Letters from My Father: Lessons I've Learned

George L. Nitti's memoir, remembering his father through his letters and what he's learned along the way.

After the summer at the Hampton Playhouse, returning home was not an option. My father made that clear.

“I do not believe, should you be thinking of living at home, that such an arrangement would work. It was tried last year and it was miserable for all. You have been on your own too long to return excepting for short periods. I think you are a big boy now and it is time for you to take on most of the responsibilities.”

So that put an end to any thoughts that I had about returning to the nest. I was a bird on my own, learning to fly, for the first time.

I’m sure it was not an easy decision for my father to let go, for I know how much he loved me and enjoyed my company and did everything he could to help me. But it was the best decision for both of us.  I needed to learn independence which couldn’t be taught in a classroom.

So I moved to Staten Island where I roomed with a writer/poet named Eugene Ring.  I met Eugene through my friend Nils, whom I met in Japan when I was a foreign exchange student. Nils was from Staten Island and when he heard I was looking for a place to live, he introduced me to Eugene, who lived in an apartment complex right down the road.  For two years, I would live in Staten Island, continuing to pursue and study acting while working as a waiter in NYC, amongst other jobs. My father would later write:

 "A father sees the boy too long and therefore presumes always that person will remain a boy. Life doesn’t work that way; a day comes when each must face the other as men – equals and independent. Although a transition period is there, such transition from boyhood to manhood if recognized is abrupt, neither realizing that a period of time has been passing."

Certainly a period of time had been passing and I was making baby steps towards manhood. Going to college, becoming a foreign exchange student, having experiences like summer theatre, and then finally living on my own, all of that gave me opportunities to explore the different facets of myself.

But I’m not sure that manhood is one of those points in time in which you can say “I’ve arrived.” What does one know of manhood when one has yet to experience all of the other trials and tribulations of life such as getting married, having children, buying a first home, being drafted to war, and watching loved one’s die. Some of us seem to have “manhood” thrust upon us earlier in life, shaped by greater responsibilities or hardship or tragedy or any number of other elements that come into the mix to turn our lives upside down. Some of us seem to take on those responsibilities as if they were always designed to be men. At the time I don’t believe I had reached manhood, but I was becoming independent.

With independence, I had creative license, which abounded in my journal, where I wrote regularly, as it became a great source of pride, particularly during this time when I felt I was making breakthroughs in style and voice. My journal entries took on new form, with each entry a short, poetic story.

Unlike the first journal I kept when I was in Japan, which was more or less a daily accounting of events, this journal would be different. I write, “I’ve tried to avoid the routine of recording daily events as often is style of the Diary, and in the past few months I’ve tried to express myself differently. I feel expression so much linked to truth that I can’t abandon the need to fulfill myself through it.  Thus writing, art, creativity, ect has been inclining in my life.”

I also started a comedy box, where I recorded humorous ideas because I was contemplating doing stand-up comedy. I write: “I can be funny is on my mind today. I’m glad I’ve kept my comedy box, but for the most part I haven’t entered any stories of comic value for about the past year. Since then my interests have gone from comedy to singing to writing comic songs.” Doodling funny ideas on paper was not the same as writing comic monologues, which I had a chance to do later in life and perform in NYC comedy clubs for a very short period of time.

Writing stories was another avenue I explored, as I wrote several stories based on some personal experiences, which I would later submit to NYC literary agents. Writing short stories, however, didn’t sustain my interest completely, as it was only one vehicle of self-expression and at the time, limiting. Writing in the 3rd person, I express this frustration. “The fact is that he wished that he could concoct stories to please all but the truth was that he could only come up with empty realism that he saw before him every day.” Although it may have appeared that I was afraid to take that imaginative leap into the realm of fiction, I think I was even more afraid of commitment to a path that would be too narrow.

The fact was that I had a hard time placing myself anywhere. The creative arts were really exploding inside of me and I wanted a piece of it all, which was expressed in another journal entry. “I like to challenge myself by constantly taking on new things. I really ought to have more of a singularity of purpose – but my challenge has always been to uncover the generalities of many subjects than the details of one in general.” I admired Ben Franklin and other renaissance men whom over the course of a lifetime had accomplished many things. Would I strike out to become such a man?

Hampton Playhouse proved to be very formative. If Hampton gave me a love for anything, it was music. Growing up, I had no exposure to musical theatre whatsoever besides those familiar standards sung by Sinatra and other crooners my parents enjoyed listening to – so being exposed to shows like  42nd street, and composers such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin opened my mind to new musical possibilities.

When living in Staten Island, I frequently took the Staten Island Ferry to Battery Park, where I’d catch a #1 train to Lincoln Center. There they had a great library in which you could borrow music scores and thus began my journey learning about great composers. George and Ira Gershwin were my favorites and I learned as many tunes from them as I could like "Someone to Watch over Me," "A Foggy Day in London Town" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It." These songs were committed to memory and others from the great American Songbook, which I sang every day traveling that ferry boat to the city until they were in my blood. I was a bit of a romantic walking the streets of the city, singing songs of love.

Although my intent was to become an actor, I was picking up all kinds of new things living in close proximity to NYC. Outside of taking acting classes, I enrolled at the New School of Music in the West Village and started learning how to play the guitar. I studied guitar for a year, learning some of my favorite popular music, much of which was from the 70’s. Before I knew it I was playing and singing on my own. This would become a great source of self-satisfaction, filling many hours while I was biding my time waiting for a big break, some point in that distant future when my dreams would all come true.

With this acquired interest in music, I was planting other seeds. Singing and composition. Those seeds would not come to fruition for a few more years, but they were growing inside me nonetheless.

Dad’s letters came steadily, almost weekly. They could be counted on like his phone calls could be counted on every Sunday, encouraging me to pursue my own path as I was expressing impatience over not becoming more successful, sooner. A few thoughts from my journal capture that restless spirit.

“How patient we must be while having to prepare madly for our future careers. I haven’t had too many successes of late. No exciting stories to take up these pages. I always feel more successful when I have one-even if it is about the greatest failure….These days not much to do but prepare. When you’re young it seems as if that is all one ever does.”

Despite all of my activity, I still had an instinctual feeling that I was a writer, gaining greater confidence through journal writing, letters to my father, and new experiences about which I could write. One of my journal entries captures this self-revelation yet with underlying ambivalence. “Deep down I think I’m a writer and everything else is just distractions. But I have still been unable to reconcile that motivation with that of becoming an actor.  Maybe if I could write with people around me-kinda of like a performance – I could reconcile the two and be what I always wanted to be – something undefinable.”

Looking back at that time I don’t think I could be completely satisfied with where I was. I was looking for something over a rainbow, way up high, expecting to reach an unreachable goal as if pulling clouds from the sky and trying to hold them in my hand. There was nothing that existed that could satisfy my burning desire, nothing tangible that could be grasped to indicate that somehow I had arrived.

The same impossible dream that Don Quixote may have been smitten with.

If I knew my life would be a song, so perfect and so sweet, and would come to a poignant end, how much more secure I would have been resting in the bosom of that eternity. But there were no guarantees of such a heaven.

Manhood would require me to take another view and thus I had a lot more growing up to do. My father held my hand and continued to show me the way.

The steps we take and those words we speak may indeed come true. But they are songs for tomorrow for there are other songs that must be played today.