A. Hannah Spadafora (Ashley/Hannah) Memorial for John J. Spadafora. 12/30/2019
In the Buddhist tradition, it often is stated that there is no ‘self.’ For practical purposes, we refer to an “I”, but if we examine a person from life to death, the changes a person undergoes effectively shift our identity over time. The self is thus just an impermanent, ever shifting, collection of attachments we associate with our identity—attachments to habit, to personality traits we see as ‘us’, to our likes, dislikes, desires, to a sense of who we are, and to people who enter our lives. This begs the question of who we are at death out of this collection of selves that we were throughout life. Are we the entirety of all the selves we have ever been? Are we the ripple effects from our actions on others, and the world, at large that we cause from birth to death? Are we just the person we have become at the time we lose our life, the transformed final self, our best self weighing much heavier than the worst days of our lives? If we can wish that for our own ‘self’, can it help us show more compassion in our judgment of others?
Personally, I like to believe that so long as there is life, there is potential for redemption. To put it in Buddhist terms, if the self is empty, and our selves are just empty vessels holding collections of the traits and likes we attach to ourselves, then everyone is potentially salvageable. Likewise, our images of others are often incomplete to the entirety of their being. The parts we know, and the parts, we don’t frame our vision of others. The memories we love become the person in their death. Everyone sharing memories today are bringing forth parts of my dad that they knew, and I’m thankful, during this sharing, for the ways you are bringing my dad to this room by bringing the many selves that my dad was during his life into our presence of attention today. With that said, here are my tales to be shared.
I only know bits and pieces from my dad’s past before he adopted me as a toddler. I have heard stories from other relatives and friends of the family, seen pictures that give glimpses into who he was before he was a dad. I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear more, which he finally started opening up about and sharing more about in the past year. I lament that he didn’t offer me more time to get to know him more as a person, outside of who he was to the shaping of my life. Were I to meet him as a baby or child, or as a teenager delivering newspapers early in the morning before school to help support his family, or a 20-something working at a bar and restaurant that he met my mom in, or a 30-something working for Ford or a mid-1970s mustache wearing headshop owner, I may have met a different person than the big-shot luxury transportation businessowner that he was during my early childhood, managing and driving limos, Cadillacs, and horse and carriage rides by day and guarding sleeping teens at night and dragging them to school by morning as a juvenile hall employee, nor the man he was in my late childhood and early teens, a restaurant owner planning international menus and introducing the south to giant heroes—with his stubborn refusal to call them sub sandwiches—and a motorcycle shop co-owner speeding around the lot on a scooter or making sales on the hundreds of cycles jammed into the garage and front room of his corner lot shop, and nighttime publix shelf stacker for a year, nor as the real estate property owner/landlord he tried to be in my later teens, until the 2008 bubble burst, nor the person he was when he once again shifted, working for restaurants, making ice cream, and eventually starting his last venture in life, the fatty’s food truck, that some of you may have gotten some great new York hotdogs and knishes from at local north Georgia festivals in recent years.
When we think of our ‘selves’, how we get certain attachments, likes, dislikes, personality traits, for practical purposes, it is often striking to me how much of the self we create is passed on from those we love and that which has influenced us, from art to experience. Often those we love may turn us onto certain art, or share certain experiences, that later become part of our self, something to take along that keeps another person with you, and in the case of someone passed on, keeps that person alive to you. Beyond thinking of who my dad was, I’ve always been thinking of who he made me, in ways small and large.
My dad instilled in me a love of sci fi during evening watching of X-Files and Sliders during my childhood, as well as rare movie visits to see the Men In Black—the only movie I got him to go to before they made the seats in theaters more accommodating to people of larger stature. On other lingering tastes, whether it’s nature or nurture, my dad and I both loved twizzlers as our movie candy, and while I no longer drink soda, I wonder if my sweet tooth also is partially inspired by the root beer floats, snuck behind my mom’s back at a restaurant when I was a little kid ,and then made into a ritual of family outing to Sonic when I was a little bit older.
Beyond these favorites passed down, my dad also instilled in me a knack for creative and sometimes strange problem solving. This started when my dad saved my life at least twice when I was a little. I almost swallowed a ring and a nickel, separate occasions. I was like 5 or less, so great babysitting skills on letting me find a ring or nickel, but that’s beside the point. He still saved me. The old school way, actually. By which I mean, he turned me upside down and bounced me on my head on the bed until the ring / nickel fell out. Kids these days don’t know how good they have it, with scientifically researched anti-choking procedures parents are trained to do during parenting classes. But hey, I survived because of his quick thinking. So, I’m looking on the bright side. I’m here today because of him, so I’m thankful for that.
This kind of explains my dad’s way of problem solving, though. He always meant well in trying to help, but he did things his own way. When I was 14, he bought three cases of slim fast from Costco for me—not as a way to subtly tell me I needed to diet—I don’t think, considering we’re an Italian family and no one will shut up about how you eat like a bird if you’re not winning eating contests, which my dad did prevail in on at least one occasion—but he got these cases of slim fast for me, because, as he put it, I told him one time that I liked shakes.
