My father was one of thirteen children. Although his older siblings were all born in Italy, my dad was a first-generation Italian American who wanted a better life for his children than he was given as a child. My father enlisted in the United States Army during World War II. He was a real patriot who considered it an honor to serve his country. Education was everything to him. He believed that there were no limits to what you could do in life with a good, strong foundation. Although he didn't finish college, he was able to put himself through school with help from his local steelworkers' union and the GI bill. He eventually formed a partnership in a construction business, which primarily helped build the steel infrastructures for high-rise buildings in New York City. My father's business allowed us to live a good but modest life. He worked very hard to provide all of the necessities?and then some?to our family. People often assume that because I have Italian features and have an Italian last name, I grew up in a large Italian family, but I really didn't. My father's family was my only touchstone to that heritage.
When we moved to Garden City, we didn't look like the typical Anglo-Saxon family living there. The community consisted primarily of Episcopalian families. I think ours was one of the few in the neighborhood with a vowel at the end of our last name. My father looked very Italian, with beautiful olive skin, jet-black hair, and big brown eyes. Although I resembled my mother more, I did inherit some of my dad's dark coloring, which made me feel like an outsider during my youth. I felt and looked different from the other children in our neighborhood and in school. There were so many times when people would see my father gardening out in our front yard or doing landscape work on our grounds and they would ask him questions as if he were the hired help. My father always laughed it off, without ever giving it a second thought. There was a certain amount of prejudice that existed in the 1950s, especially if you didn't look like everyone else. It hurt me deeply that people judged or looked down on my dad based on his appearance, especially because he was such a giving and generous man. If there was a blizzard or a hurricane, my dad would always be the first one out there after the storm blew over, driving around the community to see if there was any damage, downed trees, blocked drains, or if anyone needed his help. I'd sometimes get to go along for the ride. He'd sit me in the front seat with him and I felt so proud and privileged to be the one by his side.
My father was a very smart man, a voracious reader, and we all thought of him as an American history buff. In my family, we all referred to my father as the "walking encyclopedia" because of his vast knowledge on so many subjects. He knew everything about the great battles our country fought and took great pride in sharing his knowledge with my brother and me. Sometimes we'd take family trips to historical sites in upstate New York, including West Point and Fort Ticonderoga, so my father could teach us while showing us where these events took place. We'd sit around our kitchen table while he gave my older brother, Jimmy, and me impromptu quizzes or fun brainteasers to solve. Sometimes I'd figure out the answer before Jimmy. I could see the tickled look in my father's eyes?he was proud of me whenever I got it right.