Sunday, July 15, 2018

Uncle Dick.....Much More Than an Uncle (Draft)

A few weeks ago, I lost my Uncle Richard (Dick) Grifasi from California. My uncle was a larger than life personality. I wanted to write and share how he positively impacted my life, because I learned many lessons from my uncle. One of them is to do things on your own terms. When you think about
it, there are only a few people in life that impact how we see the world. We learn this as we cross the threshold of age fifty. Looking back, helps us understand who we are today. My uncle's passing gave me time to reflect and realize he was a great man, and impacted my view of the world we live in.

Uncle Dick was born to Italian-American immigrants on my mom's side of the family. Despite all you hear today about immigrants and refugees from the past, it was never an easy road for my mother and her brother. They grew up in a home that was fractured by poverty and the complications that come with being first generation immigrants. Yet, we grew up with family events that sheltered the kids from the grown up problems. It was our uncle that always remembered to shelter kids from the adult problems by being a kid himself. Crazy, and at times a bit inappropriate, he brought laughter and joy into our lives.

I never knew my Uncle Dick as well as my siblings when he lived in our hometown. He left the city of Rome New York shortly after I was born. Our family never really talked about his time in Rome much.  A few years ago I went on a family research site to learn more about him. The site, Fulton History is an archive of newspapers from the 20th century in Upstate New York. One search, and I learned quickly what made my uncle so unique. In the 1950's and 60's, he was the big fish in a small pond. He spoke out on issues that mattered, and was unafraid to speak his mind in a community that was lacking in diverse thinking. He belonged to many clubs, often serving in a leadership role. I admired his courage and engagement in the community he loved. This lead me to wonder, why would he leave a city he loved so much?

The explanation was simple. My uncle would meet the love of his life Carla Coia. My Aunt Carla was widowed with two children in the 1960's. Back in the day, men stepping up and being a devoted husband and father was a great task. Men were considered providers, and less nurturing. It took a special man to love unconditionally. My uncle embraced the children as his own, and would start a journey that would impact many more lives in the coming years. Leaving Rome was for my uncle a blessing and curse. He would tell his family and friends beloved stories about Rome for 50 plus years. It was always a source of confusion for me as a child. Why would someone leave something he loved so much?

The explanation, as old fashioned as this might sound is Rome was taken away by a very special lady. My Aunt Carla was probably the only person that could tame my uncle's positive energy and guide his ambitions in the right direction. And that direction was California. My aunt had a great business mind, and in my opinion, helped him learn how to be strategic with his ambitions. They moved to California, and I truly believe in my heart this was the best move my uncle could have made, as Rome was stifling his creativity.

If you moved out west in the in the latter part of the 20th century, it was an open market for people who were creative. My uncle and aunt had many business adventures. Too many to list. Growing up as a kid, he would share his business success with me when I visited. My favorite story was his candy business in Las Vegas. Only my uncle Dick could tell his nephew, "We make booby candy out of chocolate" and get away with it. My mother would have had a fit if anyone else told that story to me. That was just, "Uncle Dick" back in the day. He was creative, and ambitious. No one was going to stop him from telling his stories, and enlightening us on how to live life to it's fullest.

During this time, my uncle realized the value of an education. He would become a teacher, and a great one at that. One of his greatest gifts was his ability to connect with children. Since he loved a challenge, he worked with challenging youth. It was at this time of my life, I had my first visit to see him in California. He would share stories about his "kids" that he worked with. This is the time of my life that I had my first role model who taught me how to see the world through a critical lens. My uncle had that rare ability to say, "I could never get mad at this kid. I knew he came from a broken home." And my uncle also taught me how to connect to families that were challenging by not judging their lot in life. A skill I would use the rest of my life. He never judged, because he had empathy. There is something to learn from his example. This lesson is so important, and I always emphasize the value of empathy with my own children. Today, we live in a world of Us and Them. For my uncle, there was just us.

My Uncle Dick's children (3 now, as Aunt Carla and Uncle Dick had a daughter after they were married) would grow up with one of the craziest dads. This is another lesson I learned from my uncle. The greatest job in the world is being a dad. Your kids learn from their dad's ability to be compassionate and loving. Today, our society is a fatherless society. I currently lecture about fatherhood. After my uncle passed, I realized that I am a role model for new dads regarding the values that my father and uncle taught me. Being a father is your highest calling in life. The success of our children rely on our commitment to be a father., and this is a job we cannot take lightly.