That was my only drink other than water for the next three months, but again, he felt like he solved a problem—stocking us up, saving us time and money—and that he was, in his mind, trying to do what he thought I would like. Because I told him that I like shakes.
Likewise, when I was struggling financially in my early twenties, on a few occasions, he showed up to my place with bread, cupcakes, twinkies, and other hostess products he dumpster dived for behind Hostess—all wrapped up, only slightly expired, and characteristic of his clever ways of solving problems.
Besides giving me an example of clever problem solving, my dad always wanted to see me succeed. Juries out on when I’m getting there, but in his own way, throwing me into the deep end of a pool was a strategy to teach me that I could survive. Likewise, from the time I was 9 years old and filling out a mock job application for a career day at school that ended in a fieldtrip of temporarily “working” for IBM, as a ten year old, where my dad wrote me a letter of recommendation that has weirdly stood the test of time, concerning my creativity and computer skills, to offering to vouge for me in job applications, on rental forms, and in professional situations, this was his own way of wanting me to find success.
It’s notable that one of the last significant things my dad said to me is that, “Spadaforas aren’t wimps.” At one point as a child, I wanted to be tough like he was. In some ways, there is a toughness I inherited, perhaps—a survivor who could take on the world and keep finding my feet even as each plan fell through, much like my dad was throughout his many role changes in life.
Sometimes I joke that you can tell I’m adopted, because I am clearly a wimp, as much as he tried to make me a proper Spadafora. I cry at the drop of a hat, and I often drown in a pool of tears during times like this. The thing is, though, my dad’s tough façade sometimes cracked to show that he was, himself, also at times was in a great deal of pain, and a lot more sensitive and feeling than he let show. When I was a kid, he had a pension for extremely sappy greeting cards with heartfelt messages or poems, along with gifts of stuffed animals or flowers when I was sick, he was apologizing, or when holidays came around. My mom’s rationale about it was that my dad hadn’t been taught to express his feelings more directly; that was his way of letting us know he cared and how deeply he did, in words he couldn’t speak without crying, which would ruin his sense of self as a tough person, someone who isn’t a wimp.
It’s thus similarly notable that one of the other last significant things he said to me, with his voice cracking, was that I was always in his heart. He hung up quickly, and I know he was crying on the other side. I know I was.
I know I led into this speech with a talk on Buddhism and the self, and I’d like to bring it around full circle to close. My dad was not Buddhist. He was born Catholic, then converted to Judaism, mostly just as lip service, honestly, to marry my mom, then shifted again to attend services here at this Methodist church where he married Dee and his grandson, my nephew, Rowan was baptized. I don’t think my dad was super stressed out by the details of doctrinal differences in these religions, but I do think my dad was motivated in these religious shifts by love for another person—his catholic parents, and later, for his original love of my mom and his deep later love for my stepmom.
These shifts also represented his passion for building a life that welcomed the inevitable changes in life, and opportunities to commit to new experiences and new ways of being. Further, despite the fact that he was not Buddhist, when my dad and I reconnected about four years ago, he apologized and espoused a philosophical mindset that I likewise found surprisingly compatible with Zen. He said that the past is a black hole, but no matter what happens, we must keep moving forward, and it’s only in the now that we can work on building something better and different than before.
Perhaps the two most difficult things in life are change and forgiveness. It’s hard to let go of the past when it’s painful, and it’s hard to forgive, but in not doing so, we freeze a picture in our minds of another as embodying a ‘self’ that is static, when in reality the self is dynamic, an empty vessel that ultimately changes over time—body and mind. My dad was obsessed with work and with running his own show, so to speak, for a very long time. He found motivation in challenges—even if he sometimes complained along the way, and solved problems in his own unique ways. I think maybe his series of dreams emblemized a refuge from other unhappiness—that he could fulfill the utmost dreams of working class life, escape financial struggle, make a name for himself, and make people happy. With age I think he found contentment, however, eventually, in just living life day by day, “one foot in front of the other”—in tune with the moment with decreasing focus on materialist obtainment and increased focus on good times with people he loved. It wasn’t until this later era that I saw him become more consistent in finding value in people moreso than money or status, and thus truly love as a verb. I’m grateful to have seen this side of him, and that in the last few years he made a concerted effort to try to extend this side of himself to me.
In order to allow people to grow, we have to give space for old patterns to subside, and consciously work on building new ones. In the end, this is the lesson my dad most clearly bestowed upon me. I’m just really sad we don’t have more time to continue building our bond to weather the many selves I will yet be, the many selves the rest of our family members will grow into—especially the youngest members of our family—and the remaining selves he could still have yet have been to the many people who will miss him. I am grateful, however, still, to have met my dad in his growth as a loving self, and for those bringing kind memories honoring that intention to the memorial here today. Thank you.