Sunday, October 3, 2010

Moving Beyond the Mafia

Note: This piece originally appeared on Smart Girl Nation and Parcbench, written before the mind-boggling popularity of Jersey Shore hit its peak. As I noted on Parcbench, I've never actually watched Jersey Shore, but have heard enough about it to know it's just another show replete with negative stereotypes of Americans with Italian heritage. Wonder when Hollywood will be ready to do something really different and create show about a normal Italian American family facing the same problems and sharing the same experiences as other Americans. I won't hold my breath.

Moving Beyond the Mafia

Surprise! Most Americans of Italian descent speak proper English, work in legitimate professions and make positive contributions to society. So where are they in pop culture?

Let me begin by stating I abhor the notion of a “hyphenated” American. Raised in a patriotic, middle-class family that enthusiastically celebrated quintessential American holidays like Independence Day and Thanksgiving; actively participated in politics at the local, state and national levels; and sincerely appreciated the opportunities the USA afforded all of us, I have always considered myself an American first. Growing up as the youngest of five children, I related well to classic television programs like Little House on the Prairie and Eight is Enough, where conflicts arose out of such relatable things as sibling rivalry and the struggle to resist temptation when presented with a sometimes ambiguous choice between right and wrong.

None of the characters in the above-mentioned programs are Americans of Italian descent, yet they very much mirrored the folks I interacted with on a daily basis, whether family members, friends or acquaintances. The former series, with its emphasis on Christianity and faith, brought to life the values reinforced in my own home and Catholic school; the latter, although not overtly religious, also presented moral conflicts (e.g. when Joanie appeared naked in a stage production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the horror of her unsuspecting father). Yet ironically, whenever pop culture did present characters in film or television that were specifically designated as Italian Americans, more often than not, I’d be left wondering where the hell these people came from.

Even the mostly positive portrayals tended to miss the mark. Take Arthur Fonzarelli (a.k.a. “The Fonz” or “Fonzie”) of Happy Days, for instance. A high school dropout and hard-working mechanic, he and his mother were abandoned by his father when he was just a young child. Fonzie is a typical womanizer who amazes establishment characters like Richie Cunningham with his prowess in attracting one hot babe after another, despite his cavalier love ‘em and leave ‘em relationship philosophy. And while he does evolve over the course of the series, eventually earning his high school diploma and becoming part-owner of Arnold’s Restaurant, he is mostly remembered for catchphrases like “Aaaay!” and for snapping his fingers at any random, attractive “chick” who caught his eye, causing her to immediately stop whatever she was doing and rush over to his side.

At the movie theater, things were not much better. Sure, there was Sly Stallone’s Rocky, a film celebrating a scrappy, determined southpaw who against all odds finds incredible success as a professional boxer. Our inspiring hero is also a religious, patriotic family man who seeks counsel from his neighborhood priest before going into the ring, and genuinely falls in love with shy, late-bloomer Adrian, whom he eventually marries (can anyone ever forget his primitive howls of “Adrian!” while standing behind the ropes, beaten and bloodied, at the film’s conclusion?).

Now don’t get me wrong: as a Philadelphia native and a sucker for a good triumph-over-tragedy story, I absolutely love the character of Rocky Balboa. I’m just wondering where the educated, proper-English-speaking, Italian-American suburban dwellers with whom I am intimately acquainted, are represented in the entertainment industry. Most Hollywood productions would leave aliens visiting from outer space with the impression that all Italians are mobsters, wife-beaters (or at the very least, skirt chasers) and hooligans who either operate outside of the law or precariously on its fringes.

The most egregious example in recent times is of course, The Sopranos, described by Wikipedia as “a major commercial and critical success,” and “the most financially successful cable series in the history of television,” frequently hailed by critics as “one of the greatest television series of all time.” For those who have been hiding under a rock for the past ten years, the drama revolves around mobster Tony Soprano, a man who constantly struggles to reconcile the competing obligations of family with his role as head of a crime syndicate. Stereotypically, Tony’s problems include an overbearing mother and an inclination to cheat on his wife, in spite of his love for her.

David Chase (himself an Italian-American), The Sopranos creator, based the plot and characters on his own personal life and experiences growing up in New Jersey—in his own words, “applying his own family dynamic to mobsters.” Raised on gangster films like The Public Enemy and the crime series, The Untouchables, Mr. Chase “thought the Mafia setting would allow him to explore themes such as Italian-American identity and the nature of violence.”

