The deepest cut that comes from losing a loved one is the fact that they take things with them. They take distinctive things, things they alone gave and as such, cannot be replicated. Eight years ago yesterday, my father died. With him went his particular approach to traditions, his particular brand of love that no one else can give, and his stories that no one else can tell. If you’re a regular listener of the The Italian American Podcast, you’ve heard me talk about him many times.
Before he died, I remember believing my family was special. God shielded us, for some reason I could not explain, from the horrible things that befell other families, and He always would. It’s a delusion we all live under, until life rips it from us. So when I found myself at the side of my father’s hospital bed, in my 20s, watching him recede into another world right before my eyes, it was unbelievable. I don’t know any other instance where the word “unbelievable” is more applicable. I wanted a recount; I wanted a replay; someone had gotten the lines crossed, and the wrong man was about to die. It could not be possible. But here we were, hysterical, stunned, helpless no matter how many doctors we called and how many strings we tried to pull. I dropped to my knees in the bathroom down the hall, and I prayed with a desperation I had never known before. I begged St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, to intercede. I begged God to spare him. I offered everything I could offer. And still, it wasn’t enough. Like water through our fingers, he slipped away, no matter how hard we tried to hold him here with us.
There is a very special and distinct type of love a father gives a daughter. At a relatively young age I had to accept that I would no longer receive that love. It can’t be replaced. You have to be grateful for the love and care you received up until that point, and if you’re lucky like me and received bucket loads of it, remember that some people don’t even get that much. Be a daddy’s-little-girl all your life, as I was, and the loss hits even deeper. Some days, I think my father gave me enough love and admiration to last me two lifetimes; some days, I feel robbed of the more of it I “should” have gotten.
As Italian Americans, we celebrate a fierce devotion to family. I know people who clipped their wings, limited their potential, because they could not leave their families. They did not go away to college; they did not marry people their families didn’t approve of; they did not travel or take lucrative positions that were located in other states. In my early 20s, I was not one of these people. I moved far away and I rambled where I wanted, but I decided to move back to New York just two weeks before my father died rather suddenly, with zero knowledge of what was to come (a subject, perhaps, for another post), and was staying with my parents until I found a place.
Yet, after his death, I remained with my widowed mother. I could not find comfort in renting an apartment in some other town, knowing she was there in our childhood home, suddenly alone, full of a grief that is still difficult for me to describe. I am the youngest daughter raised in an immigrant Italian family, and as modern as I know myself to be, as rebellious, independent, free-spirited, as American, when it came down to it, my instinct was – prima la famiglia.
My American friends told me I should move. They told me I had to live my own life. They told me I needed to get out of my hometown and be “on my own.” My mother would be fine. I had to think about myself.
Instead, I lived with my mother for several years. We bore the pain together. I remember mornings where I woke up to the sound of her asking God aloud why He had done this to her. She met my father when she was 13 years old; she had become a woman by his side, a mother, a grandmother, and, briefly, since he died in his early 60s, begun to turn the corner of growing older at his side. She would be forced to continue that journey on her own. And because of that and a host of other reasons, she grieved audibly, physically, entirely, in the Southern-Italian way. I sat beside her, and in turn I relied on her when my own pain became too great to hide. My siblings, who by this time were in their own homes, raising families of their own, were grateful that I was there with her and she was not alone. I knew I could give them peace, too, by doing for our family what they could not.
I won’t say that only an Italian American would be there for her family the way I was, but I will say that I made the choice I made because I’d been raised with Italian values – put nothing before your family; it’s not only about you; you have nothing if you don’t have communion with others; you make sacrifices for something larger than you.
When my father died he took with him stories of his childhood. He took with him a blue-collar industriousness that shaped my siblings and me. He took with him a light-heartedness and silliness I so often find myself wishing I possessed more of. He took with him a devotion to friends and family that I continue to remain in awe of; he never thought of the fact that he was tired, he would still get up and come over to your house if you called him; he never thought of taking some downtime for himself, he would gratefully and excitedly welcome you in when you dropped by his home unexpected. His life was not his own. He did not look at it through the independent, success-at-all-costs lens America often pushes us to look through. His life was about others, and his successes were worth nothing to him if they did not benefit those around him.
With my father’s death, I learned to worry about my mother in a way I’d never before. She remains so utterly precious to me, like a rare flower of a vanishing species. I am concerned about her constantly. I soak up our moments together. I lament living in another city from her. She is part of the reason I continue to participate in The Italian American Podcast, and so is my father. In my memoir, The Dreams that Break Your Heart (which I am working on getting published, for those of you who have inquired!), I have a chapter where I write about a garage sale I remember from my teenage years. My mother is nonchalantly selling items from the past. She is many wonderful things, but she is not sentimental. A vase from Italy doesn’t bear much weight for her because she can take Italy for granted; it’s in her irrevocably, the way America is in me. I, on the other hand, fear the loss of our traditions, the language, the celebratory, loving, loud family life Italian Americans are beloved for to the staid, civilized way of America, so with every item she sells my heart breaks.
