Men's minds are raised to the level of the women with whom they associate. — Alexandre Dumas
I am sixty-six years old. I am at a point in life when it is easier to reflect on the past than it is to ruminate on what lies ahead. It is no mystery what awaits me. That inevitable fate lies around a nearby corner, waiting to become a reality, the moment of its arrival known to no one. To say I don't think about the moment would be less than truthful. By the time you reach my age, you have witnessed too much loss, borne the burden of seeing loved ones leave too soon, to not be aware of what lies ahead. But it is much better to not dwell on it and to enjoy what's left of life.
Instead, I choose to spend my time thinking about what brought me here. And, more important, about the people who helped guide me in the direction my life has taken. I think back and see the many faces and hear the many voices that have come into my life through the years. Some were instructive. Some destructive. And some reached out a guiding hand that helped me more than I could ever thank them for.
But the course of my life's voyage, the foundation for the career I have forged, rests in the hands of three very strong-willed and determined women. Each one very different from the other. They helped direct me, each in her own way, toward an honest and productive life.
One, my Nonna Maria, did it through the stories she told, giving me a glimpse into the life she led before me and the losses she bore with dignity, embracing me with a gentle manner and a kindness hidden under a protective shell. She laid down a solid foundation in my younger years, piecing it together across seven glorious summers, confident I would never forget the lessons handed down.
The second, my mother, presented me with a different picture—one of dealing with daily hardship, trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage, cowering under the burden of debt and the stress and fear that came with it. Her words to me, sometimes kind, often bitter, gave fuel to my desire to live as far from such misery as possible. Her lessons were often as harsh as her days, but she passed them on to me with the hope they would drive me from the world we knew to a better one she could only pray I would find.
The third was my wife, an independent woman who was in the process of forging her own career by the time we met. She was smart, pretty, quick to smile, and a gifted editor and writer. She encouraged me to keep writing, despite the obstacles in my path, and out of that a friendship grew. Over time, that friendship led to love and a marriage that lasted for more than three decades, ending with her death from lung cancer on Christmas Eve 2013. We were opposites in many ways—she was the daughter of a doctor and a nurse and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was the son of an ex-con and a housewife who spoke only Italian and grew up in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan and the East Bronx. But despite what, on the surface, looked like a storybook childhood, she had undergone her own share of misery and pain. And while there were a few ups and downs in our years together, as there are with any longtime relationships, our love and our friendship never wavered.
Neither did her belief in me and what I could accomplish. Through my bleakest writing years—and there were quite a few—she never let me quit. Giving up was not in her nature—not when she believed in someone as strongly as she believed in me. And when success finally found its way to my door, she was the only one not surprised by its arrival.
These are the three women you are about to meet. I hope you embrace them as I have and take some of their lessons to heart. Trust in their words, take courage from their strength, and gain wisdom from their stories.
They are the women who saved my life.
I was fourteen when I first set foot on the island of Ischia, eighteen miles off the coast of Naples, Italy.
I was visiting my mother's side of the family, strangers to me in every way, and I had no idea what to expect. Yet, somehow, as soon as I stepped off the boat from Naples, surrounded by thick hordes of tourists and locals eager to get to their destination, I knew I was in a better place than the one I had left behind.
I arrived in Ischia a troubled teenager. Back in New York, I left parents waging a daily war over heavy debts and mounting bills, their anger always at full boil, my mother one stinging comment away from receiving a fatal blow at my father's hand. The constant squabbles, the scams and cons my father pulled on gullible friends and neighbors, hung heavy on my shoulders, with my own fears and concerns. I wanted a different life from the dead-end existence that engulfed me in New York, but I couldn't figure out where that life would be or where it would lead.