Laugh Lines And Heartstrings

My dad never got to see Tiger Woods hit his prime. He really would like to have seen that. He so respected young men who accomplished things, who set their minds to a task and persevered. He didn’t see the Browns leave town and then come back a few years later. That was probably a good thing, as he never cared much for the team’s ownership. The Cavaliers’ “King James” phenomenon also came after my dad’s departure, and he would really have enjoyed that. He always felt Cleveland had the fan base to support any winning team and that it was an injustice to deny that to the people of this area. Many of my life lessons were learned through his references to sports--a habit I find I have developed as well.

Simple, Noble Qualities

E-mail and cell phones were not as advanced as they are now, and my father would have considered it silly and vain for anyone to think he was so indispensable as to need 24-hour access through a phone on their hip. The fear and loathing over the potential Y2K disaster would not have missed his radar, and he’d have cited it later as an example of how people panic for no reason. I recall lying in front of the television as a child and hearing him snort from his easy chair when the executives of the major oil companies explained the gasoline crisis of the 1970s. “That’s a lie,” he stewed under his breath. He was a man of great emotion, but in complete control of the same.

When the Plain Dealer cost ten cents, he took a copy off a stack outside the local donut shop every morning before the proprietor arrived, and always left a dime on top of the stack. One Saturday when we actually went in for coffee, I told the owner I was sitting with the guy who left a dime every morning. The owner had always wanted to know who that honest person was, and called the staff out to meet the “dime guy.”

Foundation In Family

My dad treated his parents as if they were made of gold, and did the same for his wife’s parents who thought of him always as a son. He was married to his in-law’s only daughter for 42 years until his untimely passing 13 years ago last October. He had two daughters, and I was fortunate to be his only son. He was a humble and gentlemanly sort, his wants were modest, and his world was limited by his hometown in Pennsylvania and the town in which he had gone to college, married, and eventually raised his family. Every other place was just someone else’s hometown.

He bought us one of the first color televisions on the block, and bought mom a “hi-fi stereo” with headphones at a time when no one had ever seen those. He played his Sinatra albums with those monstrosities over his ears and sang along, hitting notes that made the dog go running into the other room.

Though not gifted in the creative-arts department, he loved music, especially the music his wife made with her baby grand piano, that took up a quarter of the living room. At night when she played, he sat in his easy chair and listened, sang a few bars here and there, and reveled in her talents. When she played midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and conducted a large adult choir and a children’s choir, and performed on piano, organ and harpsichord, he slipped in the back door just before the music started, caught her eye so she knew he was there, and then disappeared with us kids into the crowd, wanting her to have her full moment without the worries of children and him. He always gave others their due.

He doted on his daughters and made life fairly challenging for their potential boyfriends. While he never had a dog himself, he thought it right for me to have one. On the rare occasion that he stopped to pet that old fellow, Scruffy’s tail would pound against the cabinets and stove until it sounded as if it would break.

Strong And True

We painted the garage together every three years, and I held the ladder for him every time we cleaned the gutters until I grew older and he became shaky up there. Then he held the ladder for me and I went on the roof. Our house stood on a wooded acre, and every fall we raked and raked, and every summer we cut and cut, and every winter we shoveled and shoveled--father and son, taking care of the house. “Hey, Fuzz, hit that walkway one more time before your mother comes home.” He was always worrying about her. He made each anniversary special, always buying something delicate like a teacup or piece of jewelry; never anything practical like an appliance. As she opened her gift on Christmas morning or at the dinner table, he’d look away or pretended not to notice as she fawned over his good taste and thoughtfulness.

I recall a man saying something suggestive to my mother once as our family was leaving a restaurant. She hated that kind of thing. My dad pretended not to hear as the three kids scurried in the back seat and Mom sat in the front. Walking deliberately, my dad grabbed the man’s lapels and pulled him off his feet and around the corner of the restaurant, away from our line of vision. About 30 seconds later Dad walked calmly around the corner, but the other guy didn’t appear at all. I suspect it took him awhile to get up. We never did know what happened. We didn’t ask either. When Dad started the car, there was silence until Mom put the radio on. He casually drove us home like nothing had happened.

Every morning he slapped on Mennen’s aftershave after raking down a coarse beard. Years later when Jack Palance endorsed Mennen’s, my dad repeated the advertising slogan, “Smell like a man.” He recorded several patents while at Ford Motor Company, and one day I found the plaques buried in his closet. When I asked about them, he simply said, “Put those back.” I shook my head. “Let’s hang them.” He walked towards me and said, “Put them back,” and walked past me. I did as I was told.

Everybody’s Buddy

He played poker with his friends on Friday night, and would usually bet a horse or two on weekends with my mom at his side, or maybe my mom’s brother, to whom he was very close. He shot a great game of pool and liked to tell us kids that his pool winnings put food on the table many nights. Years later, he said that his biggest fear in gambling was that one day he would actually hit it big and not be able to enjoy the fun and anticipation of taking a chance. Bills were always covered, and all three of his children went to college without having to be haunted by post-graduation loans.

Sometimes my dad would see friends at a restaurant and pay their bill as he left. When they saw him months later, they said, “Ronnie, you didn’t have to do that!” He would look baffled. “What? That was months ago. Forget about it.”

