Saturday, March 19, 2011

Happy Saint Joseph's Day, My Saintly Joe

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   The first time I saw Joe Costanzo, more than 30 years ago, I had no idea that his Italian immigrant parents had named him after a saint, but what I saw in his face was a serene glow of saintliness, and that is truly the word that entered my mind that day. What I have experienced ever since has reaffirmed that perception time and time again. 
   I had stopped by the Deseret News to edit my bi-weekly op-ed column, and when he passed by and said hello, I was immediately drawn to the modesty, openness and  kindness of his demeanor. As my sister puts it, "He shines."
   Ironically, he is arguably the most aggressive investigative reporter the paper ever had, and his success at digging up uncomfortable, inconvenient truths probably explains why the notorious Pinpoint Team was abolished. The "powers that be" were having to squirm and tap dance way too much, and they let the publisher know it. It may well be that Joe's unassuming nature and light, charming humor disarmed those he interviewed and made them reveal more than they otherwise would have.
   I am uneasy writing about Joe, because I honestly don't have the vocabulary or eloquence to convey what an extraordinary, noble human being he is. He is my hero. He surprises me every day with his Amazing Grace.
   I have asked his lovable Italian mama more than once, "How did you do it? What is the secret for creating such a person?" All she could say was, "Giuseppe has always been a good boy." 
   Men like Joe. Everyone does. But women are particularly drawn to him because, like me, they sense that he is a kind and trustworthy person who also happens to possess great physical attractiveness. 
   The first evening we spent together,  we had dinner, and then he took me to see his home, which he had purchased when he was 24 years old. It was a modest brick structure on a large lot that was very secluded,  surrounded by dozens of trees, many of them huge pines, as well as aspen, birch, hawthorne, yew, almond, plum and fig trees. There were flowers and blossoming shrubbery everywhere, and a freestanding covered patio/workshop and an old stone fireplace, an ancient birdbath and a spectacular view of the mountains. The expanse of his back yard was breathtaking, his own little world, which he obviously loved as a true refuge. One of his intellectual heroes, Thoreau, would surely approve of the ambiance, and of the lifestyle of the man who lived here.
   Inside, his simple good taste and eclectic interests were evident. He had restored the home completely, putting up and painting new sheetrock, ripping up the carpet to reveal a lovely hardwood floor, installing new kitchen cabinets and designing a magical stained-glass window that was precisely placed so that during the twice-yearly equinox, the kitchen would be filled with colored light. 
   He had also created the most striking and original bathroom I had ever seen, with exotic Asian grass-cloth walls and golden wood wainscoting, a large marble vanity, Italian ceramic tiles, bamboo blinds and a sunken tub with a glass ceiling above it, so he could lie there and look at the stars. 
   Books were everywhere, including an entire floor-to-ceiling bookcase in his study. Joe never cared much for school -- he was a proud greaser and loner, more inclined to drive somewhere for cigarettes and coffee (with a sexy outcast who wore see-through blouses to school), than to waste his time in some stupid classroom -- but he began reading widely at an early age. He joined the Book of the Month Club as an adolescent, and educated himself by reading and re-reading the finest history books, biographies, fiction and poetry ever written. The only two people I've ever known whose brains contained such riches were the editor of Harper's Magazine and the patrician, Yale-educated theater critic of the New Yorker.
   He also loved music, and I'd never known anyone with such wide-ranging tastes. He had collected old bluegrass and labor-organizing songs, jazz, classical music, soul and hard rock. 
   He loved fixing things and building things, and he had endless patience with the most exasperating tasks. He had been working on cars since he was a teenager, and he eventually restored two junky old Sunbeam Alpine convertibles to "best of show" quality. He can repair practically any appliance, and perform major plumbing, electrical and construction work. His physical endurance is remarkable as he digs trenches, chops down dead trees, turns over two large garden plots, unloads massive truckloads of mulch and manure, hauls large pieces of furniture up and down stairs, single-handedly gets a swamp cooler up onto a two-story roof  (I have no idea how). 
