Forgettable fathers: Tribute to a wise teacher of life lessons

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Grace Vuoto

Fathers are like the pillars of a bridge — no one notices them unless they are not there. They are indispensable, mostly in so far as they selflessly serve others. The role of a father is not glamorous. And his value is easily overlooked, until the day he is no longer there.

Luigi Vuoto

The lessons my Dad taught were rooted in practical, common sense. “No matter how wealthy you become, “ he said, “never drive a fancy car. There is no other item — not clothes nor a home — that incites as much envy as a luxury car. It only brings trouble.”

At eighteen, when I felt the thrill of liberation roaring down the highway, his words were not interesting. Maybe one day I will buy a flashy foreign car, if I can afford it, I thought.

Yet, today, I drive a plain 2003 American-made vehicle with a solid engine and love it. I hope it lasts a few more years.

When I began university, he told me to take a quick path toward a degree. “After all, there will come a day when you will prefer to be with children more than any career you choose in your youth,” he advised.

Flushed with the exuberance of high grades and enthralled with the great writers of Western civilization, I thought his counsel was hopelessly out of date. Children seemed ordinary. After all, I was going to be extraordinary.

Yet, today, the pitter-patter of little feet scurrying to greet me in the morning is the most extraordinary sound in the world.

One day, we engaged in a debate about romantic love. I said one must marry for love as this leads to the greatest happiness of all. He said I was wrong: “You must chose not just love, but a man of character too. That is the surest foundation for marriage. What if you fall in love, for example, with one who is in prison: Is that a valid choice for your life, even if it is rooted in romantic love?”

I argued in defiance: “You have to follow your heart wherever it leads!”

Yet, today, I share my life with a man whose stellar character undergirds our daily happiness.

Sitting by the fire in our home in a cold, Canadian winter night, my father mused over his triumphs and his failures. “Never be too ambitious,” he warned. “I was prosperous and content, my construction business was booming. And yet, I chose to build bigger and bigger buildings. And I built a twelve-story building with an elevator and all the bells and whistles. But I lost my health along the way. Learn when to say, ‘it is enough for me’ and be content with the possessions and achievements you have.”

In my haughty youth that sounded prosaic. Perhaps his body did not fare well under the strain of his drive to excel, but I was fit and would surely be strong enough to accomplish any dream I pursued.

That was before, suddenly and unexpectedly, in my early thirties, I was halted in my tracks by an illness, which fortunately I overcame. But it was like a slap in the face that still stings. Now, I tread gingerly, and measure work opportunities carefully, to preserve good health.

“Practice constant self-control; never succumb to any vice,” he said often. He had little regard for those who indulge in drugs, alcohol or are lascivious.

“He is vice-ridden,” my father said, at times, in reference to an acquaintance. ”He will be devoured by his weakness.” My sisters and I, in private, snickered and asserted that he was judgmental and lacked compassion.

Yet, today, we call one another to pronounce: “No one had such great judgment as Dad.”

“Always work hard for it’s own sake,” he said. “And avoid entertainment: It is based on a merchant trying to sell you something you don’t need and shouldn’t have.” Back then, my friends and I preferred the slogan “work hard and party hard;” that was “cool.” His advice appeared to be for a different generation with limited prospects and narrow horizons.

Yet, today, I work ceaselessly, even on projects where there is no financial gain.

“Never buy a vacation home,” he warned. “Buy only a residence you occupy and then, if you wish, travel to different locations for relaxation. When you have a second home, you do not rest. You are perpetually cleaning and tending to one home and then cleaning and tending to another. It is a giant nuisance. A second residence is not necessary.”

In an era when so many of our family friends were buying chalets to ski in the Laurentian mountains or condos in Florida to escape the bitter winter months, my father sounded like the skunk at the party.

Yet, today, decades later, I reflect on his oft-cited remark: “If it is not necessary, don’t do it.” It serves as a soothing reminder to seek ultimate shelter in the calm of each day, not in constant purchases or endless motion.

Nonetheless, at times, he was literally the skunk at the party. During weddings, he noticed that as years went by, fewer couples brought their children to the celebration. “Why don’t you bring your children?” he wondered aloud to fellow guests. “Children make weddings festive; they are the reason to have a party. It is delightful to see them scurrying about. What are you doing here without your children?”

In our teens, we roared back at him: “It’s date night, for them, Dad! Let them have fun without their kids!” He would then go silent, squinting in deep thought and muttering under his breath words we did not care to hear. He said something about “the family losing its value and beauty disappearing…” But we wanted to dance, not listen.

