As the eighth year anniversary of my father’s passing approaches, I have been thinking a lot about him and of the legacy he left behind. To say that he was my role model and hero seems trite — everyone says that about their father (if they are fortunate enough to have a strong man in their life to lead them into adulthood as I did). A man of few words, I learned what was most important by watching him conduct himself throughout his life and in his 52 year love affair with my mother. It was in this manner that I witnessed the qualities I wanted to emulate for myself. If I could only become half the person that he was…
When my dad was a young man his nieces and nephews used to call him “Uncle Tootsy”. If you’d ever met this man you’d understand how ludicrous a moniker that was because my father’s reputation as a curmudgeon was legendary. He could come-off a little scary at first and often caused my friends at school to shiver in their boots. However, despite his well-executed “tough-guy” persona, once you got to know him you’d soon realized that his “schtick” was designed to hide one of the biggest and warmest hearts on the planet. Babies in particular adored my father – they were not fooled by his stern, gruff manner – they could see right through him into his soft, mushy center. My father had more friends than you could shake a stick at.
Dad was born at home in San Jose, California and raised in a house with 9 other siblings by Sicilian immigrant parents. Not formally educated past the eighth grade, he would religiously read the newspaper cover-to-cover every day and watch the news each evening. What my father lacked in academic knowledge he more than made up for in an uncanny intelligence for reading people.
At a young age my father learned his trade as a car mechanic and after returning from Europe at the end of World War II he began a automotive repair business, “Luke and Martin Service”, in an old converted barn behind my grandparents’ house. When I was a little girl, I never hesitated to take the opportunity to boast about him. If a kid bragged that his father was a brain surgeon, I would shoot back, “Well MY dad is a mechanic”! He worked in that capacity until he was nearly 75 years old because, I believe, his regular customers refused to let him go. A good, honest and trustworthy auto repairman is really hard to come by.
But he wasn’t the kind of guy to show off or talk about himself. He avoided people who put on “airs” or thought they were superior to others. He valued honor and respected hard work and straight talk. When I was a teen he once said to me, “Being rich doesn’t make you happy”. My response back was “That’s just what poor people say to make themselves feel better”, and he just smiled. He was crazy about Westerns (especially John Wayne and Clint Eastwood), and was an avid outdoor sportsman. By far his favorite activity was to fish in a boat on a lake with his buddies. He was so passionate about it that my family had the words “Gone Fishing” carved into his gravestone. The cheekiness of that gesture would not be lost on him.
I guess the bottom line is that my dad was the “strong, silent type”. Not very demonstrative — he wasn’t much for talking about his “feelings”. In all honesty, I don’t remember my father ever saying the words “I love you” to me, however, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel loved and cared for. Some people talk the talk but he actually walked the walk and taught me one of the most important lessons of my life so far: “Love” isn’t a noun, it’s a verb.
by Toni DeBella