June 14, 2014:
“My mom called me on Saturday and asked if I wouldn’t mind putting together a few words that I could read at my father’s Celebration of Life. She said that she heard of other similar events where nobody had read or said anything and she felt that they lacked a little in the spirit of the occasion. I tried to think a little about what that spirit was—honoring someone’s life rather than eulogizing it—and likened it more to The Oscars’ Lifetime Achievement Award than just an epitaph. In my research, I not only wasted hours on YouTube, listening to a lot of self-congratulatory back-patting and exaltation, but realized they all followed the same format. A Lifetime Achievement Award winner’s introduction started with how the introducer had met the award winner and followed quickly with a montage of his or her life.
I met Bill Citarella at a very young age. At this time, he already had served in the Army Reserves, married a young hippie French-Canadian southerner, co-raised a son who was, at that time, 7-year-old, and contributed to many important scientific breakthroughs. In Food Sciences, breakthrough is a relative term, but it IS a science, nonetheless. It was around the time that I met him that he also became the father of twins.
I turned 35, last year, the same year my father turned 69. And while those ages were otherwise unremarkable in every way, I realized that it meant something fairly important. It meant that I’d known my father for more than half of his life. And while I can easily attest to the latter half, I really didn’t know much about my dad for his first 34 years. Over Christmas and other holidays in Michigan, we shared the tradition of retiring to the backyard for a cigar. On these occasions I would relentlessly pummel him with questions. This was how I learned about the first half of his life.
I know that he owned an original Gibson Sunburst J-45 Acoustic Guitar and played in a high school band called the Stratocasters. I know he owned a Dodge Challenger, the two-door sport coupe version of the V6 Charger. I know he had an affinity for gardening, fishing, watching classic comedy sitcoms, reading Stephen King novels, identifying war-era airplanes, painting birds, listening to his police scanner, enjoying Cuban cigars, and preparing delicious yet nutritious meals for his family. I know him as a good father. A good role model. A good mentor, teacher, and friend. But I don’t have to tell you about that part because all of you know him as one of those things. After all, that’s the reason why all of you are here today. So I’ll stick to the things you probably didn’t know about my dad.
When we would go fishing, we used to have a competition for whom would catch the first, the biggest, and the most fish. I somehow suspected he’d let me win one, if not more, of those titles each time we went to the lake.
Each time I went to bat for my little league team, I could easily identify his voice among the bleachers, instilling confidence in me as I concentrated on the pitch, smiling at me whether I landed on base or headed back to the dug-out.
My dad reinvented the dad joke, in every way. If you think your dad’s puns were corny, I challenge you to spend an hour with my father without groaning. I would say that this hereditary trait skipped my generation but Sara has politely pointed out to me on more than one occasion that this unfortunately isn’t the case.
My father saved everything. A nylon coupling for a sprinkler head we’d thrown out years before. A set of brass screws for a doorknob from two previous houses. A spark plug from a lawn mower we no longer owned. A drawer full of keys without locks and locks without keys. A pair of cranberry-colored polyester pants from god-knows-what-era. A green dog collar and ID tag for a dog we lost decades before. Worn-out batting gloves, broken croquet sets, extra coffee decanters, broom handles, oil pans, pocket-knives, and wind-up radios. Anything that was rusted, broken, crooked, matchless, missing, or forgotten, he kept. I didn’t envy my brother who visited last December and took up the arduous task of cataloging it all as they went through the garage.
My dad was the only man I knew that could simultaneously chastise me for not taking the initiative to mow the lawn, while reminding me I wasn’t allowed to touch his lawn mower. He was a very skilled man. On a side-note: Dad meticulously recorded the Indy 500 almost every year for the last thirty years—from video tape, to DVD, to DVR—while he went outside and mowed the lawn and tended to his garden. To my knowledge, though, he’s never watched a single lap.
When I graduated from college, moved to NYC, started a company and bought a condo, he was my number one fan, loudest and strongest supporter and proudest and most vocal parent in telling everyone. Everyone, but me. I had to hear these things through the grapevine. The grapevine, of course, is my mom, whom we all know can become fairly talkative after a glass of wine.
My dad’s favorite expression around the house was “We’ll see.” I’ve learned from Iggie and some of his colleagues at General Foods that he had a few other choice expressions at work, though none would be fitting for a Celebration of Life. For Chris, Mike and I, however, it was always, “We’ll see.”
“Dad, can we go to Red Lobster?”
“Dad, can we go to Florida this summer?”
“Dad, can I have an allowance if I get Straight ‘A’s?”
Even without Chris—who had seven years experience on us—pulling me aside to explain the connotation of the phrase, I learned very quickly that “We’ll see” simply meant “no.” Quite poetically, I realized last year that my father was likely named William Citarella because it could easily be shortened to: Will C.
In the end, these little disappointments actually meant nothing to me. In truth, I was a little heavier as a child so I didn’t need the fast food. Not getting an allowance instilled in me a work ethic similar to his own. And not enduring the Florida sun too often probably is the reason people still think I’m in my mid-20s. Sorry, Sara.
For the last few years, I’d spend every Sunday on Skype, doing the Merl Reagle crossword with my dad. We both loved doing the puzzles, but it was really just an excuse. We’d catch up on our weeks and spend an hour together talking and sharing. I cherish those times. I miss them. I really, really miss them. Incidentally, when I informed Mr. Reagle of Dad’s passing, he sent a copy of his latest book and invited me to the national crossword competition in Stamford, this year. The inscription said: “Here is a book I think you and your dad would’ve loved. The old and the new together.”
We all wonder what legacy we’ll leave behind after we move on from this life. Our father left us something priceless. I’m not talking about a garageful of couplings and screws and spark plugs. I’m not talking about corny dad jokes or libraries of Stephen King novels. Or completed Sunday crossword omnibuses. Or titles for who caught the most fish. Or Dodge Challengers or Gibson Sunburst Guitars.
You can see his legacy in Mike and Chris and now little Nicholas. And whom we became in the second half of our father’s life based on the man he was in the first half. You can hear it in the memories that we share today and the ones we’ll keep with us and share with our families and friends for the rest of our lives. The priceless legacy that Bill Citarella left us is the family that he created. A happy, productive, successful, healthy family. A loving family. And I don’t just mean us, but everyone that he crossed paths with, at work and in life, those with us today and those with us in spirit, those from the family he was born into and the one he created, from the first half of his life and from the second. Everyone.
So, in a way, we are all his Lifetime Achievement Award. Because we all were richly rewarded for sharing his lifetime with him. And in the very same way, a celebration of his life is also a celebration of our own because our lives were so fruitfully and joyfully intertwined with his.
Bill Citarella was an amazing man. And father. And husband. And friend. And co-worker. And grandfather. And now, I’d like to believe, angel. He’s probably making everyone up there groan with his terrible dad jokes, and collecting broken halos and harps in some heavenly garage, and criticizing how St. Peter mows the lawn around the pearly gates. But you ask me if I think he’d make a better angel than father? To that, I can only say: we’ll see.”