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.
My father died last year, May 9, 2012 at 79 years of age, having lived what I think he would say was a full life. Maybe he could have lived longer, who knows. Better diet, more exercise, more money, less stress…those factors may have given him a boost and added a few more years onto his longevity. But we will never know the answer to that question. What if circumstances were different? Would that have changed his life?
I'm sure my father would say "no."
His favorite uncle Will died abruptly of a heart attack when he was just out of medical school, sometime in the late 50’s. My father went to Fordham University, where he was a pre-med student and then went to Rome for 6 years to study medicine because he couldn’t get into medical school in the states. He would look back upon those years with fond memories, recalling how hard he had to work in order to become a doctor.
I don’t think any of his accomplishments from his standpoint measured up to that accomplishment of finally becoming a doctor, his entire family awaiting his arrival somewhere off the shores of NYC as his boat came in from Rome. And perhaps his biggest medical lesson was learned from the abrupt departure of his beloved Uncle – you never know when your time is up. The fact that he was able to live as long as he did he would consider a blessing against all of the lost lives he saw as a doctor, those who went prematurely due to illness, casualties of war, or tragic consequences.
As it is hard to get a handle on any human being who has lived life and who has seen it into their later years, my father’s legacy to me was not an inheritance nor material things passed down. It was his general wisdom, it was his kind patience, it was his fatherly love that will endure.
Over the years, from the early 80’s through his death, my father wrote a few hundred letters to me, many of which I saved, expressing his sentiments on many subjects and his perspective on life. There is no one letter that stands out. Many of them have not been reread and I thought this might be a good time to share them, in no particular order. I will start rereading his letters and what’s worth sharing I will share, filling in the details of what I can recollect along the way.
Dec. 2nd 1988
I don’t remember where I was exactly on that day. I think I was working at the American Stage Company in Teaneck, NJ. I had graduated from the University of Michigan in 1986 and had decided I wanted to be an actor. Around that time I moved to NYC, studied at several acting schools and had dreams that someday I would make it “big.” You know go to Hollywood and become a movie star, to the land of broken dreams.
The American Stage Company was under the Artistic Direction of actor Paul Sorvino. I worked backstage as an assistant stage manager for the upcoming roster of productions and it was my goal to get an equity card through serving an internship, as it would give me the ability to audition at Equity Theatre Productions and get hired as an actor in professional theatre.
My uncle Frank met the producers of the American Stage Company enroute to Atlantic City, where he went to play poker on a regular basis. My Uncle was a former bookie dating back to the 50’s and parlayed most of his money into real estate by the 60’s, choosing to lead a more straight and narrow life, after he got married.
Ironically it was my Uncle Frank who gave me the most sobering advice about becoming an actor. He told me it was a numbers game and that the odds were not in my favor. The sooner I realized that the better. It was also the very handsome and dear family friend Robert Krugman from Ridgewood, NJ, where I grew up, who frequently talked to us about his ambitions pursuing acting in the 1950’s when he was enrolled in the Actor’s Studio. He told us how all the actors he knew were lining up to become the next James Dean. Soon his life changed and he went into the garment industry, where he had a long lasting career.
I suppose the biggest question I had in my life at the time (and still do) was what will happen to me? Will I make it? And it was my father whom I could turn to for advice, knowing that he wasn’t going to admonish me for my choices. He would serve as a constant support, both financially when I needed it and when I was starved for career guidance.
This letter that arrived from him helped pacify me, giving me solace that I could not really know the answer to that question - for the future was unwritten.
“What will happen to me in this only life I am destined to have,” you ask. You have chosen a more unorthodox career so you have to face a longer struggle – perhaps. Perhaps you will soon get your precious “card.” You have made new friends including Hemingway so the road you travel is not without riches.
Success is a danger, only misery loves company. Life is an enigma for my spry 97 year old patient who bemoans the fact that the insurance will not cover his medical bills. I tell him at his age he is immune but he finds his inability to pay a great injury to his pride. Pauperism is one of man’s greatest fears.
The world is so constituted in complexity that it is only necessary to travel on any road and in any direction to participate in its many wonders, and then because it is round return to where one started. The whole expedition essentially accomplishing nothing, yet everything for such is the destiny we are condemned to with all the thrills to be found along the road.
At least in the arts and periphery there exists a more fertile ambience for intellectual communication. Your cousin Joseph might be considered along with yourself to have learned what the educational process had hoped to convey. You both are curious, self-reliant and interestingly, first-born and blood.
Have faith, continued faith, in yourself. What you have chosen is noble and you, able. You will prevail when the others falter.
There is no guarantee for your success nor is there for anyone. All of life is a mystery, making no sense to prince or pauper.
I have just examined a good lady who has an abnormal shadow on a recent mammography. The only way to tell if this is malignant is to do a biopsy and to do this the patient needs to be put to sleep. She has been scheduled in 1 week. Until then her life is in a state of suspended animation because if this is breast cancer whatever other struggles her road has will be deferred. She will worry until the biopsy – fortunately, the odds are good that the shadow is insignificant, not quite good enough not to biopsy.
For me a case, a fee, a presence in the operating room at The Valley Hospital.
Enjoyed your letter. Love Dad.
The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood NJ is where my father practiced medicine for over thirty, dating back to the 60’s.
In this letter my father refers to the road on several occasions. That road he referred to is “the road” that is our journey in this life, the road like the road from The Wizard of Oz, “The Road less Traveled” from Robert Frost or On the Road with Jack Kerouac. Each road leads to another destination where our most important pursuit may be finding the meaning along the way.
One thing was for sure. I would pick up the language of the road and understand it as a place for the journey we are on. Somehow this wonderful, mythical journey begins and ends on a road. Our own unique road, whether we choose it or not. It is ours, we own it and eventually the road becomes us.
Where will the road lead? I learned that tomorrow always brings something new on this road. I’m starting to carve out my own little niche. I’m learning too, that it is never too late to get on the road to your dreams.
This will be an ongoing publishing event. Come back for the next letter next week.