Friday, 3 June 2016

My Father's Day - Umberto Tosi

My father, Renzo and I
in Boston, c. 1941
My father, shows up this time of year, visiting my intermittently lit memories in the same way that he drifted in and out of my childhood with his bag of contradictions. Renzo Argentino Tosi would be 100 on June 9. Then there's Father's Day, third Sunday in June – still a Mother's Day greeting-card afterthought when I was a kid. I always gave him ties.

He disdained gifts and the commercial sentimentality of holidays, but loved festive gatherings – big family dinners, Italian-American picnics. Plus he was an inveterate skinflint – also a narcissist with empathic talent. He was a successful businessman who scorned the financial system as a con. Life was a game of one one-upmanship most of the time – whether in relationships or playing golf or dominoes (which he loved.) He was a misogynist who admired women of substance, attracted to strong-willed women with whom he had stormy relationships. He was pro civil rights and anti-war – a charter member of an anti-Vietnam-War group of business people in San Francisco through the 1960s when most of my friends' parents were flag wavers on the subject. He was never much of a father, not fond of small children, more of an older brother to my adolescent self, perhaps because of our closeness in age.

He never acknowledged his inconsistencies. On the contrary, he put forth his views as if they were fact, but avoided sounding pompous with self-deprecating wit and a keen sense of humor. He was charismatic, often beloved by friends, who called him for advice, while distant to spouses and family. He projected generosity – and could be generous with his interest in people – particularly those outside the family. Privately, however, he was miserly with himself and those closest to him and could become harshly defensive when asked for anything that might involve expense.

I don't know if I became a writer because of or in spite of him. You'll never earn a living, he warned me and made it clear I belonged in the family business, by his reckoning. He grew up in a world of high culture and cosmopolitan refinement, but – perhaps reflecting some basic rivalry between his own parents, one an artist the other a businessman – he didn't regard music, writing and art as manly pursuits. He read newspapers, news magazines and biographies and history – always fascinated by science and technology (perhaps because my grandfather had been an associate of Thomas Edison in the early 1900s. But he never read fiction and thought movies were silly. He glanced at my books, put them on his shelf where they remained, unopened, sometimes to pull out and show strangers something his son had done.

Sometimes he said his birthday was on the tenth or twelfth, but always in 1916 in Buenos Aires where my patrician Tosi grandparents had moved from Milan at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. They lived in a big house with servants. My grandmother, Luisa Ardizzoni was one of Teatro Colón's most applauded operatic divas. My grandfather, for whom I was named, owned a phonograph manufacturing company. Renzo was a classic middle son with three brothers, each of whom became a millionaire, who fought among themselves all their adult lives. 

Luisa and Umberto Tosi
c. 1930 
With things going well, the Tosis left Buenos Aires for New York early in 1929. My grandparents already were naturalized US citizens from years earlier when my grandfather had a bicycle store in Boston's North End. Now my grandfather planned to open a new radio, phonograph and record store in New Jersey. My grandmother winding down her stage career and would become a voice teacher. Bad move. They were wiped out in the October '29 crash. My grandfather managed to get work as a bank clerk. They crowded into a tenement flat on the Jersey Shore. Overnight, my father and his three brothers went from being princes to paupers attending a Jersey high school in the thick of turf wars among poor Italian, Irish, Portuguese and African-American toughs.

The experience shaped my father's lifelong outlook. Life was a dog-eat-dog struggle regardless of race, creed or color. His continental charm and jovial air masked a scary temper. When I was twelve, I remember a driver cut us off, honked and gave us the finger on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. My father gave chase and caught up with the driver at a stoplight. He jumped out of his car, fists waving, at which point the driver ran the light and sped off. My father got back in our Oldsmobile sedan laughing and drove down to the old produce district where we had lunch with the truck farmers.

He tried, in vain, to teach me how to box. All I learned was to fear his rough, open-handed sparring, avoid confrontations and think of myself as a closeted chicken. I doubt that he ever wanted to be a father – except in name and lineage. He sent me off to military school when we first moved to Los Angeles – because it would “make a man” out of me. I was only seven. My mother fussed and he relented after a year.

