Probably for most of us, our parents played the major role in the formation of our character. We took for granted the fact that Mom (View "Saint Frances") and Dad (View "Tony Boots") would always be there to solve our problems, give us advice, set the boundaries, and let us know when we had stepped over the line. For a lot of kids, especially today with the traditional family unit changing dramatically, this is not the case. I can't imagine what it's like going through life without knowing that no matter what happened to me, a safe, nurturing, home base would always be waiting. I never fully appreciated the sacrifices my mother and father made for me, by way of repayment, can only try as a parent to live up to the standard they set.
Teachers are another force in our lives that inspire us to learn and grow. I've written before of the influence two particular teachers had in my life, in grammar school, Brother Jude, (View "School Days, Part 2") and in high school, Patricia Hornberger) View "Tech Alma Mater, Molder of Men"). It's only later in life that you understand how much poorer you would be without the wisdom gained from dedicated teachers who dragged you, kicking and screaming, out of the darkness of ignorance into the bright light of learning. You didn't know it back then, but they presented you with a precious gift that would never get old or wear out. May God bless all the underpaid, overworked teachers of the world.
Friends are an integral part of who we are. I was blessed with a bounty of friendships, some of which I enjoy to this day. I don't mean to make unfair comparisons, but friendships among children today seem like such structured affairs. Parents make "play dates" for kids, drive them everywhere they go, and hover over them as if there was a worldwide conspiracy to harm their children. When I grew up, friendships were free and exuberant. Your loyalty to your friends was unconditional...you might wrestle with them over some taunting remark, but if anyone else came after them, you had their back. To Rich, Phil, Vinny, Johnny, Tommy, Lefty and Joe, thanks for being my friend.
As I grew older and began thinking about getting married (in my neighborhood, if you were over 25 and unmarried, people were already starting to look at you funny) I dated a number of girls. They were all nice, but they mainly taught me what I wasn't looking for in a wife. Thanks to them, when Jasmine came along, I knew that she exactly fit the bill. It took me a while to pull the trigger, but after 43 years, I think it's safe to say that I made the right choice. Her quiet goodness and kind ways have softened some of my rougher edges. To paraphrase the words of Jack Nicholson to Helen Hunt in that gem of a movie, "As Good As It Gets", she makes me want to be a better man.
There were many others who helped us along the road of life...the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who made up our extended family and who all lived within hollering distance in our old Brooklyn neighborhood; the doctors who made house calls and didn't ask what insurance you had; the neighbors who watched each other's kids and served as surrogate parents from their vantage point on the stoop; the cop on the beat who gave you a swat across your rear if you needed it, but never told your parents; and the merchants who provided the necessities of daily life and would quietly let overdue bills slip until you got back on your feet....these are the people that made me who I am. If you don't like the results, take it up with them!
George Bernard Shaw wrote that "Youth is wasted on the young", but I disagree. I relished my youth and wouldn't trade a single day on those raucous, sun-splashed streets of East New York. The nice thing is, while I still have a few functioning brain cells left, I can go back whenever I want.