By Don Donato.
Whenever anyone asks me, “Who are you?” I simply state my name. Fortunately, in most instances, this is a satisfactory answer. In actuality, I have no clue who I really am. Other than slightly neurotic, there is no other personal attribute to which I honestly can attest.
Confusion is a state of mind, although perduring in my case, doesn’t actually qualify as a characteristic of self. So, feeling bereft of purpose and devoid of direction, I find it incumbent to uncover who I am. Socrates said,” Know thyself”, but he never said how. So I think my past might be a good place to start.
If all the world is a stage then the house in which I grew up was somewhere off-off-off Broadway. Actually it wasn’t a house at all. We lived in an apartment above my father’s flower shop. As a child I spent many hours there absorbing the theatre that the constant flow of characters provided.
While such a production would be enough to occupy the senses of any pubescent or adolescent, there was more. My father was a funeral director as well, and his funeral home was adjacent to our backyard. You could exit the rear of the flower shop, walk across our backyard and enter stage right into the side door of the mortuary. A theater unto itself with its own cast.
I guess it is in these unique environs, within the memories seared by countless scripts and characters, my search for my identity begins.
With a production as diversified as this in both content and roles, I find it best to organize the players in groups. The first group I designate, without any pejorative connotation, “The Destitutes.” Not that all of them were penniless, but each lacked something of life’s essentials. Two or three nights a week we would have a guest for dinner, usually someone my father knew who needed a nourishing meal. My mother was always more than obliging.
But of all the “Destitutes” Harold is the most notable. The only time he had any money was when my father gave him some odd job to do in the store or around the property. It was always a simple job, like digging or other manual labor. Harold was a quiet, shy, uneducated man who disrespected no one and was courteous to everyone. He rarely had a place to live or food to eat. He was a consummated alcoholic. Drinking was his only ambition. When he was drunk he was as harmless as he was pathetic. He frequented the local American Legion bar. A place dad often found refuge as well.
My father would never pay Harold the money he earned all at once. He would parcel it out to him over several days. Harold knew it was for his own good because the amount Harold drank was only limited by the cash in his pocket. At the end of many nights he would ask my father,” Boss, is it okay if I sleep in the basement?” He was never refused. My father would say,” I’ll leave the basement door unlocked in the funeral home.”
“Thanks, boss”, Harold would reply in a drunken daze. But what I remember most about Harold is his weeping and sadness at the wake of his still-born baby.
Harold was never married, but he had a girlfriend about whom I never knew much. My mother said that she was similar to Harold, his counterpart, an alcoholic and slightly mentally impaired. My father provided all the funeral arrangements gratis, and Harold came alone to view his child laying in a white coffin. As he entered the viewing room his eyes were red and filled with tears. His arms were draping fully in front of his body, his hands lay across each other, his head lowered, and most obvious, by every tell-tale sign, completely sober. He knelt down beside the casket with hands clasped. As he prayed I perceived a different Harold, not a shy man, but perhaps, just a humble one. A virtue misperceived as a deficiency by everyone, and most of all, by Harold himself. While he knelt before God I sensed his humble acceptance of another of life’s disappointments. Harold lived another ten years or so after that, never changed, and died in a veteran’s hospital. My father took care of him till the end.
The second group is easy to denominate. It is “The Professionals”. There was Dr. T., a physician, a somewhat portly man and long time friend, who frequently arrived around lunch time. I would see him park his late model, two-toned gray Cadillac in front of the store, and I knew it was time for lunch. He and my father would ascend the stairs to our apartment where my mother would prepare some Italian specialty. If anyone in the family had any ailment he would give him a quick check-up and any needed advice. Upon leaving he’d reach into his pocket and pull out a large wad of cash and hand my brother and me two dollars each. Big money for a kid in those days. After he left my father invariably would say, “Now that is what you want to be when you grow up.”
Dr T. died relatively young in his fifties. He specified in his will that my father should take care of the arrangements. Dad was proud to do so.
