Recently, my wife asked me if I had any role models as I was growing up in Italy. The concept of “role model” is new to me, so I said no. She pressed on: “Are you sure there wasn’t someone in your life, or even a character from a TV show, whom you admired or wanted to imitate?”
I thought for a moment and then realized that two men, as different as night and day, served as my role models. Maybe that is why two different sides of me seem to be at war sometimes, while a third side sits in the middle, bewildered.
First, of course, was my father. Those of you who have been following these musings of mine know that I didn’t always understand or agree with my dad. Some of his actions even caused me great pain, although, don’t misunderstand, he never abused me in any way. I understand now that he tried to look out for my best interests.
I’ve also pointed out that he was honest and reliable. My dad was not afraid of hard work, and he took great pride in his ability to support his family. My sisters and I turned out all right. And thanks to my dad, several of his brothers and sisters stepped up the economic ladder by acquiring their own plots of land and building their own houses.
My father preferred the simple life. “Give me a roof over my head and a plate of pasta, and I’m happy,” he used to say. He had no curiosity about what lay beyond the area where he was born; he saw no reason to be anywhere other than where he was. My dad visited my sister in the U.S. once, when her first child was born; he was not impressed with America and American life and was thrilled to return to his homeland.
My second role model was my cousin Federico, or Rico as we called him. He was almost ten years older than me. Rico was not like many Italians, who stay in one job and one place all their lives.
His father spent 40 years with the carabinieri (an Italian national police force organized like a military unit and that functions as a civil police force). Rico also joined the carabinieri, and after his training, he was assigned to Rome.
Rico bought himself a motorcycle, and he visited me frequently at the special institute for the handicapped where I was cooped up. Each time he roared into the courtyard on his bike, he came loaded with candy, comic books, and other treats, enough for me to share with the boys in my dorm room. Then, Rico got himself banned from the place. One of the prettier young nuns had caught his eye, and he was vocal about his lust for her. As a pre-teen, I thought his comments were outrageously funny; the head nun was merely outraged.
Less than two years after joining the carabinieri, Rico quit. He returned to his hometown of Naples and said to his father, “I don’t know how you spent 40 years in such a boring job.” Rico bounced around Italy for a while, selling pasta for one distributor, wine for another. He was not cut out for sales because he had very little patience with people.
Rico was boisterous and loved to tell off-color jokes, to overeat, and to play card game after card game. Oddly, he never over-indulged in alcohol. He was always treated me like one of the guys, no different from anyone else.
Rico finally found his niche as a bus driver for the city of Naples. I never understood how that was better than being an officer of the law. I guess beating boredom did not matter any more. By then, he lived with his wife and several children in a one-bedroom apartment. The once-free spirit had long since sold his motorcycle.
My cousin retired with a modest pension, as do most Italians, and did not make it past his mid-60s. By then, I had long since missed the Rico I used to admire. But my fondness for him never faded.