“You know when people tell you your dream is impractical it’s just because they are pissed they didn’t follow their own,” my dad tells me in a thick Rhode Island accent while painting the rudder of a boat he is building. “You can’t let other people tell you how to live your life.”
My dad, Henry Marciano, is five feet, six inches. He was born in Italy, a child of a Northern Italian war bride and an Italian American soldier and came to the US at two years old. He lives one street away from his childhood home and one block away from his father’s childhood home. He was accepted to Washington University Law School and gave up the admission when his father fell ill. He spent 35 years serving the city of Providence as a public school history teacher before retiring in 2010. Throughout his career he not only served his students in the classroom, but also engaged with the community through neighborhood clean ups, food drives, and finally, starting the non-profit City Sail Inc. in 1996 to teach urban kids how to build and operate wooden sailboats, a pastime often associated with wealthy folks. He still appears to have the same energy that he did when I was a child, always moving, thinking, creating, making someone’s life a little bit better, working towards his dreams. He tells me “I fell eighteen!” although he is 62.
It’s probably the most unoriginal thing that I can say, but such are the words used in essays like this: My dad is, without a doubt, my personal hero. In fact, often times when people comment on my own accomplishments, inquiries, projects, I point right to my father as a source of inspiration.
He doesn’t put on airs. He’s a little guy, with a swelling heart, and an outspoken tongue. In fact it’s that honesty that often gets him in trouble, always fighting for the underdog, whether it be a student who needs support, a teacher who is being abused by the system, or a stranger who can’t speak up for themselves at Dunkin Donuts.
My dad is the sound station for the downtrodden, and it’s the fighter in him that keeps him so young. Sometimes it wasn’t so fun being on the receiving end of his fury, but boy did you want him in your corner when shit got rough. I remember a swarm of elementary school students cheering my dad on through the glass window of the Principal’s office while he exposed a group of teachers who were treating kids unfairly, one of course being my brother. He threw out a line to those Catholic/Christian educators that went something like “If Jesus Christ came through those doors right now, you’d find fault with him too” –a sucker punch right in their guts. Years later he came to my aid when a teacher said that my essay on ageism was a little too sarcastic for a 7th grader—”are you going to penalize the child for having an opinion?” was his response. He taught me at a young age not to let others hold me back from my own authentic development, and told me at fifteen that I was already probably a lot smarter than the people trying to hold me down. Although ever the teacher himself, his favorite quote was always “don’t let school get in the way of your education!” pushing his students and children to get out in the world and experience life to the fullest beyond the walls of the classroom. When my brother was diagnosed with ADD he said “Well son, I’ve got it too! Let’s have some fun!”
Besides learning to be an eccentric little fire pistol from my dad, I also learned to be a feminist, or maybe, to be a boy hater–who knows? When I was little he’d always remark that the world would be a better place if women were more visibly in charge. He’d often tease my brothers saying it was too bad they weren’t girls, since girls were so much smarter. He and my mom would race me from my dance classes to my baseball games, insisting that I could do it all. He’d say “Laura they need you out there, your batting average is higher than all those boys!” In fact, at 12, when it was required that I join the softball team, I quit. I didn’t understand why all of a sudden I wasn’t good enough to play with the boys, and even if my dad did, he went right on agreeing with my logic. In third grade when the Principal came in asking the class if there were any strong boys that could help carry boxes, I stood up right at my desk and yelled out “Girls are strong too!” I felt the strength of my dad as I spoke the words to the whole class, barely turning red at all.
I remember my dad as a spiritual man, a man with conviction and fear of God. Although this is something my brothers and I have trouble mirroring, we recall it about our dad. Every Sunday, whether we were coming with him or not, he’d get up at 7am and head to mass. The times I did go, I’d always catch him crying. “What’s wrong?” I’d ask. “Thinking about Poppy,” he’d reply, his late father always on his mind. At Christmas time, when we begged him for months for a real Christmas tree, his refusal not something we would accept, he blurted out “All right we are going to have THREE christmas trees, one for the father, one for the son, and one for the holy spirit! His reasoning, though complex in nature, was simple to me as a child: he’d said yes!
My dad came to every dance recital, every hockey game, every school play. He drove us all over the New England states in his minivan, getting caught in snow storms, ice storms, and heat waves. He’d be the dad cheering the loudest at our events, and one or two times came into a little tiff with a much bigger, much stronger dad, threatening to punch my daddy in the parking lot. He’d always just talk his way out of it, something we also learned very quickly how to do. He supported our friends and neighbors, and just about anyone who had troubles, from heart breaks, to drug use, and opened his heart and our home to all who needed a little help. He gave away prized possession to make others happy, from books to mementos. In his presence, Strangers became family; strays became pets.
These days, as I struggle with the identity issues that come along with getting through your twenties, my dad is right there, still cheering, believing the dreams that even I have begun to give up on. “Just keep fighting” he says. He sure as hell still is.