I don’t begrudge David Chase his right to free speech or his authentic remembrances of childhood and adolescence. But it’s exceedingly frustrating that my upbringing and experience as an Italian-American are rarely, if ever, celebrated anywhere in pop culture. Where’s the representation of folks like my maternal grandfather, Raphael, who arrived on American shores at the age of eight with his widowed mother and two brothers? A gifted scholar, he learned and spoke proper English, attended the prestigious Central High School in Germantown, Philadelphia, and graduated from Temple University School of Pharmacy in 1919—an almost unheard of achievement for an immigrant. He then opened up a thriving corner drugstore, which became a neighborhood landmark for over 25 years.

Where are Italian-Americans like my Uncle Dan, an Admiral in the United States Navy? Where are all the strong, yet loving women like my Aunt Emma, who owned her own beauty salon, or my mom’s cousin Millicent, the first female graduate of Temple University School of Pharmacy? What about talented musicians like my cousins Joseph, Francis, Robert and William DePasquale, all of whom were in the Philadelphia Orchestra? Whither decent, upstanding men like my father, Dr. Alphonse J. DiGiovanni, son of blue-collar immigrants who worked his way through medical school and went on to a distinguished career as a general and vascular surgeon?

And let’s not forget about offspring. Out of my four siblings, two became successful attorneys (brother, Mark and sister, Carolyn), one a respected pathologist (brother, Paul) and still another, a productive, loving human being who beat the odds and worked for 24 years in material services at a local hospital (brother Ralph, born with Down syndrome in 1959). Among my closest friends and extended family members, there’s Lisa Macci, Family Law Attorney and host of The Justice Hour, a weekly talk radio program; Trish Doll, owner of a renowned PR firm; Frank Lavalla, highly competent dentist and entrepreneur; and Theresa Bonnie, small business owner and moving estimator extraordinaire. (While this list is impressive, it is by no means exhaustive. I wish I could include every individual that comes to mind, but alas, space constraints do not allow for that).

None of the aforementioned people have mob ties, nor do they talk as if they have a mouthful of food they forgot to swallow. All are bright, intelligent, law-abiding citizens who continue to make meaningful contributions to their country, clients and family. Yet none are represented specifically as Italian-Americans on film or television. That is a grave disservice, not only to them, but to their hard-working immigrant forefathers who came to America in search of a better life, and left an indelible mark on the country in the process.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sleepless in Savannah, Part Five

Continued from Part Four:

Things took a turn for the better when Tre and I decided to hail a cab back to the Dresser Palmer House. Our driver was a friendly, Savannah born-and-bred man who took issue with the whole concept of his city as a supernatural phenomenon: "Ma'am, I've lived in Savannah for 56 years and I ain't once seen a ghost -- they just play that up for the tourists!"

"Feel better?" Tre asked, playfully poking me in the arm. I had to admit, it did feel good to hear a native deny Savannah's spectre tales so vehemently. However, there was still one more thing left to do.

After generously tipping our driver for the safe trip back and the reassurance (I was starting to believe I'd actually sleep that night), we entered the main floor of the house to chat with the evening manager. We'd been told someone was on the premesis at all times, and I wanted to get his or her take on the rumors we'd heard about the Inn.

We called out as we walked through the French doors and into the lovely dining area, which was already arranged with fine china and silverware for the next day's gourmet breakfast. We heard a sweet, friendly voice with a slight drawl respond before an adorable African-American young woman approached us from the back kitchen.

"Hi, I'm Deedee! How can I help y'all?"

"Is this place haunted? My friend here is scared to death," Tre noted.

"Heck, no!" she stated, rather emphatically. "I've been working here for 7 years and I told the owners if I ever once saw a ghost, I was outta here!"

I felt like I could breathe again. We chatted for several minutes, during which Deedee informed us that while some places in the city were indeed, haunted, she'd never experienced any problems at the Dresser Palmer House. Relieved, I took her by the arm and thanked her, as if to prove to myself that she really was a flesh and blood human being.

Upon returning to our room, though, I was still a little spooked. I've never been a fan of old buildings, having been raised in new homes where we'd always been the first inhabitants (I am my mother's daughter; I'd rather buy brand-new clothes at a discount store than buy anything that had once been worn by a stranger). Despite the comforting words of Deedee and the Cabbie, I never did sleep that night.