He was famous for forgetting names. When people approached, he would urgently turn to me. “Fuzz, what’s this guy’s name? His name? His name? Hurry up!” I whispered, “Robert! His name is Robert!” Dad acted as if he never had a doubt. “Heyyyy, Bobby!”

Dedication By Example

He was hired by Ford right out of college and worked there his whole life. When he was offered a promotion that included his relocating, the family was sad, but we offered our support. We never heard another word about it. He told the company no, for family always came first. I am 47 and have been with my company for 26 years. His example is still a constant reminder of his responsible ways.

He coached a men’s softball team in the summer as his love of sports was always part of his makeup. Some of those young men included football players from Baldwin-Wallace College, like current Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who back then was called “JT.” One evening during a championship game, my dad rearranged the four outfielders normally assigned in softball to a standard right-, center- and left-field layout. He took the fourth outfielder--who happened to be JT--and put him in what he called “short field,” a slot about 30 feet behind and between the shortstop and second baseman. In his scouting, he had noticed about 75 percent of the opposing team hit line drives right to that slot. JT made about two outs per inning, and the other team protested wildly. Dad pointed out in the rulebook that the outfielders were his to place anywhere he wanted. His team won big that night and, true to form, the players didn’t go to the bar to celebrate, but took their families to Dairy Queen. Leading by example again, Dad ran a clean operation--family first.

Brotherly Love

During the holidays, he and I made the pilgrimage to his hometown in Pennsylvania to bring his parents and brothers’ families gifts and baked goods, and when we left we were loaded up with the same. He was always so happy to see his parents and two brothers. The time spent with them during those few days before Christmas showed me a side of him I rarely saw: a vulnerability that he could only show there, in a place where he didn’t have to be the all-knowing father, son-in-law and husband. For those few days he could be brother and son. I really tried to be extra well-behaved and give him his time. On those trips we talked and laughed, and I learned about being a man and a son and growing up strong and reliable. I knew that I would remember those trips the rest of my life. I also remember the day he lost his younger brother. It was my mother’s job to tell him, and I recall the anticipation as he walked in the door from work and immediately knew something was wrong. As she explained, he turned away and sobbed silently, leaning on the kitchen counter. Years after his brother’s death, I would find him sitting on the couch and gazing out the window into the darkness. “You okay, Dad?”“Yep. Fine.” Of course.

Heart-Breaking Farewell

After college I moved into an efficiency cottage my parents had on their lot. A boarder had stayed there for years, and then my grandfather moved out there after he was widowed. It sat vacant for about a year before I graduated, but was a classic place with tongue-and-groove paneling and a gas-burning fireplace. It was nestled in a pine grove near the back of their acre, and I absolutely loved living there. During that period, my mom was working still--as was my dad--but her musical career often had her gone evenings, so he was alone. Most of my friends were still in school or busy with their own lives, so I was also alone. What a great opportunity it became. He and I went to dinner, played racquetball, attended ball games, and came to know each other again in a new way. I will always treasure those five years when he and I became best friends. I thank God to this day for giving me that time.

Although one of his fraternity brothers was his doctor, my dad still managed to avoid seeing him very often. One Friday night after taking Mom to dinner, he kissed her goodbye and left for his poker game. A few hours later she received a call that he’d been taken to the emergency room with chest pains. My sister and I met Mom at the hospital, and sure enough, this was the big one. As I walked in, as many as nine people were trying to revive him. I asked the doctor if there was any hope, and he quietly shook his head. Mom stepped in and said that was enough. His heart had literally blown apart. The doctors stopped their feverish work. His head tilted towards us, and his stare went blank.

Falling From Grace

That was thirteen years ago last October. Fall had always been a time when we worked so hard together and laughed so much, so it was especially fitting that he passed then. Fall will always be “his time.”The line at his wake went halfway around the block, and I shook almost 1,000 hands that day: his supervisors, employees, golf partners, poker buddies, the guy from the gas station, the crew from the tire store, the gang from the barber shop, etc. Many were unable to utter words, but those who did said, “the best…,” “the best guy.” He touched so many lives.

While I am the product of two parents, my upbringing was blessed with a powerful, unique influence, for a young man models himself after his father, and my dad’s strength and velvet-over-steel touch allowed me to choose wisely.“You’re different than me,” he’d say now and then, and he said it happily.

Living Legacy

Though indeed different, I am his only son, and I carry his name proudly. “Are you Ron Junior?” people ask. Since our middle names are different, I say “Not exactly,” but I mean that in many ways. My 11-year-old often asks about him, although they never met. “Do you think he would have liked me?” “No doubt about it, Sammy,” I say, “no doubt.”

Welcome another fall. When I arrive at the cemetery, the leaves and the bite in the air bring his presence back to me in waves. I stare at the humble but handsome headstone. Mom had it done in marble with pine boughs engraved on the brass plate, a tribute to our cozy family home nestled in the pines. As beautiful as the stone is, it seems such a small memorial for all he provided for us. I value and use every single lesson. But, man, I do miss that guy. He would not want me to dwell on that though. Forgive my indulgence.And call your parents.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail