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.

August, 1985

The summer of 85' was a big turning point in my life. I was at the University of Michigan studying an intensive unit of Japanese language, during one of the hottest months on record. At least it seemed that way. I had just broken up with a girl I had been going out with in the springtime of 85’ and between the loss and lost feeling of what I was going to do with my life, I was feeling depressed. Not clinically. Just normal feelings of depression that accompany loneliness, when one is adrift, uncertain, hurt and filled with lingering sadness. 

My father wanted me to continue to pursue my studies in Japanese. In 1983 - 1984 I went to Japan as a foreign exchange student, spent another year at Michigan studying Japanese language and now was enrolled in a 3rd year intensive language class where the stakes were higher. Either you make it or you move on. And I was getting ready to move on. What I thought I knew about Japanese language was miniscule to what was expected of me, requiring more time studying in a solitary situation with books that were as dry as anatomy. I just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel where my future was awaiting. I expressed those feelings to my father and he responded.

Dear George,

I was sitting in on a conversation in the doctors lounge where Dr. Rosin was expounding on the tremendous strides the Japanese are making in all walks of enterprises.

What he says makes sense and there is little doubt about the fact that they will and are the dominate factor in the world today. Let us not kid ourselves. There will be many places for you to do what you would like to do because of the sacrifices you make today. As an American you will belong to a very special minority that has the tools of language and culture that will be able to communicate with a culture that right now is giving this country a run for its money. We, fortunately, live in times of compromise rather than collision, and this requires mediators, whether in business or on the political scene.

Your assets in your chosen field of study will someday be of considerable use, but what that use will be can only be determined when you arrive at that someday, for it will be governed by those opportunities available then. When you would write from Japan you would emphasize the importance of doing what is necessary every day and that the future would take care of itself. This applies as much now. More so, because each one of us inevitably goes through periods of doubt, or just bad times, and these unfortunately work against our purposes, or goals. It’s usual to second guess, smell our armpits and have concern about our ultimate destiny. Unfortunately, destiny has its own plans for our future and they can never be foreseen. But preparation becomes the only tool we have to alter destiny and that you are doing.

Do you think you would ever be considered for admission to so esteemed institutions in Japan without the present background you have and have worked so hard at to earn? George, damn it, you have busted your ass and should feel proud of what you are achieving. You have not been standing still. God-willing you will graduate from one of the best universities in this country. Don’t’ dwell so much on being the best as being you. In the end you will win your struggle because you persevere. But look forward to a brightness in your future. You will eventually get the opportunity to do what you are destined to do. But each day you prepare, you alter ultimately and enlarge your destiny.

From a selfish standpoint of a parent maybe being a little wiser, or maybe not, though I feel for your suffering and ache for your misery, I think this love you’ve had may have arrived too early for what remains and can be done by only you, alone.  Love, Dad

P.S. Received both your letters. You sound much better. Keep it up.

In that letter my father had enclosed a NY Times article by Clyde Haberman entitled “Japan 40 Years After War: Rich, Powerful, Uneasy.” The article centered around Japan’s role as an emerging international player on the scene of foreign affairs against the backdrop of their national identity and my father envisioned a role somewhere in there for me. But I couldn’t see that future. Too much uncertainty clouded the path. It was one thing to pursue a life as a doctor, where at the end of medical school, you knew the outcome – you would be practicing medicine somewhere. But not so as a diplomat or person on the world scene, business, political or otherwise. Maybe Kissinger knew where he was directing his footsteps. I had no clue where I was directing mine. I couldn't see myself going to Washington like Mr. Smith.

My father’s letters consoled me, despite his nudging. I didn’t feel that he was telling me what to do, just trying to guide me and encourage me to stick to a path. As for responding to my depression at the time, particularly over the end of a relationship, he wrote:

Dear George

The old song, “Grab your coat and get your hat, leave your worries on the doorstep, just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street. I used to walk in the shade, with my blues on parade…….life could be so sweet, on the sunny side of the street.”

Let’s work on cheering up and doing the things we like to do. Most of us got troubles and to each of us these are the biggest things in the world. The idea is to pretend, lie about how we feel, but get going and press living. And if we hit bottom occasionally, look how much there is to look forward to climbing back up.

As a matter of fact most people hide their troubles for that reason. It doesn’t help. Most of the time dwelling on them holds you back from stepping out and enjoying yourself. If you think that Japanese is boring for eight hours a day, try anatomy for a lot longer, sometimes eighteen. You will find your proper niche in good time. In the meantime try to suffer as little as possible while you do your work….

By the fall of 1985, enrolled in my senior year at the University, I started to take control of “my destiny.” I took creative writing and acting classes and was filled with new hope. It wasn’t easy breaking the news to my father and I can only recall that he didn’t take it very well. To some extent his dreams were invested in me. But what was important were my dreams, not my father’s. And at the end of all of this he knew that and continued to stick with me, regardless. He came for the long ride and I was going to give him his money’s worth! One way or another it would all work out in the end. I knew that. My father’s road was long. Mine would probably be longer. The road is long when you are in the desert with only sand under your feet, a blistering sun above and a poor sense of direction to guide you out.

But I had faith in my dreams. My father had helped give me that. At the end of my father's letter, he said, "Your Uncle John always said, "Count your blessings and have faith in them too."" 

There were so many blessings. Like not being born in the desert. Or in poverty. I was a kid that was pretty well taken care of. Who was I really in the big scheme of everything?

Count your blessings. You're darn right. Above everything, count them and have faith in them. It's not so bad living in the land of plenty.