Tre graciously offered to let me keep the TV on all night (which I gratefully accepted) and periodically rolled over to inquire in a sleepy voice about my well-being. I was touched by the gesture, but just couldn't relax enough to drift off to dreamland. I decided that Savannah was a place to explore with a big, strong manly man, with whom a girl could snuggle up when things went bump in the night. And of course, the city's romantic aura definitely favored couples.

In any case, I never saw or heard anything terrifying that night, though old houses tend to make noise just fine on their own; Dresser Palmer House was no exception. It didn't help that our next-door neighbors had their television blaring, but I was willing to cut them some slack. For all I knew, they were ill-at-ease, too.

The next morning, on pure adrenalin, I cheerfully accompanied Tre down to breakfast, where we made the acquaintance of a nice couple from Wisconsin, over homemade spinach quiche and coffee. Scott and Kristin regaled us with tales of the haunted pub crawl they'd taken the night before, and confirmed some pretty strange occurances (cold spots, footsteps on the stairs, etc.).

But the most chilling story they shared involved the 17Hundred90 Inn, home of Anna, the Ghost. Anna was a young girl of 17 back in the 18th Century, whose family forced her to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. He was the original owner of the Inn and basically made her his slave, forcing her to do all of the Inn's dirty work (which, in the days before running water, must have been thoroughly disgusting). He also beat her regularly.

When Anna fell in love with a strapping young sailor and made plans to run away with him, the Old Geezer uncovered their plot, and locked Anna in Room 204, where he beat her to within an inch of her life, then threw her to her death over the balcony. To this day, she haunts that very room, crying for her true love.

Unbelievably, there's a one-year waiting list for honeymooners, who apparently have nothing better to do on their wedding night than enjoy a wild confrontation with a despondant spirit (which doesn't bode well for the marriage). As the story goes, couples are rudely awakened in the middle of the night by a levitating Anna, crying her dearly-departed eyes out. People have reported feeling the tears on their faces and having their lingerie stolen. Reports say that couples run from the room in horror in the middle of the night and head for the safety of the closest hotel chain.

We all wondered why anyone would find that entertaining, but figured the Inn's new owners are laughing themselves all the way to the bank.

Luckily for sleep-deprived me, Tre loves to drive and took the wheel for the rest of our journey back to South Florida. I am happy to report that my condo stood just as I left, and my sleeping patterns have returned to normal.

Despite all of the weirdness, I'd be willing to revisit Savannah on the arm of a strong, understanding gentleman. Until then, I think I'll stick to visiting happy places like the beach and Disneyworld. Sleep well, Savannah!

Sleepless in Savannah, Part Four

So much for looking fear in the eye...all I wanted to do at that point was run as far and as fast as I could from "historic" Savannah and into the safety of my peaceful condo in Boca Raton. Alas, we were still a long 6-hour drive away from my well-manicured town on Florida's Gold Coast, and besides, we were technically still on vacation.

Not wanting to ruin the fun for Tre, I urged her to take the tour without me; after all, it was a Saturday night, and the place was bustling. I would blend in with the crowds, stick to the main streets and explore some "safe" places, like gift shops and ice cream parlors. After a "spirited" debate (which, thankfully left our friendship intact), we decided to leave the ghost tour for another day, and take in some Savannah nightlife.

Despite my emphasis on the spooks, Savannah has much to offer in this regard; whatever your musical preference, you can surely find an enjoyable venue in this city -- from jazz clubs to country western bars to dueling pianos. Tre and I eventually camped out at Savannah Smiles, a high-energy, fun-lovin' place with hot pianos, cold brews and --- lest we forget -- playful ghosts. Three times during the evening, the musical mayhem was interrupted by unexplained power failures, which didn't seem to bother the (mostly drunk) huge crowd. In fact, no explanation or apology ensued for each blackout; instead, such events appeared to be a matter of course, with the underlying assumption that when the "spirit moved them" the power would turn on again.

Surrounded by so many revelers, the blackouts didn't bother me, though I tried not to drink too much club soda with lime, since I wasn't sure if the haunts were also frequenting the Ladies Room. I am glad I hung in there, too, or I would have missed a thoroughly enjoyable "duel" between the North and South, in which one piano player represented the "Yankees" side and the other the "Rebels." Each would sing a few verses of either Yankee Doodle Dandy or The Land of Cotton (not sure if that's the exact title, but since it begins "Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton," that seems a pretty good guess). Anyway, that song always brings Elvis -- one of my all-time favorites -- to mind. I could just hear his deep, masculine voice warbling this tribute to his beloved Dixie.

