The following is a tribute to Mr. Domenico Conte, written by his son Frank Conte, editor of EastBoston.com. We posted these words because it not only eulogized a great man, it epitomizes the Italian immigrant who came to American in search of a better life and was proud to call America his home.
Eulogy for My Father, Domenico Conte
December 3, 2012
Sacred Heart Church
East Boston, MA
Many years ago, upon my first trip to Italia, my grandfather Francesco, a simple and wonderful man for whom I was named, recalled for me the story of how eager my father was to come to America. My father was young, and found that, like many of his generation, there was little the Old Country offered him. San Mauro, Cilento, Salerno was beautiful but its treasures were few and kept locked away from a young man with big plans.
A man with skills he was yet to discover, my father was restless knowing that better things awaited in the New World. He knew from what his aunts and uncles and cousins told him that America was a great country and clearly there was a place where he could be free to succeed, raise a family and be his own man, with his own house a garden and parish ready to accept him.
My grandfather encouraged him but told his son in that sonorous dialect that still softly rings in my ears from my visit to his home in a slope known as the Vallongella, “Piano, piano.” Piano, piano. As if to say, said the wise old man to the optimistic son: “Take it easy. Your time will come.” But my father, a renaissance man, independent, creative, magnificently stubborn and full of energy never took it easy from his first breath of freedom. Nor as a man who spoke little English did he find things always easy in America.
For things come easily only by hard work, much sweat and occasionally overcoming adversity. For things to become easy, as they say, required devotion to family, loyalty to one’s church and compassion for all the souls who would come by house he renovated with his own hands. After a few years, he sent for his bride and soon his parents followed for what became a brief stay. He prospered, his children did well.
For all of my education, my pursuit of worldly knowledge, I ask, over and over, how did he do it? The fragments of the answer to this question assemble themselves because my father’s character was unimpeachable, pure, sincere and faithful. I can only say after many years of watching him in awe that he was a man with a great imagination and with that great imagination came a certain boldness you would never see because he was a modest man.* But my father was really was an artist. He was bold enough to create and if he dreamed of a family and a house both would happen.
My father Domenic was well-grounded. Our family only lived on one street in America, the two places we were raised were less than a block apart on Chelsea Street, not far from this church. For my father one trip across the ocean was enough. East Boston was his endless mission.
As any of my brother and sisters will tell you, my father was a great man in part because he was devoted to a great woman, my mother. Together they struggled, they sacrificed, they did without, so that we could all attend Catholic schools and later private college and universities such as Williams College, Northeastern University, Boston College, Simmons College and Suffolk University.
They did not go out for dinners or movies or buy extravagant clothes or go on vacations. In fact, my father bought his first car in 1969. Until then it was everywhere on foot or on the MBTA. My father was a skilled tradesman in the declining shoe industry. But it was in his blood; he made my first baby shoes. They are masterpieces defining his time. He traveled far to a factory in Bridgewater. He worked diligently as a piece worker not always paid by the hour. But he carved out a living.
And yes our home, the manifestation of his great art. A home he always kept up with great care, measuring, sawing, hammering, painting, bricklaying, pipefitting, planting, uprooting, tinkering, inventing — a near 60-year sweep of building a castle, a safe trusting home for all eight of us. My father was a self-taught master and it showed with great flourish.
Living frugally and blessed with an extended family, my parents allowed us to receive the education which set the stage for our success. To wit my father’s hard work cultivated a family that included an award-winning nurse, a bank executive, two software engineers and a teacher. And, a philosopher. That would be me! A first-born who I imagined often prompted my father to ask: “Why is there always something wrong with the first one?”
The six-member the line-up was completed. But the first-born was a bit of challenge.
Where Domenico my dad never went a day without shaving his son often disliked razors. My father liked short hair. And I liked it long and when he liked it longer I liked my hair gone. Where Domenico my father like to wear his Sunday best I distrusted all enterprises that required new clothes.** While I never saw my father with a beer, I would under extreme social pressure be known to have a drink. My father went to bed early. I came home late. My father kept some opinions to himself and wished his first-born son would do the same. The practical father would often say to me, the impractical son: You’re crazy. Or let me try it in Italian Figlo mio che cosi fai? Che se pazzo?
Maybe I was a bit crazy. But like him I was passionate. I indulge in this contrast because as the first-born I liked to think that I pushed the envelope for my brothers and sisters. Maybe I did set the limits of what you could get away with under his strict rule. But because of those rules, my father maybe without knowing it granted me an individuality I prize to this day.
But he did more than that. He gave me five brothers and sisters who never cease to amaze me with their talents, their warmth, their commitment to their spouses and children and their persistent reminder to me that my father was always so proud of his children. These industrious acorns did not fall far from his tree of experience. My brothers and sisters are the gift, a large gift. In a time where families are much smaller there is a lot to say for big family.
