My dad was born 89 years ago today, April 2, in Catania, a small village on the isle of Sicily. Inocenzo (Enzo) Viola was the third child of Giuseppe and Concetina Viola and followed a long line of ancestors who were born, lived, and died on the island. In the early family history, there was a Baron who owned a castle, but he lost his fortune and his castle centuries ago and the castle, that had been turned over to an orphanage, is long gone. The Viola’s of my father’s generation were of modest means. Giuseppe owned a deli and was able to provide for his family that eventually grew to 5: three sons and two daughters.
My father was right in the middle with an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister. I often thought of him as the “fulcrum,” though others might say the “monkey in the middle.” Not my dad. He was the support, the focus for stability and balance, a fulcrum. Throughout his life, reason, education, and compassion guided his actions. Of course, he had a temper (he was Sicilian after all), but it never got him in trouble and I can’t remember a story or a time where he had serious regrets. Sure, there were times he regretted his anger. One time he got into an argument with a friend at school that led to a broken nose. Another time he became so angry with my brother that he punched a hole in a door rather than hitting his son. He never let his anger take control to the point where he would hurt another person. Raison somehow prevailed.
Most of us identify as being right-brained or left-brained. Dad was both; a true renaissance man of many talents. He was an engineer by trade and earned the moniker “watch-maker” because of his extreme attention to detail and perfection. He could visualize any situation and offer practical solutions that escaped others. His engineering designs were more like works of art than diagrams for oil refineries. This was all before computers. He designed on Mylar paper using colored drafting pencils on a wooden table that tilted to a custom angle. His desk drawer had rulers, protractors, angles…I saw his drawings. If he had erased and redrawn any lines, I couldn’t tell. No smudge marks. No wavy lines. Just perfection.
He had a passion and talent for music, opera specifically, and played the accordion, could sing or hum any tune, and could talk at length about music from a technical or artistic perspective. Do you want to learn about scales, or pitch, or tempos? How about creating harmonies? Let’s talk Beethoven versus Salieri or what about the societal commentaries in operas like “Madame Butterfly” or “The Barber of Seville”?
As for the engineering skills, that was essentially self-taught. By the early 1950’s, Dad had made his way to Brazil where a friend asked him to translate a complete set of engineering volumes (think old-school Encyclopedia Britannica) from Portuguese to English. He did not use computer-aided machine translation, and there was no Google. When he finished the job two years later, he was an expert on the content. That’s how it was done. You learned the material in the source language and rewrote the same concepts and ideas into the target language. The friend offered my dad a job in the U.S. and that’s how he came to America. I’ll get back to that in another chapter.
So, yes, the Sicilian successfully translated highly technical material from Portuguese to English. No, Dad did not attend University to learn either language, nor did he have a degree as a linguist, though he should have been given an honorary degree from somewhere. Dad was fluent in many languages: Italian (of course), Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English…and he could get by in German. I also developed a love for languages, in my case French, and many times we had long discussions on language and etymology and compared French and Italian grammar. His proficiency in English not only landed him a ticket to America, but it also got him married…to my mom.
When he lived in Sao Paulo, he was an English teacher. On one average day in 1956, my dad walked into a class of new students. Poor man never had a chance. He had no idea how his life was about to change. Until that morning, he was living the life a happy-go-lucky Italian bachelor enjoying the Brazilian life and the beautiful women that followed him. Yeah, dad was handsome. Not tall, dark, and handsome, he was only 5’6. But dark, handsome, and sensitive. I think he had three or four girlfriends at the time.
My mom, on the other hand, knew exactly what was to come. In her words, “I took one look at him and knew, he was my man.” Mom was only 17 and attended a private school. She was the daughter of Hans Georg and Marie Louise Stubing, a strict German family who had remained in Brazil to escape the Nazis. Again, that’s another chapter with strange parallels to the world today.
Needless to say, Mom became the best student in the class and Dad, 28 at the time, found himself falling for this fair-haired young lady. Five-foot-two, blue eyes, blond hair, and freckles. Though physically opposite from the olive-skinned, black-haired Italian, with dark eyes that hinted at deep emotion as well as intelligence, these two were perfect for each other. Two souls who collided from different continents in a dingy meeting room on a Saturday morning.
