Frank DiLeva never learned to drive a car, but that didn't stop him from passing a Driver's Test and getting his license when he was well into middle age.
Frank DiLeva never learned to sing, but that didn't stop him from belting out a song whenever and wherever he felt like it.
Frank DiLeva never learned to be politically correct. He called it the way he saw it, just like a referee. He spoke his mind, whether you wanted to hear it or not.
Frank DiLeva never learned to control his weight. He loved food and it showed. The last thing he ate was melted chocolate ice cream the day before he died.
Those were the things he never learned. They are far fewer than what he did learn and what he taught me.
His parents, Carmella and Pasquale were Italian immigrants. They named him Francesco Donate. His first language was Italian. Francesco learned Polish from other immigrants in the neighborhood, then learned English when he entered grade school. There were no ESL classes back then. He learned the subject matter at the same time he learned the language — through immersion, a teaching concept he believed in the rest of his life. He learned French and German during WWII.
He had a bout with pneumonia when he was about 9 years old that left him bed-ridden for many months. That's when he developed his passion for reading and learning. There was nothing else to do all day long as he lay in bed.
His mother and sister, Anne, were both trained singers. His brother, Dante, was an accomplished musician and performed in the Big Bands of the 40's. Francesco grew up in a talented, musical family. As a young girl, his singing comforted me. All was right with the world when he sang. As a teenager, his boisterous singing in front of friends was embarrassing. When my husband, Randy, and I traveled to Europe with my Dad, we went to a play about Edith Piaf's life, his favorite French singer. We were in the front row of the theatre. As the lead performer began singing Piaf's music, my Dad sang out loud right along with her. I'm certain my shock and embarrassment was shared by the performer. But it gave him joy so that made it OK with me.
Frank's love of music spilled over into his love for ballroom dancing. He met my mother at a dance. They spent 43 years of their life dancing together. When I was young, he taught me to dance by standing me on his feet and traveling across the floor. My husband and I took ballroom dance lessons and took my Dad with us to many dances after my mother died. We got to see first hand how the music and dance changed his mood. When there was a good song, his face and body showed it.
Frank really enjoyed a challenge, a good debate, mental exercise, a good game; traits his children inherited. At Christmas, a board game or a jig-saw puzzle was a gift under the tree. As a family, we played Monopoly, Scrabble, Chinese Checkers, and Parcheesi. Our neighbors were fortunate that this demonstrative Italian-Irish family hadn't been exposed to Pictionary yet. On his own, Frank played Tournament Bridge regularly and won a couple of trophies. Randy and I played Trivial Pursuit with him and our friends, Doug and Donna. We knew whoever had my Dad on their team would win. His mind was a walking reference library.
He was very playful and loved having kids around. That may explain why he went into teaching. Many of the other neighborhood kids and students in his high school classes would hang out at our house. My Dad was entertaining in a humorous, obnoxious way. He "adopted" other people's kids. We saw very little of cousins and aunts growing up because we didn't have much money and they lived so far away. The students in the high school where he taught, the neighborhood kids, and other adults on our block became our extended family.
Growing up the dinner table was a classroom. My Dad would quote poetry, do a magic trick, complain about a politician, and because I sat next to him, he'd sneak bites of food off my plate. He had a playful side beneath a gruff exterior. He coined nicknames for all his kids. He called me Nankipoo; I called him Daddy-do.
One of Frank's many hobbies was photography. He only took slide pictures, never prints. When he went to Europe for the first time with my mom, he took 700 pictures! Imagine the fun time we had sitting through that slide show. He would take pictures of anything——a close up of one of the 30 roses from his tendered garden, a portrait of his kids, buildings, and street vendors. The slides he took were his way of documenting the history of the world around him.
Frank' s undergraduate degree was in Social Studies. He never missed an opportunity to lecture on the subject. Twelve years ago, I was fortunate enough to have made a video tape of him telling me his history. One of my most vivid memories of his history lectures was when there was a presidential election. Dad would pull out his map of the US. There was a piece of masking tape on each state. He wrote on the tape the number of electoral votes that state had. He would explain in great, great detail how the voting process worked in the U.S. That bit of knowledge became useful during this last Presidential Election. One of his favorite documents was the Bill of Rights. When he heard people complaining and would state, "I have a right to that," he would remind them that what they wanted was a privilege; their only true rights were in that document. He was very literal. He taught me a lot about U.S. history, his history, and in particular his WWII and POW experiences. He wouldn't let us watch Hogan's Heroes because it poked fun at POW camps. My Dad wanted us to understand the seriousness of what he experienced when he was a POW. We would hear his war stories over and over and over again. Repeating the stories was his way of purging the memories. It didn't work, they haunted him his entire life.
My view of his repetitious war stories forever changed in 1994. Randy and I traveled with my Dad to France for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. My Dad was a B-24 tail gunner in the 446th bomb group. Just a couple of days after D-Day, his plane was shot down off the coast of France. He was shot out of the airplane and landed in the ocean. French fishermen, risking their lives, finally got to him and pulled him out of the ocean. His head was split open; he was bleeding badly. They brought him to the tiny Island of Chaussey off the coast of France. They put his head back together with staples and cared for him. Frank stayed on that Island for one month until the Nazis captured him. He was always in debt to the fishermen who saved his life. Frank vowed he would come back to thank them when the war ended. He did more than once. He always said the people of the town considered him a hero. I thought perhaps he was exaggerating a little. Randy and I went with my Dad to the City of Granville, the town on the mainland of France, closest to the Island of Chaussey.
The fishermen took us to a museum in Granville. There in that museum were memorabilia belonging to my Dad. His plane parts were a shrine. We were scheduled to take a ferry out to the Island of Chaussey. It had become a popular place for young adults to party on weekends. We were late for the ferry; there was only one run a day coming and going. If we missed the ferry, we wouldn't be able to see the island on this trip. I was frantic; my Dad wasn't concerned. Unbeknownst to me, the ferry captain was someone my Dad knew well from his rescue at sea. The captain knew we were coming so he held up the ferry departure until we arrived. The people on the ferry were looking perturbed and wondering why these Americans were holding up their weekend jaunt to the island. My Dad sat down with his fishermen friend and started speaking in French about his memories of that day. The ferry boat was standing room only. After a short while, I noticed the people on the ferry started whispering and pointing to my Dad. It seemed they might be making fun of his speaking French with an American accent. They weren't. They recognized his story; it was in their history books. My Dad's name was known to these young adults. They sat quietly, in awe, listening to him speak. When the ferry landed, there was a small crowd gathered to greet my Dad. Randy and I were brought to tears as we witnessed that he did not exaggerate his claim of being a hero. He was bigger than life and he became my hero that day.
For almost twenty years, I took him to dinner every Tuesday night. That's a lot of conversations; that's a lot sharing. When my mother was alive, the Tuesday dinner conversations centered around politics, religion, reading, photography, and travel. After she died, the conversations shifted to his fears, hopes, and regrets. You get to know a lot about a person in a weekly dinner conversation. It was a gift my Dad left me. He left me many special gifts that I will treasure. A particular one came full circle this past week. My Dad walked a lot — because we didn't own a car. He walked very fast — more of a military march. As a young girl, I tried very hard to keep up with him. His hands were large. My hand was lost in his large hand. So I would just grasp his index finger as he pulled me along on his walking march. Last Friday as my Dad laid dying, he held onto my index finger as he finally slowed down and let go of his life. He gave me one last sweet memory I will cherish always in my heart. Thank you; I love you Daddy-do.