How does a son measure his father’s life? In my case, it’s not easy, but I’ll try.
Joseph John Eleison was born in North Bergen, N.J., on Jan. 24, 1919, and died on March 7, 2014, near Cortez, Colo. If you’re counting, that’s five short of a C-note, which ain’t chump change.
His parents, Vincent and Josephine, were from Naples, Italy. They had another son, Carl, who died in 1995, Joe’s older brother by two years.
Dad had pleasant early family memories living in Springfield, Mass., where his father owned and operated a shoe-repair business. Later, however, his boyhood became hardscrabble.
In the middle of the Great Depression, when he was 17, he enlisted in the CCC’s (Civilian Conservation Corps), wherein he nearly went over a cliff while learning to work a bulldozer. “You came that close to never existing,” he told me more than once.
During World War II, he trained as a navigator and flew on B-24s. After the war, he maintained an avid interest in aviation and piloted small planes for many years.
He went to college on the GI Bill, earning an engineering degree in ceramics from the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating, he worked for many years for Pomona Tile, and in the mid-1960s was chief chemist at Desert Minerals Corp.
During one summer vacation during his college years while working as a cook at a Harvey’s Drive-In Restaurant in Colorado Springs, he began wooing one of the waitresses, an attractive redhead from Iowa who also was on summer break from college. Her name was Sue Vifquain, and they were soon hitched. They would have fraternal twin boys, Mark and John, who would learn from their father the value of a buck but never feel the sting of want, as he had.
Joe loved to cook, and whenever his legendary lasagna or Neapolitan thin-crust pizza (with its perfect distribution of black olives, sausage and mozzarella) were on that night’s menu, no one was late for dinner.
He also enjoyed working in his shop fixing things and making furniture. In later years, he made a wide variety of Americana wooden toys that were sold yearly at Rico’s July 4th Arts and Crafts Faire, as they will be again this summer.
He liked opera, especially Carmen, and he played the mandolin and harmonica.
He made up his own groan-inducing bad jokes, yet believed all that was needed to make them hilarious was to find and punch the key word in the punchline. Try as he might, however, he never found the key that would release their hilarity — and that was funny. (Whenever my brother, John, parodies Dad’s quixotic quest for the perfect punchline, I bust a gut laughing.)
Toward the end, Hospice gave him much comfort and support, and he looked forward to the weekly visit from their nurse, Enid. My mother, my brother and I are grateful, Enid, not only for your surpassing dedication but also for all your bountiful good cheer.
In a New Yorker review of Simone de Beauvoir’s book on getting old, The Coming of Age, Robert Coles wrote this about the various ways people deal with impending death: “Some do so stoically, some petulantly, some with the fierce inclination to shake their fists at the universe and go on, go on, full steam ahead, until that is no longer possible.” Requiescat in pace.