The Brooklyn oak
Big Frank was weaned from the last vestiges of that generation we commonly refer to as the Greatest - those who endured the Great Depression and won World War II. He was the youngest of the family's large brood of aunts, uncles and cousins all living under one grand roof in a venerable Brooklyn, N.Y. brownstone. He grew up in the archetypal 1940s Brooklyn, where family, the Dodgers, stickball and socializing on porch stoops ruled the day, the kind of genre that would make Neil Simon a rich man.
After graduating from Brooklyn's revered St. Francis Prep and with the Korean War raging, he felt compelled to "do his part" and rather than seek a college deferment or be drafted, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served with the First Marine Division in the frozen foothills of Korea, earning the rank of sergeant. Returning home, he provided the residents of New York City's five boroughs with dedicated and ethical protection as a decorated police officer before retiring to "the country" in Riverside, Pa.
Those who knew him would never confuse him with someone predisposed to idle chatter. No one would mistake him for a cheerleader who was overcome with anxiety about his children's self-esteem. A practitioner of the old school, he was more concerned with his obligations and responsibilities as opposed to any entitlements and privileges. The Franciscan paradigm of action before words was more than just some benevolent 13th century proverb, but his life's credo.
He never indulged in drugs or excessive drink and was always sober in mind and spirit, exhibiting a discipline that today is seemingly adrift. I never once heard him utter a wayward string of profanities. And considering his life's toil from the bloody battlefields of Korea to the streets of New York City and having a headstrong son, that is truly remarkable.
Perhaps Frank Maresca's sense of the overtly emotional was assuaged by having to endure the loss of both his parents and a sister by the age of 13. I remember my mother saying he once told her that while his own mother lay dying, she instructed him not to cry, that there would be no tears in the Maresca household. He was 8. Amid every trial and tribulation, he remained true to my paternal grandmother's instruction because I never witnessed my dad shed a tear.
He was the epitome of restraint and collective cool under pressure. Nothing rattled him. I admired that so much that, as a young man, I often contemplated if I ever would be as big as he was to me in stature and esteem. A voracious reader, he could converse about sports, politics and religious dogma with equal conviction. He never failed to put food on the table or decent clothes on our backs and ensured his children were enriched in the faith of our forefathers by providing us with a Catholic education.
It was during my mother's spirited and drawn-out battle against cancer a dozen years ago that for the first time I saw him grow distant and seemingly helpless. Watching my mother struggle was new to all of us and something he had difficulty accepting. No matter how stoic or steadfast he was, he never would be the same after mom passed. It was no cliché to say a large chunk of him died with her. Perhaps it was his way of coping with the death of his life's soul mate that he decided to sell their dream house in Riverside. Through it all, he never failed to miss any of his seven grandchildren's birthdays, always sending a card, and his love was always expressed more through what he did than opposed to the words he spoke. It saddens me greatly that my children and my niece and nephews never really knew him the way I did - convinced, formidable and undeterred - replete with a twinkle in his eye and unafraid to move into unchartered territory.
Two separate bouts with cancer would not cut him down. He would go the distance, winning two unanimous decisions. Two knee replacement surgeries would not discourage him from moving the iron, having powerlifted in his younger days. "They didn't cut off my arms, now did they?" He would still labor with the weights just months before his death at 80.
The nagging grimace of dementia would only frustrate, but never defeat, his spirit for life. He would even joke about it. When he would forget my name, he would launch into his standard litany of how I should have been named after him and his father, but my mother wouldn't hear of it. With a husband, father, brother and cousin all named Frank, frankly, mom was all franked out.
He may have forgotten addresses and names, but he still knew we belonged to him. It was aortic valve stenosis, a disease of the heart, which would do to him what nothing else could and it happened, no less, on Valentine's Day. The irony wasn't lost on those who knew and loved him. He was a generous soul who could not say no to those in need. If you asked, he gave. Most of his mail consisted of solicitations from every conceivable charitable organization both requests and thank-you's and then more requests.
He was the last of his family's generation that brings the curtain down on a formidable era of Americana that celebrated God, country and traditional family values. Foremost, he remained a loving father to his children and forever cherished and missed his true love, Irene Ferraiuolo Maresca, to the end.
In his last hour, I made him promise me that when it was my time to pass on, that he would be there waiting for me. Be my man on point as he always was in so many ways during life.
I will miss him deeply, but take much solace knowing he remains in good company until we meet again.
(Maresca, a local freelance writer, composes "Talking Points" for each Sunday edition.)