   That first evening, he played Aretha on the stereo, then the great jazzman Oscar Peterson, and then some Mozart, while we looked through pictures of his former life in Italy. He and his family emigrated on the ill-fated Andrea Doria when he was five years old, and the old black-and-white photos of his poverty-stricken town in the mountains of Calabria seemed like -- and of course were -- something from a whole other world and time. We became engrossed in his art books, which contain rich reproductions of works ranging from the medieval to the post-modern. My brain was way too full of beauty to sleep that night. 
   We have been together pretty much ever since, and I still don't really understand him. He gives so much of himself to others, expecting nothing in return -- not even simple gratitude. I have often described him as my caregiver, but he prefers to be called my companion animal. He devotes many hours each week to taking care of his two very sick, aging parents with gentleness and forbearance. He does everything for my 92-year-old mother that she will allow him to do. His attitude is that to provide in any way we can for our parents is a privilege.
   Joe is a wonderful listener, but he doesn't talk much about himself or his feelings. You come to know him through his deeds. It was only by reading his two novels that my appreciation for his emotional depth, his nuanced perceptions and the extraordinary poetry within him came into full bloom. He is a master storyteller, and his work overflows with humanity, intellectual sophistication, awe and wit.
   Imagine having a partner who has never disrespected you, never criticized, belittled or doubted you, never expressed exasperation or ridicule, never complained and never, ever let you down. Imagine a man who refuses to acknowledge that you have ever had bad breath! Imagine having a partner who wants nothing more in the world than to make you happy, and regularly expresses his willingness to do anything, go anywhere, change his behavior, change our routine, embark on any new project or adventure, if it will make you feel better. Imagine a man who anticipates your needs and, without saying a word, gallantly fulfills them.
   He isn't just a skilled and tireless practitioner of the dirty, manly, strength-requiring chores. He is extremely neat without being fastidious; look into his drawers...everything is in perfect order. He is a better cook than I am. He bakes bread! (I don't eat desserts, but for my birthday he made a cake that even the most rigid health fanatic could enjoy. It contained whole-wheat flour, yams, cocoa, grated carrots and orange juice. Nutritious and delicious! And so cute of him!) He cleans the house faster and more thoroughly than I do. He does a better job getting laundry spotless and wrinkle-free than I can. And he even wraps presents with a finesse that I can't begin to match.
   At first, he treated me as if I were the most beautiful and valuable person on Earth. Decades later, that's how he still treats me -- I don't know why or how. I am difficult and moody, often defensive and dysfunctional. When we first met, I was either drunk or hung over pretty much all the time. He has been faithfully by my side during one melodrama after another, ever patient and unconditionally supportive. After all these years he is as affectionate and chivalrous as ever. He never says, "I love you." He doesn't need to. Our little world together is filled with his love.
   A few years ago, he gave me the greatest honor I have ever received: He asked me to live with him. I wasn't buying it. I had lived alone for most of the past 40 years, and that's how I liked it. I also didn't want to inflict myself on his otherwise joyful and contented life any more than I already was, living four miles away. He persisted until I had only one strong argument left: "Your house is too small. I need my own space. I need to be able to get away and be alone." So he designed, with his usual precision and aesthetic finesse, a spectacular upstairs addition to his one-story home. It had everything in it that I wanted, plus thrillingly beautiful views out of every window. I regarded it as my domain amid the treetops. It took him almost two years of heroic labor, but he built it -- and he built it like a master carpenter, with an expertly crafted rustic woodsiness that made me feel as if I were living at Yellowstone Lodge. It is a remarkable feat of artistry and taste as well as construction skills. I have never become inured to the beauty of my upstairs getaway: It moves me every day.
   He had already finished his large basement, and we converted the main room into our own private health club, with weight-training equipment, a rowing machine, stationary bicycle and treadmill. No driving to get there, no monthly fees, no young hunks leering at my flying flab. We turn on some music and get pumped up!
   The most priceless thing my beloved Saint Giuseppe has given me, though, is a sense of security and safety that I never believed was possible for me. I know he will never leave me. I know that whatever befalls us, he will know what to do. Whether we have an earthquake or a war or the mass social upheaval that is legitimately brewing in this country -- whatever happens, I won't be afraid if Joe is with me. I don't plan ever to get on an airplane again, but if I did, and the engines failed, and we were hurtling straight toward certain death, I would just hold him tight and kiss him, and I would be at peace.