My book is dedicated to him: To Ben Lombardi, who learned in the navy that books open up the world. Wish you had lived to see this one in print. He nearly did; we were in pre-production edits on July 12, 2019, the day he took his last breath at a Florida hospice. I’m crying looking at his photo, so wanted to share this memorial of my first storyteller, spoken at his New York memorial service.
A storyteller. Direct. Someone who looks you in the eyes. A hard worker who never gives up. Everything I like about myself, I got from my father.
This past week, you taught us all how to say goodbye, with total clarity. I murmured in your ear “You were my role model,” and you said with wide eyes, “You were my everything.” By ‘you’ he meant all of us, and we surrounded you the day you finally let go.
But today we salute the direct, learned, theatrical storyteller that was Benito Lombardi.
We all knew the storyteller, and loved his stories-about growing up in the South Bronx, about joining the Navy, about the day he met a 16-year-old Victoria Solanto and knew he would marry her. That 16-year-old is my mom, and they started dancing that night in 1961 and never stopped. My favorite memory, by far, was repeated over the years: Ben standing with one arm outstretched, so he and Victoria could burn up the dance floor. They always did, so you can add dancer to that list.
Direct: I don’t think he knew how to lie, and didn’t tolerate lies in others. He taught us to look straight into people’s eyes, and tell truths even when those truths were uncomfortable. It sometimes hurt, and I ran away from it — he knew my first marriages were failing before I could admit it.
Also add learned. I promised Mom I’d mention when young Benito found the shipboard library on that Navy ship, and found The Count of Monte Cristo. That book, he would say ever after, told him how much he still had to learn — and he spent the next 70 years reading book after book. My father was addicted to learning, and he made sure I was too. When we lived miles apart, I loved little more than finding and sending him books we could discuss.
I think of the past 50 years as one long conversation, Daddy — full of stories, vigorous arguments, laughter and tears. Our politics so opposite all we could do was laugh about it. You were also my first and best beta-reader; as a writer I kept hoping you didn’t hate what I had just written. I’m sorry it took me so long to publish my book, and grateful that you read many drafts and chapters.
I spent too many years afraid of you, but I never doubted your love. You and Mom even went to Canada to help me marry my girl. You welcomed Rachel into our family long before that.
For all of us, your love was a center of gravity, one we took for granted till it was gone. (And now I’m crying as I write, at the word “gone.”) Without that center we’re unstable, unsure whether to bat away the memories or stay in them, because in each memory my Daddy is still alive.