Category Archives: Transitions

Old Father Midsummer

We honor our fathers today, both those we were given and those we have chosen. It is Father’s Day in the US. More on that later. First, let’s look to the sky, for with this particular pass around the sun, this day also brings the solstice. That solstice moment, when the sun reaches its most northerly point in the sky, comes late tonight, at 11:32 PM here in Lake Worth, which currently is in Eastern Daylight Time. It is now (and again six months later, in December) when the sun appears to stand still (hence solstice, which in Latin breaks down to something along the lines of “sun stand still”). For six months now, the sun has been climbing higher and higher in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere, and now, with the solstice of Midsummer, we reach our longest day. Now the climbing ceases, and in a couple of days, the opposite begins: the days will grow shorter and shorter as the sun sinks lower and lower in the sky each day, until we reach the solstice of Midwinter again in December.

The sun, of course, is not climbing and sinking. The sun is just shining, doing what it does. The climbing and the sinking (and the seasons that result) are thanks to our planet spinning on a tilted axis of about 23.5 degrees, which keeps the northern half of the globe tilted toward the sun for half the year and the southern half tilted toward the sun for the other half of the year. Each day the balance shifts slightly: this is our Constant Rearrange. After this brief couple of days of “sun stand still,” we’ll begin shaving off a bit of daylight each day, while the Southern Hemisphere daily adds more to its sum of light. These are the beautiful celestial mechanics of our planet and its spinning dance with the sun.

Now, on to Father’s Day. My dad, he loved to tell stories, and he’d tell them over and over again, like you were hearing them for the very first time. That used to bug me a bit, when I had less patience, but eventually I came to love that about him, like he knew he wouldn’t be around to tell the stories forever, so I came to look at it as instruction: Remember this. You’ll have to tell this story for me one day. And so sometimes I repeat stories, too. This next part of today’s chapter of the Convivio Book of Days is a reprint of the Father’s Day post I wrote in 2018, the year after my dad died, because the fact is days like this are not easy for us all… sometimes we have to face loss and grief and a whole host of things, especially on a day like this, a day like Father’s Day. So… here’s my story, again, about my dad, who was a bit like a rock star to me, but perhaps most especially when he’d walk into a place and call himself by another name. It’s a good story. Here we go:

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I couldn’t tell you why, but my dad had a pseudonym that he used for things like dinner reservations or those occasions when you’d get to a restaurant and have to wait for a table. “It’ll be about 20 minutes. Name please?” “Monte,” he’d say, sometimes adding on, “John Monte.” Where the name came from I have no idea, and why he needed it is anyone’s guess, too. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that “Cutrone” is sometimes not an easy name for folks to say or spell here in the States, so that might be the reason, or it may have had something to do with a calculated disassociation from a more infamous John Cutrone, a Mafioso in Brooklyn who met his untimely end in 1976. Whatever the reason, like an actor or sports star attempting to throw off the paparazzi so he could just have a quiet meal, it was accepted fact that when we went to a restaurant, my dad, the auto mechanic from Valley Stream, was John Monte.

I think about that sometimes when I make dinner reservations or call in to order a pizza. I half expect the name “Monte” to come out of my mouth someday, as I become more and more like my dad as the years pass. A good example: telephones. I hate calling people on the phone and I greet incoming calls with suspicion. This was my dad, too. To this day, my mom calls people up, just to chat. Dad, on the other hand, would announce whenever the phone would ring, “I’m not home.” Back then phones had no caller ID; they just rang and you picked up the receiver and said hello and if it was you who picked up the phone and if the person at the other end of the phone line asked for Mr. Cutrone and if you caved, if you said, “Hold on a minute,” and motioned to him, Dad would glare at you and then after he got off the phone he’d give you hell. No one ever just called to chat with Dad; they called because they wanted him to help them do something, like fix a roof or move a wall, or because their car battery was dead. It’s no wonder he disliked the phone.

Dad worked up until he was almost 90. We worked at the same university, and sometimes I’d call his extension, usually because I needed something, and sometimes just to say hello. I’d dial 7-2295, and if he didn’t pick up in two rings, I knew he wasn’t at his desk. But when he did pick up, he’d answer with a somewhat singsongy hello, where the first syllable went up as the second syllable went lower. And then I’d say hello, and then he’d say what he always said when we were at work: “Hi guy.” He never said this at home, just at work. It’s what he said to all the guys who worked with him, and at work, I was just one of the guys, which I liked. The guys who worked with him thought he was in his 60s, maybe 70s. He certainly did not look like he was 89. It was probably a decade or two that Dad would tell his fellow workers, if they asked how old he was, that he was 65. Sometimes that’s just how Dad was. He’d tell you what he thought you wanted to hear. That he was 65. That he felt fine. That his name was John Monte.

