EarthWorms Castings

by Jean Ponzi

Father Lode – Remembered

Last year at this time, my family said good-bye to my dad, Bert Ponzi. He was 83.

Meeting the circles of friends and kin who came to support us and honor him, I was touched by the breadth of tributes to his life, gregarious and generously, productively lived. This piece, from this column in 2006, toasts the wealth of traits I’m grateful to carry on from him. Dad loved it when I read it to him.

As a blazing young feminist coming of age in a family of strong, assertive (did anyone say “dominant?”) women, I identified fiercely with my distaff side. Not until mid-life, when I finally married and settled down, did it dawn on me what dandy stuff had passed to me from my dear ole’ Dad. He was:

Rousing – Dad would reach into my room bright ‘n early, grab a toe and holler, “Get yer rusty-dusty outta that sack!” So stimulating. It made you want to flee that sack – which was his wake-up purpose, hey?

Sociable – It’s our family joke whenever Dad answered the phone it’d be his long-lost brother calling. It could be the IRS, but Dad would give his standard greeting: “Yeah! Hello!” with exuberant feeling, often embellished from his Polish heritage, “Jak si_ masz? Dzie_ dobry!” You’d feel glad to meet Bert Ponzi, whoever you were.

Musical – From his youth into the Navy and on through a long performing career, Dad played the most svelte instrument, the slide trombone. He blared on circus wagons, marched smartly in parades, swung in dance bands, uplifted congregations with liturgical chorales, and underscored sonorous orchestral might. Early on, playing symphony bass trombonist, he learned to accurately count rests while napping and time a hand of poker to fit any passage that only calls for things like trumpets. Thus he was also Efficient.

Instructive – It’s tough to raise a family just playing gigs, so Dad became a teacher too. He was Mr. Ponzi, the Band Director, in junior high and elementary music rooms, encouraging of young talent (or lack thereof) and energetic with a baton. Dad served in public schools for thirty-five years, then he took advantage of early retirement. Except on the golf course, not much grass grew under his leisurely feet before he was back in class again, this time teaching fellow grown-ups how to paint. Teaching pays a bonus that I enjoy too: you get to tell other people what to do – and if you’re good, they’re glad to do it.

Persistent – My Dad was a working model of industrious stick-to-it-ivity for my brothers and me. His hours were long, his jobs diverse – the ones that paid the bills and those that helped keep our home life running. He applied himself without complaint, producing big results from modest means. He and Mom were married nearly sixty years in a partnership deep-rooted as the trees around their forested home. About such successes Dad modestly said, “Stand still long enough and you’re a leader.”

Outdoorsy – On a daily basis, if he could, my Dad would willingly commune with the natural world, preferably using a ball pocked with dimples on green space with no fewer than eighteen holes.

Visually Acute and Skillful – A photographer in his younger years, he built himself a basement dark room. His work between shutter and developing pans augmented his full-time teaching job, documented family events and took pride-of-place on the walls of family and friends. When Dad retired from teaching, he took up watercolor painting.
His basement lair became a studio, where a working painter’s flotsam still crowds around the taboret cabinet he copied from the Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff deluxe model (carpentry happened in the garage). His creative evolution is embodied in this room. A negative enlarger, metronome and glow-in-the dark timer lurk behind his three-tiered painting box and stacks of paper, mats and frames. He grins out from photos in band uniform and director’s hat, tuxedoed with his bass trombone, teaching a painting class, and working away at his portable easel, somewhere outdoors. A layer of the wedding-photo craftsmanship that buttered our family bread in lean times fades to background on the walls, now splashed with liquid colors of the shoreline, farm and nature scapes he composed down there, literally each day.

Last but not least, my Dad was heartily Optimistic. He made the best of things, remaining philosophical when going gets tough. “That’s the way the ole’ pickle squirts,” he’d say.

From pickles to paintings, in white sox and brown shoes, muted or marching, Bert Ponzi was one resourceful guy.
Thanks again, Dad, for all you’ve passed to me!

Jean Ponzi hosts “Earthworms,” the environmental talk show, live Mondays 7-8 p.m. on FM-88 KDHX St. Louis Community Radio and archived/podcast at www.kdhx.org.