I went to medical school because I never wanted to write a term paper ever again. I hope this does my dad justice.
Driving home from the hospital last Thursday was almost impossible for me. My head was assaulted with a flood of images and memories. These are just a few.
Whatever else anyone could say about my father, he was a colorful personality, a very big personality. Like a strong wine. But that's because he was never shy about anything. He had a lot of passion and gusto for life.
My dad loved a lot of things.
He loved food. He was not a snob. But he had very high standards. He never ever went to an Italian restaurant because he knew what really good food was. My mom taught him and the rest of our family what really good food was. So how can I blame him for never wanting to go out to eat? When he lived alone, he cooked for himself, like his dad did. He liked practically everything with garlic.
He loved to have a glass of wine. Occasionally he'd spring for a good bottle, but he enjoyed his Carlo Rossi. He used to like to put the Carlo Rossi back into the good wine bottles, not to fool anyone, but to keep the air out and the wine fresh. Some of us have inherited his taste. We now know Carlo Rossi is served at one of the best Abruzzese restaurants in Philly.
Some people are like oatmeal or polenta...solid, but kinda boring. My dad was like garlic. My dad was like a red hot chili pepper. Never boring.
My dad loved music. He could get very emotional and tear up at the first measure of a favorite song. He sang in this church's choir for many years. It brought a lot of joy to his life.
My dad loved being Italian. He never wore the little horn around his neck, or a T-shirt that said "Italy". He just WAS Italian. It came through the pores of his skin like the garlic he loved. He used to like to call me and leave a voice message that said "this is your old man, Domenico DeLaurentis. We took him to Italy almost five years ago to visit his father's birthplace. He cried with tears of joy.
My dad loved all natural beauty, and the environment. He learned this from his father. He grew everything in his garden just like his dad. Grapes, figs, tomatoes, lettuce.... He had a unique organic fertilizer program. He would stand in the kitchen and pee into the old tomato sauce jar and in broad daylight would walk outside with his precious golden liquid and spread it on his tomato plants... they were the biggest and best in town. He was way ahead of his time
He loved the ocean. He would take not just me but all the kids in the neighborhood down to Ship Bottom during summer weekends to play all day in the ocean. He would take all of us in his 1960 Chevy Biscayne with a one square foot hole in the back floor. When we stopped at red lights we would pick up stones and then we would go 50 miles an hour and we would drop the stones back to the road to entertain ourselves. There was always fun with dad.
Years afterward my father was still taking the little neighborhood children of Camden, many those of color, to the shore with him because no one else could or would. He was one of the first community organizers.
He always wanted to save the environment, and be economical at the same time. I clearly remember he had gotten plans for putting a wind turbine on the roof of our house in Camden, in 1970! Now wind energy is part of our national energy plan. Again ahead of his time. To save on electricity and air conditioning, he put aluminum foil on all the south facing windows of our house... which to my embarrassment always gave my friends something to talk about... but now my house and yours likely has aluminum on the windows just like my dad put, but you just cant see it. It is now known as low emission glass. Again, ahead of his time.
Under the category of loving nature and beauty, my father liked “the ladies”. He would occasionally go to my office in Haddonfield for an X-ray, where he would never let an opportunity pass to let the technologist know how beautiful she was. My boss of course never lets me forget this.
My dad loved to talk to people. He would talk to anybody about anything. He would do this in sometimes the most outrageous ways. My friends and I can remember that at the beach he would just get up from our blanket and go sit down next to somebody on their blanket and start talking to them. The amazing thing was that they would not run away or call the police, but they would actually talk back to him and at least seem to enjoy it! It was like magic!
He would occasionally say something outrageous, but it would often be an outrageously true thing. It would be something that everybody else would like to have said except no one else had the “you know what” to say it. Some people have accused me of inheriting this trait from my father.
