My father-in-law passed away suddenly today. He'd been ill with bronchitis and general weakness but a heart attack came and took him. Coming two months after my own father passed away, it feels like a lot of role model energy has been exiting my life, and I take it as a call to step up on my own and be even better as a man.
Rather than writing only about chivalry, I want to focus on a life lesson from these two very different men. You see, each one of them had an upbringing that could have become an excuse to be less than their best, yet each of them made themselves into accomplished and generous men. It shows that becoming a man of character isn't about one's circumstances but in the choices a man makes for himself.
Catello Di Capua was born near Napoli in Italy and had an impoverished beginning. A young boy as World War II was taking place, the economic situation in southern Italy was rough, and he was already working full time by the age of 11. Some of his early jobs included lugging heavy sacks of coal to people's basements, and even later in life he was working in printing plants that were costing him his hearing.
His mother had passed away when he was very young, and the situation at home wasn't the easiest for a boy to navigate. With that upbringing, it would be easy and understandable to curse the gods, throw up one's hands in despair and succumb to a struggling life. But he chose a different path. He wanted to make something of himself and ended up emigrating to Switzerland, to be able to offer his future wife a better future. Even though they spoke no Swiss German, they settled in Bern and made it work. This all came at a time when Italians were considered lower class, filth and unwelcome by many of the Swiss people, so nothing came easy.
Despite all that, Catello created a strong and prosperous family life, and made sure that he acted in ways he could be proud. He raised three daughters and always provided a roof over their heads even if jobs had to be switched. Once he was able to afford a car, he always kept it spotless, the same way he kept the house. Yes, he was pristine about caring for the appearance of whatever he could -- it was a running amusing story that he kept a comb above a cabinet in the living room to make sure all the fringes on the rug were straight. And that comb got frequent use; I even used it myself a few times when I would visit.
His three girls all got fine educations and his own marriage was a great one. When I saw him and my mother-in-law together last month, I marveled at how they still enjoyed each other's company. There were still smiles and affection openly shown after 54 years, even after all the physical problems he'd been having these last two years. I wouldn't call him particularly chivalrous in terms of gestures. His upbringing had been the traditional Southern Italian kind. The husband's role is to provide and be served; the wife's is to serve him. In a loving marriage, the roles are done out of love and not obligation; to the end, I witnessed how Tina loved taking care of him, cooking with him and looking to make sure things were right. On his part there wasn't the overt chivalry of holding out chairs for her, standing when she rose, opening her car door and so on. That doesn't take away from how he completely stepped into the role of good husband in their own traditions.
That all happened of his own will. His upbringing was tough and callous. He'd moved away from his family so didn't have close role models. The odds were stacked against him succeeding in Switzerland. Yet he found a way to become the kind of man that succeeded well beyond what you might have expected from a little Neapolitan kid who'd been forced into a hard life before he was a teenager. That shows the power of a man making a strong, conscious and positive choice.
My own father had different circumstances, although in many ways they were similar. He was a teenager in Poland when world War II broke out. His father was taken away from the family and never seen by them again, slaughtered in the Russian massacre of thousands of Polish men and soldiers at Katyn. During the war, my father somehow got himself to England where he trained as a pilot with the Royal Air Force. Again, a man in a country that wasn't his, where the language was foreign and opportunities scarce.
After the war, he got his degree, met and married my mother and then left England to embark for America, with no promise of any job or of a successful future. He hit the pavement to get a job as an engineer. Making ends meet was difficult and he even served as the building superintendent where they lived to help them make it. Slowly and steadily he built a highly successful career working for the same firm for almost 40 years, while raising a family of five children in a beautiful house that he maintained like it was a jewel. He also made himself into a man of gallantry, in terms of how he treated women. He offered chivalry such as helping them on with their coats, kissing their hands to say goodbye and so on. He found a way to do this despite having lost his own father as a role model way too young.
Yes, these men would seem so different in their approaches to some things, their languages and attitudes, yet they demonstrate something important for any man to realize:
What you become is completely your own choice. Anything that may seem to hold you back doesn't stop you from overcoming it. These two men are my proof that every man has it within himself to hone his own life, his own behavior and his own relationships for the better.
I am grateful to both of them, and the lessons they taught me, whether directly or by example.
I will always miss you both.