One of the other professionals was Judge S. He would stop by the shop around four or five o’clock once or twice a month. He loved to tell stories and did it well. He always said he was going to write a book some day and call it, “Have Gavel, Will Travel”. As far as I know that tome never was written. I have no idea how my father and the judge became friends, but what I do know is that both their lives evolved from a common dream shared by their parents. The Judge was Jewish and his parents emigrated from Eastern Europe; my father’s parents came from Italy. Both families started successful businesses – for the Judge’s parents it was apparel; for my father’s it was the growing and selling of plants and flowers. And, as it was the custom in those days for immigrant families, each had many siblings and shared a high value for familial bonds.
Now this is where I enter the stage and play my usual role. It happened one day when I was driving on a highway near the college I attended. Oh yea, one other minor detail, I was doing eighty. Now the ticket I received required I appear in court. So I did. No need to tell dad, and there was no way judge S. would find out because this didn’t occur in his county of jurisdiction. I’ll just pay the fine and all will be well. Except the judge sitting at the bench had a different idea. He said I would have to surrender my license for thirty days. I pleaded that I was a student and needed my license to continue my education. I’m sure the judge didn’t buy it, but he allowed me to keep my license for two more weeks, but then I must return to his court and surrender it. There was no way I would be able to keep this a secret, so I called dad and told him the whole story. He wasn’t angry. Probably because he had a pretty heavy foot himself and would display his speeding tickets proudly on top of the refrigerator propped up against the radio as some sign of driver defiance. Dad asked me what the judge’s name was. I told him and he said he would get back to me.
Later that night I got a call from him. He said, “You got lucky. I called Judge S. and he happens to know this other judge very well. He gave him a call and this is what you do. When you go back to court plead guilty. That’s all you need to do or know.
“But am I going to lose my license ?”, I frantically asked . The reply was, “Just do what I told you.”
I went back to court on the day scheduled and waited in the courtroom for my turn. I listened to the judge hand out fines for hundreds of dollars and take away two or three licenses. I thought if I’m lucky maybe I will only lose my license for a week or two. The clerk called my name and I approached the bench.
“How do you plead ?”, the judge asked.
“Guilty, your Honor”, I quickly replied.
“Thirteen dollars fine, pay the clerk, next case”, the judge said in a hurried, sotto voce.
I left the courthouse that day and never got another speeding ticket. I slowed down and learned to look in my rear view mirror a lot more. I don’t know exactly why Judge S. interceded in the way he did, but I do know that he did it for my father and the common bond they shared. A bond built from the values they learned from their parents. The cardinal lesson of the old school : if we are to survive in this new land we must help each other.
There are several more groups of characters that made memorable appearances: the employees, the extended family members, the politicians, and, of course, the mafioso to name a few. I learned something from each of them, but what did they really contribute to whom I am?
At first glance, the fact that any of these characters played some role in the production of my identity is dubious when you consider that I am not an alcoholic, I never saw myself as a lawyer or a judge, nor do I really want to drive a Cadillac. It is no mistake that the large wad of cash is conspicuously precluded from this list.
Nevertheless, in some obscure, arcane manner, I do feel the influences of the values I perceive in these personages: Harold’s humility in acceptance, Dr T.’s regard for the salience of friendship, and Judge S ‘s intense fondness for extended familial bonds. And, of course, the impact of the star of the show cannot be underestimated.
My father was, by no means, a paragon of virtue. He drank too much, at times gambled too much, and spent time away from the family too much. But when it came to caring for others, it was never too much.
He passed away at age seventy, but if I could ask him who he was I’m sure he would answer that he didn’t know. Contrarily, if I asked each person who knew him, each would answer definitively, and each would brush a different image.
So, what I’ve come to realize is that my identity is not a vestige of my past. It cannot be seen in mnemonic mirrors reflecting the days gone by. Who I am can be discovered only in the portraits of my self painted by others. Just as my father’s self, and the identities of all the characters I met in my not-at-all-a house, are immortalized in the unique images of their selves painted on the recesses of my mind and on the minds of all who ever knew them.
DON DONATO is a full time writer, part-time dentist, and a now-and-again mentor and tutor for students at Princeton University. His publications include memoirs appearing in “Journal of the American Geriatric Society” and “Pulse”.