Our Gussie

…Sharing the Life and Lessons of Gus Fanelli, Father Extraordinaire



Hopping off the Hamster Wheel of Life

Gussie was a true outdoorsman.  From when he spent every summer day at the beach as a teen, working in Atlantic City carrying beach cushions, to crabbing, fishing and hunting, he loved to be outdoors. Hunting and fishing were his favorite.  From the day after Thanksgiving, every year, when deer (buck) season started he would go to Potter County in Pennsylvania and spend a week hunting at his cabin in the mountains, which he owned with a group of his hunting buddies. He never missed the start of deer season in Potter County until claustrophobia crippled his ability to sleep in tight quarters and he reluctantly had to stop making the trip.


Success! Gussie nabbed a big one on this hunting trip.
Success! Gussie nabbed a big one on this hunting trip.

It was always an event when my father returned from his trip.  My sister and I hated that he was gone for a week; we missed him so much. We would count down the days until he arrived home and wait at the window until we saw his car pull up, then we’d race to the door to attack him with hugs. He always smelled like the mountains, his flannel shirt still musty from the cabin. His hiking boots were always a little more dinged-up. The best part of his return, though, was his unshaven face. Gussie never grew a beard until he went hunting; he always preferred to have a clean face, minus one or twice when he briefly grew a mustache.  He always came home with a week’s worth of beard, which he would rub against our cheeks to tickle us when he kissed us hello. An hour later, after his rifles were returned to his gun cabinet and my mother had started the washer to clean his hunting clothes, the beard would be gone, and our clean-shaven father was back. I always looked forward to Grizzly Gussie, who sometimes had a deer with him, and sometimes didn’t. Getting a deer meant gloves for us and a freezer-full of venison meat which only my father would cook and eat.

It was a sad day when my father returned early from his hunting trip in 2000. He couldn’t sleep in the bunk bed because he felt closed in and he felt trapped with so many people in the room.  His claustrophobia had become more and more of a problem in the past 5 or 6 years; he didn’t like to be in crowds at parades or festivals anymore. The first year he had decided not to go, I looked for local day trip hunting opportunities for him where I live but for one reason or another, they didn’t pan out. Gussie had resigned himself to a life without deer hunting.

My father had a very stressful life.  He knew the importance of pursuing a pastime that he loved so he could immerse himself, even for a short time, in something to distract him.  Hunting (and fishing, which will be another post), was his week to jump off the hamster wheel of life and go off the grid.  There was no telephone in the Potter County cabin, no tv; just a radio to check the weather conditions and kitchen appliances so their buddy, Billy, who loved to cook, could prepare meals for them. In the silence of the woods, my dad would watch for a deer to come into view and clear his mind.

My father’s devotion to his past-times taught me the importance of having activities that I am passionate about. My father was never bored.  In addition to his outdoorsman activities, he loved photography and had several cameras that he taught me how to use. A voracious reader,  he would immerse himself in material that fed his mind.  He had no time for vapid novels, but instead, he would devour history books; he had a special affinity for World War 2- he served in Germany after the war in the occupational troops. If he was watching tv, it was usually a biography or national geographic, with a sitcom here and there for some laughter- my father had a great sense of humor.

My father didn’t like the word “bored” when I was a child. When I was very young and told him I was bored, he would rattle off a litany of activities I could do- either alone or with my sister or one of my parents. I quickly learned that there was no reason to ever be bored with art supplies, books, cameras, bicycles, board games, balls, and other goodies that I had. There were no computers then, weekend tv shows for children ended at noon, and my parents didn’t believe in making weekends non-stop fun events for us on a regular basis just to keep us entertained. As a parent now, I realized I inherited this attitude from them.