Souls or not, my grandmother was not so sure of this “Italian Stallion” courting her daughter. Until they were almost married two years later, my mother’s younger sister accompanied them on all their dates. Being the clever people they are, little sister was never a problem. They would give her a bag of candy, sit her on a park bench, and off they went. And don’t freak out. This a fairy tale love story worthy of a Disney rating. Above all else, my father honored my mother, so nothing “happened” until they were married. In today’s world, that seems really strange. In Brazil circa 1957, not so much.
Over time, they became one person. They made each other whole. They completed one another. It’s the kind of love story little girls dream about. I often told Mom that she and Dad were a horrible example of a married couple because they existed on a plane that no other couple could possibly attain. Mom would blush and smile. She knew I was right. They were unique. They lived and breathed for each other. I always believed I had one parent, an odd mother/father entity divided into two bodies. Remember the old game we played as kids? If Dad says no, ask Mom? That never worked for me. They were always, ALWAYS on the same team. Right or wrong. They stuck together.
Back in high school I had to clear the dishes from the table every night. One night, I put a spoon back in drawer because no one used it. No need to wash it, right? Wrong.
Dad saw me. “Why are you putting that back? You need to wash it.”
“Why?” I said. “She puts it back in the drawer without washing it.” Oh man. That was the biggest mistake of my young life and it wasn’t about the spoon.
“She? Who is ‘She’?” The vein in his forehead started to swell. “Are you referring to your mother?!” Now that damn thing was throbbing. “Your mother is not a ‘she’ and you do not refer to your mother in the third person. I can’t talk to someone who disrespects her mother.” The Italian temper and love for mother combined with the linguist to form a perfect storm of anger and disgust.
When he left, Mom said I had to apologize. Uh, no. The spoon was not dirty; I was following protocol; “she” in place of “mother” is grammatically correct. No need to apologize, on my part, that is.
During the two weeks that Dad and I didn’t talk, Mom was caught in the middle. “You know,” she said. “I can’t talk to you once he’s home.” Of course, not. I knew that and it was okay. How funny that she could not associate with the “enemy.” I don’t know how it all ended. Did I apologize? Probably. Or maybe Dad just got tired of being angry and splitting the family? Could be. He was a peacemaker, the fulcrum that supported the whole.
They did everything together whenever they could. Of course, dad worked, mom stayed home with us. Business travel was infrequent and when possible, Mom went along. They always vacationed together and the only time Mom went out with friends was when Dad was at work or perhaps on a rare business trip. Retirement can be tough on couples, especially when each has developed their own routines. One has their routines erased and the other finds an intruder. I think my Dad’s retirement was what they had been waiting for since they met. They could now spend every moment of every day together. Their constant companionship was well know in many places from the supermarkets to doctors’ offices and a restaurant at the beach. The owner called them Mr. and Mrs. Wednesday.
In any case, they always stuck together, until August 27, 2016, 11: 15 a.m. Cancer is a terrible and powerful destroyer. It seemed to be the only thing capable of breaking apart these two souls that had been united for 60 years. They survived so much, so much tragedy from World War II to personal tragedies like losing a father at 12, dodging bombs in Genoa, and saying good-bye to a granddaughter they didn’t have enough time to love.
Two souls that existed but for each, who put aside all else, who loved each other in a way that others can only dream about. One day Dad said, “Your mother is in the rose garden and I can’t tell which one is a rose and which one is your mother.” Another time, he looked across the dinner table at Mom and said, “Isn’t she adorable?” (He had mellowed by that time.) They always held hands when they walked together. He always opened the car door for her.
And now, it seems, I have one parent for the first time in my life. The Mother/Father entity has been split. I talk to Mom. I see Mom. But where’s Dad?
I think, I hope, the souls are still as one. That cancer only took the body. Because, how can it separate that which exists in a single plane?
Perhaps, cancer is not the destroyer it pretends to be. Perhaps there is a thing it cannot destroy. That “thing” is the Soul that emerged when a 17-year-old girl said to herself, “He’s my man.”
Is. Not was.