G. Michael Girolamo

Author of Memorable Moments

Category: Our Fathers

Our Father

When we are young we all think that life will last forever and that our parents will always be there for us. But as adults we know that in the blink of an eye life can change, forever. One tragic night, when I was only 12 years old, I lost my Mother and my Paternal Grandmother.
That night I learned that, life is ephemeral, death is immutable and time waits for no man.
One weekend my family had planned on driving upstate New York for a cousins wedding. We were to leave Friday afternoon when my father got out of work. We knew a snow storm was coming but we hoped to sneak in front of it. But my father had to work overtime that Friday and it was after seven by the time we left for Corning. It did snow and it turned out to be the kind of night that only Interstate Truckers were on the road, they owned the road on nights like that. Families belonged safe at home.
It was all but impossible to see the road through the driving snow. One particularly step hill on Route 17 was illuminated by towering road lights. We knew the snow was bad but as we entered the sphere of light created by the road lights it was apparent that we were in the middle of an all out blizzard, it was a startling sight. We hit a patch of ice and slid down the road, spinning and banging into the snow bank along the median of the highway. Eventually we came to rest; half of our 1966 Green Ford station wagon was up on the snow bank the other half was in the left lane. In a panic we all instinctively rushed to get out of the car, so we piled out into the onslaught of the cruel blizzard; it was exactly the wrong thing to do. As we got out of the car we were shocked by the sight of a tractor trailer emerging from the black of night, into the sphere of light. It was sliding and fish tailing right towards us, the driver must have been trying desperately to avoid us. He almost missed our stunned family, but not quite.
On that day, out of necessity, I became a man child having to accept a horrible reality, life is precious and it can be taken away from you in an instant. Eventually the shock and horror of the night faded and life moved on.
As I grew older I realized that what I missed most was listening to my Mother tell us stories of her childhood in rural Georgia and how she met my father. I missed my Fathers Mother showing us the old world secrets of living and cooking.
But I did still have my father and I was fortunate to have a close relationship with him. Throughout my father’s life he was reticent to talk about himself. Like many of the men of the greatest generation, he was stoic. But towards the end of his life he did share many special memories with me. He lived through interesting times and I am writing them down so that the story of his life can be passed on down to my children.
This is the story of my father.
World War I ended in 1918 and there was much unrest in Russia, Europe and especially in Italy. There was great disparity in the distribution of wealth in the country. The northern part of Italy was industrialized so there were jobs but the working conditions were terrible and they were forced to work long hours. The southern part of Italy was mostly an agricultural society and there was wide spread poverty.
Conditions for the average Italian were hard and workers went on strike to demand more rights and better working conditions. Some were inspired by the Russian Revolution and began taking over factories, mills, and farms.
At the time, Mussolini was a very ambitious politician and wanted Italy to regain its former prominence and to be considered a world leader. He wanted Italy to join the other Great Powers of the world in acquiring colonies. Mussolini became the leader of the Fascist Party and in 1922 King Emmanuel installed Mussolini as temporary Dictator of Italy.
Things became intolerable for many Italians and many started to leave the country looking for a better life. By 1930 most of the immigrants coming to the USA were Italian.
My father, Nicolas Anthony Girolamo, was born in Molinari Italy on February 14, 1922, the same year Mussolini came to power.  My father was a very humble individual throughout his life and his beginnings were very humble indeed.  He told me of his childhood, growing up as a sharecropper in rural Italy near Naples. The village was centuries behind modern times.  Their village had no electricity or indoor plumbing.  To this day Molinari only has electricity half of the day.
Shortly after my father was born, like many of the men in town my Grandfather left home and came to the United States and started the process of establishing himself and earning his citizenship. It took him seven years to find a good job, find a home and save enough money to bring his family over to join him.
When my father came to America, he remembered his mother becoming seasick during the terribly long ocean voyage, the excitement of seeing the Statue of Liberty as they came into New York harbor, and the process of going through Ellis Island. When they finally got through immigration they were met by my grandfather met them and they spent their first night in America with some pisans in an apartment in Brooklyn. He remembers when he first got to the city he actually bent down to touch the streets and he was disappointed that they weren’t really made out of gold like he was told.
My father was 7 years old when he arrived in America and could not speak a single word of English. He went on to serve his new country honorably in World War II, graduated from Columbia University, raised a family and had a successful career as a teacher.