As an adult I found photographing the outdoors to be my escape from the hamster wheel of life, if just for a little while.  I inherited that attitude from my father. The word bored isn’t heard in my home, and I can’t remember when one of my daughters even uttered it; they are both creative people who love to create, so bored isn’t in their vocabulary. When they were younger, they had sports. Now they feed their minds or create something from inspiration they get. Although nowadays technology plays a big role in most children’s lives, if by using it they are inspired to write or draw or paint or photograph something, then that’s something positive, and my father would be pleased that they are pursuing something that is their own and that makes them happy.




A Toast to Dad

My father was not much of a drinker.  However, in the summertime he would have a beer once in a while.  Sometimes after he mowed the lawn he’d go into the garage and grab a Rolling Rock pony from the extra fridge and then sit down on the patio on one of the thick, wooden patio chairs with the floral cushions and mop the sweat off his head with his handkerchief and sip his Rolling Rock.

I don’t know why my father liked one of the most inexpensive beers made- he had lived in Germany and tasted many different kinds of good beers, he was on the PLCB which took him to many bars where I’m sure he had access to better beers. And my  grandfather only drank Heineken so we frequently had a six pack of that in the fridge, too.  But no, my father was dedicated to his Rolling Rock.

When my father wasn’t looking, I would sneak sips of his beer.  It was mainly because he said no alcohol until I was 21- in his house or out.  So of course because it was verbotten, I had to have it.  And it tasted awful.  As did the Heineken, but my grandfather, being from Italy where age is irrelevant for having a drink, would offer a few sips to me or pour me a mouthful in a paper cup at barbecues.  “It won’t hurt ya,” he’d say, while making sure my father was nowhere near us.  It didn’t taste any better than the rolling rock and maybe even worse, because I wasn’t sneaking a sip.  On the occasions when my father caught me sneaking a sip (I really just liked the foam, to be honest), I would give him my cute cheesy smile that meant “I’m too cute to get smacked,” and my father would pretend to be angry with me but then shoo me away from his beer.  He also maintained that ladies didn’t drink beer, so that may be the reason I never acquired a taste for it.


This Thanksgiving, however, I decided we should toast my father, since it was the first holiday without him.  My husband ingeniously came up with the idea to toast with Rolling Rock.  We poured a half of a glass for everyone, and I made the toast, reminding everyone that Rolling Rock was the only beer we had ever seen my father drink- at home at least- and we raised a glass.  I have to say, that beer tasted like my youth- memories of stolen sips in the summer and pretend scoldings and time spent with my father- it was a sweet memory and I hope that if my dad was watching, that he raised his Rolling Rock pony in heaven at the same time.

Thankful For My Uncle

Me and my uncle, 1974

This Thanksgiving I am so grateful for my loving family. They have been a constant source of comfort to me. My cousins in Jersey have been looking out for me non-stop since September, and they know how hard it is, having lost their mother, my dear aunt, 7 years ago. My husband has been amazing to me throughout my father’s illness and death and in the weeks since, for he also knows what losing a parent feels like. He never diminishes my feelings or compares them to his. He knows that saying a grieving person should be “grateful” to have had the loved one X amount of years or that the loved one “lived a long life” is disrespectful to the grieving person. It does nothing to help the griever get past the grief. It would be easy and even logical for him to say this since he lost his father when he was 19.  But my husband is a sensitive, wise man who knows that everyone’s grief is different and all grief should be respected. He is a prince among men; a quiet gentleman much like his father.  (Read this to learn what NOT to say to someone who is grieving. Click: What not to say) I have had to help my children deal with the loss of their grandfather which has kept me focused on the happy memories they enjoyed with him, and that keeps me from dwelling on my own pain. So for my family I am most grateful this year.

But this post is specifically about my Uncle Bill (Boog), my father’s brother.  This year, while I count my blessings for my mom’s side of the family for letting me lean on them and reminding me how important my family is to me, and for my husband and children, I am also grateful for my uncle. With more on his plate than the average human, he has stepped up to be my sister’s and my surrogate father, just as he promised his brother before he died.