For that reason perhaps, along with others, I have always had an affinity for the South, despite my Northeastern upbringing. For as long as I can remember I have been attracted to Southern accents, friendliness, love of country and tradition. The South possesses a shared identity and culture that no other region of the country can claim. As I cheered for the Southern side in this musical duel, my friend (a Floridian by way of New York)passionately threw her support behind the Yanks and wondered why I was fervently rooting for "the other side." Not surprisingly -- we were in the heart of the deep South after all -- the Rebels won the duel, but not before supplying the deliriously happy piano players with lots of US currency.

Later, as we strolled along the streets of Savannah, every once in a while a streetlight would inexplicably turn off, and Tre would remind me that she is indeed clairvoyant, and thus well-accustomed to this kind of eerie occurance.

As the hour drew closer to return to our haunted Inn, fear and dread began to overwhelm me again. Would we be confronted by a revenge-seeking ghost in the wee hours of the morning???? I guess I was about to find out.

Sleepless in Savannah, Part Three

Continued from Part Two

If you've never had the pleasure of riding a pedicab, I highly recommend it, especially when visting a romantic city like Savannah. I've ridden on rolling chairs on the Atlantic City boardwalk (Tre and I had done that on this vacation as well) and the South Florida version of a pedicab in West Palm Beach's CityPlace; yet this was unlike any other experience.

Our rider was courteous and accommodating, even stopping by a market on the way to Vic's so Tre could pick up a few needed items. Ever the considerate tourist, she purchased a bottle of water for our diligent rider, who gratefully accepted the gift as he pedaled us down to the river.

On the surface Vic's is a delightful, elegant establishment with great food and a friendly waitstaff. That evening I enjoyed one of the best meals of my life -- blackened prime rib -- minus the horseradish mashed potatoes, with extra greens on the side, of course. Because it was such a large cut of beef, I happily shared it with Tre, whose scallop entree suffered by comparison (though she assured me it was indeed, delicious).

Our waiter was a cute, friendly guy, approximately in his mid-20's. Thanks to him, though, my resolve to confront my ghosts, so to speak, diminished rather quickly. He informed us that he lived well outside of the historic district as most of the buildings were seriously haunted, including our very lovely Dresser Palmer House (upon hearing this, I became determined to sleep in the car) and the third floor of the restaurant. "Whatever you do, he warned, "don't go to that floor."

Apparently, Vic's had once been a headquarters for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and had thus experienced its share of bloodshed. Angry spirits on the third floor continued to do battle by furiously throwing objects around and otherwise making their presence known in frightening ways. In fact, our handsome waiter steadfastly refuses to close the place on his own, after enduring some spine-tingling confrontations with earthbound spirits.

Still (and perhaps due to the delectible cuisine), I felt pretty certain I could handle a walking ghost tour with a good friend and other tourists. Our dinner conversation consisted mostly of Tre giving me a pep-talk about how great I would feel once I pushed myself to look fear in the eye and survive the experience.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, a wicked thunder and lightning storm, complete with a heavy downpour of rain, threatened our evening walking plans. However, by the time we lingered over coffee (and I must admit, a delectibly obscene piece of pecan cheesecake), the storm had passed and we (well at least Theresa) were ready for our "spirit walk." During the meal, Tre had even spotted a Confederate soldier out the window, walking in the rain; we never did determine if he was an actual ghost, or a dressed-up actor, though we saw no other such actors strolling around the entire night. Needless to say, she was pretty jazzed about spying on other spectres, now that we could do so sans umbrellas.

We reported to a beautiful town square, replete with foliage and a statue of John Wesley, Founder of the Methodist Church. Our friendly tour guides greeted us warmly and informed -- or rather -- terrified us (me) with tales of tourists getting slapped in the face, pulled away and otherwise confronted in decidedly unfriendly ways by the ghosts of Savannah. "But I thought we didn't actually go into the buildings," I meekly protested.

