Category Archives: Birthdays & Anniversaries

The Last of the Famous International Playboys

Two unlikely things have happened in the last two weeks, both of which make me think of my father, and just in time for his 93rd birthday, which would be tomorrow, on the 18th. First of all, I bought my first pair of boxing gloves. If you’d have suggested just a month ago that I’d be wearing boxing gloves, let alone owning a pair, I’d have laughed at you. But Seth and I keep active and our trainer of many years up and left a few months ago on a whim, moving on to New York or L.A. or lord knows where. We were left floundering about for a few weeks, making some half hearted attempts at going to a regular gym mixed with periods of sitting home eating popcorn and binge watching Project Runway. But we have of late gotten involved in another training situation and it’s good, it’s varied… and we’ve been finding ourselves in group fitness classes with names like Fight Camp and Kickboxing Camp and well, one thing has lead to another and now we both own boxing gloves. I think of my dad every time I wrap my hands and struggle to get the gloves on. I’m not sure if he’d be impressed or if he’d be laughing at me. His son is about the unlikeliest boxer you’ll ever meet, and he knew that and eventually (I think) came to be at peace with the fact that, despite his best efforts, I could never quite connect bat to ball or figure out left hook from right or understand how to get that blasted oil filter wrench going in the right direction. (I would more often than not be under the car tightening the filter even more while he was explaining to me––well… yelling, swearing––from above how to loosen it.)

But anyway, here I am these days: in boxing gloves, hitting punching bags hanging from chains, bags that are probably heavier than I am. I couldn’t wait for the hour of my first Fight Camp to end because no one had shown me how to wrap my hands properly and so I did it my way––the way a bookbinder would wrap a leather bound book he’s just covered––and wrapped them so tight, I soon couldn’t feel my fingers. I kept hitting things even though I really wanted to just stop and cry, it was so painful. But I mustered on (another trait I inherited from my dad) and did a lot of swearing under my breath instead, and every now and then stepped outside for a breath of air and to shake out my gloved hands. The second time, our trainer showed me how to wrap my hands properly. That made a big difference, and I was beginning to think I was getting a grip on this boxing thing.

The third time, Seth and I were late for Fight Camp, so we ended up being the only two people to show up for Kickboxing Camp, which was scheduled after. It was a Friday night––last Friday night––at 7 PM. I had a feeling that if it wasn’t for us, the trainer might probably be off on a Friday night date, but instead José, who looks like he is no stranger to the ring, was stuck with two goofs in boxing gloves. What ensued was, I could only surmise, punishment. We stretched, we ran two laps carrying dumbbells, and when we got back, José set us on our path for the night: 10 jabs to the big bag, 10 hooks left and right, 10 knees, 10 kicks, then down for 10 push-ups, then 30 seconds of intense cardio. No rest. And then up the ladder: 20 jabs, 20 hooks, 20 knees, 20 kicks, 20 push-ups. Then 30. Then 40. And finally, 50. If you’ve ever done 50 push-ups in boxing gloves, let’s talk. José pushed us and pushed us. Come 8:00, when our session was done, José was gone, nowhere to be seen, and Seth and I emerged near broken, but triumphant.

Which brings me to the second of the two unlikely things that have happened that make me think of my father. My triumph from Kickboxing Camp carried through that night and the next day until about 1:30. I couldn’t decide if my biceps were sore or if it was my triceps, but it was Saturday––Cleaning Day––and I was cleaning house and I was pushing through the soreness just fine. I cleaned the bathrooms, I got out the vacuum, but then I thought I’d change the cat’s litter before doing the floors. I emptied the old litter, cleaned the box, replaced it with fresh litter––such a satisfying thing. When I went to set the litter box in its place, I could feel a little twinge in my lower back, just the slightest thing, but you know, I do have that Dad trait of mustering on, and so I did muster on, and it was right there, in that process of mustering, that the twinge escalated into something more like twisting dagger. I found myself on the floor and spent a good part of the day there. Seth gave me my lunch there on the floor (I was still hungry, after all) and I had a devil of a time getting up off the floor but eventually I did. Since then, ice packs, massage, and acupuncture, all have been helping. On Sunday we went to the family’s for Mother’s Day dinner and when I walked in using a broomstick to help me walk, Mom said, “Here, use this.” It was my dad’s cane. He never used it, because he was amazingly stubborn about things like that, but my cousins in Chicago sent it to him, with the best intentions, when he began having trouble walking. It’s pretty fancy: sturdy black wood with a crystal knob. It’s made in Italy. When I use it, I feel like Fred Astaire, like I should have a top hat. It’s not quite my style, but it’s so much better than the broomstick I was using, and it, too, like the boxing gloves, reminds me of Dad. Which is perhaps just right as we approach his birthday. It’s the third one we are marking since he’s been gone. But in the past couple of weeks, I have all these reminders of Dad, and they make me happy, in spite of the pain. I wouldn’t trade them if I could.