My dad and his brother, Bill, at ages 6 and 20.

Boog and Gussie were 14 years apart.  My grandmother re-married when my father was around 10. She and her second husband, with whom my father lived, had my uncle together. At 14 years apart you can imagine the annoyance a teenage boy must have felt with a toddler running around the house, getting into his things.  And that was true for my father and my uncle. (My father frequently recounted the story of Boog breaking his record albums when he was a kid.) But when my uncle was a few years older, my father was more like a father than a brother to him, taking him under his wing and teaching him what to do and what not to do- often just by example. He showed him how to be resilient in the face of adversity, and eventually because he was a present, loving father to me and my sister, how to be a great father to the children my uncle would have one day.  I guess you could say my father had some experience being a parent before I was even born.

Target practice
Gussie was an avid outdoorsman and spent the week after Thanksgiving every year until 2001 in his cabin in Potter County for deer season. Here he is behind the cabin at target practice.

My father looked out for my uncle and he taught my uncle some special talents: how to shoot a gun, for example.  My father was a sharp shooter in the army and the police force and had a hunting cabin in Potter County, Pennsylvania.  He would take my uncle there and teach him how to handle a gun and how to shoot behind the cabin along the creek. Something else my uncle learned there from my father was how to drive a car (his age is not important at this juncture, but let’s just say it was not quite sixteen). Learning how to shoot with my dad is a special memory for my uncle, who as a result grew up with a respect for weapons and who has since taught his own sons to respect and use firearms responsibly as well.  Before my uncle became a lawyer he worked with my father in real estate.  Even that was a lesson- he decided that career was not for him and he went on to eventually become a successful litigator and formed his own law firm.

My father was the prototype in the family- as many oldest children are.  My grandmother made some mistakes in rearing him; he made plenty of his own mistakes in his personal and professional life, and my uncle was able to choose to either learn from the outcomes of these mistakes or ignore them and figure it out on his own. He did a little of both. The mistakes they both made contributed to the people they became.  And each of them became kind, generous and  loving fathers to their children, loyal friends to those around them, and honest professionals- sometimes to their detriment- but always affording them a clear conscience so that they could sleep at night.


Boog and Dad, 2005

My uncle’s silliness is always a source of entertainment to adults and children alike; it’s a gift that not everyone appreciates. He was 21 and in college when I was born, just a kid himself.  He is also my godfather. (And he’ll do a little Brando when you remind him of his title.)  In very early photos it’s clear he was a little “deer in the headlights” with me as the first baby in the family.

But being young, he seemed to adjust quickly to my existence and took to me like a new toy. From the origin of how I started calling him “Boog,”(a sound he used to make from a tv show to get me to laugh), to memories of him throwing me like a football to a group of boys at a park when I was 4 years old (“Hey kids!  You need a ball?”) and cutting into birthday cakes with his bare hands, he was the yin to my father’s yang. My father was often stern and serious, although he did have an outrageously funny side (which some call corny but I loved). My uncle, a loquacious, life of the party type of guy and a masterful debater, balanced out my father’s usually quiet, no-nonsense approach to raising me and my sister. My father was quietly wise but could discuss many of topics- and had an opinion on all of them. His brother is also opinionated and very intelligent, but will offer his thoughts whether solicited or not.  My father’s silliness was carefully tempered with his more reserved personality.  My uncle lets his silly out whenever he wants, something that didn’t always sit well with his older brother who believed there was a time and a place for everything.  Their relationship had a lot of father-son elements to it.

