My Valentine for Life

Parental Love Story

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Growing up in New York City, I had the luxury of meeting the most eclectic people on the planet. My neighborhood, and where I went to school, was a rainbow of faces, names and nationalities. However, growing up an Italian in New York City was the most exceptional experience of all. Love was in my upbringing and in my DNA.

From the very beginning, I saw the love my parents had for one another. It wasn’t the hokey kinda love you see in these sitcoms. It was real love, where they would speak their minds. To them, truth had no boundaries. Our home was filled with laughter and we had an extended family growing up with my grandparents.

My mom adored my father. She would not, and Italians will get this, sit by and let him get away with stuff just because she loved him. Mom ran the house. Dad worked two and sometimes three jobs just to make sure we had what we needed. To him, failure was not an option – for any of us!

Dad was a gentleman. He was a strong man who could tear down a wall with his bare hands. To me, growing up, he was the equivalent of “The Rock.” Despite his apparent strength, Dad WOULD NEVER and NEVER DID physically hurt my mom. THAT to him was the greatest sin a man could commit in his family. This was a point he made clear to both of his sons – especially when we picked on my sister. 

Mom and Dad were demonstrative in their love. My house was not a quiet place to live. What you read or hear about Italian households – the loudness – all true! At the end of the day, what was most important was family and love – it was always there.

Family First

On Sundays we would listen to Italian Arias, and the love songs of Jimmy Roselli, and other Italian crooners. When I started to understand the words, I realized they would make jilted country songs pale in comparison. (Listen to the English translation of Jimmy Roselli’s’ Mala Femmena). It was in my home where I learned what love was and how to love. Mom would look at my Dad in just the right way that would make him understand he was the most important man on the planet.

Dad would look at Mom as if she was the prettiest girl in the world. My Mom and Dad were a beautiful couple – they had IT.  Both went through life supporting one another. Failure (divorce) was not an option – Mom would kill him first! It was the greatest example of how to be in love and raise a family a young man could possibly get! That was, until I met Zio Tony and Zia Agnes from Italy (Aunt and Uncle for you Non-Italians). It was through them I got a new education on love.

Tony was my grandfather’s brother who was left behind in Italy when Grandpa came to America. He must have been an infant when Grandpa arrived as a young man in 1910. They lost track, and sometime in the early 60s they reconnected with each other. Both were older men by then, whose youth had waned. In 1966 as a young man, I met my Aunt and Uncle for the first time. It was there that my education on love began in earnest. 

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Love Italian Style

Zio and Zia did not speak English, but with them you didn’t have to speak Italian to see that the universal language they spoke was love. These were not young kids. In fact, they were grandparents themselves. But their love for one another was unmistakable. Some of the things my Uncle did were crazy. They were equivalent to the DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME stuff. But it was the way he showed his love for her – he was crazy for her! 

One example would shock most repressed Americans. Zio would see his wife from the other side of the room and would call out something sweet to her. She would laugh and then, out of nowhere in a playful manner, he would come behind her and proudly grab my Aunt’s ample breasts in front of everyone! Obviously embarrassed, she would scream at him and tell him “NO!” and push him away. Then looking at him, laughing so hard, and saying in Italian, “DON’T DO THAT!” As she did, her eyes told a different story. Instead of shock, there was this look. Her eyes were saying, “Don’t Stop it – You crazy old man! I love you!” Their love was obviously something I had never witnessed before. My Dad was nuts, but not that nuts!

We saw them a few more times and once they stayed with us an entire summer. We went to Italy a few years later and stayed with them. It was different in their world. I learned laughter was the most essential element of love. Expressing yourself and allowing expression were critical assets as well. I learned a lesson, which was never to hold back. Over the years, we all kept in touch. As I embarked on my own life, I searched for a love of my own.

For Good or Ill

You could say I didn’t understand what love was for a long time. I got married and made the mistake of thinking love was universal. It wasn’t. Unconditional love is an experience you must understand and it is not negotiable. You must give love and keep giving. If love only comes from one side, it can never be sustained.

