By Lori DuVall-Jackson
Growing up, children often fail to realize their family life differs from others. Within the limited experiential sphere of childhood, what one knows is all there is. With time and a broader perspective, it’s confounding for me to realize how much of a difference actually existed and the impact it had.
When I look at old family films, particularly the one where my 2-year-old self is whaling away at a punching bag, I understand just how much I became my father’s daughter.
My father was a first-generation American who grew up in a large Sicilian family during the Great Depression. Dad was a bundle of contradictions, a man as easily moved to tears as he was to anger. He was generous to a fault, and always favored the underdog.
Dad left school in the eighth grade to work. “Picking beans. We picked ’em and we ate ’em.” He told stories of pieces of rubber cut from old tires that covered the holes in his shoes. If someone needed a tooth pulled, “a string got tied around the tooth and the other end tied to a doorknob. Then someone shut the door,” is how my father recalled it. “That was our dentist.”
Tony was a character. He lived big, my father, and when the good times rolled so did we. My brother and I often accompanied our parents to supper clubs and racetracks. Dad would complain my mother “dressed him like Mrs. Astor’s pet horse,” but he was well-built, good looking in a Tony Bennett kind of way, and women flirted with him right up to his septuagenarian years.
He was a tough guy, a former Golden Gloves boxer, not afraid of anyone when provoked. Conversely, his unabashed sentimentality often led to tears.
As my uncle observed, “Tony cries at a ballgame.” To which I would answer, “Well, he probably had money on it.”
Gambling was his favorite pastime, leading to his stint as a bookmaker in the days before Off-Track Betting. During this period, my brother, Larry, and I were instructed to tell anyone who asked that our father was “self-employed.” If pressed for details I would shrug and say, “he’s on the phone a lot,” which was true enough.
My mother was not thrilled with this development, partially because, as she put it, “your father is the only bookie in Buffalo who loses money.”
Eventually he “went legit,” founded a successful business and became a frequent visitor to the OTB near the office.
Larry told me he stopped in that particular plaza once and noticed a crowd gathered in front of the OTB. Curious, he made his way over to find our father lying on the ground, where he had slipped on some ice and twisted his ankle.
Larry said, “Dad saw me and the first words out of his mouth were ‘don’t tell your mother.’ ” That was a phrase we heard a lot growing up.
Despite the unconventionality of my upbringing, or perhaps because of it, I in some ways grew up very quickly. In my teens I was a behavioral handful, and I’ve often pondered how differently things could’ve turned out had my parents thrown up their hands.
My relationship with my mother was a difficult one, but I felt that my father loved me without reservation, and that made all the difference.
He was a big-hearted man who loved life and lived it well, despite his flaws and weaknesses. Our rabbi closed his eulogy with the most fitting words possible, and I saw heads nodding in agreement.
“Tony,” he said, “was a mensch.”