You wouldn’t know from my father’s Army Air Corps photo, taken while he was younger than my kids are now, that he had a rough upbringing.
Vincent Perratore’s grin displays confidence and hope, but less than 10 years before — when he was only 12 — his father walked out and never returned.
The son of Sicilian immigrants, my father would eventually follow the path of those World War II veterans who made it home: Learn a trade, get married, raise a family. What’s perplexing about his life, however, is that he never truly learned how to be a father.
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Yet he and my mother brought six kids into the world. And his life and his example, 15 years since he died, have left us some valuable lessons.
1.) Remember to laugh. “Did you hear about the one-armed fisherman?” my dad would ask. “He caught a fish this big,” he’d answer, holding out a single arm to form half of the fisherman’s proverbial lie. Granted, he had better humor than that. But over many years of tough work as an upholsterer, a trade he learned from maintaining fabric-covered aircraft, he still enjoyed jokes and told an occasional one himself. My father could be strict — a household of eight would otherwise have been a zoo. He made room for laughter, too.
2.) Never stop learning. By the time my father retired, he had become one of the finest upholsterers in New York. In his spare time, however, he had many other interests. He built an oscilloscope, a radio, and other electronic gizmos from Knight-Kits. He bought a yogurt maker and a bread maker, the latter of which he also used for home-made pizza crusts. My father also played the violin and, one memorable day after weeks of practice, he and my then-fiancée, Elena, together played a Bach concerto for two violins before family. After retirement, in his 70s, he took up racewalking and even competed in an event.
3.) Put your family first. As a young boy, I noticed that my father wasn’t around on Saturday mornings — and certain weekdays he’d get home later than usual. But though my mom told me that my dad had a side job at another upholstery shop, the significance of his sacrifice didn’t truly hit home until years later, when Elena and I did side assignments to bring in additional money for our own family.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to raise six kids, of whom I’m the youngest (“No. 6,” my dad affectionately called me); nevertheless, my siblings and I know from our father what it means to be a parent. We do what we have to do for the family, a lesson my dad learned though his own father wasn’t around to teach him.
4.) Give credit where it’s due. With his grinding schedule and the myriad challenges of an eight-person household in a crowded apartment, my father reminded us often who the boss was. But we didn’t have to wait for Sunday to know he wasn’t the ultimate authority. My father taught us much about our Catholic faith and prayed to Christ, the Blessed Mother, and many saints to help him through everyday difficulties and, later, his greatest challenge of all. Through my parents, I learned that however much we think we’re in control, we’re not. And that all our struggles happen for a reason that we’ll someday understand.
5.) Take care of yourself — and fight to the end. My father worked a physically demanding job for five decades, but he made sure he ate healthfully besides, and taught us to do that as well. But when he was diagnosed at age 80 with melanoma, and learned soon after that the cancer had spread, he had one more lesson for his children.
Through numerous treatments and surgeries, he fought to beat this invader for a year-and-a-half. And when I took him home the day his doctor told him there was no more they could do, he continued to pray.
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He died on the Catholic Feast of the Assumption, August 15, which commemorates the Blessed Mother’s rise, body and soul, to Heaven. The morning my father left us, my mother went into the bedroom to check on him. He asked what date it was. When she told him, he nodded, smiled and took his last breath.
A parent’s lessons are rarely in the form of speaker and dutiful listener, sitting together as if in a classroom. I don’t know what my daughter and son recall of specific things I’ve said in the form of advice.
But I hope and pray, for Father’s Day this year, that I’m living the best of what I’ve learned from my parents. And that maybe, just maybe, my children have learned something of lasting value from me.