There they are: my late parents, lovely Jeanne and handsome Louis. He was 16 years her senior, 56 when I was born in 1963. Nowadays, not such a strange thing, to see an older parent at a school concert or a playground. Back then, it was peculiar enough that the news of my birth was met with amused relief by his assorted man-friends. “Hey, Lou!” they said, or so my mother reported to me many years later. “Good thing it’s a girl! Otherwise, you’d be out there throwing around a baseball in your 60s! Har har har!!”
To which I say: Har. Har. Har. Guess WHAT, knuckle-dragging sexists of the Neolithic? My father was out there throwing around a baseball in his 60s ANYWAY! In fact, he did that into his 70s! So there! Bronx cheer! Pppplllllllll!
But they didn’t know any better, really. Times were different. Sex roles were different. Fathers were different.
My father — Daddy, I called him — was a classical music critic and an author, co-author, editor or co-editor of a baker’s dozen of books. He was brilliant. He studied, read and spoke 16 languages, several fluently.
The eldest son of Italian immigrants, he embraced learning early on as a path to enlightenment and never abandoned it. He worshiped Beethoven, my mother and Thomas Hardy. He wore a beret morning, noon and night. He ate crystal blue mints and prunes, although not together. As a young man in Little Italy he sparred with his pal Big Lou Barba, but then Barba went punch-drunk and Daddy swore off prizefighting and violence forever. The only thing I ever saw him hit was a small bag at the back of our L-shaped porch in Connecticut, and when he did, our house rattled like the wrath of God.
He was a charismatic man. A sweet man. A terrible, terrible punster. (“I’m going for the mail.” Pause. “But not the female.” And he’d say this every single time he went to the mailbox.) He was a surprising man, too, offering to yield his patronymic to the matronymic because he thought “Mitchell” might be an easier name for his daughters to bear through life than “Biancolli.”
He was charming man; he once talked a mugger out of stealing his wallet (“Do you really want to? My late mother gave me that!”). He was a brave man; on the subway, he stopped a knife fight by laying his hands on the young men’s shoulders and saying, “brothers, brothers.”
He played the piano and the accordion by ear. His favorite song was “Melancholy Baby,” and he loved to belt it out in English and Neapolitan, his first language. He sang it for everyone who’d listen, including the friends and strangers he encountered on his walks around Lake Waramaug — walks he took every day, well into his 80s, long after his memory up and left him and everyone became a stranger, everyone became a friend. And as he walked, he swirled his arms, pumping out his Swedish calisthenics to a silent beat.
When he died, at the age of 85 in 1992, I imagined him as a young man — the young man I never met, strapping and sharp. I never knew that father. I never tossed a ball with that one. Sometimes, as a kid, I wondered what it might be like to have a conventional dad, one who still worked, who hadn’t struggled with depression and dementia, who wasn’t so often mistaken for my grampa.
But the one I had did his best. The one I had loved me, knew me, thought the world of me. The one I had smiled when I asked, “Daddy, can we play catch?” Even better, he said yes.