It’s our second Father’s Day without him. Days like Father’s Day are never easy when your dad is no longer here to wish a happy Father’s Day to. But we’ll gather all the same, my mom and my sister and Seth and me, and we will eat together. At the table, I will sit in Dad’s seat, because this is what I do now. I’ve done it since the day he died, and it felt odd then, and sometimes still does, but I know I am meant to sit there, and that I am meant to remind everyone that whenever we wished Dad a happy Father’s Day he’d always reply, “You mean Jack Ass Day,” and we will laugh. His father, Grandpa Cutrone, taught him that, and all my uncles said it, too. This year will be not as bad as the year before. Each year, some measure of sadness is replaced by a greater measure of… not sadness.

In Italy, Father’s Day is celebrated on the 19th of March: St. Joseph’s Day, and there is something particularly beautiful about that, as we celebrate a saint who cared for his family, protected them, provided for them, taught his son good, practical things. It is a perfectly logical day to celebrate all fathers, those we were given and those we have chosen. It certainly was the model that my dad followed. Perhaps if we celebrated on that day, too, when we wished Dad a happy Father’s Day, he would have simply said, “Thanks.”

Image: Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Oil on canvas, 1573 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Memorial Day Weekend, 1949

Memorial Day has always come prepackaged with bonus material for my family, for 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, the Italian neighborhood church, with a football reception afterward at Livingston Manor 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 (and maybe being intercepted), mountains of homemade cream puffs, and trays and trays of Italian cookies, mounded in pyramids, wrapped in cellophane. There was beer and soda and Grandpa’s homemade anisette. “We didn’t want a fancy reception,” Mom said, “but we wanted good music.” And so the Roy Rogers Orchestra played all evening and people danced and danced and certainly at least one or two of those dances were traditional Italian tarantella dances, and they played the Grand March, too, as everyone got up off their seats and marched around the hall. Mom and Dad’s wedding song was an old tango called Jealousy. I asked if they learned to dance the tango before the wedding; they did not. They just heard the song in a movie, and despite the name, knew it was theirs. There was a big fight between them the night before the wedding––it was something about mustard––but all was smoothed out by morning and the rest, as they say, is history. No wedding planners, no destinations, not even a cake; just mountains of waxed paper-wrapped sandwiches and homemade cream puffs and Italian cookies. Now that’s a wedding.

This year their anniversary fell on Saturday, the day Seth and I often head over to help out with chores. And though my dad is gone these four years now, still, when my phone conversation on Friday with my mom and my sister turned to What should we eat tomorrow? a decision came quickly: Let’s have sandwiches, and let’s have Italian cookies, and my sister said, “I’ll make the cream puffs.” It was a just right day. My nephew and his family happened to drop in just as we were finishing our sandwiches. We put two big pots of espresso on. We laughed, Mom told stories about the wedding, we listened to the Harry James version of their song, Jealousy, and we pictured Mom and Dad dancing to the song at the Livingston Manor while imagining Morticia and Gomez Addams dancing to it, as well, Morticia clutching a red rose in her teeth, because it starts with that tango sound before moving into fox trot territory. We had such a nice time. And when I kissed Mom goodnight and gave her a hug, she said, “Thank you for my anniversary party.” 72 years ago and still these things warm our hearts.

Memorial 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, all who have come and gone. 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 here in the States was known earlier on 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 31st, the very last day of the month. 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. And for some of us, we eat sandwiches and cream puffs. Flowers and stories and all these things for remembrance, beckoning summer and the gentle time of year.

Image: Johnny & Millie. It’s their engagement photograph, 1948… a year before their Memorial Day Weekend wedding.



Pocketful o’ Chores

It’s my dad’s birthday on Tuesday; our fourth one without him being here. It seems like an incredibly long time and it seems like it’s not been long at all, which, I’ve come to realize, is the way we come to experience grieving. Or certainly the way I have. Dad is still very much a part of my life and (again, I’ve come to realize) I don’t think that will change, either. I talk to him, especially while I’m at the family homestead, mowing the lawn. I say goodnight to his photo each night as I shut the lights, but I say goodnight to all the people in the photos, and each night I feel the same hint of surprise that he is not in my daily life quite the same way as he was before. It’s all very strange and all very reassuring, too, and if it sounds a bit muddled, well, welcome to my world. It seems to work for me.

