Monday, May 23, 2011

The Magnificence of Massimo, 1921-2013

"Massimo" means the utmost, the ultimate -- and he was.

    Massimo Costanzo, my beloved Joe's father, was a man of majesty, modesty and physicality, whose priorities were to care for others and to relish the bountiful world that his God had created.
    Massimo died on Friday at age 91. His wife Rita, the light of his life, died nearly two years ago, and he really never recovered (
    When I met him and his wife, more than 30 years ago, I was immediately struck by his aura of ease and  warmth, solidity and gentle humor. Just before he offered me a shot of whiskey, to celebrate our new friendship, he gave me a hearty embrace. Then he kissed my hand. 
    No one had ever kissed my hand before. It was a surprisingly beautiful gesture, and there would be many more of them in the ensuing years.

Massimo's home town of Pevidigliano. Joe was born there, too.
    (Each fall, he sent me and many other friends and family huge heads of garlic from his garden that he had braided into garlands, and strands of tiny red peppers, and bouquets of dried oregano, which were hung upside-down to be used all winter. These gifts, made by his own hands, never ceased to touch me with their specialness.)
     That first day, he generously introduced me to his life. I sensed a slight shyness as well as pride when he showed me his family photos, his favorite books and his music, all from a bygone era in his homeland of Italy
    (I just now remembered that Joe did the same thing the first evening I spent with him. In both instances, I went home and couldn't sleep, my mind was so overflowing.)
    On that first day with Massimo, the peak moment came as he escorted me, arm in arm, through the long, narrow Eden of his lovingly tended back yard and into his greenhouse. There he had created an entire ecosystem: a lush and steamy rainforest, filled with exotic flowers, ferns and garden seedlings. It was like a dream. He spent many hours in there, summer and winter, nurturing and exulting in this magical world. I inhaled the pure aroma of life, something I had never before experienced at this primal level. 
    I was very moved by the man who most called "Max." He was no ordinary man. For one thing, he was strikingly dark and handsome -- and I mean movie-star handsome -- throughout his life. He possessed a graceful and gallant courtliness that reflected a person who was comfortable with himself and who loved without question those of every class, race and religion. In him, I sensed a unique kind of masculinity. It was, to use a State Department term, "soft power." It was far more formidable than what generally passes for manliness in today's uber macho world. 
    Massimo felt deeply -- you could actually sense it in the way he breathed. He and his wife were the most compassionate people I have ever known. They really did suffer on behalf of others.
   Massimo was the head of household in the grand, Old Country way. He didn't impose authority on his domain; he took responsibility for it. He accepted this role with humility and finesse, honor and pleasure. Only in books and certain epic movies had I ever before seen a man who presided in this way.
Massimo -- you are so loved!
    There was a constant coming and going of friends and relatives at the Costanzo home, where the kitchen never closed. Rita hugged and welcomed everyone, and arrayed the table with her incredible food. Her guests came first, even when she was feeling ill or exhausted.
    Massimo obviously took a rich pleasure in the role of host. He served visitors in an artful way, with a grace and flourish that one rarely sees in this country. He unobtrusively maintained a running assessment of the needs of everyone in the room. He seemed dedicated to the proposition that no one should lack for anything, or experience any discomfort, in his presence. At the end of a meal, he ceremoniously produced a bottle of fine liqueur as the espresso was being prepared. Then he delivered a platter of fruits and cheeses to the table and proceeded quietly to peel and slice the fruits for his guests. What a charming ritual! It would never have occurred to me to do this for my friends. It was yet another adorable aspect of  this larger-than-life person.
    One New Year's Eve about 25 years ago, we had all finished Rita's magnificent dinner and were sitting in the living room listening to music. Much to my surprise, Massimo swept me into his arms and began dancing around the room with me. I was stunned by his skill. Where and when had he learned the swirling niceties of the waltz? He led with powerful assurance. I was happy to surrender to his expertise, because I really didn't know what I was doing. I was quite drunk. A friend reminded me recently that I had compared the experience to dancing with God. I love that. Massimo was godlike in many respects.   
    Picture this: In the Russian countryside, there are fields of tall, bright sunflowers as far as the eye can see. A 22-year-old Massimo is gorgeous in his army uniform, but that is of no use whatsoever, for the time being. Stealthily, he makes his way through the flowers, hoping to God that he can get back to Italy without being apprehended and executed by the Germans. It is 1943. Italy has surrendered to the Allies, and its army has scattered. For weeks, Massimo subsists on sunflower seeds and vodka. War is hell, but occasionally the snacks are quite delicious. I have always been enchanted by this colorful scenario, even though it obviously isn't something to take lightly
    It took several grueling months for him to get back to Italy, but when he did, he walked right into one of the fiercest battles of the war. 
    Massimo finally made it back home, to Pevidigliano, a tiny town in the Calabrian region of Italy. Soon, he married the gentle, beautiful Rita Barbiero. Joyfully, they welcomed their first son into the world.
       By the time they had three young sons, it was clear to Massimo that he could not provide the quality of life he wanted for his family in this remote and impoverished region. Like several of their relatives before them, he and Rita mustered the courage to come to America in 1954. They crossed the ocean in steerage class on the ill-fated Andrea Doria. They had no money. Like most immigrants, including those of today, they had hope and determination.
    Within the U.S. economic system, Massimo was classified as "unskilled labor," despite his many talents. He got an entry-level job with Salt Lake County. There were long stretches when he had two or even three jobs. During the holiday season, he spent his evenings manning a Christmas tree lot, where he sat warming his hands over a small fire. 
    By now, the Costanzo boys -- Fausto, Rugiero and Giuseppe -- had been joined by a vivacious and lovely little sister, Maria Theresa. Massimo and Rita had bought a modest home, which they renovated many times over the years, but where they remained for the rest of their lives.
    It took a bit of time, but Massimo was finally granted a job title worthy of him: The Boss. He supervised Salt Lake County's large asphalt and gravel operation, presumably running things with the same charisma, integrity and kindness that characterized his home life. 
    Massimo Costanzo achieved greatness simply by being himself.
    Like my own father, he fell deeper and deeper into the dark pit of dementia during his final years. His wife suffered greatly in her attempts to cope with his increasingly erratic and inexplicable behaviors. When she died, her sons and daughter were determined to keep Massimo at home, rather than to place him in a residential facility, even though he required constant care. They each essentially took on a part-time (but seven-day-a-week) job to attend to all of his needs. They coped with the stress and the heartache with extraordinary courage.
    Their loving patience during this harrowing time is the greatest possible tribute to Massimo, and to their mother as well. As far as I'm concerned, they are a model of what a family should be.