My father, a complicated man, was the oldest son of 10 children. His parents came to America from Naples, Italy via Ellis Island at the turn of the century, and settled down in Jersey City, New Jersey.
He left school in the sixth grade to pick up bits of coal from the railroad tracks, placing them in a wagon, to later sell to buy food for the family.
My father was a tight package of a man. Dark and solid with biceps of steel and large hands heavily calloused. He worked on the docks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II and then in construction. When we visited Grandma for Sunday dinners, he would flex his muscles and I, and another cousin or two, would hang on his arm as our legs swung above the floor.
A hard drinking man, he was the black sheep of the family but my grandmother’s favorite. She would cook the foods he loved and he would sing and dance her around the kitchen, dodging the hot wood stove and the table that could expand to serve her large family. He never failed to make her laugh, she who took to her bed with headaches; dour and sad, more days than not.
I was his only child. I knew he would have preferred a son who he would teach to box, throw a ball and take to the Yankee games. To please him, I learned to swing a bat, hit a fastball and bob and weave as I sparred with an imaginary opponent. He took me out of school to see the 7th game of the World Series when the Yankees beat the Dodgers in 1952.
One Christmas when I was about eight or nine, I wanted a bride doll. I knew it cost a lot of money and money was always tight. My father shook his head indicating I would not get my wish.
Close to Christmas, when my father went into his bedroom and pulled the door behind him—not quite closing it—I crept up to watch through the slit. He opened the closet and reached on the top shelf and took down a box. Opening it, he removed a beautiful blond doll with a white gown and stroked her veil with his heavy hands. I guess I faked my shocked reaction when I opened the present on Christmas day. I don’t remember if I wished at the time I hadn’t peeked into the bedroom, since it diminished my surprise. However now as I look back I treasure the sight of my father gently smoothing out the doll’s veil and knowing he was making his little girl happy on Christmas.
Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year.