Monday, November 14, 2011

The Final Curtain

I've written several times in the past about Frank, my step-father for more than 31 years. Since I just became a teenager when I met him, he didn’t have a lot to do with my formative years, but he still made an impact on me.Having been single for more than ten years when he met my mother, his house was the epitome of a bachelor pad when we first moved in; scattered about were playing cards and poker chips, Playboy magazines in the attic (dating back to the early sixties), a cozy wood stove (de rigueur in the Catskill Mountains) and a VCR player (we had never seen one before!). This was just the beginning of the cool things Frank would introduce me to.

He owned a restaurant, a popular one, famous even. Once called the
steak house to the stars. It’s the place I got my first job, or series of jobs I should say. I started out as the water girl, serving water to customers as they settled in to read the menu. Then I became the dessert girl, making desserts for those same people. That job was a lot harder than you’d think it would be; it’s uncanny how a dining room full of people suddenly all have dessert at the same time. I worked like a madwoman in that position.

From there, I graduated to bussing tables. It was a hard job, but I was good at it. I could fill an oval tray so strategically with glasses, plates and silverware from a party of eight, and lift it into the air with one swift move. I was a workhorse. I had so much strength, that I often carried the heaviest trays out of the kitchen when food needed to be served, and picked up the trays going back to the kitchen after they were full. I never leaned a tray on my shoulder, and I could weave through the tables like a gazelle. It was a skill I was extremely proud of.
Then I wanted to work in the kitchen, something my mother wasn’t too keen on because there were guys in there (duh!). And those guys used what could be called “kitchen language”, which apparently wasn’t suitable for a teenage girl to hear. But, since I grew up with a mother who used “kitchen language”, it wouldn’t be anything I hadn’t heard before and I certainly didn’t see myself repeating it. I hadn’t up to then, so why would I start?

So that summer, I started working in the kitchen. I didn’t do any of the actual cooking, but I did help with prep; peeling potatoes by the bagful (50 pound bags!), peeling hundreds of pounds of onions causing me to smell like them for days, deveining shrimp, unwrapping sticks of butter and cutting them into perfectly even pats to arrange in small monkey dishes. I also washed dishes. Yes, I was a dishwasher! After filling those positions, I became a waitress. And I was good. People loved me and I made great money. Oh, those were the days.
There were other things I considered fun in the restaurant that were mundane tasks to others. One of those things was grocery shopping. On weekend nights, which happened to be when the bulk of the dinners had been served, as things were winding down for the night, Frank would always have someone accompany him to the grocery store. Not too many people liked to do this, but I always rallied for it to be me. I always thought I got lucky when I was picked to go; it took me a while to realize it was because no one else wanted to. I didn't care, I loved it.

So around ten-thirty, we'd make our way up to Shop-Rite. We’d walk around with two carts, filling them to the brim. When we got to the check-out and unloaded 15 gallons of milk, 30 half-gallons of ice cream, 40 pounds of butter, 37 bottles of A-1 sauce, dozens of rolls of paper towels and more, the girl would always ask if we were having a party. I’d giggle and flippantly say “I wish”, acting like this was a regular shop for us.

Frank is the person who taught me how to shop; how to save money, how to decipher which was the better bargain (twenty years before they started putting the “per unit” price tags on the shelves), and how the store brand ice cream tasted better than name brand (people would NEVER believe us when we told them it was Shop-Rite chocolate ice cream).

He also taught me how to water-ski, took me to my first Broadway play, took me on my first airplane trip, let me drive for the first time (before I got my license), was the first person I drove cross-country with, gave my friends summer jobs at his restaurant, helped me buy my first car, listened to and implemented my ideas for restaurant operations, and always, always, introduced me as his daughter.
Today would have been his 90th birthday. I say “would have” because last month he died. And I’m sad. I was with him every day for the last three weeks of his life, and he died at home. Actually, it was Ed who found him. Just an hour after my mother gave him his medicine, Ed went in to check on him and he wasn’t breathing. We knew it was coming, as we watched him decline, but there was still that moment where you think you didn’t get to say your last “last” goodbye.

