Happy Birthday, Dad. August 30, 1923. Oddly enough, during my visit to The Park Friday to take Mom to see an estate planning attorney, she gave me a box of “stuff” from her recent excavations. Among dusty story books i wrote when i was 9 years old, my Girl Scout uniform and the linens Dad’s mother made for her marriage bed? Dad’s last drivers license and the ID card for his years teaching at the applied technology college…
Rather than try to write something meaningful – while i remain up to my nipples in boxes and crates – i’ve dusted off the eulogy i gave at Dad’s funeral. Not my best work – done in an overnight frenzy while i was frantically assembling illegally downloaded tunes for the visitation and service… The best words? They are his… i had the first two rough chapters his own memoirs as a guide…
April 21, 2001 – In a Methodist church filled with about 150 thoughtful humans…
Our entire family would like to share a few thoughts with you this morning as we reflect on the life of Alfred Joseph S…. But how to capture the story of a man? All of the moments of a life? Not a trivial task – but we try…
There are a myriad of attributes that can describe my father – but above all he was a Philosopher – a thinker – focused on the art of “reflection”. Dad’s approach to life’s joys and sorrows was to consider any situation in a broad context, and search for meaning. In a recent conversation with me while in the hospital, Dad said “Life without reflection has no meaning”.
Almost a dozen years ago, Dad started writing some notes that he called “Reflections on my life”. Although he only completed the first two chapters, we’d like to share his words with you this morning as we remember him.
The list of chapter titles is intriguing in itself:
What’s In A Name
Growing Up In A Mill Town
There Was A Ford In My Future
It’s All In The Family
From the Halls of Academia
Reflections of a Macho Man on the Women’s Movement
– and yes, we are all very curious about this chapter!
What’s It All About, Alfie?
From Beantown to Motown to Zinzinnati
From Fenway to the Riverfront
Let There Be Music
Keeping the Faith
In Chapter One, Dad considers the meaning of his name:
My name is Alfred. It was Alfio. When I was baptized, I was given that name. It was an Italian custom to name the first son in honor of the paternal grandfather. When I was eight years old, I went through the process of confirmation into the Roman Catholic Church. I could select my middle name. It was a limited choice because I could only select a name from the list of saints of the church. I selected Joseph, husband of Mary. My parents always stressed the importance of a good occupation, and Joseph was a carpenter. He had a good work ethic and he was a trusting soul. He was a Good Joe.
San Giuseppi, as he is called in Italian, was not a high profile saint when compared to the eloquent Paul, who spread the gospel, or the strong Peter, who became the foundation of the church. In my young mind, Joseph personified those values which were important to me. So I became Alfio Joseph. The process of Anglicization began when I chose the english version of the name. I realized at that tender age that making it in America required changes in persona.
Dad was born to immigrant parents, who both worked in the woolen mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts. In the late 1930’s, Lawrence was an American melting pot of many ethnic and religious groups. Dad and his parents lived in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, but the broad cultural influences of the city laid the foundation for a lifetime of tolerance and acceptance. In Chapter Two he writes of his life in the Mill Town.
When I entered Lawrence High School in 1937, I did not realize that I was part of a great sociological experiment. Social integration and assimilation of diverse cultures was taking place. A course in cultural diversity was not among the electives in the curriculum – we were part of the process. There were no laws that enforced the integration of people with different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. There was simply a flow of students from the segregated sectors of the city. The sons and daughters of the immigrants who came to find work in the local mills and the descendants of the founding fathers of the Bay State came together in this place of learning.
My first contact with a Protestant was when I became a member of the band. Ted, who was to become a Lutheran minister, was my first Protestant friend. I felt sorry for him because I had always been told that they would have a hell of a time getting into heaven.
Dad had the gift of being able to speak to anyone, on a broad range of subjects, regardless of their ethnic, economic or social background – largely due to his immersion in the melting pot. He was open, and non-judgmental. He was a student of human nature, treating himself to the largest possible classroom by leading with an open mind, and an open heart. He also spoke of the impact of millwork on his life:
The day after my graduation, I started to work in the Plymouth Mills, making fibers used in automobile seat covers. It was a long hot summer. In my department, thin tissue paper was twisted into strands of fiber. In order to prevent the paper from tearing, the room atmosphere had to be maintained at a high relative humidity. Humidifiers, located on the ceiling, would spray a steady mist on men, women and machines. At times, the conditions were such that it was difficult to see your fellow workers. This was life in the non-unionized sweatshops of the time.
My exposure to these stifling conditions made me determined to break through this vicious cycle that had been a way of life in the old and new world. I could handle the physical aspects of the hard and demeaning labor, but I would not allow my spirit to be broken to a point where I would accept it as my station in life. Some considered this a sign of arrogance.
One of my favorite poems was “Invictus” by William Henley. In the final stanza, he stated “I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul”. I wanted control over my being. Over the years, there were times when I got knocked on my ass. The reaction of some would be “the son of a bitch had it coming to him”.*
From the recesses of my memory, lines of poetry I was forced to memorize in grammar school were called up by my conscious mind. One poem in particular was “IF…” by Rudyard Kipling. One stanza I recalled when I was down but not out: “If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it in one turn of pitch and toss and lose and start at your beginnings and never breathe a word about your loss…”If you met all these conditions, the conditional expression stated: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it and – what is more – you will be a man my son”.
This could apply to a guy who lost his week’s pay in a craps game. But it could also apply to a young engineer who was forced to give up a promising career to go home to his ailing parents who would be both dead in a span of three years.
My father, a rare first-generation college graduate, demonstrating such great potential that he was selected for the Ford Motor Company leadership program beside a young Lee Iaccoca, left Detroit to return to Boston to care for his parents. And he never spoke a word about his career losses. He cared for his parents, buried them, and started over.
Dad told us that the most important thing he did in his life was to build the foundation for our family. When he met Mom, and her two young children, he quietly removed them from challenging circumstances and moved them to a home outside the city. Together they laid the foundation for what is still today a family with “roots and wings”. Those who know us well recognize that we are at times perhaps a little ‘quirky’**. But they also know that we are incredibly close.
“It doesn’t take blood to bond people – it takes love and respect”. Mom and Dad gave us that, and it was, and IS, the foundation of our family.
Some final words from Dad’s reflections:
In the course of my lifetime, I have been digitized by the fickle finger of fate. I have picked myself up, given it the Sicilian salute and started climbing the next mountain.
One important thing Dad told us four years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer was that he had ‘no regrets’. He tried every day of his life to do the right thing, and his gifts of reflection and tolerance never led him astray.
He wasn’t flashy. If you didn’t know him, you might not look twice as he was driving Mom to the store, reading a book on a park bench, or going for his morning walk. But he was an amazing man. A thoughtful man. A man who gave himself over to doing the right things. He never stopped seeking insight and knowledge. A man who understood the concept of “Service Before Self”… A man who risked it all in a big game of pitch and toss. And won…
* Fortunately, Methodists are pretty laid back about swearing during a church service. You had to be there… but it fit the moment… i was just tickled that no lightning bolts struck as i pulled into the damn parking lot!
** “quirky”? certainly less offensive than what i’d prefer to call it, which is “fucked up beyond repair”. But even Methodists have limits…
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!