while it hits me like a ton of bricks that he is no longer around. But then, the renewed sensation of loss is quickly followed by a bittersweet joy that reminds me what a great dad I had.

At his funeral it was my privilege to give one of the eulogies. After rereading what I wrote at the time, I realize that I would not change a thing.

Domenic Vadalà was born on February 22, 1923 in the small town of Torre Faro, Messina, Italy. He was the son of Pietro Vadalà and Domenica Rando. In keeping with tradition, as the first born, he was named after his grandfather, Domenico Vadalà. The Vadalàs were generally humble fishermen whose livelihood came from the waters of the Strait of Messina, where the Tyrhennian and Ionian seas converge between Sicily and the Italian mainland.

He was followed by three sisters, Concetta, Fortunata and Flora, and by one brother, Leo. Between the births of Fortunata and Flora, the family had migrated north to Genoa, Italy.

While growing up he excelled in school, which in those days simply meant being promoted to the next grade. Italian schools were strict, and promotion was the exception rather than the rule. He told us the story of how one year he was the only one in his class to be promoted, and he ran home excitedly to tell his father. Nonno Pietro replied, “Em beh, hai fatto il tuo dovere!” (Oh well, you did your duty.)

Daddy came of age in the years leading up to World War II, during the heyday of fascist Italy. Whatever else one can say about that unfortunate era, it at least for a time brought a sense of national pride and purpose in Italy. Like many of the young men at the time, my father got caught up in the patriotic fervor, and he seemed eager to serve as a loyal member of the Italian military. It was only later that disillusionment set in, realizing that he was fighting for an unjust cause on the wrong side of a losing battle. It almost cost him his life, not in the heat of battle, but in the aftermath of the war when bands of zealous partisans were taking it upon themselves to inflict punishment and rid the country of anyone aligned too closely with the fascist regime. He went into hiding but was eventually discovered and literally taken before a firing squad. On a fateful day in April he would never forget, his life was saved by a man—perhaps an angel--who seemed to appear out of nowhere and rebuked the partisans, saying something to the effect of, “You crazy people! Do you want to kill everybody? Let him go!”

For that we are extremely grateful, particularly those of us who otherwise would not be here today. After the war, he was employed in the Italian merchant marine on a coal bearing cargo ship. In 1948, upon landing in Baltimore, Maryland, he was given an extended shore leave in order to allow time to retrofit the cargo bay to transport grain to India. He took the opportunity to call on some uncles and cousins on his mother’s side who lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Not having the means to come and meet him, our Rando relatives called on one Nicola Ruello, a respected family friend from their home town who had emigrated to Rising Sun, Maryland. They asked if he would do them the kindness to receive and host their young relative.

It was there that Domenic Vadalà first met Angelina Ruello, and the rest—as they say-- was history. He never did go back to his cargo ship, and Domenic married Angelina on November 13, 1948 only a few short months after they met--a fact that raised the eyebrows of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But the INS need not have been concerned. Domenic Vadalà was well educated, gainfully employed and probably had a promising future in post-war Italy. He jumped ship for one and only one reason: he was in love with his Angelina. And for that too, we are very grateful, because many of us would otherwise not be here today.

With his education and experience, he of course had no problem finding gainful employment in the United States. Well, actually—truth be told--he ended up working for his father-in-law. Though he could have pursued other career opportunities—and on occasion was tempted to do so—Daddy spent his entire working life in the mushroom business started by Nonno Nicola. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t attest to his work ethic, his integrity, and his business acumen, which helped the company prosper in good times and stay afloat in lean times. My grandfather, Nonno Nicola was certainly pleased, and he perhaps expressed it best when he said, “Domenic u mannau u Signuri” (The Lord sent Domenic to us.). I couldn’t agree more.

In case you haven’t noticed, we are very proud of our father and loved him dearly. He, in turn, was very proud of his three sons. He saw to it that we would get a good education and hopefully steer clear of the mushroom business (that didn’t take too much convincing.) He also saw to it that we learn to speak Italian and to cherish and respect our heritage and culture. At the same time, he loved his adopted country, though he never hesitated to speak his mind about things he thought were wrong with the country. He taught us to not blindly follow what we were told, but to think independently. In my case, that may have backfired on him, because in the due course of time I probably became a little too patriotic and a little too conservative for his tastes. This sometimes led to some rather heated political discussions which—more often than I care to admit—ended in me losing my temper and saying some unkind things. I was very foolish! Happily, in more recent years, whenever I sensed the conversation going toward things political, I had the sense to just listen for a bit and then try to change the subject. I loved and respected the man too much to allow myself to act foolishly again. After all, we agreed on the things that mattered most. And on matters where we disagreed, I had to concede that he more than most had earned the right to express his opinions. For example, given what he experienced in World War II, having been deceived as a young man by appeals to patriotism, he could be forgiven if not commended for not being the first to jump on the bandwagon when our nation is considering going to war, or for being somewhat suspicious or cynical about appeals to patriotism.

