by Mary Alessio
A brisk winter chill is in the air and I am thinking of my Dad. I remember vividly an autumn evening when I was four years old and had just cuddled under my pink and white blanket. My eyes were shut and I was just beginning to drift off when I heard the creak of the wooden floor, as my parents walked through my bedroom door.
It was routine for my parents to “tuck us in” and before I had the chance to open my eyes, I heard my father’s whisper, “Doesn’t she have the most perfect ears you’ve ever seen? Look at those tiny, perfect ears.” Needless to say, I kept my eyes shut and relished in the thought that my Dad was proud of me. I had the sweetest dreams that night, secured in my parents’ love.
Years have passed and times have changed, but something always remained constant: my Dad’s love and my desire to make him proud of me. Dad was an only child and friends teased him regarding the irony of raising seven children (six boys and one girl). He served in the Army, Navy and Air Force, and was proud of this country and defended our liberties with passion. He was awarded the Purple Heart and meritorious Air Medal for bravery. I remember my Mom telling us how difficult the war was for him and that, upon his return from duty, his mental and emotional well-being were challenged beyond measure.
My Dad was sharp-witted, strong and had an Irish humor that my Mom always said would charm the snakes out of Ireland. Although he certainly could have been a great executive, he needed the openness of the outdoors to lift his spirits. Therefore, he became an ironworker upon his return from service to his country.
By many of his colleagues, he was considered to be the best ironworker in the United States considering he helped build some of the world famous skyscrapers in Chicago. I, on the other hand, felt it was because he had the same integrity on the job, as he did at home. While many are aware of rough language on job sites, I don’t think I ever heard my Dad use profanity. And despite the fact he went to war, he loathed fighting and was a peacemaker by nature. It was a juggling act getting all of us to mass each Sunday, but I don’t ever remember my Dad missing Sunday mass.
My Dad died before I started working with refugees. I often wonder what my Dad would think about my profession given the mixed emotions refugee care evokes in our country. There are many who would question the issue of caring for refugees at a time when citizens of this country are facing difficult times. I wonder if Dad would be proud of my efforts.
Dad was a straight-shooter. He expected us to respect people of all cultures. I know that because he put his words into practice. He devoted many years of his life to defending this country and the people blessed to live here. But, in doing so, he also defended the rights of others around the world. My Dad was a foreman and he told us stories of men of various backgrounds applying for jobs and his support of their endeavors. His beliefs were not always mutually accepted by his peers. Yet, he remembered the struggle his parents had coming to this country and felt everyone deserved a chance. He expected all his men, regardless of country of birth, to give their best effort and be dedicated to their work. Dad didn’t expect perfection, but he did expect perfect effort.
My toughest presentation was one I gave to the Kiwanis in Rochester, Minnesota. Most of you know this group is similar to a fraternity, composed of men the age of my father. I remember the day of my presentation to the group like it was yesterday. I looked out into the audience and saw dozens of fathers sitting with folded arms, looking intently at me. This was going to be a tough crowd. I saw my Dad’s face as I looked at each and every one of them.
When I finished, these fathers did not leave the room quietly. They gave me the toughest Q&A I ever experienced. We reminisced about World War II and the other wars these men had left loved ones behind, in order to defend our rights and liberty. They were concerned that refugees may be taking jobs from their grandchildren. I told them of the obstacles a refugee incurs when seeking employment (lacking job history, fluency, and competing with many who know the ropes). I said if refugees overcome these obstacles and devote every spare minute to learning English, they have the right to apply. I said if your grandchild is the best candidate, that is who should get the job. If a refugee is the better candidate, he or she deserves the opportunity.
We talked about our relatives and the various countries that were represented in the room. For the most part, we talked about my Dad and the similarities I saw in all of them. I told them that, as director, I did not take my job responsibilities lightly, and that I felt I was equally responsible to them and this community. We spoke about a document I created recently entitled “Rights and Responsibilities” that each refugee signs upon arrival. This was created to ensure the refugee understands that with rights come responsibilities in this country. It begins the resettlement relationship here with a feeling of mutual respect. We spoke of my theory that refugees who are connected with their community through volunteerism not only begin to cherish their new homeland, but also realize the importance of “giving back.”
We talked about family and their definition of that word. I told them when I was little I thought it just meant my mom, dad, brothers, and me. As I grew, the definition broadened to include my neighbors, classmates, town, country and, now, a world of people. I told them there was always an extra plate at our dining table when I was little. It was for anyone that may be in need of a meal. All felt welcome at my parents’ table and made to feel part of our family.
When I finished my presentation, a man approached the table and I froze a bit thinking I must have said something that struck a core. His eyes looked serious and his stance was firm and determined. He reached into his pocket, opened my hand, and stuck a $100.00 bill in it. He said, “Your Dad would be proud of you! Go use this to take care of those arriving in need.” Today is the anniversary of my Dad’s death. I talk to my Dad often and I ask him to guide me in the work I do. I take comfort in knowing some things remain constant—my Dad’s love and my desire to make him proud of me.
Submitted by: Mary Alessio/Director of Advancement/Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota. Mary was the past Director of Refugee Resettlement. She wrote this article in 2015—it still makes us stop and reflect on making good choices and sends a powerful message of compassion for all.