 

For those of you wonder if physical fitness is bad for us, well, you may be right: the week before buying my boxing gloves Seth and I were in a regular, non-punching bootcamp class. One of the stations involved slamming a medicine ball to the ground. I picked up the wrong kind of ball. Medicine balls land with a thud on the ground, but mine did not. It bounced. It was a 20 pound ball, and I slammed it good and hard to the ground, from up over my head, and was completely dismayed when it bounced up and hit me square in the jaw. I did, in fact, see stars. I was impressed with myself for not passing out. I thought of my dad then, too, and could picture him shaking his head and laughing at me. After Friday night’s Kickboxing Camp, before José ran off, I told him that story. He laughed. “Oh, I’m definitely checking the security cameras for that,” he said.

 

Flowers & Stories

Welcome to the gentle time of year. It is Memorial Day Weekend, our unofficial start to summer. It was the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, 1949, that my mom and dad got married––two good looking kids from Brooklyn, tying the knot in the company of their family and friends at St. Blaise Church, with a football reception afterward at the Livingston in Downtown Brooklyn: piles and piles of sandwiches, “football” referring to the idea that folks would toss the waxed paper-wrapped sandwiches across the room. “Hey,” someone would shout, “send me a capocolla!” and indeed, someone would toss a capocolla sandwich his or her way. How great is that? Sandwiches flying across the room, mountains of homemade cream puffs, and trays and trays of Italian cookies, mounded in pyramids, wrapped in cellophane. The Roy Rogers Orchestra was playing live and certainly there were at least one or two tarantella dances. No wedding planners, no destinations, no fondant on their cake. There was a big fight between Mom and Dad the night before over mustard, but all was smoothed out by morning and the rest, as they say, is history. Now that’s a wedding.

They chose Memorial Day rather roundaboutly… and so here comes one of my family’s legendary stories. Mom and Dad were engaged in February, 1948, and Mom wanted to get married at her birthday that next October. But at some point that spring, Grandma and Grandpa Cutrone sat them down and asked them to hold off for a year. “If you do, we’ll give you a nice present,” they said. Mom and Dad gave it some thought, and said ok, they would. And so the date was set for Memorial Day Weekend, 1949. Just before the wedding––like, that morning––Grandma pulled my dad aside. “Johnny,” she said, “I only have $100 for your present.” At this point, it is helpful to understand how Italian weddings work. We don’t give toasters and towels at weddings. We give cash. At some point during the reception, the groom and the bride, holding a white satin bag, have a seat at a table. A line of guests forms from there, the guests holding envelopes––the busta. The cash. Each guest approaches, kisses the bride and groom, bestowing their congratulations on the couple and into the white satin bag, their busta. Next morning, the bride and groom will gather with the family and someone will have a pen and paper and while the happy couple open the envelopes, the person with the pen and paper records, for posterity, what each guest gave. It’s a very matter of fact process, something you might associate more with accounting departments than with newly-married lovebirds.

Now my dad, he knew already what my mom’s parents were giving for their wedding present. Grandma and Grandpa DeLuca were giving them $1,000. Not too shabby a present back then (nor now, for that matter). So there was going to be quite a disparity between the gifts of the two sets of parents. So Dad, in that thirteenth hour, pulled out his wallet, took three $100 bills out of it, and shoved them into his mother’s hands so she could add them to her busta. The next morning, Mom and Dad opened Grandma and Grandpa Cutrone’s envelope, and their gift was recorded at $400––which was also not so shabby in those days. All was well and face was saved and my dad––who also somehow paid for the wedding reception––got his own 300 bucks back. Which could be the end of the story, but it’s not.

The secret remained a secret for years and years until one of many spirited and exuberant dinner table disagreements amongst my extended family. Things became more and more heated and eventually the matter of Millie and Johnny’s wedding gift came up. It seems all of my other aunts and uncles had received $100 from my grandparents, and the $400 gift that my parents got was a sore point. The shouting built and the accusations built and finally my dad stood up and above all this cackling, yelled, “OK, enough!” I like to think he slammed his hand on the table, too, and maybe he did. He turned to his mother. “Ma, how much did you give for my wedding?” Grandma looked at him blankly and wasn’t sure exactly what to say. “Eh, $400,” she finally uttered. Dad looked at her again, raising his eyebrows. At that, she sighed and she came clean. Dad and Grandma explained to everyone at the table that day what had transpired in the hour before his wedding years before. My mother’s mouth fell. All these years, and she had no idea.

