View From Lodi, CA: A Tale Of Two Fathers
June 18, 2004, 05:00 AM
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My mother taught me to be honest, compassionate and optimistic.

From my father, I learned about education, hard work and perseverance.

Although my father died 25 years ago, I think of him everyday. My father`s presence was so great that even today when I visit my mother, part of me expects to see him walk through the door.

Dad was tender and tough—a combination that evolved from his tortured relationship with his father.

My grandfather was a hard, hard man. He came to New York in 1895 with his Sicilian parents. Penniless, Granddad took every odd job available. He sold newspapers, worked at fruit stands and made deliveries. While others attended school, Granddad worked. He never played sports or watched the New York Yankees.

As Granddad toiled, he saved. From his savings, he made a series of small investments. All were profitable. Along the way, Granddad married. By 1920, he had two sons and a daughter.

Blessed with keen intuition, Granddad anticipated the 1929 Depression. He sold his holdings well before the collapse. Granddad hoarded cash. At the market`s bottom, for distressed prices, he bought real estate, stocks and bonds.

In the mid-1930s, as the country rebounded, my grandfather`s wealth grew. But the more money he amassed, the less he was inclined to spend—particularly on his family.

When Princeton University accepted my father, Granddad said to him, "Your college education will mean a lot more to you if you pay for it yourself."

Shortly after my father began at Princeton, granddad divorced my grandmother. He refused to pay either alimony or child support.

Dad waited tables and worked in the faculty lounge to finance his education. When he graduated, Dad headed for California to join his father who had headed west several years earlier.

In California, my grandfather gobbled up real estate and watched his net worth grow. Eventually, he and Dad opened a restaurant chain that thrived.

But abruptly, Granddad—whose behavior had become erratic—sold the business and kept the profits.

Dad was left holding the bag. Without an income, Dad couldn`t pay his mortgage. The bank soon foreclosed our house.

Desperate, Dad took a job as a billing clerk in a large multinational food processing company. Dad arrived early, stayed late and asked every imaginable question.

His boss noticed Dad`s work ethic. "Come into my office," the boss said one day. "I want to talk to you about an interesting possibility."

The family packed up and moved to Puerto Rico. When the Puerto Rican operation succeeded, we moved again to Central America.

As Dad prospered, my grandfather paid more attention to him than ever before. He visited us and extended invitations to his ranch in the San Fernando Valley—heretofore off limits for us.

Dad thought that the attention now showered on him made amends for a lifetime of slights. But he was wrong. My grandfather had one final slap in the face to deliver.

In his final will, my grandfather`s considerable fortune was given to various charities. Not one dime went to his children.

From the moment my grandfather died, Dad set out to be the best father he could be. Without complaint, he paid all the bills and footed the college expenses for my three sisters and me. Even though we begged him, Dad never bought anything for himself.

As if still trying to prove something to his father, Dad worked harder than ever until, at 66, bone cancer struck. For three long years, Dad slowly wasted away. Although too feeble to sit up, Dad spoke of the garden he would plant in the spring.

While he talked, I prayed for God to end his pain. The last time I took Dad`s hand, I could only feel soft, decayed flesh.

After Dad died, I quickly realized that I had to replace thoughts of Dad`s final days with happier memories. That is one reason why, while I would have done anything for my father when he was alive, I have never been to his grave.

Instead, I have a picture of him and me that I keep close by. In the photo, Dad is 34 and I`m a week old. Both of our eyes are closed. Dad is cradling my head in his palm. With his other hand, Dad is cupping my bottom.

Very gently, so as not to wake me, Dad`s kissing my cheek.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.