So, it’s the day before the hardest day of my life. It used to be considered the worst day of my life but it’s now the hardest day of my life. The constant reminder that dads are special people and that if you’re close to your dad, you probably don’t realize how important a fixture he is in your life until he’s gone. I’m going to try to stick to a theme of recognizing what you have when you’ve got your father in your life during this blog but if I stray, it’s because I’m hating the next 24 hours and all it has come to mean to me.
I didn’t have a remarkable upbringing. Really. Regardless of what anyone else says, I would categorize my youth as normal. My dad had a full-time job that meant he left for work before or at the same time I left for grade school. My mom, try as she might to stay home with us, had to work because when we moved to Peabody, the housing market was FAR more expensive than that in Newburgh, NY and the only house they could find that fit the piano (yep, I said it) was probably a good fifteen thousand dollars more than what they sold the house on Gedney Way for. I didn’t understand at the time…because I was 6…but they were mortgaged to the hilt. And mom had to work. She tried substitute teaching at our school and a few others in the area until she came to the full realization that she really hated grade-school teaching. She ultimately found a part time job at Carmelite Gift Shop as the main cashier and the quasi-bookkeeper. Maybe someday I’ll do a blog on mom’s careers and such…this blog’s about dad.
Dad brought us to Massachusetts because the job as a college professor of music and choral director was way above what he was doing in the Newburgh city schools at the time. I don’t remember much about NFA aside from riding bikes in the parking lot (okay, my tricycle…my beloved red tricycle that they wouldn’t bring to Massachusetts because I was too old to ride a tricycle…sorry, I digress). Salem State was where my parents’ long-time friend Betty Gillette was teaching and she took my dad’s resume to Tim Clifford, the music department chairman at the time. I remember very little of this aside from at some point having to go stay with Betty in her apartment in Salem, MA while my parents looked for a house they could actually afford (which really wasn’t what would happen…). And we were off. Moving to Massachusetts. Starting first grade in a new school. Learning about Boston accents. And starting a life that to me was relatively unremarkable.
I could blather on about the times we spent following the Salem State College chorus around North Shore Shopping Center singing Christmas carols, or putzing around St. Adelaide’s before choir practice. I could probably tell stories that would amaze some people regarding living our lives around the Boston Symphony Orchestra and associated glitterati…I’ve got about 20 years of those stories. But what I really want to talk about is something that both excited and devastated dad.
Salem State College’s Music Department was a part of my father’s life-blood. Being a choral conductor was in his DNA, I’m positive. He was a singer, for sure. He was a brilliant tenor and strove constantly to know the most he could about the human singing voice, vocal production, vocal retention, the physical and the mental part of producing a beautiful sound with the vocal cords. He probably could have focused on vocal coaching and taken the place of his early voice teacher I knew only as Mr. Geri (or Gary, we called him Mr. Gary because that was what we heard my dad say even though I knew he was Italian…) in NYC. Instead of that, he decided he wanted to teach … fledgling adults. He was very “close to the chest” with his motivation for wanting to work with college-age potential singers but it was clear this was his passion.
Again, I could blather on and on about the performances he did (Dido and Aeneas comes to mind where he made papier mache “armor” for Aeneas…which hung around the house in Peabody and then in Salem for years…) that were beyond the normal college-chorus-repertoire. He never wanted to stick with the status quo. He wanted us, as kids, but as growing to be adults, to get immersed in works by composers such as Kurt Weill and Jerome Kern…not just Handel, Mozart, and the “ever popular” Andrew Lloyd Weber.
Having the opportunity to help shape the choral minds of kids that were potentially going to go on and get master’s degrees and maybe even doctorates in music, or theater, or art was an immense joy for him. He remembered names…Leah Miles, Janice Cohen Papolos, Katherine McDonald, Pamela Brotherton, Judson Greene, Josephine Kennedy (and so many others) from choruses past. We spoke of them up to the last few weeks of his life. If I didn’t mention your name, doesn’t mean he didn’t remember you. It means I am not remembering you right this moment…or I haven’t heard from you in a while.
So the students…the potential for affecting young aspiring singers, composers, actors, conductors, or anyone in the music/performance world…were what drove dad to do what he did. He loved his students. Oh, not every one of them. I remember sitting between a couple of students in the 8:30 AM Intro to Music that he didn’t like too much. But remember, it wasn’t about having butts in seats for dad. He didn’t care if a class had 4 people or 40 (although he preferred the 4 to the 40). It was about learning. If you finished a class with him … notice I didn’t say pass, but finish … he wanted you to have learned something. Come out of the class smarter than you came in.
