What I learned about fatherhood from the fathers in my family

What I learned about fatherhood from the fathers in my family

My grandfather "Nanu" Bettinelli is on the far right and my grandmother "Nana" is to the left of him. The other couples are the captain of his fishing boat, another fisherman and wives.
My grandfather "Nanu" Bettinelli is on the far right and my grandmother "Nana" is to the left of him. The other couples are the captain of his fishing boat, another fisherman and wives.

It’s Father’s Day and I’m in a reflective mood, thinking of all the dads I’ve known, especially those in my own family, who’ve taught me so much about being a father. I thought I’d share some of those reflections.

First, there are my grandfathers, maternal and paternal. My mom’s father, Abraham Spiegel, died when my mom was just 7 so of course I never knew him. But from the stories I’ve heard I have learned about Judaism and the experience of Jewish immigrants from Eastern European areas controlled by the tsars and the progroms of the Cossacks (they emigrated pre-Bolshevik). I have a love for Judaism and my Jewish brothers and sisters that comes from family connections.

I did meet my paternal grandfather, Nanu, but he died when I was just eight so my memories are still hazy. “Nanu” Bernardo Bettinelli was not a tall man in physical height, but I remember him as stoic and strong. From my dad’s stories, I know he was touched by tragedy early in life: he was a child born out of scandalous wedlock, but adopted in love; then when he was still a child in a Sicilian fishing village, all his male relatives died in a terrible storm. He first came to the US as a 13-year-old boy working on a fishing boat at the beginning of the 20th century, even working in the Bering Sea on a sailing ship, before survival suits and electronic beacons provided even a glimmer of survivability in case of going overboard. He married my grandmother and when the influenza epidemic struck, he brought them from Sicily to America. When he wasn’t fishing, he was working any job he could find, even in a Ford motor plant in Boston. He was so short, he needed to stand on a box to work the assembly line, which once attracted the attention of a visiting Henry Ford and his acclaim. My father tells me that when my grandfather would return to port from days at sea, he would first stop at the Italian-American club to shower and change into a suit out of respect for his own appearance and for my grandmother. He eventually retired from fishing at 65 and my dad says the captain of the boat told my dad that he would have to hire two men in their 20s to replace my grandfather. Even then my grandfather continued to work as janitorial staff at Mass. General Hospital. From my Nanu, I learned the importance of hard work for your family and that a father’s behavior and appearance reflects on his wife and his children when he’s out in public.

My father and me in Piazza Navona, Rome, in 1999.
My father and me in Piazza Navona, Rome, in 1999.

My own father, Domenico Sr., has also been a hard worker his whole life, working several jobs and six days a week at times. Even now, in his mid–80s and retired after 40 years at Raytheon as a millwright, he still works to provide for his family. As an 18-year-old young man, my father was already working at Raytheon when he was drafted into the Navy. Four years later, he was honorably discharged and the day after getting home he was back at work. In addition to a good work ethic, I also learned that even in difficult times how a father still shows his children he loves them, all of them, even when the children are the ones having difficulties that might strain relationships.

From my father-in-law, Randall Scott, I have learned how a strong personal spiritual life becomes a support for living as a strong Christian father. Randy is a secular Carmelite and also serves his parish’s very active St. Vincent de Paul Society. Previously, when he was working full-time for the state of Texas, he also operated a Catholic bookstore on the side that provided a much-needed service to the Catholic community in central Texas. Randy’s strong faith has carried him through the ups and downs of life and now, I believe, provides a quiet yet visible example for his children and grandchildren.

My brother, Bernie, has taught me how a husband loves his wife in sickness and in health. His first wife, Kathy, died after a yearlong battle with cancer, and through it all Bernie showed grace and courage and love. He also sacrificed much of himself in caring for her and for their one-year-old daughter Mary who he then had to raise as a single dad for many years until he met his wife, Carol.

My brother, John, has been an example of a father raising a large family, struggling at times to provide for them all, but through it all placing a priority on raising them as solid and good Catholic men and women. I hope my own children grow up with as much character and integrity as I see in my nieces and nephews. He has also shown me how to be the strong center around which a family gathers for strength and guidance.

My brother-in-law, Peter Campbell, has been a good friend for many years, from even before he met my sister and I have learned from him how placing service to the Lord as a priority in your life is a way to serve your family. Peter is always looking for an opportunity to serve God, including organizing over many years a series of family festivals and concerts and youth events to help others to know the faith and know the Lord like he does. And I see in his eight children a recognition of the importance of serving the Lord first.

Of course, these aren’t the only men to teach me valuable lessons of fatherhood, but I’ll stop here with those in my immediate family. To them and to all the others, I give you my sincere thanks and wish you all a very Happy Father’s Day!

Image Credit

  • grandparents: Own photo
  • Rome trip April 99 14: Own photo
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