“You can go to any Big Ten school you want, as long as it’s in Illinois”. Of course, what he really meant was “You’re going to the University of Illinois” because my dad didn’t really want us going to Northwestern. He had already sent my oldest sister to Illinois and he knew it was a great deal for a great education. So, on a hot August Sunday, my sister and I found ourselves moving into a small, basement dorm in Champaign. Our new living space resembled a cell from Alcatraz but my dad was unfazed. Actually, as I recall, he was beaming. He set the last box down on our cold, cement floor and went for his “uke”. “Girls, let’s sing the fight song!” and so my dad began to strum his ukulele and belt out Hail to the Orange!
Most teenagers would have been mortified, but this was common in my house growing up.
My parents loved music and my dad sang everything from Sinatra classics to the Beatles as he strummed his baritone ukulele. We grew accustomed to his drawing a crowd and this day was no different. Within minutes, another dad was in our room singing harmony and soon we had a large group of kids and parents squeezing in to see the show. It turned out to be a great ice breaker for my sister and me and not only did we make lifelong friends, but my dad did too. His new singing buddy turned out to be the dad of one of my future roommates and the two of them sang at many tailgate parties from that fall on.
My parents moved from our house on the south side of Chicago to a small condo in Florida my sophomore year but that didn’t keep my dad from making every Illinois home game. He and my mom made that 20 hour trek every weekend even if there were two games in a row. He loved football and there was no keeping him from watching the Illini. He was ecstatic my senior year because his beloved team had made it to the Rose Bowl but the real highlight of the season was his crowning of King Dad. Like most universities, Illinois had “Dad’s Day” and on this fall Saturday, they crowned the most worthy dad out of 40,000 students, King Dad. My sister entered a compelling essay to the university and they saw what everyone walking past our car parked outside Memorial Stadium witnessed before every game; a charismatic, charming and talented guy who loved U of I football more than any of the faculty, staff or students combined.
Of course there was more to my dad than Illinois football. He was a salesman and he managed a regional office for John Hancock on Chicago’s south side for years. His agents and staff loved him not only because he was fair but because he made their work environment fun. Every Christmas he’d throw a huge party for his staff and he’d even dress as Santa giving gifts to all of his employees’ kids.
He loved dressing as Santa and he made a great one. My mom insisted on making each detail of his suit perfect and even I was convinced he was the real one on stage at my grade school Christmas assemblies. His Italian nose was tough to hide but my desire to “believe” was better than my eyesight back then. He got easier to recognize as I got older and he’d pick us up from the airport each Christmas in his Santa suit. There he’d be, surrounded by kids waiting for us to deplane. He’d come prepared with candy canes giving them out until we arrived and I can still see the look on those kids’ faces as we got to hug Santa Clause hello.
During the year, my dad was a man of routine and he rarely broke it. Weekday mornings he’d head out early for his “walk” which was the equivalent of most people’s jog. He’d get back to the house and make a pot of coffee, eat, shower, dress and head out to his work or to complete a list of errands after he retired.
The smell of his Old Spice signaled the start of the day and he faced each one with energy and gusto.
After my mom died, my dad lost a little bit of that, but he did his best to keep up his routine. The day after her death, my siblings and I woke to my dad heading out for his early morning walk. We didn’t want him to go alone so I ran out to catch him. He was well known in his condo and as he walked thru the curving streets, people asked how my mom was. He slowed to speak with each one of them and as he told the sad news, he remained stoic and composed. I kept asking him if he wanted to turn around and get home but he was determined to finish that walk. I realized it was this determination that would get him thru without my mom.
Ten years later, he was still walking but his mind was getting the best of him. I’d started getting calls from him asking me where my mom was or why my brother wasn’t home. At first I thought it was due to his rough year. One of his last of seven siblings had died and his dear friend Phyllis who was like a second grandmother to my kids died suddenly of a heart attack right in front of him. He had open heart surgery a couple years before and he had just been diagnosed with a blood disease that required him to get transfusions on a regular basis.
We decided to move him closer to us so we could see him daily and help him as much as possible. We found him a beautiful “retirement” building a mile from my house and I made a habit of stopping by to see him on my morning runs. On bad days, he would be in his apartment waiting for me but on most days, he would be sitting with a large group of friends, talking and smiling over breakfast. As soon as he saw me, he’d grab me a seat and say, “Sit down Germo! What’s on your schedule for the day?” He loved to hear about my business and being the eternal salesman, he loved the sales numbers the most.
Eight months or so after moving to his new home, we threw him his 81st birthday party. We invited everyone in the building and old friends from our neighborhood on the south side. They all crowded around as my dad sang his favorite songs. He never lost his ability to play his uke and he still remembered the words to all the songs his friends requested.
I stood watching him laugh, smile and entertain – I wished I could freeze that moment.
A month later, I found myself sitting with my dad on a Saturday night. He hadn’t eaten any solid food for several weeks and my sister brought him gnocchi the day before hoping he’d eat something. I brought over a 6 pack of beer and some Sinatra CDs and turned on an exhibition NFL game. Suddenly, he perked right up. “Hey Germo”, he said, “Why don’t you bring me some of that gnocchi and a beer and turn that music up?”
I gave him a bowl of gnocchi and a cold beer he never touched and we watched the game listening to Sinatra sing. When Summer Wind came on, my dad stood up, grabbed my hand and asked me to dance. We swayed to the music and my dad smiled and laughed as if he were at one of his big parties. Then he stopped and asked me if I had cleaned my patio umbrella. “Um, no Dad, not a typical chore for me and honestly I didn’t think it was THAT dirty,” I said with a laugh. “Why do you want me to clean it?” He looked at me and said, “because they’re gonna be throwing me a big party in a couple days and I think it should be clean.”
Sure enough, early that following Tuesday, I woke to my phone. It was my dad’s night care giver calling to tell me he wasn’t getting up and he was breathing heavily. I called my siblings and raced to his apartment. We were able to be with him as he gradually neared the end and we shared stories to keep ourselves from thinking about what was really happening. When he took his last breath, I imagined him walking into that party, seeing my mom, his six siblings and a multitude of his friends who had passed before him. I panicked for a second hoping my patio umbrella wasn’t in view but I smiled as I heard the strumming of his uke and King Dad belting out one more chorus of Hail to the Orange!
-Germaine Caprio, MAJAMAS Company Owner & Designer