If you came to our house, you were treated like family. Once when I was about 16 I brought some friends home (unannounced) at 2 o'clock in the morning after being out all night and put them into bed in the front room our house where my dad had shut off the heat and closed the door to be "economical". It was January and about 30 degrees in the room. About 3:00 in the morning, dad comes into the room and yells "who the hell is in here?" My fellow Camden friends Mike and Ron almost died of fright. When he figured out who they were, he came back in 2 minutes with two wool hats and put them on their drunken heads. He was a good host.
But even though he loved to talk to people, he loved to talk to and be with his family most of all.
When he couldn't talk directly to you, he might mail you what is now known as a “crazy Grandpa” letter. I hope someone takes the time to compile them and publish them. They are truly outrageous and hilarious, but completely heartfelt.
When I was little, we visited or were visited by family it seemed almost every day of the week. I wondered when I was in school why we didn't have family "friends" like other people. Who needs friends when you have over 100 relatives that you could visit on any given day of the week? Dad would bring me to his mom’s or his dad's house and was always doing something for them or just going and talking and visiting.
My father often showed his loved by being strict. Getting an "A" in school was just okay. But "B" stood for the beating you got if you got a "B" on your report card. He sure knew how to make you live up to your potential. He knew being together as a family was very important. Especially for dinner. I remember him chasing me down 35th Street belt in hand in front of everyone in the neighborhood because I wasn't home on time for dinner. My friends found this highly entertaining. But dinner was sacred. There is a study that just came out that said the single most important thing parents can do to keep their kids off of drugs is to have dinner with them four nights a week. Again, science justified my dad. Also, I now realize that there were lots of kids in the neighborhood who either didn't have a father or didn't have one that cared enough about them to come after them.
But it wasn't all drama. I remember my dad staying up all night with me making me tea with honey lemon and whiskey so that I could stop coughing and wheezing. He's used to give me addition problems that were seven decimal places long because we didn't have videogames back in the day, to keep me entertained. He would grade them and I would feel so proud to get them right.
He bought us a telescope and took me to Virginia to see a total eclipse of the sun. It was crazy awesome. It was like we went to another world.
I remember him teaching me to ride a bike. He ran beside me like crazy to keep up, but I got away and crashed into Mr. Kennedy’s fence and started to bleed. I remember him carrying me home to take care of me.
He worked overtime and always seemed to be helping his brothers and sisters, even helping one to get through graduate school. He never formally got past 9th grade. He fought in the Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge, was wounded and got the Purple heart...but never ever talked about it, never glorified it. With the GI bill, he went to night school FOREVER, then helped put the moon buggy on the moon, and help design Aegis radar that protects millions of soldiers sailors and marines. He never stopped learning. When times got tough in Camden, homeless people going by his house would be given a sandwich, where most everybody else would run inside and hide. He volunteered at our Lady Lourdes hospital pushing patients around, but mostly chatting with the old ladies and telling them how beautiful they looked.
One of my very first memories of childhood was that I loved to follow my dad around the house, very closely, and I mean right on his heels. I was just a little guy, my head only this high, and I distinctly remember as I followed him I was staring at the rear pocket of the tan wool pants that he used to wear. I remember my face being about six inches away... when he let one rip... after that I remember giving him a little bit more space. But I remember wanting to be that close to him.
I know my dad struggled with religion and his idea of God. But I know in his heart that he knew God was real, because he knew in his bones about the love he had for music, nature, people, and his family. And I know he loved God because he always thanked God for these blessings. Look at your crazy Grandpa letters, it’s there. He taught me to struggle with these issues also. I am very grateful for it.
He knew and believed that life was a cycle. He knew the leaves fell in the fall so that there could be a Springtime. He wanted to be part of that cycle. Now he is. I was blessed to be with my dad in his last few moments on this earth. He had not opened his eyes for his last three days but at the last moment he opened them in wide-eyed wonder. I knew he could see something beautiful, maybe even unbelievable, but real.
I think he is drinking the good wine now.
I just want to say one thing to God…thank you for my dad.