If you’re lucky, and I mean very lucky, you have a second mother like Gail D’Angelo.
Pete, the third of her four boys, and I were in the same homeroom. He wore an “I’m a Pepper” t-shirt to soccer tryouts and instantly impressed everyone with his skill. (I didn’t make the team.)
Pete became my closest friend in high school and I spent a lot of time at the D’Angelo’s home on Tappan Street.
What a home it was.
The family had already lived in Denver, Atlanta, Memphis and Houghton by the time they arrived in Brookline in 1979. These transitions and times in remote areas like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had helped form vicelike bonds between family members, but the truth is they would have been tight wherever they lived.
“We were always embraced and told we were loved,” Pete once told me. I grew up not always having that feeling, so was drawn like so many others to their house.
Six o’clock meal times were sacred.
Pete talked about how he and James, in the midst of tightly contested basketball games at Dean Park, upon finding out that it was five minutes shy of dinner, would leave without compunction and sprint as fast as they could to make it home on time to consume the latest batch of Mrs. D’s legendary red sauce.
The D’Angelos watched television together in the living room, and the heart of the home was the long wooden dining room table, site of many epic conversations.
You better have an opinion and come ready to defend it.
Any topic was fair game.
Had there ever been even a 12-year period in American history in which the nation had been true to its lofty creed? Did gay and lesbian people make things better or more difficult for themselves by protesting? Was it legitimate to miss the wedding of the daughters of one of Dr. D’Angelo’s closest friends for very good seats at a Patriots exhibition game with and courtesy of Sam Matz?
In issues of art, the ultimate question was whether you would hang the artist’s work on your wall.
All were debated in passionate and vigorous fashion in conversations that lasted hours. While there was plenty of posturing, yelling and more than a few insults thrown into the mix, there was at base a core commitment to seeking a higher level of understanding through dialogue, a quest for truth.
A series of guests sat at the table. One night could bring Neil Lempert, one of Dr. D’s oldest and closest childhood friends from Astoria. Another could bring Boston University colleagues like Tony Mavretic. And a third could bring All-American Venezuelan soccer player Che Che Vidal.
All were welcomed into the fabric of D’Angelo family life.
The result was easily the most creative incubator I have ever had the privilege to experience. Cartoons, painting, sculpture, pottery, rap music delivered by The Goats, tampon cases, t-shirt businesses, books and movies—all emerged from conversations at 338 Tappan Street and the home of Henry and Gail D’Angelo.
Her gentle face framed by round glasses, Mrs. D. was at the core of it. Her kindness radiated out from her center and suffused her being with tenderness. Her greeting on the phone, “Hi, dear,” always conveyed a love that enveloped you and made you feel cared about, seen and safe. She and Dr. D’Angelo taught their four boys to be fully themselves, to know that family meant most, and to cultivate their unique gifts and talents. All three parts stuck, and the boys have grown into husbands and fathers who have loved their children and wives in the same fierce way Dr. and Mrs. D. did during their quarter century of marriage.
She tended to Dr. D faithfully and without complaint during the four years after he was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. Along with Gioia, the boys’ Sicilian grandmother, she was right next to him as he took his final breath in the home and with the family the two of them had made.
I offered to leave so they could all be alone.
“You are one of us,” she said.
I ran the Boston Marathon in Dr. D’s honor just over two weeks later.
I had spoken with Mrs. D. before the race and said I might pass by their home around 3:00 p.m.
She was there just at the time, standing atop the wall near Star Market at the intersection of Beacon and Tappan Street.
She waved wordlessly to me.
I was cramping and had been doing a combination of walking and running for the previous four miles, but I kept going. Her silent reminder of why I was running helped me finish.
Dr. D’s death marked the beginning for me of Mrs. D’s next phase, one in which she moved out in the world, returning to and developing her artistic pursuits. A Batik artist when she was younger, she very well may have gotten there anyway, but I always felt that losing the only man she had loved that way at a comparatively young age made her bolder and braver.
This new period led to some seriously zany moments.
Like the time she announced years before any of the boys had wives or children that she wanted her grandmother name to be “Scissors” and proceeded to elaborate on her decision-making process and the benefits of what she had chosen.
Or when she came downstairs to do a line-by-line reading of a song she had written in neat cursive letters on white lineless paper called, “I’m an over 50 white mother rapper.”
Or when she heard Vinnie’s friend Randy Kolovsky bang away on the guitar at the basement, turned to the rest of us at the dinner table and declared, “He’s really fighting it down there.”
In her art, Mrs. D. took on the theme of the housedress. She subverted the era in which she has been and represented the dress in a different, less constraining and confining way.
Her work gained her mention in the New York Times, where a reviewer described her ”The 1st to Last Homemade Housedress,” as “a tissue-paper sewing pattern with elaborate instructions for embroidering sexist vulgarities in strategic locations.”
She won recognition from national women’s art organizations and earned fellowships at prestigious art colonies like Macdowell in North Carolina and Ragdale in Lake Forest.
In an article for a MacDowell newsletter Mrs. D. described herself as an inveterate piler, concluding that “If MacDowell is about anything, it’s about the primacy of the artist’s work space. I have, for my own mental health and enrichment, kept that lesson going in my own home. Give or take a pizza box.”
She wrote these words and did her work under the name Anni Abbi.
In this regard she was only following her children. For the additional hook vocal we shared for the song “TV Cops” on Goats’ debut album, Tricks of the Shade, Paul William D’Angelo became Paul Diesel. After a trip to South Africa in which he danced on the streets of Soweto, Gus morphed into Gazzi. Pete turned into Vinnie Angel and then Vinnie the Tamponcase Salesman. James had so many different names stretching back to high school that you couldn’t come close to remembering them all, and I have a pretty good memory. (Think Oatie of the Goaties, Tommy Rome and Jaimito Situchi for starters.)
Mrs. D. came to Lake Forest shortly after Dunreith, Aidan and I had moved to Evanston.
I saw her work and we drove in to watch the July 4 fireworks that cascaded over Lake Michigan with my family.
Then, as always, she gave me the same affirmation, this time as a husband and father.
She had done that for years.
Before Dunreith, Aidan and I had ventured west from Massachusetts, we spent parts of three summers at the D’Angelo’s small, rustic red cabin that abutted Cushman Pond in Center Lovell, Maine. We’d canoe around the pond, play Lego soccer, bury Aidan in the sand at the nearby beach and eat freshly cooked lobster every night. We’ve gone to a lot of places as a family since then, and Center Lovell still remains near the very top of treasured, peaceful memories.
I’d call every so often after we moved to Chicago.
Even though we didn’t see each other as much, the connection was the same.
Mrs. D. was always encouraging, her voice carrying the same love and care.
We last saw each other at a book launch event in the auditorium of Pierce School in 2012. The Alzheimer’s had already started its relentless, inexorable advance, but she knew who and where she was, and was happy and grateful to be there with James, his lovely wife Ronah and their son, Enrico, named for her late husband.
Mrs. D., my beautiful, gentle, feisty, endlessly-loving second mother.
Thank you for giving my childhood best friend and his brothers life.
Thank you for helping me become a husband, father and man.
Although your passing brings us great grief, we are deeply grateful for the nearly 50 years and countless moments we shared with you and for all that you gave us by how you lived.