Growing up in a strict Italian-American family, while never dull, was quite predictable. My father, who was most certainly the head of the clan, had few rules that were explained with fanfare. He more so led by example. Of all the things Dad imparted to us, the importance of a good work ethic and the need to show respect to others stand out most.
One lesson in respect came when I was 13 years old. It was a beautiful fall afternoon and I was engrossed in a hotly contested two-hand touch football game at the local schoolyard. Suddenly, I noticed it was 4:58 p.m. One of Dad’s strictest rules was having dinner at 5 — and don’t be late. He came home hungry from his factory job at about 4:30 p.m. daily, and Mom always had the meal prepared.
We had a typical Philadelphia row home, comfortable but the kitchen was somewhat cramped. When Mom cooked, her usual chair at the table was pushed to the side so she had more room to stand at the stove. One of my daily chores, out of respect for my mother laboring in the hot kitchen, was to place her chair in its rightful spot at the table before I sat down to eat.
That one afternoon, at 4:58, I had exactly two minutes to hustle home, one block away. As I ran into the house, I saw that Dad and my sister Kathy were already seated. Mom was just finishing up. Dad had started with the escarole soup, with the little meatballs. I slid right to my seat, with all the grace of Fred Astaire on the dance floor. I was in a hurry and I was hungry.
As I sat down, Dad said, “Where’s Mommy’s chair?” And I uttered these fateful words in reply: “Oh, she can get it herself.”
My father, with the skill of a conductor waving his wand and not missing a single stroke of his soup spoon, grabbed the blade of his favorite bread knife and popped me on the head with the black wooden handle with the three gold dots. No words were necessary.
I immediately got up, went over to Mom’s chair, and placed it in its rightful spot at our dinner table — and I never forgot it again.
Today, some might find that little love tap harsh treatment. After all, I was just a hungry kid. What was the big deal if Mom had to move the chair herself? But that wasn’t the point. I had disrespected Mom — and Dad. He wanted me to grow up to be a man who deserved respect and that could only happen if I were a man who showed respect.
When I eulogized Dad at his funeral Mass, I recounted this story. Most of the attendees, especially my cousins, laughed and gave nods of familiarity. Those cousins had parents who would have done the same thing. Back then, there was simply right and wrong.
I ended by saying the story showed that Dad was a master of nonverbal communication — but in just 10 seconds he taught a very clear lesson on respect and how to show it.
Charles Sacchetti is a writer in Cinnaminson, N.J.