By Charles Sacchetti
Growing up in a strict Italian-American family was never dull. My father, most certainly the head of the clan, had few rules that were explained with fanfare but my sister Kathy and I understood what was expected by the way he led by example. Of all the things Dad imparted to us, the importance of a good work ethic and the absolute need to show respect to others stand out in my mind.
Regarding being respectful, I learned a valuable lesson in less than 10 seconds one day when I was 13. It was a beautiful fall afternoon and I was engrossed in a hotly contested two-hand touch football game at our “Coliseum,” otherwise known as the St. Barnanbas schoolyard on 65th Street in Southwest Philly. I glanced at my watch. It was 4:58 p.m. That time was significant when you take into account that one of Dad’s strictest rules, was that dinner was at 5 p.m. and don’t be late. Dad arrived home from his job at Westinghouse about 4:30 daily. Mom always was sure to have the meal prepared, so Dad wouldn’t have to wait too long for the nourishment he needed for the physically demanding factory job he endured for many years.
We had a row home on 64th Street and Buist Avenue. It was comfortable enough, although the kitchen was somewhat cramped. Because of this, Mom’s chair would always be pushed to the side while she was cooking so she’d have room to stand at the stove. Therefore, out of respect for my mother’s laboring in the kitchen, it was my job to make sure that I placed Mom’s chair in its rightful dining spot at the table before I sat down.
So when I glanced at my watch and saw the dreaded 4:58, I knew for me this game was over and I’d better hustle home, one block away. As I ran into the house, I could see that Dad and Kathy were already seated and Mom was just finishing up. Dad had already started with the escarole soup, with the little meatballs. Rather than getting Mom’s chair, I went right to my seat, sliding past her chair, like Fred Astaire on the dance floor. I was in a hurry and I was hungry.
As I sat down, Dad said to me, “Where’s Mommy’s chair?”
In life, sometimes we say things that we wish we could immediately pull back into our mouths. That’s what I did when I uttered the fateful words, “Oh, she can get it herself.”
My father, while not missing a single stroke of his soup spoon, and with the skill of a conductor waving his wand, grabbed the blade of his favorite bread knife and popped me on the head with the black wooden handle with the three gold dots. No words were necessary. I immediately got up, went over to Mom’s chair and placed it in its spot at our dinner table … and I NEVER forgot the chair again.
These days I suppose some might find that little love tap harsh treatment. After all, I was just a kid who was hungry and it wasn’t a big deal for Mom to just push her chair over there herself. But that wasn’t the point. I had disrespected Mom and disrespected Dad. He wanted me to grow up to be a man who deserved respect and that could only happen if I were a man who showed respect.
When I eulogized my Dad at his funeral Mass, I recounted this story. Most of the attendees, especially my cousins, children of Dad’s siblings, laughed and gave nods of familiarity. My cousins weren’t surprised a bit. Their parents would have probably done the same thing. Back then, there was simply right and wrong and there wasn’t a large grey area like there is today. I ended the story by saying that Dad’s reaction at the dinner table only proved that he was a master of “non-verbal” communication.
Indeed, in those 10 seconds Dad taught me a very clear lesson on respect.