Saturday, June 14, 2014

Just a Couple of Guys

Let me tell you about a couple of guys.

Actually, I was just going to tell you about one of them, in honor of Father's Day. Then it turned out I had to travel to New Jersey this week for the funeral of the other.

The first one is, of course, my own father; the other is my Uncle Ciro, who was also my godfather, who passed away this last Tuesday at the impressive age of 95.

Tom Brokaw called them members of "The Greatest Generation." The television show Mad Men presents them and their peers as misogynistic cavemen. The more I think of both those extremes, the more uncomfortable I am with painting one group of men with one, wide swath. It robs them of their humanity and make too many assumptions.

And yeah, yeah...they were just normal guys. Pa was a salesman; Uncle Ciro was a pharmacist. They went to work, paid the bills, took their wives out for anniversaries and birthdays, fired up the barbecue, popped a beer, always drove. They were the framework and infrastructure that enabled our mothers to focus on nurturing and, if at times they seemed to be less present than our mothers, a lot of ground could be gained by an afternoon at the ballpark or a Sunday picnic. 

Even that is too broad a description of what these two men meant to me. The thing is, even though they were in-laws, Pa and Uncle Ciro genuinely liked each other. And they were both really funny guys. They would find some stupid TV show (their favorite show to rag on was The Lawrence Welk Show), turn off the volume and then dub in some stupid recording they always managed to have around. When my brothers, cousins and I would try to "put on a show," they'd sneak off, festoon each other in Crazy Foam and join the act. There was never a generational separation at family gatherings in those days.

In fact, one of my fondest memories are of the post-dinner conversations, the tablecloth covered with crumbs and coffee cups (and probably a bottle of Sambuca), sitting sleepily on Pa's lap listening to the grown-ups swap stories. They'd talk of people with exotic names and sometimes a story would slip out I wasn't supposed to know about. I'd try to keep very still and very quiet so that there would be no cause for anyone to realize it was close to midnight and I was still up and taking in every word. It was a very secure feeling.

Oddly, as secure as I felt and as calm and light-hearted as my father was, I now know that during some of that time, my parents were going through some major financial troubles. I never knew, never saw or felt any indication of the disaster from which they were trying to recover. 

All I remember are the crazy, quirky, wonderful things that used to just spontaneously happen. We were supposed to be driving the four hours home to Maryland from New Jersey one night when Pa and Uncle Ciro decided that instead we were going to go to the New York World's Fair. One boring, hot summer day in Maryland, we were just about to be sent to bed when up drove my Uncle Ciro, Aunt Marie and cousins Steven and David; they'd been out for a Sunday drive in New Jersey and just decided to visit us in Maryland. 

So you see, I could write about how Pa and Uncle Ciro fit in as members of The Greatest Generation and defend them from being cast as the shallow caricatures of 1960s businessmen. But I'm no sociologist or historian. I'm just a grown woman who remembers two men I love sitting at the head of the table, clinking together frosted mugs of Ballentine Ale, one attempting a toast in Italian (my father) and the other in German (Uncle Ciro) and both laughing at each other's mangled accent. 

"Don't feed the dog at the table -- do you hear me, Jeanne?
If you feed the dog at the table, he'll always be begging. Don't
let me catch you feeding Shane at the table.
Do you understand?"
I just quote 'em as I hear 'em.