Speakers were set up outside the Bronx church for the overflow mourners at my Uncle Doad’s funeral Mass. They were there because many of them had been kept from starving by the man in the coffin. During the Depression, he bossed a gang that put in the foundations for Rockefeller Center, itself a make-work project besides being a dream of that patrician family. Together the Rockefellers and my uncle saved many families from starving during one of the darkest times of the 20th century.
The Depression made work scarce, particularly for unskilled Italian-Americans. Because of their need, My Uncle Doad (real name Salvatore Mazzella) would never turn away a man who came to him. They repaid him with their respect and came by the thousands to his funeral.
Doad was not a saint, though he sought heaven’s grace by having a priest live with him for the last nine years of his life. After his first heart attack, he wanted to make sure he had a priest around when his time came.
Like many things he did in life, he had an unusual, personal method of achieving his ends. So, when he met the priest on the subway he somehow persuaded him to come home, where he stayed until Doad died. How he died was also appropriate to the way he lived.
A gambler all his life, he had a heart attack cashing two winning $50 tickets at the now defunct Roosevelt Raceway. I’m told the priest was with him but I don’t know if he was able to give him extreme unction as it happened so fast.
In all things, Uncle Doad was a man larger than life. He was short, but built like and as strong as a bull. In later life, when his heart condition forced him to retire, he developed a huge stomach. This protuberance prevented him from getting behind the wheel, seeing the road and at the same time touching the gas and gear peddles. Like many things in his life, he found a method of driving that worked for him but did not take into consideration other drivers.
His solution was to slide down to gun the engine and then slide up to see the road. He drove this way, sidling up and down for almost 10 years. He never had an accident, which said more about the other drivers than his own driving skills.
While oblivious of others in many of his activities, he had a way of making people forget his faults. When I first told this story to my wife, she asked, “Why didn’t he put bricks on the pedals to decrease the space?” A practical solution that apparently never occurred to Doad.
As I have often said, he had his own way of doing things. A gregarious host, his Sunday dinners were crowded with people who came and went with the days and years. One old woman, whose name I never knew, was there every time I went with my parents. She sat in the corner and said nothing but looked on in disapproval at the happenings. Never did I see her take a morsel or speak a word. Everyone ignored her.
When he went anywhere, he always had people with him. It seemed he never liked being alone. If invited to someone’s home, he thought nothing of inviting strangers to the hosts to come along. Therefore, if one asked him to come, it was with the understanding that there might be more than his long-suffering wife and he. A hostess might find two, four, or even eight additional guests appearing at the door.
This brings us to what happened one Thanksgiving when he was invited to my aunt’s house. Like many Italian-American families during the postwar years and through the Eisenhower administration, our family was beset by anger and feuds.
Doad introduced my mother’s sister to her husband, a college graduate, unusual in that time. Doad was the brother of my father who had introduced my father to the matchmaker that brought my father and mother together.
At times, my mother cursed Doad, but she also fell under his spell when they were together. Through the years, there were many fights, feuds and agreements not to speak in my family.
But this year, 1953, it was agreed that everyone would come to Thanksgiving dinner. My mother’s brother, Canio, even agreed to pay for all the food. A notorious tightwad, his offer was seen as a way of everyone making peace.
Thanksgiving arrived with the festivities slated for 1 p.m. Everyone showed up on time but Doad. The food was delivered, and we lacked only Doad. As the food got cold, everyone sat around waiting. The wait extended to 2 p.m. then the third afternoon hour appeared but not my uncle. Come four o’clock, everyone started to get cranky but still no Doad.
With nothing more to do, family members began to open old wounds and several left without eating. Finally, my father started to call around looking for his brother. He was nowhere to be found. At five o’clock those that remained sat down to a cold dinner.
Two days later, we found out Doad had gone to another house for a brief visit and decided to stay. That Thanksgiving was 50-plus years ago and my family has never been together as a group since that day. Like Doad, most of the family members at that event are now gone. Gone, too, are those days and people like my Uncle Doad.
Excerpted from forthcoming Donald Mazzella’s forthcoming book; Frankie If You Get Hurt, I’ll Kill You. The book is a memoir of growing up Italian-American in the last century.
Donald P. Mazzella is COO Information Strategies, Inc., a company that helps business managers improve profits. He currently oversees a print and Internet publication network centered around Small Business Digest with more than 3.2 million opt-in small business readers and healthcare industry stakeholders.