My uncle's fatherhood skills continued on as he would play an important role in his grandchildren's lives. Absentee fathers can be damaging to a child's development if a fatherhood figure does not step up. I truly believe my uncle's work with at-risk youth helped shape his values. He most likely saw throughout his career many children that came from fatherless homes. He knew it was important to step up for his grandchildren. And boy did he ever. When I went to California in my late 20's and early 30's, his stories changed. He talked with pride about his role with his grandchildren. He loved them dearly, and ensured they had everything they need. That was the kind of guy my uncle was, as he loved everyone unconditionally. I could never understand in the beginning where his passion came from. He grew up in a family whereas his siblings did not have the type of relationships that he shared with his children and grandchildren. My best guess is that he learned from his life experiences that empathy comes from a very special place. Without bonding and empathy, we become empty inside, never knowing how to love. Again, this impacted how I see my world. Uncle Dick taught me by his example to love unconditionally your children. Most importantly,  he also taught me"Don't Sweat the Small Stuff." It is important to guide our lives with love, not anger.

Later in life, I would go through challenges. I lost my parents, and really had to dig deep for strength after they passed. It was an extremely difficult time in my life. I really believe we all have critical times in our lives similar to what I went through. During this time, I kept things simple. My kids came first, and I had a great time with them as they grew up. While I did not have the financial resources my Uncle did, I had his energy and heart. My kids grew up with a crazy dad, that loved life. That's all they ever needed. As they grew up, something special happened. My uncle and his grandchildren started coming to Rome to visit.

At this point of my uncle's life, he was entering his final years. When his dear wife passed, he came to Rome many times to visit with his grandchildren. The bond they shared deeply impacted how I saw the world. No matter the age, we can positively impact people. I was blessed to see how much his grandchildren adored their grandfather. They were patient and understanding of his story telling. As I watched this special bond, I was reminded that we never miss the little things in life until they are gone. Towards the end, my uncle repeated many of his stories from his youth in Rome. His grandchildren knew that that's what made him happy. Rome was in a sense, uncle Dick's first wife. Leaving Rome was not easy. That's why he always wanted to come back. I never met a person that personified a city of birth until I saw the world through the eyes of my uncle. In a sense, it hurt him to leave Rome, even though it was the right thing to do.

His final years, I truly believe were special. His grandchildren reconnected to his first lady in life. His grandchildren were connected to his family in Rome. In my opinion, that was the best closure he could have regarding Rome. Knowing that his grandchildren were connected to his past, probably meant more than some might realize. During his last visit to Rome, I took him to Delmonico's Steak House. He was with my daughter, and his granddaughter. He told some great stories and we sat around for an hour. We were about to leave, and then it happened. What is a tradition, Uncle Dick likes to horse around with the wait staff, and strangers. We were exiting the building, and 3 elderly woman were waiting for the car. They were drawn to him, and he just couldn't help himself. A few flirtatious comments, a couple of crude jokes and they were putty in his hands. I choked up a bit that night, as I reflected on his life. He never noticed, but I was sincerely happy for him. Uncle Dick was a great guy, that no matter where his was, he made people smile. I kind of share that same trait.

My uncle and I share another trait that I struggled with for years. Sometimes, people like us can never turn off our energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, people have to walk in our shoes to understand what it is like to wake up and want to live everyday with a bit of crazy and fun from start to finish. High metabolisms come with challenging behaviors. We tend to speak our feelings, instead of thinking about them. We are wired differently. It's why we are creative and take risks.

For the longest time, I could never understand people who wanted to tame high energy people like my uncle and I. I always assumed they felt overwhelmed by my behavior. I realized introverted people, can struggle with who we are, and that is okay. Over the years, my eldest son and daughter have tried to explain why it bothers them when I get a little crazy. It use to hurt my feelings a bit, however I have normalized it over the years knowing Uncle Dick probably drove everyone crazy at one point or another. The legacy is that when we are gone, we miss what sometimes challenged us. Looking back, it was one hell of a ride.

In his latter years, my uncle would come to Rome and never stayed with his immediate family. It would bother me for many years. I struggled with the lack of love and empathy from his siblings. I tried to understand their view of the world of Uncle Dick, and understood my thoughts were slightly different. After all, he and my Aunt Carla opened their homes countless times to relatives from Rome. They were so generous to anyone that traveled to California. I could never understand the estrangement and isolation.

I too felt estranged sometimes by the isolation similar to what my uncle felt.  I feel it every day of my life. Like my uncle, I just continue on being me. He helped me normalize who I am, and how I fit in a world of my friends and family.

His legacy, as well as mine will be the children, and grandchildren. I wonder with my own children, how they see my life. When I get a little crazy, do they think to themselves, "Oh here we go, look out!" I can't help to think that deep down inside, both our families love who we are, and understand crazy is kinda cool when you think about it. That's the gift I was given from my Uncle. Live, Laugh's not a phrase to hang up in our living room. It's how we are supposed to live our life. Thanks Uncle will always be a part of me, and I thank you for witnessing a life well lived.

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