Summer 2001 Volume 1, issue 5
The Eight of Hearts
Paul Paolicelli
Copyright 2001. All rights reserved. May not be copied or reproduced without the permission of the author.
     I was late getting to the Convention floor. It was the opening night of the 1984 Democrat's Convention in San Francisco but was, in a way, the end of my work. I was there to set up the coverage for the NBC Television Stations. Once done, my role as the Group's D.C. Bureau Chief shifted to observer and trouble-shooter.  Now the producers and anchors from the various stations took over the editorial coverage. I finally had some time to check out the actual convention instead concerns over the wiring, floor space, satellites and various technical minutiae that go into the coverage as so large an event.
     As I walked down the aisle way leading to the arena floor, I could hear the echoing words of the speaker and could sense something unusual was going on that night. The partisan crowd listening to the keynote address in the Moscone Center seemed clearly electric.
     The source of that energy was coming from the podium and a New York-accented speech by Mario Cuomo. The Governor was redefining a set of political principles,  in an eloquent and passionate voice. The crowd was clearly under his spell, interrupting with raucous applause and energetic cheering following every other reverberating word.
    When I reached the floor itself, Cuomo's words became clear and, as I realized what he was talking about, I became involved in a politicians speech in a way I had always guarded against. It was totally involuntarily, but Mario Cuomo was talking about his father's experience as an Italian immigrant.
     My initial reaction was shock. While I, too, was the grandson of immigrants and proud of the same heritage, it was something we had never talked about, not publicly. Our "Italian" part  was something we kept to ourselves. I was surprised Cuomo was willing to open that door.
     At first his words sat a little uncomfortably with me. But, soon, as the well-crafted words settled into my psyche, Cuomo was no longer talking about his father, but about my father and my father's father, about all of our fathers who had sacrificed and struggled to make a better life for their sons and daughters.
     "The struggle to live with dignity is the real story of the shining city," Cuomo intoned in his distinctive accent.
      "And it's a story, ladies and gentlemen, that I didn't read in a book, or learn in a classroom. I saw it, and lived it. Like many of you. I watched a small man with thick calluses on both hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. A man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example..?."
      I was carried away by the cadence and imagery to a very deep and private place that formed me; had made me. Mario Cuomo was telling the world about all of my people who had left the same unique spot on the earth as the elder Cuomo for this country to make a better life for others. Their sacrifice not been about themselves. They went to a strange land where they didn't know the language, had no social inroads other than themselves, had no political clout. They found places to settle and work, mostly by hard labor, and raised their families. Even more important, they found time for love, food, and laughter along that difficult path. I was surrounded and enraptured by them this strange July night in San Francisco thanks to the Governor of New York.
     It had been in California, much further South, below Los Angeles, where my parents had immigrated from the great but fading city of Pittsburgh in the early 1960s. Both of their fathers had been exactly like Cuomo's; men who callused and bled and, in Dad's father's case, ultimately bled to death on a steel mill floor after an accident on a crane. But "Frank" Paolicelli did a job he hated for his family;  his main concern at the time of his death was his children, that they would suffer because of his loss--a  sense of character I found so compelling and heroic that I would, some years in the future, use it as a foundation for a book about our family.
     My father, fortunately, didn't callus or bleed, but he worked mightily to provide for us. His children's interests and welfare were clearly his primary concern. My mother too. There was never any doubt in our minds where we stood. We were six people, strangers in the strange land of Southern California, following in the footsteps of our immigrant parents and grandparents, and bringing their sensibilities, their passions, their hunger and their laughter along with us. The Italians we knew did that, they brought more of their world with them than any of the others we knew.
     We were in California for one simple reason; my father was determined that I was going to go to college. Period. In Pennsylvania he had gone into debt to put my older sister through Duquesne University, then fell on some hard times as my turn approached. First, his own small kitchen remodeling business had faltered when he contracted pneumonia (while not the killer it had been just a generation previously, still a very serious illness) and lost much business during his recovery. He joined forces with a former competitor whose business burned to the ground one day in a spectacular fire in our suburban enclave of Mt. Lebanon. Then, after a stint at still another kitchen cabinet company, gave up in frustration when that firm closed its doors during another of what seemed like a series of endless economic downturns in Western Pennsylvania.
     Dad had heard that a college education was free to residents of California and the term for establishing that residency was one year. He moved there during my junior year of high school and I completed my senior year in Costa Mesa, fulfilling the residency requirement while Dad sold cars.
     Sold cars.
     There had  never been a more unlikely car salesman in the history of the business; he discouraged people from wasting money, told them they didn't need the fancy accessories that would only break. When Hispanic folks would come on the lot, he'd understand their Spanish,  knew when they liked a car or not (they assumed that my blue-eyed, light haired father was an Anglo) and he'd gently guide them into a responsible car and let them know that he understood their language.
     I worked on the lot as an errand boy cleaning cars, picking up parts, as a general gopher. It was the only time I would ever work with my father and I enjoyed that first California summer driving about the streets of Santa Ana and Anaheim, washing cars and commuting with Dad. We were always talkers and we'd talk about everything on those rides along the freeways, such an exotic land that could build roads with flowering gardens separating the lanes. Dad never complained. He could always find the good in things;  he could now grow figs and bananas in the back yard.