If you are a loyal Convivio Book of Days reader, I worry sometimes that you must get tired of hearing me ramble on about my father and all those who have come and gone before me. But I know in my core that this line of people I come from and this Book of Days are of the same fabric. They are part of my round of the year and part of my spiraling thread of time and so the things all those people taught me––even ancestors I never knew––those things are all part of this book. It’s a collaboration, co-authored by you and me and all my family, no matter where they are or when they walked this old earth.

So let’s get back to the lawn. First of all, let me state that I am not a fan of the concept. I think lawns are a waste of time and resources and I have to agree a bit with those who say that suburban America has been brainwashed into the green lawn concept. And when I hear, as I did this past weekend, about communities that don’t even allow homeowners to plant fruits or vegetables––on their own land!––I know the lawn thing has gone too far. Allow me to say exactly what you’re thinking: Rules like that are just plain stupid. If you are on a neighborhood board making such rules, it’s clear we will not get along.

Seth and I, we have more sense than to have a lawn at our house. Instead, we live on a plot of land that more closely resembles a dense forest. There are fruit trees and there’s a vegetable garden (fallow right now, but still), and I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but we think it’s just right.

But when I think of my dad, even though he was an auto mechanic by trade (a “Doctor of Motors,” he’d say), Dad has a broom in hand, sweeping up after mowing the lawn. The lawn is green and lush, like a carpet, as Mom says. We Cutrones are not a traveling people, by and large, and so Dad’s pride was his home. He polished the stainless steel gutters, he kept everything running, and mostly, Dad loved his lawn. At the family homestead, we’d work on it together most Saturdays. Dad mowed on his tractor while I did the rest. Back then, I did it because I felt obligated to help. I’d peel my eyes open on a Saturday morning, waking to the sound of Dad riding the mower tractor outside my bedroom window after a Friday night of dancing to the Smiths and New Order at Respectable Street Cafe, and I’d drag myself out there, roll up my sleeves, and get to work. My favorite times were summer days, when we’d finish just before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in: Dad and I would take shelter in the open garage and watch the wind and the rain and delight in the rain cooled air.

But these four years now the lawn is my job. It has come to be my Dad Time. I watch the skies and the trees and the pond for wood storks and other tall wading birds. Sometimes I sing songs to myself. Mostly I am lost in my thoughts, thoughts that I share with my father as I go about the work that needs doing, the work we’d do together.

Recently, Dad’s old tractor, which, for a long time now, required a growing list of preliminary tasks before it would start properly, finally gave up the ghost. It felt a bit clunky that last time as I rode it and mowed. All was fine in the front yard, but the back yard? Not so much. At one point, I looked behind me and gasped: I was creating deep gouges in the lawn, but it was too late; I was halfway to the finish line, so I kept on mowing. When I was done, the lawn looked more like a field freshly plowed for planting with row after row of furrows. I looked at the undercarriage of the mower and realized the blade assembly had rusted through and one side had given way so that the mower was cutting at an angle of about 45 degrees. My sister came out, gave me a look, and said exactly what I was thinking: “Oh, Dad would not be happy.” She put an awful lot of emphasis on the word not.

I spent a couple of weeks feeling badly and paralyzed by indecision over what to do: fix the tractor? It seemed beyond repair. Buy a new one? That’s a lot of money. Buy an electric tractor? More my speed, but that’s even more money. Finally, I took a leap of faith and bought an electric push mower, a Ryobi that’s powered by rechargeable batteries. It’s a lot of walking, but it turned out to be, I think, one of my better decisions in life. I can mow that lawn using two fully charged batteries. I get exercise and lawn day now counts as a work-out day. It’s quiet. It reminds me a bit of Dad’s old Sunbeam mower, the push mower he used when we lived in New York. And you know what? I think Dad would approve. The lawn looks better than ever, and in spite of how I feel about lawns in suburbia in general, I want that lawn looking verdant and rich. Like a carpet.

Images: “No one ever got bored with a pocketful of chores.” I never heard Dad complain of boredom, and I don’t remember what that particular phenomenon feels like, either. Top: Dad with his broom, sweeping up after a fresh cut with his Sunbeam push mower, Valley Stream, New York, circa 1972. Bottom: Me with what my sister Marietta calls “Johnny’s new toy.” It’s the electric battery powered Ryobi push mower at the family homestead. If you need a new mower yourself, I highly recommend it. Dad’s birthday is on Tuesday and I know exactly what I’ll be doing: I’m mowing the lawn, and maybe singing him a song or two.