Grace and Grandpa

“Wait ’til your father gets home.”

My father’s dad worked on the railroad, away from home for weeks at a time back in the 1930s, so I’m sure Dad heard this line many times. His Italian immigrant parents raised a large family. His mother took care of her kids, so I suppose when she said this to her son (my Dad), there were many days and nights of worry building up to when his dad got home to deal with the family.

Growing up, I also heard this line many times, but my dad came home every night. (Most of the time when Mom warned me to wait ’til Dad got home, it was because I was in trouble for something that my brother Greg did.)

But most days I couldn’t wait for my father to get home.  I was his sixth kid, his fourth son, and he made me feel special.

He was fun to talk to. He thought about things and liked to ponder with me. Dad was always thinking of the next greatest thing…like bowling for prizes. Like a tanning booth. Like how to make fresh water. His brain never stopped.

He had a tanning booth before it was cool for New Yorkers to have that brown leathery skin year-round.

We liked the fresh cool water from a nearby spring, so Dad bought a distilling machine. It was about the size of a toaster with lots of tubes. It made about a cup of clean water each day.

One time Dad complained about ice melting and watering down his drink and that led us to a discussion about how to solve this problem. Five years later, I found some of those plastic ice cubes, bought them for him for Christmas, and couldn’t wait to show him. Once again, someone else invented his idea.

We went to Wildwood every summer and Dad loved those vacations, his one week off each year. We drove through the night to get there, and everyone slept in the car except me and Dad. I got to toss the coins in the NJ toll baskets. We had the neighborhood pool in our yard that we filled with hoses from three houses every spring, and drained every fall.  We went to the ocean and we had a pool, but Dad didn’t swim. Maybe he didn’t learn when he was a kid. His dad died when he was nine, and he helped around the house and got a job. His childhood was different from the one he made for all of his kids.

I spent many Saturdays with Dad down at Graves & Rodgers, running the computers, feeding the hoppers with punch cards. When Dad coached my older brothers’ baseball teams, I was the bat boy for the Troy Masonic team. It was just fun to be with him.

Dad was first a son and brother. Then he became a husband, father, uncle, and father-in-law. Later he was a grandfather, great-grandfather, boss, tax-man and almost-Councilman.  To so many people, he was a friend. He looked out for a lot of people. They all relied on him.

Dad was fourth of seven kids–smack in the center of the two brothers and one sister older (Dom, Frank, Olga) and the two bothers and one sister younger (Bob, Tilly, and Gus) than him. Can you imagine growing up in that household? It had to be phenomenal.

Dad didn’t do anything halfway. When he met mom, his friend danced with her first, but Dad must’ve danced better, or tried harder, because he won her hand and married her when he was 24. Think about it: Dad’s family was fresh off the boat; he was man of the house at 9 years old, served his country at 18, married in his early 20s, and had 7 kids by his mid-30s.

As Dad’s memory began to fail, I would quiz him on the phone about people’s names, football and baseball teams, and memories from when he was much younger. He was frustrated by his faulty short-term memory, but his long-term memory was solid. He told me about his bus ride to the train on his way to basic training almost seventy years ago. The commander handed him the clipboard and put him in charge of roll call at each stop. Dad did it a few times before he saw that the guy below him on the alphabetical list was supposed to be the checker. He found the guy and handed off the duty. Later in Japan, his sergeant was dealing out promotions and asked who was from New York. Dad raised his hand and said he was from Troy, and got the promotion because the boss said NYers are tough. That’s true. Good reason for a promotion.

About a dozen years ago, Dad came to a Clemson football game with us. It was hot. We tailgated before the game and Dad ate an apple. When he bit into it, he lost his last real tooth. In the stadium, we sat in the sun. The place was packed full and we were all sweating. I checked on how he was feeling a couple of times before he said, “Maybe we should take a walk.”

As we were climbing the stairs to the exit to find some shade, he said, “Mike, I think this is it.”

I said, “No, Dad, you can’t die at a Clemson game.”

So he didn’t. An ambulance took him to the hospital where we listened to the end of the game on the radio. (Clemson won, of course.) When they released him, he insisted we all go out to dinner after the 2-hour drive home, and while we ordered, he flirted with the waitress. My Dad never met a stranger.

Almost three decades ago, Dad had coronary bypass surgery. After his surgery, he told me the doctor said it bought him 12 years. He said he would never have the surgery again, because the chest pain was just too great. My first reaction was Great, 12 more years with Dad. Then I thought, that’s all?

When we moved to Michigan, during the first few years the phone calls just kept coming with bad news. I figured every time it was going to be about my father. But it never was. Dad had the heart of a lion.

Besides a golf tournament I play in every July with my brothers, I almost always went home for the Super Bowl in the winter. Not a typical family holiday, but with three brothers and a dad who loved the game, and Dad’s birthday always falling within a week, it was a fun place to be for the big game. I remember one year Dad had a Super Bowl square and was winning for the first half. But Marcus Allen’s scramble at the end of the half changed the score and he lost, and was yelling, “I’ll never bet on the Super Bowl again!” Turned out he won the pool at the end of the game and yelled to my sister who was planning a trip, “Melissa! Pack your bags!”

Dad loved sports, especially baseball. He was a big fan of the New York teams and the Chicago White Sox—due to a visit to the windy city as a child to meet cousins. As a kid, Dad and his buddies trekked across the Hudson River to sneak into games. He played high school ball, but due to circumstances at home, he was only allowed to play when he was scheduled to pitch. In our house growing up, we had an unwritten rule: If you weren’t playing sports, you had to have a job. Needless to say, we had several three-letter athletes in our family.

Dad lived to almost 87 and, as I like to say, had over 400 years of parenting experience given six of his seven children are 50 years or older.

Truly my Dad was one of a kind but, thankfully, we’re all kind of like him.

My Dad: Mario Lanni, January 30, 1929 – December 22, 2015





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