After All, Here’s to Nick

After the formality of the wake;

the meeting of the relatives, and the friends.

After the mourning, the tears and the eulogy;

tales of how he had inspired us, touched us all.

 

After the procession from the funeral parlor to the cemetery;

the interminably long procession.

After we waited 5 minutes at a red light;

a light that would not turn green.

 

After the honor guard performed the flag folding ceremony;

over the casket of one of the Greatest Generation.

After the folded flag was presented to the eldest surviving son;

the eldest son having died of cancer 7 years earlier.

 

After the caretaker spent too long giving indiscernible directions;

directions to an Italian restaurant 3 miles and two turns away.

After the crowd of mourners / celebrants waited;

too long for a glass of water on a hot and trying day.

 

After the orders were taken;

by one overworked and unsuspecting waitress.

After the food finally started to arrive;

a toast that was thought, but not spoken, the author too shy, too sad to speak.

 

We are all here to mourn the loss of my father.

He would not have cared too much for all the attention of the wake.

He would have felt uncomfortable with all the admiration, adulation.

He would not have cared for the honor guard that performed such a well earned ceremony at his grave.

 

This is what he would have liked.

To be surrounded by friends, family and loved ones;

at an Italian restaurant;

with good food and a bottle of Red.

 

So in honor of my father;

Let’s eat, very slowly, enjoy every bite, and wipe the plate clean with one last piece of bread.

 

Here’s to Nick!

All I am is a hero, it happens everyday!

I consider my father my best friend.  He has always been there and done the best that he could for me.  It was no easy relationship to cultivate. It has taken me 47 years to develop this relationship with him, after all, I had to grow and mature from infancy to adulthood. Through those stages I depended upon him, worshiped him, despised him, hurt him, got to know him as an adult, loved him, and once again depended upon him.

Throughout my childhood he never spoke of his life.  I did not even realize that he was Italian until one day when I was old enough to actually pay attention to what the grown ups in my life were doing I over heard a telephone conversation he was having with his mother. I was sitting in the living room, listening to him speak and I noticed that what he was saying sounded like gibberish. It was, of course, Italian. 

When my father came over there was extreme prejudice against Italians.  He explained to me that when he was in High School he was provoked into fistfights almost everyday by boys who would call him disparaging names such as “grease ball” and “WOP”.  I asked him what a WOP was. He patiently explained that it is an acronym that stands for WithOut Papers.  When many immigrants came over, they did not have any papers to properly identify themselves. He further explained that his father, my Grandpa George, had worked in the United States for years, establishing himself and obtaining papers to bring his family over legally. My father was no WOP.

So he shielded his children from this legacy and as far as I knew we were just Americans.  What a terrible loss to all Americans to have to deliberately disassociate yourself from your heritage. Not to be able to even tell your children where you lived when you were seven was extremely cruel.  After all of these years of developing this relationship with my father he feels that he can open up to me.  Perhaps he realizes that the world has changed and in his sunset years, now it is time to tell his story. I know that my children and their children would suffer a great injustice if this story of un-daunting courage and faith in the American dream were lost. 

As I spoke with my father I began to understand how hard it is for him to open up, to be so vulnerable is not easy.  In his shyness, he laughs much as he describes the hardships he endured and some how passes them off as commonplace, perhaps they were. Not only was this man an immigrant to this country he volunteered in the army and fought bravely and proudly in World War II.  These World War II Vets are a stoic lot and he never told me his entire story, but I have gleamed an insight to his heroism and will share it at the proper time. 

When I first started interviewing my father I asked him if he felt that he and his comrades were heroes. In his typical fashion he down played his heroism and said

“I don’t think it was any stuff like that… you did your job and you hoped that you didn’t get into very tight tights and one day followed another, that kind of thing…“

I pushed him a little further and he answered,

 “You know Mike not all of us were heroes, we just did our part and came home.”  
 

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