The thing that comforts me the most is that he knew how much I loved him. And I know how much he loved me. He may have been a curmudgeon at times, and I didn’t always like when he had to act the parent, but we had a connection. After my father died and Frank read the obituary I wrote for him, he asked me to write his. I did, and he read it during the time I was home with him. He loved it and gave it his stamp of approval. This is it:

Frank A. Porpora, Catskill Mountain Restaurateur
and World War II Soldier, Dies at age 89

Tucson, AZ

Frank A. Porpora, a native New Yorker and 30-year
Frank pictured with Ingrid Bergman, when his
platoon was assigned to her escort detail
during a WWII visit.
of Arizona, died on Wednesday, October 26, 2011, at his home in Tucson. He was 89 years old. Born in the Bronx, NY on November 14, 1921, to Antonio Porpora and Rosaria Catacchio Porpora, immigrants from Agerola and Barletta, Italy, he was the oldest of their five sons. Frank’s early life was seasoned by World War II, but his defining principle – loyalty and generosity to family, friends and country – took him around the world; he was even photographed with Ingrid Bergman in Germany when his troop was assigned to escort her during a wartime visit. After the war, he returned to the beauty of the Catskill Mountains where his true legacy began.

Frank was best known for his position at the helm of the iconic Dodge Inn Steak House in Rock Hill, NY. The restaurant, originally a boarding house, had been in the family since the early 1920’s. Originally run by his Uncle Charlie, the Dodge Inn was eventually handed over to Frank when he returned from serving his country in World War II. The Dodge Inn became a favorite dining spot not only for locals, but for celebrities who entertained in the Catskills; among them were Milton Berle, Don Rickles, Red Buttons, Lee J. Cobb, Frankie Lane, Pat Cooper, Sid Caesar, Alan King, Perry Como, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, boxers Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano and Michael Spinks, Tony Bennett, Buddy Hacket and singer Billy Eckstein.

“Big Frank” as he was known in the restaurant, wasn’t just a war veteran and successful business owner, he was also a father, a loyal friend and a much loved family member. He was a man of unbendable perseverance, he was reliable, had a deep-rooted belief in old world values, and could be trusted to hold a secret for life. He provided many people with their first jobs, and created a family atmosphere among the employees of the Dodge Inn. He was revered and feared, often simultaneously. He had a tough exterior but to those who really knew him, he also had a marshmallow heart.

He was trustworthy, hardworking, passionate about his business, and generous; he often gave silently, never looking for recognition for his actions. He was not only generous in deed, he was also generous with his time, teaching friends and family members how to snow ski at local resorts and how to waterski on Masten Lake, where he owned beachfront property which housed an old-fashioned “casino”. He even took all the kids in the family to one of the biggest waterparks in the tri-state area, joining them on the log flumes and rope swings. He was fearless.

Frank was certainly one of a kind and will be missed by many. He will be remembered for his larger than life presence, his colorful language, his creating a landmark restaurant in an area that dominated a bygone era, his love of Frank Sinatra, his helping others by dispensing with his money, time and always, always large amounts of food, his tireless work to provide for his families, his stubbornness, and his oft hidden gentle spirit.

And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I'll say it clear, I'll state my case, of which I'm certain.
I've lived a life that's full. I've traveled each and every highway.
And more, much more than this,
I did in my way.
~ Frank Sinatra,
My Way


Gil said...

Salena, What a heartwarming tribute to such a great man in your life and the life of others. I'm out of words.

Marlaina said...

Gil said it, a heartwarming tribute, both, revealing his impact on you, which sounds tremendous and his impact on his community. That is what we all aspire to, leaving a mark, a good one, on family, friends and our communities. And he did.

Unknown said...

What a blessing it was to have him in your life, and a blessing to us to learn about him from you.

all things bradbury said...

so sorry to hear about his passing....this is a wonderful tribute to his life and the influences he had on you, your family and friends.....heartfelt sympathly goes out to you, your mom and all who loved him.

Rita said...

I am so sorry for you and your families loss. I am sure you all will miss him dearly. My sympathies go out to you and your mom.

Tim and Kim said...

Salena I am so sorry for your loss. He sounds like a wonderful guy in all aspects. It sounds like he lived a full loving life and was loved in return. What more could we ask for? I think your obit was beautiful. Tim and I both love Frank Sinatra!

Once again sorry for your loss,

The Daily Rant said...

Sorry it's taken me a few days to get back to you all - been on a team run (you know how that is!) - but I wanted to thank you all for your beautiful words.

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and send your thoughts and prayers to me and my family and friends.

Love all of you! xoxo

Dixie said...

Beautifully expressed, Salena. It just makes me wish we had known him longer.

Belledog said...

I love this post.