It’s rare for me to call him “Uncle Bill” because he was more like a cousin to me when I was growing up.  I’ve called him Boog since I could talk. (And he calls me “Gagoo.” It’s been so long I forget why.) There was no getting in trouble with him (not that I ever got in trouble). Boog never minded when my sister and I would climb on him like monkeys. I still remember him being relegated to bath duty when I was 3 and he came over to our South Philadelphia home to help my father re-do my bedroom. Instead of wall-papering, he got sent in to wash my hair, which even thought it was 40+ years ago, I recall as a big splash-fest. When I graduated from 8th grade he came down the shore to visit and he took me out to buy me graduation presents on the Wildwood boardwalk.  There we found an arcade. He spotted the centipede game said “Sorry, sweetheart, I gotta play this.” He then positioned himself at the game and for close to a half an hour he maneuvered that joystick, stopping every few minutes to fling the sweat from his brow onto the floor- yeah, he was that into it.


Centipede- photo courtesy of

My uncle doesn’t stand on formality and never has. I love this about him. He’s a down to earth guy from South Philly who has no airs about him. He is a voracious reader and has musical talents- both traits he shared with his brother. And yet, though he went to college and law school, he never acts like anyone but himself – no one could ever call him phony or pretentious.

thebusyfinchhorseI might be going out on a limb a little when I say this but my uncle saved my life when I was four years old. I had gotten a rocking horse for Christmas. It was the kind that was elevated and hung on springs and bounced up and down and back and forth. On Christmas day he had come over early before dinner and was in the kitchen with my parents who were getting everything ready for dinner. While I was rocking away in the living room in front of the big, fat Christmas tree;  I was so enthralled by the horse that I didn’t notice the big, fat tree come loose from the stand and start to fall on me. My uncle, seemingly from nowhere, appeared and caught the tree before it crushed me and messed up (more importantly!) my horse.

My uncle, like my father, was close to 40 when his children were born. I remember him lamenting this fact but his age didn’t stop him from playing video games on the floor with his boys when they were little. He became a devoted hockey dad to both of his sons as well as a dedicated step-parent to his wife’s children whom he accepted and loved as if they were his own children. His personality hasn’t changed – he has not mellowed over time.  He can still entertain the family, even when he’s not trying.  And as a testament to his influence, his oldest son has followed in his footsteps and become a lawyer.

When my father’s health declined drastically last spring, my uncle told him he would step in for him with me and my sister. I know that put my father at ease and helped him let go. Following my father’s initial hospital stays, I had my knee replaced and had a horrible recovery lasting almost 3 months; it prevented me from visiting my father for 2 weeks, which made me feel terrible.  My uncle called me several times a week to check on me, to ask what he could do, to give me names of doctors in case mine wasn’t doing enough for me, and most importantly, to lift my spirits. This is exactly what my father would have done for me if he had been able to talk and process information sufficiently.  Each time he called me I cried, both because he was being so kind, and because he was being a guiding force for me when my father was unable to do so.

Not only do I probably owe Boog my life but my father unquestionably owed him his. My father was a pretty hard-headed man, whose stubbornness genes live on in me. About ten years ago he had been feeling lightheaded and out of breath particularly when climbing the stairs.  After a few weeks of this, my mom started to urge him to go to the doctor.  He refused, saying it was nothing. She called me to tell me about it and asked me to convince him to go see a doctor. During my nightly calls to him I repeatedly asked him to go see a doctor and he blew it off.  I told my mom that he wouldn’t listen to me. He had already ignored my sister’s requests.  My mom said the situation was getting really bad and didn’t know what to do.  My father had had a heart episode when I was three, causing me to learn how to dial a phone to call for help.  I kept replaying that early memory, which to this day is as vivid as if it had been yesterday, and I panicked.  There was only one thing I could think of that would persuade my father to get help. I needed to call in the big guns. I needed to call Boog.


Boog had a good friend who was a doctor, Barry Koch, God rest his soul. I remembered this and called my uncle and begged him to get my father to see Barry  before something tragic happened. Boog had not known this was going on and his voice thundered through the phone “IS HE CRAZY?” He said he would take care of it.  He drove to my parents’ house and laid into my father, telling him if he didn’t go to the doctor, he could die in front of his wife and children. My father, realizing he was fighting a losing battle, reluctantly agreed to go see Barry.  A few days later Boog picked up my father and took him to get checked.  A week after that he was in the hospital having stents placed in three clogged arteries.