Yet, our hearts captured all those words that seemed to tumble so lonely from his mouth.

We dreaded Saturdays. He insisted that one of us must accompany him as he shopped for food. In the morning, my sisters and I attempted to cajole one another into going with him. “You go,” I would say. “No, you go; it’s your turn!” exclaimed the others in unison.

This food shopping entailed driving forty minutes to the downtown core of the city: we went to the butcher, the fresh seafood market, the cheese store, the Italian bread shop and the bakery. Just when I was about to pass out due to nausea and boredom, he drove to the outdoor market for fresh fruits and vegetables. There, he sampled the goods at each stand and negotiated the price for every pound of produce. It would literally take hours as he tasted the food before buying it, often spitting it out, saying it wasn’t any good and was overpriced.

He knew the merchants and they knew him, so there were long discussions along the way. And finally, when we arrived home, all the bags were taken inside and he measured the items on a scale to ensure he was not cheated. By then, I was usually pale and utterly drained; I scurried to my room for relief.

“Save on all items you purchase,” he said “but spare no expense when it comes to food: Buy the very best.” We would roll our eyes and tell one another it is so much faster just to go to the supermarket where they have all the goods in one place, for Pete’s sake!

Yet, though I have since dined in renowned world capitals, I have never smelled anything as good or eaten as well as at my childhood family table years ago.

On Sundays, he drove us to church. Afterwards, we cowered in the back seat, poking one another. Who will ask him? Finally, one of us had the courage to inquire: “Can you take us to McDonald’s?”

We waited with great anticipation for the response.

He usually took a few deep breaths as though he were pondering the question carefully. After a pause, he stated with great finality, like a papal proclamation: “Okay, we will go.” We cheered in jubilation.

As I became older, I noticed a slight smile at the corner of his lip through the rear view mirror. He always said yes, but he always made us ask for the privilege of going to McDonald’s. As a result, for years, we thought it was the highlight of the week and that he was a most generous man.

Nowadays, I sometimes lie in bed wondering if my children will appreciate all they have. Are they being spoiled?

My Dad often admonished: “Be shrewd, my daughter. Do not be so idealistic, otherwise you will be trampled under foot.” He mistrusted every political party and ideology. As a young man, he had been politically engaged, shouting at the top of his lungs for one group or another whom he believed would bring relief to the suffering poor In Italy.

But when they came to power, “they only served themselves,” he said. “And it didn’t matter if their politics was left, center or right: they were the same.” Hence, in his mid-twenties, he came to a stark conclusion: “Life is like war: He saves himself who can.”

Though he listened to the news every night, he nevermore believed that a politician or political party would make much difference in his life. He relied only on his own skills and viewed the government — any government and every government — with deep mistrust.

And indeed, he rose out of crushing poverty by “saving himself” through a dogged and disciplined pursuit of his craft.

He never uttered the words “conservative” and “liberal.” Rather, most folks he placed in one of two categories. “That one is a worker,” he said in approval and admiration. “That one is a parasite,” he stated in disgust. Worker or parasite: every man and woman was either one or the other.

“But what about the poor?” I sometimes asked him. “Don’t we have a duty to help them?” He shook his head in sadness “You do what you can for this or that individual. But mostly, they have to muddle through alone, each for himself.”

Indeed, he was generous to all who knew him, offering a bountiful table and loans, even, if needed. But his generosity was usually based on a personal relationship. For, he had been “the poor” and had no romantic notion about how they could be saved by others.

“At seven, I had to find a way to feed my mother and my sisters,” he told me with tears in his eyes when he was much older, very ill and slowly dying. It was not through idealism that food was put on their table or ours.

I often peered from the kitchen window to watch him, down below, sitting under the large maple tree in our yard. As disease rendered him vulnerable, he sat there, overlooking the flowerbed, the garden and the home he had built with his own hands. I could almost hear his private thoughts: “What will become of my wife and my young children when I am gone? Will they remember all I taught them? Will they preserve all I gave them? Will they forget about me?”

My father was the wisest man I have ever met. He went to school for only six years. The rest, he taught himself.

When Luigi Vuoto died on October 19,1991, I was just twenty-one. At the wake, one of our old friends caressed my face and said sweetly: “I am so sorry your father is gone.”

I looked at her with complete composure and replied: “A father never dies.”

Dr. Grace Vuoto is Editor of Culture and Politics at WorldTribune.com and the founder of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.

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