Fatherhood. For a single guy with no prospects, it sure is something I like to think about. My dad. I see the man two ways. First, in my childhood as the archetype, Jack Arnold from The Wonder Years kind of Dad. You know, he was busy working a lot and seemed to have a gruff demeanor. I knew he loved me but we just weren’t very close. Of course, I realize now that this was mostly due to my perception as a child. How is an adult supposed to be close to their child? He was playing a role. He provided. He guided us through life. He made sure we became adults in our own right. As an adult, having gotten to know him better it’s been easier to see who that true person was and realize he was always there. I watch old family movies and the man at 45 wasn’t much different than he was at 70. I was the one who was different. Now that he’s gone, all I have of him are memories. Some always stand out more than others: the speech he gave at my sister’s wedding, the last time he played with his band, The Corvettes. The day James Gandolfini died.
That last one sounds kind of weird. Considering my father was one who generally eschewed celebrity worship, it was weird. But upon reflection, it makes perfect sense.
It was June 19th, 2013 and the news broke that James Gandolfini dropped dead of a heart attack in Rome at the age of 51. My father began to cry. I was taken aback. I’d be lying if I said I never saw the man cry before but I’d certainly never seen him upset over something like this. This was different. Was it because of Gandolfini’s relatively young age? Was it because my father, having undergone bypass surgery nearly a decade earlier, was forced to reflect upon his own mortality? Was it because Tony Soprano just died? I think it’s all of the above but somehow, it’s the connection to The Sopranos that is most meaningful.
That show was everything. It was funny, the acting was good, and it was New Jersey. Oh boy, it was New Jersey. Gandolfini, a child of the Garden State, somehow managed to pull off a New Jersey accent that was more believable than his own. It was a show about family. Yeah, a crime family but also actual family. An episode devoted to AJ or Meadow was just as likely as one that featured Paulie Walnuts. There was so much to explore about the people in our lives and our interactions with them. This wasn’t Goodfellas or The Godfather. It was something else entirely.
At the Palmucci homestead we’d developed something of a tradition surrounding this show. We’d do the normal Sunday gravy earlier in the day but we’d surely need to eat again by the 9:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. So we begun to make homemade pizzas. It became our thing. My dad made a hell of a pizza. I don’t know what I looked forward to more, the show or the pizza. Perhaps I’d gone Pavlovian and just always came to associate one with the other.
It wasn’t just the pizza though. I’m named after my father yet I have no knowledge of him ever referring to me as “Junior” until after The Sopranos became a thing of ours. There were the references to places like Nasto’s (a New Jersey Ice Cream institution) that we felt were thrown in there just for us. We even started making Johnnycakes for breakfast. Of course, we’d go around quoting the thing. To this day, whenever a sensitive subject is brought up I have reply with, “It’s a difficult situation!” in my best (meaning worst) attempt at a Tony Soprano impression.
Eventually, the tears having dissipated, my father handed me some cash and sent me to the liquor store to buy a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label. The man loved that swill mixed with water. We spent the rest of the day drinking with each other. Toasting to James Gandolfini. Getting day drunk. My mom wasn’t happy, but despite the tragedy, my father and I were. We’d created another memory. One that I cherish. For some god awful reason, I’ve even come to develop a taste for Johnny Red.
In the last scene of the final episode of the series, AJ says to Tony something about how we have to “focus on the good times”. Tony takes it as sarcasm but, in a rare moment for AJ, it was a genuine recollection of something his father tried to instill in him when he was younger. Here’s what Tony actually said all the way back in the Season 1 finale:
“Someday soon you’re gonna have families of your own. And if you’re lucky, you’re gonna remember the little moments…like this…that were good.”
He was right.