My father was given a extra ten years of life thanks to his brother.  He got to see his fourth granddaughter as a result.

Gussie with 3 of his 4 princesses.  if not for my uncle, he’d gave only been around for  the three of them.

He got to meet my husband as a result. And while I grapple with this because it also means he eventually got Parkinson’s and suffered for three years instead of possibly dying as he always wanted to – quickly from a heart attack – I am grateful that we had another ten years to love him and be loved by him. It might be a bit of a stretch to say my uncle saved my little four-year old life when he stopped that tree from falling on me, but it couldn’t be truer that him getting my father to the doctor was what kept him around to give us his wisdom and love until this year.  If only he had stuck around long enough to see the Eagles win a Super Bowl, he might have considered his life complete, but we can’t expect to live forever, now can we?


No Tiara For Me…

My birthday recently passed and I knew it would not be a good one so, I kind of chose to spend it alone as much as possible. My oldest daughter took me out for IMG_3395lunch, the boys had a soccer game that my husband had to take them to and my youngest was visiting her sick grandmother. It was perfectly low key. But the tone had already been set by my mother’s card which arrived the day before and was signed “All my Love, Mom.” The absence of my father’s name was jarring. For 46 years his name was on my card. “Mom & Dad” were one word. You didn’t separate them. It was inconceivable to me that one day I’d see just half of that one name. But this year I did. And it stung and I cried. It was concrete proof that my father was gone, as if I needed any more evidence.

It was my first birthday without my dad singing happy birthday to me. As he became sicker and Parkinson’s stole his voice, his booming baritone became smaller on the other side of the phone or in person when he serenaded me each year. As far as birthdays go, I’m not into the pomp and circumstance all that much but I realized this year that I really loved hearing him sing to me.

This birthday with my father made me reflect on my birthdays in general, and specifically, the day I was born. Gussie had high hopes for me from that day forward. On the door of my bedroom he put a sign that said “Miss America, 1988” and left it there for some time. It was a gutsy move considering I was a scrawny 5+ pounds with a shock of black mohawk sticking straight up and what they all referred to as “chicken legs.” He saw beauty and potential in me even then, and through my childhood when I never saw it myself.  I never took the story of that sign seriously because it always seemed like a joke, but looking back, in 1968 that was a pretty lofty title for a girl to have and my dad, believing me to be the most beautiful baby in the world because he created me, must have just assumed I was worthy of it.

As I evolved into an anti-Miss America contender and I clearly wasn’t going to be pageant material, his dreams for me changed. Studying art in college in order to be a commercial artist, I had his support as I created my portfolio. While changing my major to Spanish did not fit into his idea of using my talents to the best of my abilities, he soon found I had another ability–languages– and he gave me his support to be a teacher, which took me a few years to decide to do. He encouraged me, slowly, cheered me on, until finally I returned to school to get my teaching certificate. That made him prouder than a Miss America title or a job as a translator, my original intention. He had always wanted to go to West Chester University to become a teacher but with no money, guidance, or cheerleaders and nobody able to pay his way, he joined the army. I went to West Chester’s rival to become a teacher, but the outcome was the same.

While I’d like to think that a Miss America title (never before given to a chubby girl with a big perm and no talent) COULD have been mine and would have made my father deliriously happy, I think he was prouder that it was my brains that got me to where I am today. It was the place he had wanted to be and I carried that out for him.

So, I never got a crown but I did get chalk, a pointer, and some 3,000 kids over my 24-year career–some of whom were just incredible human beings and reinforced why I do what I do. I love my career and I think that even though I don’t have the tiara, my father is still beaming with pride.

Me and Gussie, 1997

Cheesesteaks and Memories


Forget Tony Luke, Pat’s and Geno’s.The best cheesesteaks I’ve ever had were those made by my father.

