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  • Tom Rastrelli

Letter #11 — Of Birthday Cakes and Elliptical Orbits


Dear Dad,

I can remember how you changed after that talk with Bob and Rita, the Hawaii trip, and your realization that a job is just a job and relationships are what it’s about. You became more present to us kids. It’s not that you weren’t before. You came to one of our games each season, you came to a performance of each show and concert, you decorated our birthday cakes and carved our jack-o'-lanterns. You did what you could within the confines of the worldview in which you were raised. The Rastrelli modus operandi was work and family are the same thing, so the family business must be sustained and is to be served above all else. That’s understandable from the point of view of your parents, an Italian immigrant who came to the U.S. with very little and an Chicago-Italian orphan who had to care for two younger siblings when most children just are starting to read. They built that family business from nothing, so it’s understandable why sacrificing everything to keep it going was the familial mission.

Even during those years of 12- to 16-hour workdays with only one day off a week, you still taught me about the planets and stars. You fed my imagination and creativity with Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Megamania and Metroid. You showed me family was a priority by having our weekly family meal. You taught me temperance by insisting each of us kids had a small half shot of wine in a cordial glass that we learned to sip and savor. You built huge sand castles on the shores of Lake Michigan, Hickory Grove and anywhere we traveled that sand met water. You took us to Adventureland and Great America and went on all the roller coasters with us, everything except the Silly Silo, which is understandable. You did what you could to make work trips into family vacations, which resulted in our two trips to Southern California for your restaurant conventions just before the economy dried up. That, more than anything, might have changed the course of my future: Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the tram ride up into the mountains in Palm Springs, seeing palm trees and roadrunners — maybe that was the seed and catalyst for my eventual discovery that the West Coast is my place and where I fit best into this country.

You brought home ice cream and tortellini from the store at night. You made the business fun by including us kids, dressing us up as Easter Bunnies on Easter so we could deliver candy to the customers, having us blow up and then drop the balloons from the upper level of the Avanti onto the dance floor at midnight on New Year’s, and bussing tables and doing dishes on Mother’s Day. We worked together. You even made polishing all those brass railings in the Davenport store at NorthPark Mall something that I loved doing. You and mom taught me to work hard, delay gratification until the job is done, and then have fun.

I remember the freedom of exploring NorthPark Mall after I’d finished my jobs at the store: Kay Bee Toys, the arcade, the toys at Montgomery Ward, even Spencer’s Gifts. (Don’t worry; I stayed out of the adult aisles.) You and Mom taught me the value of working hard, taking care of those you’re serving, caretaking your property, and providing for your employees and family. Even in those years that you were so focused on your job and the restaurants, you were still focused on us and taught me so much.

But after that Hawaii trip, something changed. After the Davenport store closed and you were jobless, I was so scared. As much as I resented the restaurant for taking so much of your time, it was our life, our mission, our business, our family, our identity. At 18, I couldn’t foresee a future without it, even though I’d come to hate the business because I’d seen how much stress, pain, frustration and lack of reward it provided you in the late 80s/early 90s. It wasn’t like the 70s when it seemed anything was possible. The economic meltdown of the 80s and the farm crisis were bad for business, but they were also the crucible that formed us to realize that relationships are what matters most. Yes, honor, service, quality, legacy, financial stability, employment, family business, and work are all important, and relationships pervade all of those, every aspect of our lives. Loving, helping, serving and hearing others, being open to their truth, pain, joy and love, these are also essential. Those values were there even through the restaurant-centered years of your life.

I remember how you took in the young bands who played at the Avanti. The Reflections even stayed at our house. One of my earliest memories is catching lightning bugs with one of their singers. In my childhood memory, she is a mythical Farrah Fawcett holding my small hand as we ventured into the increasing shadows of the silver maples and ashes in the backyard. As the fireflies flashed around us, her blonde hair became a gently strobing nimbus.

Spending much of the past week with you and Mom was a gift. I heard you loud and clear that you want to keep living during whatever time you have left. I know that we have so much business to attend to, the business of dying — hospice, finances, bloody noses, keeping the oxygen machines running, pain management, fighting water retention, and so on. It is so easy to become so focused on all of that that we forget to live, we forget to be present to one another and to be focused on the work more than the relationships. You said to Mom and I this week something similar to, “I want things to look forward to. I want to be living.” What I heard you say is that you are not waiting to die. You are living. Maybe that’s why we put together three puzzles and you beat Mom and me in Rummy.

I was overwhelmed with joy when you sent the photo of Rowan’s 9th birthday cake that you decorated on his birthday Friday. What a gift! Even during those demanding restaurant years, you decorated our cakes every year. I remember my little kid mind deliberating for months what I wanted to have you put on my cake. I can distinctly remember my solar system cake from 1980, when Pluto’s elliptical orbit had just moved it closer to the sun than Neptune, and your design reflected that. I remember the Mario Bros. cake that you made me, in 1984, and you and Mom gave me the cartridge for Atari — an Atari 2600 that Jenny and I saved up our money from working at the store and from birthdays to purchase ourselves, thanks to the lesson of hard work that you and Mom taught us. I remember the Greedy Smurf cake. He was my favorite, because like you, he was what we call a “foodie” today.

One way, I will keep you alive, is to bake you a birthday cake every year. I think I’ll start decorating them with the planets. Because of all the things you gave me, one of the most important was to reach for the stars. And I mean that in the truest sense. You taught me to trust my imagination, creativity, intellect and heart to seek the truth of what is out there in space. You shared your awe and in doing so taught awe. You taught me that science was essential to feeding my imagination and that my imagination was essential thinking beyond the limits of our knowledge. Who knew that the desire to seek the truth of what is out there, in the world, in others, in the unsolvable mysteries of life, death, space, relationships, memory, friends, cultures, history, religion, science and being would become central to my life as a seeker of truth? Peering deeper into space led to looking deeper into my own heart, the hearts of others, and into the “truths'' of our existence. You nurtured that in me. Thank you.

So, I am overjoyed that you decorated Rowan’s cake.

We will persevere through the pain and the work/preparations for your death, and we will keep living. We will keep loving.

In the next letter, I’m curious to know something if you’re OK going there: How would you like to be remembered? And how will you remember each of us in your family? You don’t have to answer these questions. I’m just throwing them out there in case you want prompts. The question I ended every interview with when I was a reporter was, “Is there anything else that you didn’t get to share that you want people to know?” That question is always applicable in life.

I love you. I’m thankful for every minute you are with us on this planet and for every hug and breath that we share.


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