"Of course we go into the buildings. We're all about giving you an authentic experience!" one of the guides replied. As I scanned the crowd I realized that, unlike myself, these people truly considered this excellent entertainment. My heart began to pound in my chest as I not only confronted fear, but became entirely consumed by it. And when the tourguides confirmed hauntings at the Dresser Palmer House, what was left of my resolve drained out of me faster than a puddle in the South Florida sun.

More to come in my next post.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sleepless in Savannah, Part Two

We continue with Part Two of my multi-part series on the haunting beauty, enduring mystery and undeniable creepiness of Savannah, Georgia.

Sleepless in Savannah, Part Two

Tre and I arrived in Savannah a few hours later, crossing over a bridge reminiscent of the Sunshine Skyway in Tampa (though not quite as high). As we entered the charming riverside city, we were immediately smitten with its hanging Spanish moss, stunning architecture (featuring wrought-iron balconies, large verandas and plentiful flower boxes) and beautiful gardens.

Making our way down Gaston Street in the historic district, I began to think the ghost stories were concocted marketing fantasies designed to enhance the city's old-world elegance. Such reassurances went out the window, however, upon meeting Tom, the afternoon Manager of Dresser Palmer House.

The place itself was a marvel. It had recently undergone extensive renovations, thanks to new management, with freshly-painted walls and new bathroom fixtures. Its decor retained the aura of the 1700's however, with candelabras, chandeliers and other accoutrements gracing the parlor, dining and living areas.

In an effort to reassure myself, I queried Tom about the ghosts as he processed our credit cards. "Who told you it wasn't haunted?" he asked. My heart began to beat wildly in my chest.

Did David lie to me just to sell a room???

Tre noticed the terror-stricken look on my color-drained face. As if reading her mind, Tom tried to calm me by stating that ghosts only appear to those who believe; if you don't believe in them, you won't see them.
Nice try, I thought, thinking of a haunted house in my former neighborhood in PA, whose owners had not desired to see or experience poltergeist, but nonetheless ended up fleeing their homestead because of repeated "disturbances." (for more on that read the book, Night Stalks The Mansion).

Regardless, we were now officially checked in to the Lady Astor, a pleasant-enough looking room in the daylight, anyway. Tom carried our heavily-laden suitcases up the back wrought-iron staircase and left with a promise to call Vic's on the River for dinner reservations. Partly because of the intense heat and partly because I didn't want to do it at night, I decided to take a shower.

Feeling refreshed, I had to admit I was taken with the true Southern hospitality offered by the Inn's gracious staff. Tre informed me that Tom was calling a pedicab for us to ensure our arrival in time for a 7 p.m. reservation at Vic's, and was also working diligently to reserve us a spot in the 9:30 pm. walking ghost tour. She was truly excited about touring haunted Savannah; unwilling to dampen her enthusiasm, I nervously agreed to "overcome my fears." Besides, what could happen standing outside of a haunted building??

More in my next post.

Sleepless in Savannah, Part One

Note: Since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought I'd repost a multi-part series I'd written four years ago after visiting Savannah, Georgia with a good friend. While I didn't actually see any ghosts or walk through any "cold spots", I experienced a relentless, palpable discomfort during my brief but memorable 24-hour stay in this simultaneously charming, historic and eerie southern city. And while I'd definitely visit again, this time I'd be sure to stay in a hotel somewhere on the outskirts of town -- far from any paranormal activity. A girl needs her beauty sleep, you know! ;)

Sleepless in Savannah, Part One

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to visit Savannah -- a city rich in history, tradition and Southern charm and hospitality. Several close friends who've spent time in the Garden of Good and Evil have had nothing but praise for its wealth of culture, cuisine and myriad attractions. None of their glowing reviews, however, ever mentioned the fact that Savannah is also well-known as "the most haunted city in North America."

Had I been aware of this well-deserved title, I may never have agreed to accompany Theresa on an overnight stay in the historic district, on our way back to South Florida from Pennsylvania. To be honest, I did have an inkling about the city's supernatural tendencies, mainly because Theresa excitedly talked of staying in a haunted Bed and Breakfast, until I begged her to compromise on our lodging arrangements, to which she graciously agreed.

In return, I nervously conceded to participating in a walking ghost tour, like those offered in St. Augustine (based on her experience in America's oldest city, Tre was positive we wouldn't actually enter any haunted buildings, but merely stay outside while the guides regaled us with tales of horror and history). We'd soon find out that Savannah does things a little differently when it comes to giving their guests an authentic, spine-tingling experience (more on that later).

Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, we were able to call ahead to several places, using the GPS (whose female satellite voice we dubbed "Sally"), while cruising south on I-95 somewhere in South Carolina. After many fruitless calls ("Sorry ma'am, but we're booked solid") I finally called what I thought was a Hampton Inn safely on the outskirts of town.

A friendly voice answered, "Good afternoon, Dresser Palmer House!" and I knew right away I was in trouble: I had to at least ask if rooms were available, in fairness to my friend, though I dreaded a positive answer. Unbelievably, they had one room left -- The Lady Astor -- which came with a Queen-sized bed and a fireplace. As if to eliminate any possibility that this was a trap set up by phantoms of the underworld, I asked if the place was haunted. "Do you want it to be?" the nice gentleman on the line queried, to which I firmly responded with a resounding NO!

He then assured me that while many B & B's in Savannah were indeed inhabited by earthbound spirits, Dresser Palmer House had never had any problems. Feeling somewhat better, though still a bit apprehensive, I made the reservation (much to Theresa's delight). That's just the beginning of the story. More to come in my next post.

Friday Meditation: Bold in Spirit

From today's Daily Word:

I am bold in spirit. I speak and act from Spirit within.

Just as surely as Spirit guides me, so, too, does Spirit prepare and empower me to accomplish every good I have been guided to seek. As I listen in the silence of my soul, I open to receive wisdom and understanding.

Any tendency to be timid about carrying through on divine understanding vanishes. I am bold in spirit. I feel at ease in making decisions, and I am open to better ways and means of doing my best--for myself and for others.

Being bold in spirit does not mean that I force or coerce others to believe or act as I do. Understanding and compassion, patience and cooperation flow from Spirit in all I think, say and do. I do my best, and I help to bring out the best in others.

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.--2 Corinthians 3:12

A Little Down Syndrome

Note: In honor of my brother Ralph's upcoming birthday on October 4, I am posting a piece I'd originally written in 1997, then updated a few years ago. Last year, this amazing human being, son, brother, uncle and friend celebrated a remarkable milestone -- his 50th birthday -- which drew family and friends together for a Hollywood-style gala in Springfield, PA (although he's a big conservative, Ralph is also an avid movie-buff ;).

An inspiration to all, my 2nd oldest brother is just one of many special souls who never fails to demonstrate the very best of human nature. While it's heartening to witness society's evolution in mainstreaming and accepting our brothers and sisters with Down's and other handicaps, one of the most troubling statistics I learned during the 2008 election, thanks to Sarah Palin's beautiful son Trig, is that 90% of unborn babies discovered to have Down syndrome are aborted. I pray for those loving creations of God who never had an opportunity to bless this world with their presence.

Happy Birthday, Ralph!

A Little Down Syndrome

As the youngest child in a family of five children and two wonderful parents, I have never had to look far for role-models. My positioning in the family line-up afforded me the opportunity not only to observe the behavior and personal characteristics of the people around me, but also to learn from their experiences.

Looking back, I realize that we all faced our own unique challenges, as is true today. As a slightly overweight child, adolescent, and young adult (I’ve since toned down to a healthy weight, which I’ve maintained for the most part), there were times when I felt as if I were the only put-upon soul on this earth. During my school years, I came to know and understand through personal experience the validity of the expression, “kids are cruel.”

But what I didn’t appreciate back then was that my elementary and high school angst paled in comparison to the obstacles life threw at one very special family member, someone whom I’ve come to regard as a hero — my brother, Ralph.

Ralph recently celebrated his 49th birthday, surrounded by his adoring nieces and nephews, siblings, and parents. For 23 years he worked in material services at a local hospital, where he was loved and respected by his boss, co-workers, and other hospital personnel.

In his spare time, he enjoys movies, both in the theater and at home (his DVD collection now exceeds 250 titles), attending wrestling matches, swimming, dancing (the guy can cut a rug!), babysitting for his nieces and nephews (characterized by lively rounds of “PlayStation”), and traveling (he often spends time with me at my place in Boca Raton, FL). Ralph is also an active member of the Knights of Columbus—not bad for someone who at birth, was predicted to amount to nothing more than a vegetable.