My son Zachary and I
at the Chicago "Egg," 2014
He wasn't cut out for fatherhood – which he regarded as a burden. Self-consciously, I wondered if I'd be a good father, and was wary. I realized after many years that being the father of my own three daughters and son has been the best, most meaningful experience of my life. They each see their grandfather Renzo from differening perspectives, according to age, and take differing measures of him, softer as they go from eldest to youngest. My son Zach, who only recalls him as a very old infirm, rather clownish figure, asked me about his early life. After listening, Zach marveled at how alien that was to his own experiences growing up. "Who knows, I might have been like him had I grown up with that much brutal competition." I doubted it, but was glad he didn't have to find out.

He was barely 21 when I was born, fresh from something of a shotgun marriage to my mother – a prize protégé of his own mother - who was barely 18. He had dreamed of medical school – and took a keen interest in physiology and psychology – but it was 1937, and he went to work selling canned tomatoes for the food brokerage firm that my grandfather by then had managed to launch in Boston, Massachusetts.

Me with my daughters (l-r)
Alicia, Kara and Cristina
Ventura, CA c. 1982
He didn't follow sports much, except for boxing – following the epic championship matches of his generation – a golden age of the sport – for him particularly, the rise of Rocky Marciano, the great matches of Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Willie Pep, and finally Joe Louis – the iconic 1930s and 40s heavyweight champion's sad attempt at a 1950s comeback from retirement to pay off back taxes. I remember their matches on the radio driving through summer nights, heavy with the musky scent of new-mown and baled alfalfa – in California's bake-oven Central Valley.

My mother and father divorced when I was 10, and I spent summers in Stockton, California with my father, who then was a field broker cutting deals between tomato growers and processing plants. I got my learner's permit at 14 and my father “let” me drive his big Oldsmobile along the country roads to his meetings – an eager teen chauffeur barely seeing over the bone steering wheel.

I can't begin to characterize him fully in this brief venue. Perhaps never: it's not my job, however. I'll have to make do with some measure of understanding. He shows up in my stories – for example in the Einstein Express – a work in progress (a chapter of which ran in Chicago Quarterly Review last year. )

Theo's father stood taller than both men. He moved loose-jointed, deceptive as a pitcher – he had played triple-A ball – looking in for his signal. He edged close enough to the men to make them look up at him. Tallness was his superpower, growing up as the third tallest of four brawling brothers, in a fair-haired family originally from the the mountainous, alt'Italia Piedmont.
Everything's a business – marriage, war, politics, everything,” Theo's father was a wellspring of dismissive cynicism, “right on the money,” as he would say. Tallness gave Victor a dashing look that his unruly, wavy hair, small, hazel eyes and hawk nose might have ruled out.
from my short story, “Onion Station.”

It took me many years to realize how much I had measured myself against his yardstick, directly or spitefully in reverse as if proving him wrong would be enough to make a life.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ 
Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. During the 1980s and 90s, he played with several improvisational theater groups in Northern California, while editor of San Francisco magazine. He has written extensively for newspapers and periodicals nationally. 

5 comments:

Dennis Hamley said...

Umberto, what a superb account of an obviously extraordinary man. I so admire your ability to be involved yet detached, critical yet accepting, loving yet, just now and again, showing vestigial signs of hating. It's a wonderful piece of writing. Your final sentence is marvellous. I recognise it when I think of my own father, a bundle of contradictions, many virtues but, if not vices, then certainly spiky difficulties. What ambiguous figures our parents are, especially when viewed from vantage points so remote now in time. And how important it is that we can come to estimate them and their influence fairly, for the sake of our own emotional and mental health - and our own children's as well.

Marsha Coupé said...

I see some of myself as a mother in your story and wince. We are complex beings, we humans. Often unpredictable even to ourselves. Hugely flawed and yet also loveable. Your story eloquently captures all of this, Umberto.

(snip)

It took me many years to realize how much I had measured myself against his yardstick, directly or spitefully in reverse, as if proving him wrong would be enough to make a life.

(snip)

Like so many of us.

Gorgeous bit of writing there.


Jan Needle said...

What an extraordinary piece, Umberto. Startlingly frank, totally compelling. Thanks very much indeed.

Lydia Bennet said...

Blimey Umberto, your stories are amazing, what a character you bring to life for us!

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you, Dennis, Marsha, Jan and Lydia! I'm glad my piece moved you, and I humbly appreciate such praise from those whose work I also admire.