(Our dad, Dr. Anthony J. Polemeni, died on May 22nd. He was 79. I’ve tried to find solace in the fact that he led an incredible life filled with love and adventures and that his passing is part of the natural order of things. This worked for a few days but now I just feel lost. He was a great man and a great dad. Below is the eulogy I gave on Tuesday at his funeral Mass.)
I have been told numerous times that I am very much like my Dad, so I found it ironic that words, of all things, were hard to come by in writing this eulogy. I’ll start, then, with the facts.
Dad left his home in Brooklyn days before his fourteenth birthday to attend St. Anthony’s in Smithtown. He graduated high school at 16, took his vows as a Franciscan teaching brother at 18, and graduated summa cum laude from St. Francis College at 19. Soon after he began the first of his many careers, this one as a teacher. At 27 he left this vocation only to enter into another two years later – the vocation of marriage with Martha, the one love of his life. Together they raised the four of us and in turn we gave them their ten beloved grandchildren. Dad’s career path took him through the ranks of the New York City education system, then into international business and then back into education, where he ended his career with thirteen blissful years at Touro College. His professional accolades are many and the brilliance of his intellect was never questioned.
I believe, though, that he would not want you to remember him for these hard facts, but rather for the messages he tried to convey in the way he lived his life.
First, he would want you to remember that he led with his heart wide-open, giving every person he met the same amount of respect regardless of his or her rank in life. If he knew your name then he probably knew your life story. He had a gift for learning people’s long held secrets for it was clear that he would never judge you but instead he would hold your secrets in his heart until which time he would need to recall them so that he could help you. My family and I knew that Dad had helped some people over the years to overcome obstacles in order to earn their degrees. We’ve come to learn that the number of those he helped in a variety of situations is countless. He never spoke about it.
Second, Dad would want all of us to continue to seek the truth and speak the truth. He would want us to look beyond the nonsense that surrounds us much of the time and get down to the business of what is important. I know he worked hard to never waste someone’s time. He also pointed out, whenever he could, the dangers of a society gone soft, since personal responsibility meant everything to him. For example, Danielle was two or three years old and Dad walked in our house just at the moment that she and her best friend were screaming over a toy. While we moms were patiently trying to tell them to share, Dad calmly walked over, looked at the girls and told the aggressor to go find something else with which to play. Problem solved. He then turned to us and told us that he appreciated what our generation was trying to achieve with the sharing thing but really, how would we like it if someone did that to us? Or the time that he beat Matt at checkers and Matthew got upset. When I called Dad on it, he simply responded that Matthew will learn to get better and then one day he will win. It didn’t matter that Matt was five. I’ve since applied this common sense approach to every thing I do.
Third, he would hope that you would love and cherish your family as much as he did his. We know that he talked about us all of the time – and we’re sorry – but what I need his grandchildren to know is that when he spoke about you, it wasn’t for the purpose of bragging. Your Pop-Pop, this man who loved you so, was simply shouting out to the world as often as he could that he was the most blessed man alive. Pop-Pop understood that if you lead your life in a certain way then you will raise children who do the same and they will raise children as magnificent as all of you. He would want you to remember that it all started with how much he adored and respected Nanny. As brilliant as he was, he always made sure we knew she was smarter. And braver. And that his life was not worth living without her.
All of who he was, though, stemmed from the final piece he would want me to share with you. His faith. His faith in God was unshakable. He prayed every day for the people in his life, that God would shine his goodness upon them and keep them safe. His rosary beads were always near, in the hope that Mary would help intercede for him. Towards the end when it was too tiring to read he would pray, talking to the people who had gone before him in hopes that they would hear him and that they would be there to greet him when it was his time.
Being the quintessential Renaissance man who embraced all of humanity, regardless of color or creed, his greatest lesson for me is this – There is one God, some of us simply approach Him differently. As we join together now in Dad’s Mass of Christian Burial, please honor him with your prayers for a peaceful entrance into eternity.