The podcast, my memoir, they are both attempts to not only capture it all before it’s too late, but to become more of it.
What I’ve learned from writing my book and producing the podcast is that we can, by our actions, by putting in the work, draw ourselves closer to our roots. We can’t save everything; some things really do disappear when the people who brought them to us disappear. But I am less afraid now than I once was of being completely detached from my heritage and its traditions once both of my parents are gone.
Heritage, tradition, family, belonging, these are the things that make us strong. I want to give them to the children I may have some day, just as they were given to me. I’ve lived enough life to know that if this is something I want, I have to create it. It can’t be assumed. Values, customs, these things have to be passed down; they have to be given.
My father taught me that, during his life and through his death.
– Dolores Alfieri
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Joe Loizzo says
Thanks Dolores for this beautiful reflection! It made me cry! I lost a dear member of our family last weekend, my cousin Larry who was more like a brother to me growing up. We did lots of things together like all Italian American families and one of the most important was the Christmas Eve fish dinner at my mom’s with 40 guests including my cousins. We thought everyone celebrated like that at the time and that it would never end. But like many families we all moved away and those Christmas Eve celebrations eventually ended. However, family is still very strong as all of our cugini experienced at his funeral, amidst the tears, hugs and lots of laughs too remembering my cousin Larry. That kind of love and affection cannot die, and will live on through us in our larger families. Your slogan “Prima La Famiglia” is correct whether we live near or far from one another!
Dolores Alfieri says
Joe, I really appreciate your comments. I remember, too, very well, feeling like the family dinners and celebrations would always be the way they used to be and never end. I love how you both acknowledge (and even mourn!) what’s lost, yet also embrace what still remains. I’m so sorry for your loss. I agree – that kind of love cannot die. We find it alive inside of us and even in those around us… Thank you so much for writing!! Prima La Famiglia! (We have t-shirts with that slogan, by the way, if you want to check them out! 🙂 italianamericanpodcast.com/store)
Dora D'Agostino Finamore says
Hi Dolores, Wow, can I relate. As an only child of Italian parents, I was very close to both. When my father passed away, I felt like the world stopped, and my mother, a strong woman, remained close in proximity, living in her own home. Her sister lived next door, so they were buddies and reinvented their relationship. It was sweet to see Aunt Jean (Giaconda) and Carmela, my mom, like teens, shopping, cooking and laughing together. Aunt Mary live around the corner from them, so they all had many good times together. My father was the philosopher of the family, and we would spend hours talking about life, Italy, culture, food and laughing until it hurt. He was a sentimental man, artistic, but in his family, the patriarch, Vincenzo insisted the sons all work as union carpenters and master craftsman. He ruled with an iron fist, and for my father, it was difficult, because his mother (my paternal grandmother Jennie, died young; late 50s. I was five but remember it vividly, as my father cried, and I tried to console him.
My mother and I shared many wonderful years after my father died, taking her on several trips to places she had never been. She attended my dissertation defense the same year she died. However, she lived life to the fullest, and was never ill, until six months before she passed at age 85 in 2001. She did see me earn my doctorate degree, and was so proud of all she had provided for me. I miss both my parents every day, and do my best to pass on those traditions to Ashley, and luckily, like you, she had embraced them in a way I never imagined, but had only hoped for.
Now, having moved back to N.J. after living in Aruba, and Florida and Charleston, we spend every holiday with family, and look forward to summers at the beach, Christmas Eve, when 50 gather for The Seven Fishes Feast, and I make my mother’s struffoli, and other delectable foods. I am between generations luckily so I relate well to older and younger second cousins. When I returned from living in Aruba, my father was dying, but never told me because he wanted me to live my life. I so wish I had not left, because I wanted to spend more time with he and my mother, but such is life.
You made a wonderful decision to stay with your mother. Those years are precious. Now, the holidays begin, and the memories flood me. I cherish the pictures, stories, and movies I transferred to DVD, so we can hear their voices once again. Thank you for helping lead me back to those places. The podcast and blog are part of my life now, and I am grateful to you and Anthony for this. When is your book being published? I would love to buy copies for the cousins this Christmas. Sincerely, Dora
Dolores Alfieri says
I can’t tell you, Dora, how much I enjoyed reading this. We are not of the same generation, but we are very similar. I think one of the graces that comes from such tragedy is how we reinvent our relationships with those who remain. My mother and I forged a closeness that is its own gift out of the grief. We thank God for the small blessings, the silver linings, that seem to shine through the rubble. This was a beautiful comment; thank you for writing.