My dad became ill – he was dying of cancer – I saw my mother love him and take care of him. He was helpless. I got a new education on love and expectations and realized that wasn’t the love I had. I can’t tell you the day the light went out on my first marriage, but it did. Despite trying, I could never get the light back. 

After 10 years my marriage ended and I needed a refresher course. I spent three weeks after my divorce visiting my Uncle and Aunt in Italy. Three weeks I stayed in Napoli refreshing what I knew I wanted in love. Regretfully, it was something I never thought I could get. That love was never going to happen for me.

Finding the Love of My Life

A few years later, as I was busy making other plans for my life, I reconnected with an old acquaintance – the old fashioned way – On-line. She responded to something I had posted in an AOL chat room and reached out to me. Put it simply, I felt Irene was literally out of my league. She was the prettiest girl in the entire neighborhood. I never talked to her. I would inquire about her, but we just never connected. 

After we had some initial pleasantries back and forth, we started to talk. We scheduled our first date. Then we spoke to each other a few times in between and I remembered her from way back. We had the same friends, but never were in each other’s circle. I had moved away at 19 and married, so there was never a time where we would have interacted over the next 16  years. I asked myself whether she would look the same. Was I ever surprised when she turned out even more beautiful than ever!

Irene was the girl who I would say to myself, “If only she would know who I am.” Little did I know this beautiful person had admired me since I was six years old. Back when we grew up, girls did not approach boys, so we passed by each other. While I was growing up, when it came to women I was not very good. I had confidence in many other areas, but that was not one of them.

The first date was the most magical moment of my life. Twelve days later, on Christmas Eve, I got down on one knee and did something I swore I would never do again. I asked for a woman’s hand in marriage. Almost 4 months later I married the love of my life. 

As it is Now

Twenty years later, she is still the love of my life. I realized after we committed to one another, which happened on our first date, what true love actually was. It is a 100% commitment to the other person. We care about the same things. We share a love of The New York Yankees and Elvis. Our kids came first after each other. Now the grandkids light up our lives. 

We are as volatile and passionate as two Italians could be. We talk to each other at maximum volume and yell back at one another, but love each other unconditionally. I live my life with Irene as the center of it. Laughter is at the forefront of our relationship. Irene is someone who loves me despite my faults. And I have many! I have made my share of mistakes along the way too, but the laughter – we laugh so hard sometimes you would think we were going to pass out. 

We share an absolute faith in God and Jesus. We pray together daily and we continuously pray for others. Irene keeps me honest. I will say she is a better judge of character than I am. We work at our relationship daily.

We came together with our own kids. Together we raised all five, but don’t ask how we did it. Then, we added a sixth in Vanessa. Ten years ago she came into our lives as an adult. She lost her mom and dad, yet she is as much a child of ours as the other five. I had the pleasure and honor to give her away and walk her down the aisle in October. In July, she will grace us with our twelfth – yes, number 12 – grandchild.

Life is not perfect in our household – it never can be. Two Italians will never have 100% agreement for everything.  We hit some big rocks when I got sick on our Honeymoon, and then when Irene experienced cancer. As most cancer survivors will tell you, nothing stops you faster than realizing you may lose your best friend.

Ten years later, Irene beat cancer for the second time in her life. I thank God daily we still have each other and that I can still appreciate her. It definitely put our life into perspective. As I can assure you, neither of us ever expected a perfect experience. In hindsight, I could never have had the quality of my life without her.

Happy and Thankful

This Valentine’s Day, I am doing what I have done for the last 10 years.  I have learned to cook REALLY well, so I will cook a meal Irene requested. She makes her choice harder each year too! I will bring roses, light candles in the house, then we will have a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner.

Just the two of us. It has become a tradition and it is a wonderful one at that. It is only the two of us now, although we added a new puppy, but it will be a romantic night. Marrying the love of my life has possibly been the greatest decision I ever made. Who would have thought it would end up this way. She is my Valentine for Life.

Frank D'Onofrio
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