My father’s Italian legacy

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I’ve had more than a few good cries since my father passed away in early May. He lived a long life and he was busy and robust until the end, and I’m grateful for that. But in some ways, it makes the loss even harder to bear.

Tears still flow over the smallest of things, like driving to Joseph’s Finest Meats for the first time without my dad’s sausage order in hand; or giving his last bay leaf plant a new home in my backyard; or sorting through old photos of him with his parents, or of his parents in the midst of a boisterous family gathering in the basement of their Far Northwest Side home.

If you’d like to learn more about my dad’s charmed life and why my family and I miss him so much, please scroll down to his eulogy and obituary. Here, though, I’d like to focus on the pivotal role he played in shaping my sense of Italian identity.

In some ways, the torch was passed despite my dad’s best efforts to the contrary. For starters, he was part of that great generation of immigrant sons who swore off their Italian roots as they signed up to fight against their ancestral home during World War II.

When he married a Croatian American, the deck was further stacked against my cultural trajectory. And the game should have been lost when my mom and dad decided to move to Park Ridge, where so many urban ethnics flocked after the war to raise their kids in all-American households.

But Italian roots are tenacious things. Because my grandmother spoke so little English, my father served as her interpreter throughout his childhood. His fluency in Italian became an asset when he opened a dental practice in the old neighborhood and welcomed his paesani as patients.

Meanwhile, his mother’s recipes were emerging as the cornerstone of my culinary identity. Most Sundays, we’d feast on rigatoni in meat sauce, a generous side of rapini and a simple salad dressed with oil and vinegar.

The next day, I’d head off to school with a lunch bag weighed down by a massive gravy meat and rapini sandwich while my classmates settled for a couple slices of baloney on Wonder Bread.

Pizza rustica and pizza ricotta reigned at Easter, leftover turkey was transformed into ravioli after Thanksgiving, tripe was an occasional treat, and Christmas Eve culminated in a seafood extravaganza joyously shared by the combined families of my dad and his brother.

The food alone would have set me along my current cultural path. The icing on the cucciddati came each summer, when a rogue’s gallery of uncles, aunts and cousins descended on our quiet suburban home, recreating the paesani parties of old.

 

 

I still vividly recall the bocce, banter and laughter, which kicked into high gear as soon as Uncle Dario burst through the front door, singing arias, with a bottle of Giacobazzi in each hand.

Nothing in the Wonder Bread world of suburban America could compete with these ethnic enchantments. They held me in thrall throughout my childhood. And even after I earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in journalism, I was an Italian at heart.

When the opportunities arose to serve as managing editor of Fra Noi in the mid-1980s and as editor in 1990, I was like a moth to flame, and here I remain, as wide-eyed as a kid on Christmas Eve.

My dad eventually embraced his heritage as enthusiastically as I did, sharing captivating stories from his childhood and combing through Italian cookbooks to expand his culinary repertoire.

I like to think the issues of Fra Noi he pored over each month for nearly three decades contributed in some small way. If so, I’m grateful for that, too, given how much he gave to me.

Grazie, papà. Addio.

Obituary

Dr. Rudolph J. (Rudy) Basile passed from the loving embrace of his family to eternal life on May 4 at the age of 90.

He was the devoted husband of the late Margaret (Polich); adored father of Mark, Paul (Sheryl), Luke (Cathy), Martha (Gary) and Katie (Joe); doting grandfather of Arielle (Matt), Madeline (Jay), Jasmine, Tessa, JT and Mary; steadfast son of the late Tito and the late Gaetana (Barbati); caring brother of the late Henry (the late Jo); admired brother-in-law of Patricia, the late Lynne (the late Steve) and the late Frank (the late June); cherished uncle of Bob (Lynne), Christie (the late Bruce) and Frank (Laura); and devoted great-uncle of Stacie (Kevin), Taylor, Madison and Lauren.

Born on Aug. 16, 1927, he was raised on the Northwest Side of Chicago. A graduate of Steinmetz High School, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and Loyola Dental School, he had a thriving dental practice on Belmont near Narragansett for more than 40 years.