      "The simple eloquence of his example?"
     As for my mother, fruit trees aside, California was a complete culture shock. She had left her comfortable Pittsburgh enclave and the family, which had been her source of strength and society for all of her life. She told me to never look back, only ahead, but she couldn't keep herself from an aching sense of loneliness and homesickness.
     Mom couldn't get over the fences. No one had a fence around their property in Pittsburgh. Everyone did in Costa Mesa. Mom was used to a neighborhood where she could call a child and talk with the neighbors and walk to the corner store for a pack of her "Alpine" cigarettes or a loaf of bread. There were no corner stores. In a state with more cars than people, Mom didn't drive and there weren't any streetcars. She found herself unable to navigate or communicate, fences greeted her back door and great distances to civilization were out the front.  But she went along with my father and agreed that the children would be better off in a place so foreign to her instincts and experience.
     The children being better off was what they had learned from their parents. So, if it meant living in a place boxed in with fences and selling cars, they did it.
     It didn't take Mom long, however, to change the status quo of our block in Costa Mesa. Somehow she got to know the names of every neighbor and became friendly with them all. Soon, it was almost like our old neighborhood in Pittsburgh; if Mom made soup we delivered it around. When Mom made Pizza or baked bread, people managed to drop by in a way that had been completely foreign to the neighborhood before we moved in. My school friends also found their way to my mother's kitchen and our house was always a center of activity.
     Mom also loved to gamble. She and our family back in Pittsburgh would spend holidays and occasional weekend evenings playing penny-ante poker, smoking and laughing late into the night. Her family and Dad's family were their best friends, companions and confidantes. While she couldn't reproduce exactly those sorts of evenings in Southern California, she did manage to teach the entire neighborhood the game of "Crazy Eights" and soon had everyone looking forward to the weekend evenings and the wine and laughter.
     She also went to work outside the home for the first time since her marriage. Sold Lady's Coats at a local department store. Had to arrange for rides between my father and I, the only drivers in the family. She hadn't worked at job away from home since the Great Depression when she had quit her job as an accountant a local laundry when she heard they were going to let a driver go because of the economics. Mom's dad had been a successful builder and she gladly gave her job up so that a young husband and provider could keep his. That had been more than twenty-five years before. Now she was in Lady's Coats, sporting  her reading glasses on a chain dangling about her neck, and saving money so we could make ends meet. She never complained either. We took it for granted that's what parents did, anything it took.
      "All I needed to know about faith and hard work?..."
     My mother died during the summer between my freshmen and sophomore years at college. Died suddenly, inexplicably, her death an atomic blast shattering us. It was our neighbors--the very same people who hadn't even known one another when we had moved there--who came to our aid, stood by us, did what they could. And it was our next door neighbor who could not find the words in his grief to say goodbye, but simply placed the Eight of Hearts on my mother's coffin in a statement more profound than verbiage.
     "I learned about our obligation to each other from him and from my mother."
     As I stood in the Moscone center that summer's evening in 1984, listening to the Governor of New York in a hall named after another Italian-American and former Mayor of San Francisco, Cuomo's words stirred those images in me of my past, my parents--who we were, and who I was. I wasn't the Governor of a state, nor president of a corporation, but I was educated thanks to my family, working in a profession I enjoyed--not callused and bleeding in a steel mill, and had achieved a certain level of success. And I knew, surrounded by Cuomo's intonations, that anything I might have achieved was due to my parents for they were the ones who, like Cuomo's father before him, like countless others of my heritage and from that special place called Italy, who had made it happen for their children.
     A few years later I was living in Rome, working on my first book and finding myself completely enthralled with Roma and all things Italian. One day I received a letter from my father, a very personal and reminiscent letter, that made me think he was trying to tidy up some things before leaving. I wanted to dismiss his sense of impending doom, his need to say some things "before it was too late," but I realized these were things that were important for him to communicate. In large part, he wanted to tell me that he was proud of me, he was happy for the way my life had turned out and proud of my accomplishments.
     It took a while for me to respond to that letter. I knew, of course, that he'd have been proud of me no matter what path in life I'd chosen--I could have been an ax murderer and he'd have found something to be proud of. Whenever I looked back my father, and mother--for as long as I had her--were always there, smiling, cheering me on, bringing their humor, conversation and laughter into my life.
     And now Dad wrote that he was proud of me.
     As if I didn't know it.
     As if I didn't realize how much he had done.
     I wrote a long, hand written letter back to Dad and tried to tell him that. And now, with him gone too, I'm damn glad I did. I wasn't given the same opportunity with my mother, a neighbor's Eight-of-Hearts had to symbolically suffice.
      "They asked only for a chance to work and to make the world better for their children?.and they were able to build a family and live in dignity?."
    Many of us, those in third and fourth generation Italian-American families, are now watching a great generation pass from our lives. My advice to my compatrioti; sit down and write your own letter.  Now, before it's too late.
A review of "Joe DiMaggio, The Hero's Life"
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