On a spring day in 1955, my brother Angelo prepared for his college graduation and as he did, he thought back to the time he had quit high school to go to war. It was his sense of duty which prompted him to rearrange his priorities: high school, he had decided, would have to wait.
A lot had happened since his discharge from the Marines Corps. He worked hard and eventually, with high school requirements out of the way and his diploma in hand it was time to search for the right college. It had to be a school far away from the humdrum of city life, where he could concentrate on his studies.
In the town of Oneonta, New York, in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains, approximately two hundred miles north of New York City, he found such a place. It was called Hartwick College.
With much determination and some help from Uncle Sam’s GI Bill, Angelo began his first classes toward graduation.
Four years later on graduation day, he stood in the midst of the other graduates and could easily have passed for anyone’s older brother. When most of his fellow graduates were still in elementary school, Angelo was busy fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. So by the time he got to college, he found himself surrounded by classmates a few years younger than himself, which in some ways had conferred a kind of celebrity status upon him. But on graduation day, he was just a student who shared the excitement of walking across the stage for his academic reward and the realization of a dream coming to fruition.
Angelo was one of eight children my Sicilian immigrant parents had brought into the world and he was the first of the family to graduate college. We were all excited and happy for him. Several family members, including my mother, looked forward to the commencement ceremony. My mother was especially proud of Angelo. Since she spoke very little English, my sister Antoinette stayed close to her throughout the ceremony and served as a guide and English-Italian interpreter.
The weather was perfect and the mood was festive. When the commencement had ended, guests and graduates and faculty mingled about on campus where congratulations and encouragements abounded.
Angelo was excited, weaving through the crowd in search of a particular faculty member to introduce to the family. She was the Dean of Education who had helped him as an advisor, career counselor and job placement counselor.
He began first by introducing the dean to my mother and my mother to the dean. The dean, upon being introduced, extended her hand to my mother and my mother likewise took the dean’s hand. While the two women shook hands, Angelo expressed his admiration for the dean and his appreciation for all the help he had received from her and as he spoke, my mother leaned forward and, quite unexpectedly, kissed the dean on the cheek. The family was in shock. The thunderous silence which followed only added to the awkwardness of the moment.
The dean, obviously sensing my family’s uneasiness, then with the grace and charm of one whose wisdom exceeded her education, simply smiled and complemented my mother on her most welcomed salutation. She went on to describe the sense of honor she felt at the warmth of my mother’s greeting and this she did with a kind of verbal polish from which one could only infer that nothing unusual had taken place.
The dean’s words had had a calming effect which allowed everyone to breathe a sigh of relief. Only my mother was unaware that something “unusual” had taken place. Being an unassuming person, from a small town in Sicily where rules of American etiquette were unheard of, her social graces were, as far as she was concerned, perfectly natural. The rest of us, after having been embarrassed, were now a little ashamed of our embarrassment.
In the years that followed, Angelo continued his education, completing the teaching credentials and master’s programs before beginning a career in teaching. His chosen profession could not have made my mother happier.
She did not hide the pride she felt about her son. Whenever she spoke to anyone about Angelo, she wouldn’t just say, “my son,” she would refer to him as, “my-son-the-teacher.” It was always “my-son-the-teacher,” as though it was all one word. It was a title he retained for the rest of her life.
Although graduations with their “Pomp and Circumstance” continue from year to year throughout the land, memories of dignitaries and of speeches and even of personal anecdotes, in time, fade into oblivion unless, of course, the graduation is blessed with a special kiss.