He met his wife, Peggy, through mutual friends, and they tied the knot at St. Hugh Church in Lyons on Aug. 2, 1952. They started their family in Chicago and made their home shortly thereafter in Park Ridge, where Rudy lived the rest of his life.

He was a cornerstone of St. Paul of the Cross Parish for decades, counting the weekly collections and working the kitchen with his wife at the parish’s annual St. Joseph Table and Fiesta. A gifted whittler, whistler and cook, his soul-satisfying dishes drew ingredients from his abundant backyard garden in season. In his later years, he was a fixture at bridge tables throughout the week at the senior center in Park Ridge.

Quick-witted and big-hearted, he was adored by all who knew him. He will be profoundly missed.

Eulogy

Our dad grew up VERY Italian on the Far Northwest Side of Chicago. His parents came from the same small town west of Rome, and he was surrounded by extended family throughout his early years.

He had these amazing childhood memories, and he loved to share them with us. Things like playing Sir Galahad with his buddies using wooden slats as swords and garbage can lids as shields. Or the Sunday afternoons his dad and the other paesani spent in the backyard, drinking and telling stories, while his mom baked lamb brains on the half skull in the kitchen. Or the one Sunday that Uncle Dario ate all the brains, replacing them with mashed potatoes and almost getting himself lynched by an angry mob of drunken peasani in the process.

Our dad and his older brother didn’t speak English until they went to grade school, but they and all the other kids of their generation became true-blue Americans in the crucible of World War II. Enrico and Rodolfo Bah-ZEE-lay morphed into Hank and Rudy BAY-zel, and off they went to serve their country. Our father’s stint in the Army was cut short by an infection in boot camp that cost him one of his kidneys. But what the military took, it gave back a thousand fold through a college education on the GI Bill.

At the time, he was told by his doctors that he probably wouldn’t live past the page of 40. Boy, did he prove them wrong.

Through a dear friend, he met a raven-haired beauty named Peggy Polich and they were married in 1952. He was a bundle of energy and she was the soul of refinement. Their nicknames were Shakey and Gloves. As unlikely a couple as they were, they had a rock-solid marriage that lasted more than six decades.

They had several large and boisterous circles of friends, and by all accounts they were the life of the party. They were also pillars in their parish community. To know our parents was to love and admire them, and they were loved and admired by many.

Our dad became a dentist, not for the money or the prestige, but so he could work with his hands and be his own boss. He inspired his daughter and nephew to follow him into the profession, and he has legions of former patients who still fondly remember him as the singing dentist.

He toiled relentlessly to provide for his family, and he set an example of honesty, humility and hard work that influenced us profoundly. It was a tribute to the way we were raised that we asked for little and wanted for nothing.

When we were kids, he was a stern taskmaster, accepting nothing but the best from us, and all of us had issues with his brand of parenting. But we all made our peace with that, and during our adulthood, he somehow morphed into a nearly magical husband, father and grandfather.

He was a devoted caregiver to our mom throughout her waning years. And to his children and grandchildren, he was a jolly old six-foot-tall elf who bestowed countless joyous memories that fill our hearts to bursting.

He lived his retirement at a dead run, even when he could only shuffle. When he wasn’t plowing through a crossroad puzzle or tending to his garden, he was playing bridge with his pals, cooking up a storm, whittling a blue streak, enjoying the heck out of his pinot grigio and spending precious hours with his kids, grandkids and longtime friends.

Even as we laid him to rest, his basement workshop was teaming with carved dogs, cats and frogs in various stages of completion; the fertile soil of his garden was perfectly prepped and ready for planting; and his freezer as stocked with enough home-cooked meals to last half the summer.

He lived every day like it might be his last, or better yet, that he might just live until he was a hundred. May we all strive to live as fully and engender as much affection as he did.

 

 

About Paul Basile

Paul Basile has been the editor of Fra Noi for a quarter of a century. Over that period, he and his dedicated family of staff members and correspondents have transformed a quaint little community newspaper into a gorgeous glossy magazine that is read and admired across the nation. They also maintain a cluster of national and local websites and are helping other major metropolitan areas launch their own versions of Fra Noi.

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One comment

  1. Loved reading this. Such love.

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