Ralph arrived on October 4, 1959, the second-born child of my parents, Rose and Al. Despite the trauma of his premature birth and the absence of my father who was working in upstate Pennsylvania as part of his medical residency, Mom was thrilled to have a baby brother for her older child, Mark, then 17 months-old. When she held the beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed infant in her arms, the young 28 year-old mother felt truly blessed. Ralph was a sight to behold.

Her joy was shattered early the next morning, however, by a visit from Ralph’s pediatrician, who matter-of-factly informed her that her baby had been born with a terrible affliction known as Down syndrome. With clinical certainty, he pronounced that Ralph’s future would indeed be bleak. Pointing to a tree outside the window, he explained that my brother would be just like a tree trunk—unable to do anything but stand there. To say that this guy had no bedside manner would be an understatement. He completed his “professional analysis” by recommending Ralph’s institutionalization since my Dad was a resident doctor, and the presence of a handicapped child would be a “stigma” on the young family.

The more he spoke, the angrier my mother became—after the initial shock. Summoning her courage and faith in God, she ordered the doctor out of her room with the firm admonition to stay away from her baby. As of that moment, he was no longer Ralph’s pediatrician. Filled with an inner strength and supported by my father and close family members, she vowed to do everything in her power to help this special boy reach his full potential. And she would soon discover its scope went far beyond anything the “experts” foresaw.

Under the guidance and tutelage of my determined mother, Ralph crawled early, walked early, ate with no problems, and even toilet-trained early. A loving, affectionate child, he was a source of joy for his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and a wonderful playmate for his big brother. Mom switched to a new pediatrician—a kind, caring man named Dr. John Williams—who applauded her efforts and was amazed at all that Ralph had accomplished.

As he grew, Ralph attended kindergarten, followed by first-grade where he was placed in the special education section. It was there that he flowered under the supervision of a dedicated teacher named Ruth Izumi. Ruth’s patience and caring assisted Ralph in garnering all of the knowledge and skills he would need to live a happy, productive life. Above all, she taught him to believe in himself and his abilities.

Ralph continued his education through the public school system, eventually graduating from Marple-Newtown Senior High in 1978. Though only 11 years-old at the time, I remember watching the ceremony and observing how gratifying it was that the school did not separate these “special” graduates; they processed in line with all of the other seniors. Additionally, Ralph had interacted with everyone during his high school years, attending class trips, parties and other festivities. He’d also been a member of the swim team and a participant in the Special Olympics. It sure was a long way from that dismissive doctor’s ominous prediction the day after his birth!

Growing up, I didn’t truly appreciate Ralph as I do now, though I understood his challenges in being “different.” There were days at the Springfield Swim Club when, standing in line at the snack bar or diving board, we’d hear the taunts of “Retard!” Though visibly shaken and misty-eyed, Ralph maintained his dignity and bravely ignored the ignorant comments of their limited young minds. As a little girl, I wasn’t quite so accommodating. On several occasions, I remember physically pushing the bullies who ridiculed him with the clear admonition to “leave my brother alone!”

Sometimes in the movie theater, Ralph and I would be forced to change our seats when the gawking stares of other people became unbearable. It would be comforting to report that most of this bad behavior originated from immature children; however, many “mature” adults were some of the most-guilty parties. To this day, I find that difficult to accept.

Perhaps the taunts of strangers seemed particularly tasteless given the way my parents raised all of us. Ralph was never babied or pampered because of his condition. When he did something worthy of special recognition, he was praised; if he did something bad (like tell a lie), he was disciplined appropriately. Because he was subject to the same rules and treated as one of the family, I never perceived Ralph as being “handicapped.” He was simply one of my older brothers, all of whom I adored.

But it wasn’t long before the world told me differently. And soon, he caught on too. One telling evening, my sister Carolyn, Ralph, and I — ages 9, 12, and 4, respectively — were playing in the finished basement of our house. Amid the merriment, Ralph suddenly became very thoughtful. Looking at the two of us with very serious eyes, he asked if he was “retarded.” After some careful consideration, during which Carolyn and I exchanged worried glances, she finally proclaimed with the wisdom of a 9 year-old, “Just a tiny, tiny bit.” In an effort to emphasize the extent of the insignificance, she brought her thumb and index finger close together. Then she assured Ralph that, no matter what, he was our brother and always would be. Satisfied with that explanation, he resumed his activity.