I mentioned that Daddy was proud of his three sons. He was so proud of Pete, his first born, that he wanted to share him with his parents, so he actually sent him while still a tiny toddler to Italy with his maternal grandparents to spend the summer with Nonno Pietro and Nonna Nella. He sometimes wondered whether that was such a good idea, fearing that the separation had inflicted some trauma on Pete. But all Pete remembers was being spoiled by two sets of grandparents who attended to his every whim. In so many ways Pete led the way for all of us, and Daddy was pleased and proud that Pete went to college, got a degree, and married Nora Lee, his high school sweetheart, and raised two beautiful daughters, Alessandra and Teresa. And most recently, after Alessandra and Teresa each married their respective Dave’s, Daddy was so blessed to see the birth of his great-grandson, Victor Pietro.

Daddy had just as many reasons to be proud of his son Nicky—and Genine, the good Italian girl he married, and of course, his first grandson and namesake, Domenic, and his granddaughters Maria and Joanna. Nicky is the son with the heart of gold, who is always ready and willing to serve his parents and do whatever they asked. Come to think of it, Nicky is that way with everyone. He is the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.

Finally, though I am not sure why, Daddy was apparently proud of me too. I have heard him quoted as saying so and have even seen it in writing. He was probably pleased with my academic achievements in that I was a bit of a geek and did well in school—though he may have been disappointed that I did not go on to get a Ph.D. He was also very pleased with the girl I married. As with Nora and Genine, he loved Susan like his own daughter, and he also cherished his last set of grandchildren: Christine, Luke and Angela.

He taught us to be devoted and committed to our wives and our children, which he did primarily by his example. He taught us to love each other and not let anything come between us. He would often quote his grandfather, Domenico, who said “Vulemuci tutti bene, picchi non ci custa nente” (Let’s love each other. After all, it doesn’t cost us anything.) He also had a keen intellect and a never ending pursuit of learning. We sometimes teasingly called him Mr. Know-it-all, but in a sense we weren’t teasing. At times it seemed there were very few things he didn’t know!

But greater and more precious than all of these qualities, was his faith in God. Just over a month ago, when he was first presented with the news that he was in the advanced stages of cancer, he expressed the same serenity and joy that he had always possessed. He simply said, “I have had a good life. I think often about ‘that day’, and when I think of it I am even filled with joy and anticipation.” His use of the phrase “that day” wasn’t just a euphemism for the day of his death. He was well versed enough in the Scriptures that I am certain he was thinking of the words that St. Paul penned to Timothy when he knew he was reaching the end of his life. He wrote, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”

Daddy could look forward to that day not so much because of his intellect, his work ethic, his integrity or his devotion to his family, or any other aspect of the “good life” he had led. Despite these commendable qualities, he was very much aware of his own sins and shortcomings. But he had placed his faith in Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” And because of that, he could look forward to the day of his death with peace and serenity, and that is how he died.

Of all the precious memories, some of the most precious to me are the more recent ones in the past couple years, when we were unfortunately separated by distance due to his extended stay in Italy. During that time, all three of us at one point or another managed to take a trip or two across the ocean just to spend some precious time with our parents. There were also many phone calls, much to the joy and delight of the phone companies. I will always remember and treasure those phone calls, particularly how we ended them. Instead of just saying goodbye, I would quote a phrase that Daddy was very familiar with from the Latin Mass: “Sursum corda” I would say, which means “Lift up your hearts.” And he would reply “Habemus ad Dominum”, which means “We have lifted them up to the Lord. “ And then we would end the call by expressing our affection toward each other, with me saying “Ti voglio bene, papà” (I love you, Daddy.) and him replying “E anch’io a te, gioia. Ma tanto, tanto.” (And I love you too, my joy; very, very much.)

It breaks my heart that he isn’t there now to hear me say sursum corda. And right now, it’s my “corda” that needs to be “sursum’d” But I firmly believe that right now, if he could be distracted for just a second from worshipping his Savior, and if he can tear himself away from the joyful reunion with his loved ones who preceded him, he would be saying "sursum corda" to us. To which we would do well to say Habemus ad Dominum.

Because as fitting and appropriate as it is to honor and remember Domenic Vadalà, and mourn his loss, it is even more fitting and appropriate to honor and thank the One who gave him to us for 83 years. The next words in the Latin liturgy, which of course Daddy knew all too well, are “Gràtias agàmus Dòmino Deo nostro. Dignum et iustum est.” Therefore, let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just to give Him thanks and praise.

Ti voglio tanto bene, Papà. Ma tanto, tanto.

1 comment:

maria.vadala said...

I miss him too. I just read this now. I forgot what a great eulogy you gave. Love you, Uncle Leo!