There was nothing subtle about my dad, and this was definitely true of his hugs. Everything about him was big. His joy was gigantic, his anger was loud, and his love was deep. When he talked, he gestured with big, sweeping motions. His hugs weren’t given often or lightly, which made them precious. But still huge. When Dad hugged you, he wrapped you from head to toe, top to bottom, 360 degrees. I’d give anything, anything asked of me, to have one more.
My dad was a bear of a man, not necessarily tall (5’10”) but substantial and solid. Thick. He had the biggest hands I’ve ever seen. I have very clear memories of his very large hand engulfing my very small hand as he held my hand while we walked downtown sidewalks. He held it so surely; I knew I was safe as long as my hand stayed in his. I want to feel that again.
Dad reminded me of Clemenza from The Godfather – “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” (A gun you can get anywhere. But a good cannoli, well…) Oddly, he hated The Godfather. He thought it insulting to Italian Americans. He even joined a formal and vocal boycott of the movie. Personally, I found this puzzling. Enough of the stuff in our house had no serial numbers, and enough of my speeding tickets had just evaporated, that somewhere in the back of my mind I’d assumed Dad was connected. And his best jokes were about dim or naïve Italians…so what was it about this movie that he found so distasteful? Was it too close to home? I never got the chance to ask.
Dad could tell a joke like a professional comedian. And he always laughed right along with everyone. Not in that awkward laugh-at-your-own-jokes-because-no-one-else-is-laughing way. He loved to make people laugh. His laugh was as big as he was, and infectious. I’d give up a few years of my own life to hear it again.
His presence was magnetic, and people loved him. Even family gatherings, which were boisterous by nature in an Italian family, were always more animated when Dad was there and on his game. His friends, and he had many, were powerfully loyal. Women, especially, were drawn to him. I always wondered what my mom thought of this. I wish I would’ve asked him if he’d noticed.
Dad was intense and felt things deeply, though he didn’t show it. I wouldn’t have wanted him as my enemy.
He didn’t know exactly what to do with me. I think he planned a huge family, and what he got was one small, adopted daughter. So I became both the Princess and the oldest son. He taught me how to fish, and how to throw a football and a baseball, but he drew the line at teaching me how to shoot a rifle, which I really, really wanted to do. He purposely intimidated every boy who came to pick me up for a date. He insisted that I go to college and was immensely proud of my intelligence. But when, in 1975, I told him what I wanted to do with my life, he responded, “There’s no such thing as a lady lawyer,” which of course meant that I would be expected to follow a more traditional “woman’s work” sort of career. I wonder what it must have been like to want so much for your girl child at a time when traditional roles were changing. How I’d love to discuss it with him right now.
Can I go back to the hugs?
The best hug I ever got from Dad came when the family had moved me into my dorm for my first year at college. Mom, Dad, my Aunt Mary & my Aunt Angie (both dad’s sisters) all made the trip, just like a good Italian family. We’d done everything we were supposed to do, and it was time for them to go home. As they started to drive off and we were all waving at each other, Dad unexpectedly stopped the car and hopped out. He wrapped me in a hug that involved every bit of him, body and soul, and his cheek rested on the top of my head. I was starting to suffocate and was about to protest when, against what must have been a mighty force of will, he let a small sob escape. He quickly kissed the top of my head and released his hold, and jumped back into the car. I waved again (through tears now) but Dad wouldn’t look at me. The car drove off and I was alone in a way that I’d never been before in my life. I got used to it, but I never got over it.
That moment lives with me and keeps me company and tears my heart. The 20th anniversary of his passing was March 2, and the day just never gets easier. His passing left a hole in my life in the size and shape of him. He was the center of my life, my moral compass, my protector and supporter. I miss him. And I’d trade almost anything to have one more day with him.