Our home was a place where there was always room for one more at the table, a thought that may have crossed my father’s mind as my mother gave birth yet again. In fact, our home was a veritable community center where all of our friends from the Salesian Boys Club nearby and across the city were always welcome. And once there, this constant stream of humanity would hear, in all San Maurese, our real names Franco, Giusippina, Anna Maria, Antoni, Domenico and Gianni. To our friends my father opened an authentic world of craft and culture: a banner of rolled up dollar bills waiting for the procession of Santa Maria Addolerata on the wall, a frenzy of cooking, the smell of brocciola, figs from Italy on the table, makeshift plumbing and catch basins in the yard under the mulberry tree and, once upon a time, a couple of chickens. During late summer our friends would see my mother and father working as a team cutting and canning tomatoes, on Christmas Eve, dishes with traditional fishes, the pizza chena at Easter. Our downstairs cellar was our second home; it was a response, you might say, for the need for air conditioning. This symphony of home life became a family signature for our friends.
Our father gave us great memories. As a young boy perhaps no more than 2 years old I remember blocking the door so he wouldn’t go to work so that he could stay home with me. We remember how he joyfully mimicked the Beatles during a birthday party. We remember trips on the train. We remember Zia Lessina’s funeral where we first saw our father cry because he loved the woman who helped him settle in America. I remember him standing with me on a blustering bone chilling cold day at the bus stop going to hockey practice at the Heights rink. The quick rides to Radio Shack with his cousins. We remember the trips to the Salesians camp in Ipswich on summer Saturdays chaperoning the boys with other fathers. Fishing on Deer Island in Winthrop. We remember him walking Josephine and Ann Marie down the aisle at church on Wedding Day. We remember the school meetings and church events, the graduation and the christenings. We remember him watching his youngest son play a memorable Tech Tourney basketball game in the Boston Garden, the biggest stage of all, where the youngest son through four quarters and three overtimes played the greatest game ever to be watched, leaving his heart on the parquet floor.*** We remember my father and mother’s 50th anniversary overlooking Boston Harbor renewing their vows. We remember the Old Glory attached to his car’s antenna waving proudly signaling his enthusiasm for the American idea. We remember him lugging the house-warming gift that is a statue of the Madonna, for your garden one just like the one in his garden.
More importantly, my father gave me the life lesson of love and how he brought it out in people. My father loved Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and it was there that I saw how he defined his love. Amid the stain-glass light, the high ceilings, the fine masonry and carved softwood pews, my father prayed and cried, prayed and cried for his lost church. It was there that he might have questioned God’s motive for the closing the church his Italian immigrant brothers and sisters built. But I know this, my father’s faith in people who make the Church never diminished. My father Domenic’s struggle to keep Mt. Carmel open was a sincere expression of faith. His hope spoke great truth to power. And it was based on the human capacity for love not bitterness or disdain. To those who prayed with him on Gove Street, please know that he loved you.
My father’s last days also provided another lesson of love. I saw that love in its rawest most beautiful forms, the love my mother had for my father particularly when he was in pain: The sweet kisses on the forehead; the combing of his hair with her fingers, the spoon feeding of food shredded. And I saw the book end of my father’s life, most profound. his youngest son John kneeling in prayer, crying lovingly just hours after he died. These are the lessons of love I will never forget filed under the phrase, Domenico non è più.
A man of letters will find not words but only sorrow to see such a man die. The heart wants to sing but it is broken. The words are set to soar but they only remain at rest. The man of letters will never capture the virtues of this man — because so much praise — ALL THE PRAISE I HAVE IN MY HEART FOR MY FATHER TODAY — cannot be arranged in mere paragraphs on a page. What my heart says as I speak is that no poet can reach down so deep to calm the despair that is death, consuming a good life. So a wise man of letters defers to clarity of art, of image.
My favorite photograph of my father appeared in the most unlikely of places his employer’s catalog. It is a black and white photograph that in my mind were they alive today would make Michaelangelo, DaVinci or Botticelli so envious for its poise and lyricism. It is a photograph of my father in his work apron. His hair neat. His smile more radiant than Mona Lisa’s wide above the open collar of his work shirt. His face full, confident, wise. His eyes above his black-horned glasses looking beyond suggesting light, sweetness. His arm resting on a workbench. His hands folded calmly. It is those hands that catch your eyes: swollen, coarse, blackened; aged and agile and unafraid.
Those are the hands that trimmed the fig tree, thatched the cracks in the cement, plucked the fresh basil, cut the fine detail of carpentry in a home warm and wonderful. Those are the hands that raised and held grandchildren. Those are the hands folded in prayers of devotion without interruption, never faithless. Those are the hands that said at one time, one shining time: Come Maria, my beautiful wife, let us make a great life in America.
We are no longer the children barring the door because we want dear Papa to stay home. That’s because God has opened another door for my father. We love you Papa eternally.
*from quote attributed to Goethe.
**from Henry David Thoreau.
***Charles Pierce, Boston Herald, March 1988.