Over the years, Ralph has been so much more than just an older brother. He’s been a loyal friend, a good listener, a fun-loving companion, and an excellent “hugger.” When there was no one else to play with, Ralph was always a willing participant. From mimicking the dance routine of John Travolta and Olivia Newtown-John to “You’re The One That I Want,” from the movie musical Grease to challenging each other to swimming games in the pool (like trying to determine who could hold their breath longer under water), time spent with Ralph was invaluable and precious.

As a young adult, he faced another challenge: alopecia, a scalp condition that causes irreversible hair loss. Within weeks, it claimed his light-brown hair. To bolster his self-esteem, Mom had him fitted for a wig. Though he continues to wear one to this day, there are times when he must summon the courage to go without. Those first few days at the beach or by the pool were the most difficult, but, like everything else, Ralph took it all in stride.

Inevitably, as time went by, Ralph also had to deal with separation. Perhaps the most difficult was my brother Paul’s departure from the family nest to attend Vanderbilt Medical School in Tennessee, since Paul and Ralph had always shared a room. It marked the end of an era and the beginning of new transitions as eventually, Paul, Mark, and Carolyn married and moved out permanently. Though he felt these changes deeply, Ralph accepted them graciously. He stood up for Paul as best man in his wedding and acted as an usher for both Mark and Carolyn. Today, he enjoys close relationships with his sisters-in-law and brother-in-law, as well as their offspring.

When I decided to move away soon after Carolyn’s wedding, Ralph found himself an only child. Though I’ve never regretted my decisions, I miss Ralph’s “huggies” and taking him to the movies at the spur-of-the-moment. We visit as often as we can, and, in between, I love hearing about his social life and latest escapades. Ralph has a way of endearing himself to people in a way that is difficult to explain yet marvelous to witness. He exudes a combination of honesty and warmth that is as rare as it is irresistible.

Once, my dad went to the movie theater to pick up Ralph at the agreed-upon time. Not finding him in the lobby, Dad then went next door to Pizzeria Uno, knowing it was one of his favorite hangouts. When he described Ralph to the hostess, her face lit up as she pointed to the bar. Sure enough, there he was, having a few beers with the guys. Noticing my father, he promptly introduced him to his friends. As they made their way out of the restaurant, Dad asked if they were people he knew from work. “Oh no, Dad,” he’d replied, “I just met them and started talking to them when I went in for a pizza.”

So it seems Carolyn was correct in her assessment of Ralph’s condition. It is such a small part of who he is that it is nearly insignificant. Viewing it from a spiritual standpoint, I’m convinced that Ralph is an advanced soul, put on the earth to make other people better. He’s been an inspiration and a testament to faith for my entire family, and my siblings and I are more sensitive, considerate human beings as a result of growing up with him.

Several years after Carolyn’s childhood observation, Ralph was solicited for life insurance through the Knights of Columbus. He had just received his 4th degree, which is quite an achievement. The salesman sat down with him and methodically posed a series of health-related questions: “Do you have high blood pressure? Do you get dizzy spells? Do you have diabetes?” After a lengthy period of negative responses, a frustrated Ralph echoed his sister’s long-ago words: “Look, Mister, there is absolutely nothing wrong with me. All I have is a little Down syndrome, that’s it!” As he spoke, he gestured to make his point by bringing his thumb and index finger together, as Carolyn had done. There were no more questions. The next week, Ralph received approval for his life insurance.

Today, Ralph is inspiring the next generation, as his nieces and nephews — ranging in age from four to 16—clamor to spend quality time with “Uncle Ralph.” A particularly proud moment took place recently involving my then eight-year-old nephew Mark. My sister-in-law Lisa had taken a few of them to the movies, and, when one of his friends remarked that Ralph was “funny looking,” young Mark snapped back that insults to his uncle would not be tolerated.

And with my parents aging (though at 77, they are in excellent health), inevitable thoughts of the future pop into my head from time to time, though I absolutely dread the day when they are no longer with us. As devastated as I know I’ll be, Ralph will feel the loss even more deeply when his live-in companions make their transition. It will rattle his feelings of security and call the rest of us to action. I’d already determined countless years ago that any potential mate must be open to the possibility of welcoming Ralph into our home, whether on a permanent or part-time basis. My married siblings are also prepared for that new phase of life, and I pray that their spouses remain understanding when it finally arrives.

It’s the least we can do for a brother who’s taught us that even the worst prognosis can be overcome with a little love, faith, courage, and determination.

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