He and I had conversations in the last month of his life about how he hated having retired. He told me multiple times that he regretted retiring and wished he had stayed in Massachusetts. Now, understand that I still have no idea why he chose 1994 to retire and why he chose Calabash North Carolina as a retirement spot in 1994. It worked out beautifully for me – I moved to Calabash, then got a job at a fantastic company in Charleston, SC, moved to Charleston in 1996, and I’m still working for them 22 years (going on 23) years later in 2019. It worked out well for both my mom and dad as I moved in with them in 2011 to take care of dad until he passed and now I take care of mom since she has dementia. If they were in Massachusetts, I probably would not have moved back there because well…snow…and no one would have been there to help them make the decisions we made as time and health issues advanced. (Yes, I have a brother. No he is of no use. And yes, if you know him, you can tell him I said so.)
Dad lamented leaving the music department. He was sad that he no longer performed with the TFC, JOC, and all the other stuff he was doing in 1994 before he moved. Quite honestly, if you were involved in any sort of classical music on the North Shore in Massachusetts in the 80s and 90s, you knew my parents. You saw them everywhere, you attended performances where they were either featured or were involved. It was exactly where my dad ALWAYS wanted to be. He wanted to be the guy. The guy you saw with his hands on everything musical. In his final weeks, he definitely wished he had never left the Boston area.
Now I’m gonna spend a few lines talking about the culturally-devoid Grand Strand area of SC/NC where I currently reside. Please know that although I am about to slam the area, in the past ten years or so, things are improving…we do have a fantastic symphony orchestra and I will talk about that a bit in another blog, I’m sure.
I never completely understood how my educated, musical, culturally diverse parents landed on moving to the Grand Strand. Yes, I am aware that my dad’s sister had purchased a house in Sunset Beach, NC and that was 99% the catalyst of their decision to move south. I’m guessing that they also needed to get away from the bazillions of inches of snow they got in winter 1993. But I am positive that a few moments of research back in 1994 would have proven that South Carolina, with the exception of maybe Charleston, was completely culturally vapid. Myrtle Beach (a.k.a The Grand Strand) is the home of “shag” dancing, country music festivals, pop music, “Vegas-style” shows, and beach music (if you aren’t humming the tune, “I love…beach music…” you have never been here before…). Not really what my mom and dad were ever involved in. Ever. Heck, I couldn’t even get my parents to listen to the music I listen to. So no. Mom and dad were not into this type of music. Oddly, neither were my aunt and uncle. But my aunt and uncle were into golf and golf is a way of life on the Grand Strand. Dad, on the other hand, was never a golfer. Could he play golf? Yes. Did he enjoy it? Absolutely not. Maybe someday I will write the story of my dad’s disappointing his father by not playing golf. However, he was never an athlete. At all. Mom & dad did try to play golf. They took golf lessons the summer before they moved south. Mom never really took to it. And solo golf is kinda not a thing. So, if mom wasn’t into it, neither was Dad.
His end-of-life lamentations of how he made a mistake moving south might have been just the disease taking over his mind and his brain. Or, it might have truly been something he regretted. I tried to appease him by reminding him how great his choice was for ME and how having me with him every day was something only afforded to him because of his choice to retire to the south. I’m glad they chose the Carolinas because in the big picture, I do love it here. I don’t love it specifically in CALABASH but I like South Carolina. It’s one of maybe four states I can see myself living in long term. But for whatever reason, he was “sorry” he moved and gave up everything he had in Massachusetts.
Here’s one of the things I want to tell about the last month of his life. I usually worked on the couch at the time. I guess I didn’t expect I would spend the next seven years (plus) so I didn’t have a work space as I do today. I decided this one day that I would work sitting on the bed in his bedroom. We were probably watching Ellen. He liked Ellen. I am thinking we were watching Ellen because for some reason I connect this memory to Ellen on the TV in the master bedroom here. Could be not true, but I make that connection. I remember holding his hand and telling him he was the best daddy in the whole world. I remember him squeezing my hand and giving me a kiss. He truly was the best daddy in the world.
And the other thing I wanted to mention is this beautiful picture of him I’ve got attached. Yesterday, Salem State University Center for the Arts posted it on their Facebook page and called him the FATHER OF CHORAL MUSIC at Salem State. For all of you who read this who do not know my dad and never did, please know that it is true that he gave his all to Salem State College (now University). So much so that there is the Antone Aquino Memorial Scholarship, set up by those former students who he loved so much, while he was still alive! He was the “extra dad” for many of the students, and he was definitely a pioneer in choral music at Salem State. He was the best daddy in the whole world to those who experienced his passion for music in general and choral/vocal music in specific.
Seven years ago April 25, the world lost that best daddy. It is my worst day of the year to me. For sure it was the worst day of my life. Don’t pity me. It’s fine. I believe that when we lose someone that is so special to us, we deserve the right to grieve that loss for as long as it takes. And if that means every year on a day such as April 25 is to me, grief wins, then yes it does.