And so these are the stories we tell and the things we think about at Memorial Day. And it is another day to miss Dad more since he’s left us. Dad hits us with lots of memory days this time of year: His birthday on the 18th of May, their anniversary on the 29th… oh and then soon after comes Father’s Day, the day he called Jack Ass Day. Last year, on their first anniversary apart, Memorial Day Weekend found Mom in the hospital with shortness of breath. What they told us would be an overnight stay turned into a week or more. Cardiologists couldn’t quite figure out what was what, even after she was sent home. Finally, she went to Dr. Molly, the doctor Mom and Dad had gone to for years and years. Dr. Molly put Mom on a water pill and also observed what none of the hospital doctors seemed to care about, even though we had told them about Dad’s recent passing: “You’re heartbroken.” Perhaps that needed to be acknowledged. Mom has been in good health since.

The day is special to my family, but it is special to many. As a nation, it is the day we remember our fallen heroes, those who gave their lives in service to their country. But it is one more day where we just remember, plain and simple. Memorial Day (or some version of it) is celebrated not just here in the United States, but in other countries, as well, and usually at this particular time of year. It is a tradition that harkens back to Ancient Rome. The day was earlier on known as Decoration Day, and the Memorial/Decoration Day traditions in this country go back to the Civil War era. The original date, May 30, was chosen for it was believed that flowers for decorating graves would be in bloom in every state of the Union on that date. It’s since been moved to the last Monday of May. This year it falls on the 28th. It is our unofficial start of summer here in the US, but a somber one if we honor the day in its proper tradition. And so we decorate, and we remember. And we tell stories. Flowers and stories for remembrance, flowers and stories beckoning summer and the gentle time of year.

 

Image: Johnny & Millie. This their engagement photo, not all that long before that sit down with Grandma and Grandpa Cutrone that led to the decision to be married on Memorial Day Weekend, 1949.

 

The Pinky Ring Club

Sunday brings Pentecost, a day that I associate with a most fleeting thing: air. Invisible life force, we breathe in, breathe out: respiration. A word so close to “inspiration” and indeed they share the same Latin root, spirare: breath. Pentecost has to do with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Earth and it is this that brings about my airy thoughts each year for this day, as one word links to another: spirit to ghost, ghost to gust, gust to wind, wind to breath, breath to respiration, and breath to inspiration, too.

With Pentecost, we are 50 days past Easter, and with it, we transition further beyond spring and closer to summer. Though red is the color of Pentecost in the Church, the day in some places is known as White Sunday: Whitsunday. Special Whitsun Ales are brewed at this time of year, in some places drunk on Whitsunday, in other places brewed on Whitsunday.

Ah, but that is Sunday. Today, the 18th of May, it’s another celebration, one of my family’s own. My dad would have been 92 today. Approaching his birthday this year is not as bad as it was last year. Some of the sadness over his passing has been replaced by something different. I still miss him something awful, but more often when we talk about him or when he pops into my head the feelings are bathed in warmth, which is a slight change from last year. I still sigh a lot, but I smile a lot, too.

Mom does not want to do anything in particular for Dad’s birthday and so we are honoring her wishes. I’m not sure what Seth and I will do. It’s not like we can just make Dad’s favorite meal in honor of his birthday. He didn’t really have a favorite meal. He would sometimes say how much he loved a good Porterhouse steak… but once you put one on a plate for him, he would eat it and when he was done, always proclaim that he’d rather have a nice dish of pasta. And there was the custard-filled crumb cake he would talk about, too––the one that came from a bakery in Brooklyn called Hummel’s when he was younger. When you got right down to it, though, Dad was always just plain happy to eat whatever was put in front of him.

Honoring Dad’s memory with a favorite meal may be out, but I will wear his ring for his birthday. It was his pinky ring, one that he had from the time I was a boy. His initials, which happen to be the same as mine, in diamonds. It is so not something I would wear, but I do wear it when I want to keep him closer in spirit. It’s too big for my pinky so I wear it on my ring finger. It’s flashy, sparkly, a bit like my Dad, who, though he did not like to call attention to himself, did love himself some bling on his fingers. When he bought himself that pinky ring, Dad drove a 1960s Cadillac and he liked the finer things in life, as he always did––things he worked hard to attain. He was of the Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra age, and he would have fit in nicely shooting pool with them wearing this ring. I wore it at his funeral last year. I wish I could remember which New York cousin it was of mine who I think was wearing his own dad’s pinky ring then, too, and who said we were all members of the Pinky Ring Club now. I’ll take that as inspiration, too, in this time of holy spirit, ghost, gust, and breath. Happy birthday, Dad.

 

Image: Dad’s JC ring. Dad would sometimes try to teach me boxing moves when I was a kid. He’d have both dukes up and tell me, “Watch the left,” and then surprise me with the right. I was too busy trying to figure out which left he meant: mine or his. Needless to say, I didn’t do very well at boxing. Things like that always made me think we were very different, until we were both older, and I realized how much we are the same. That, too, is something that I can smile about now. If I am wearing my dad’s pinky ring, though, watch out: That ring can do some serious damage to your kisser.