My father was old-school in that he believed the wife should do the cooking. He knew his way around the kitchen but preferred that my mother prepare the meals. It was ill-advised to critique my mother’s delicious food, something that never sunk in to my father’s head as he occasionally made “suggestions” to a particular dish my mother had cooked.
So it was always very novel to me when on the occasional Saturday night, my father would make us cheesesteaks and give my mom a break. I looked forward to it, partly because it was cool to see my father cook but mostly because his “samiches” were delicious.

Gussie started with the Italian steak rolls- not the mushy kind in a bag, but the crusty kind from the bakery department in Acme- he’d put them, split open, in a barely warm oven. Then he’d cook the steak- not from the butcher shop which would result in anarchy in my house, but Steak-Ums. He’d break them into pieces, cook them in a little oil until brown, drain the meat a little, then sprinkle his special ingredient, which I’ll share with you so you can try this at home. (G’head, it’s fantastic.)
While the steak absorbed the flavor from his special ingredient, he put slices of provolone on the warming rolls. After a minute or two, he’d heap the steak and secret ingredient mixture on top of the melting cheese in the roll. Often my mother had a pot of leftover broccoli di rabe from the night before warmed up and we’d eat that for our vegetable, or my father would throw a salad together. (My mother never served even pizza without soup and salad- meat, starch and greens were part of Every. Single. Meal.)
I always preferred ketchup on my cheesesteak, sometimes I’d mix mayo and ketchup together and put that on it. But the real taste sensation was that special ingredient. It’s a common weapon in the Italian-American cook’s arsenal. It’s oregano. A sprinkle in the steaks while cooking then a quick dash when he loaded it into the roll.


When Gussie died on September 12, my husband and I picked up my oldest daughter from college. I felt the only appropriate meal that night would be a cheesesteak. Believe it or not, in spite of being born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, my child had managed to never try a cheesesteak until a few weeks before. She called me that day, incredulous, asking how this had happened. The finicky eater had now decided she loved Philly cheesesteaks and was willing to try mine in honor of her grandfather. My husband, not a cheesesteak fan (New Yorkers, beh!) conceded that as far as steak sandwiches go, this one was pretty good.
So last night I made them again, and in spite of the lack of perfect rolls, the taste took me back to the 80’s, and I could picture my father standing at the stove and whistling and joking with me and my sister while he made those sandwiches. And even if I had the wrong rolls, dinner last night was still pretty damn good.

Honey, Lemon and Love

When I was a kid, certain care-taker roles in my house belonged to my father. I don’t know if one time he just stepped in or my mother was unsure of what to do, but there were a few that were definitely “Dad’s turf.”

One of these was sore throat care. Possibly because my father liked to sing (and did it well), he might have taken good care of his throat when he was sick himself. So when my sister or I were sick with a cold and sore throat, we counted on our Sicilian grandmother to slather us with Vicks- (read my story about her here: Nonna & the Vicks) and my dad to whip out the spoon. You see, the spoon was for a pile of honey, onto which he would then squirt lemon juice and pop into our mouths. Not my favorite but just as sure as I was that I would have a glass of orange juice for breakfast the next morning, I knew I was getting a spoon of honey and lemon when I got sick. It did make us feel better, but not as good as the cup of hot tea with honey and lemon he would make us before bedtime. Something about that tea when I was sick- even living there as an adult- comforted me.

It turns out my dad had the right idea all along. The Mayo Clinic published an article about the benefits of honey and lemon for sore throats and coughs, giving ME some backup now that I give it to my children. I think just knowing that Pop Pop used it should be enough, though. (Read: Mayo clinic.)

Another remedy my father insisted on was Chloraseptic throat spray. I HATED IT! Right down the throat but not fast enough to miss my tastebuds! I begged my father to let me skip that part but he would say “one quick spray” while I held my mouth open and he got two quick bursts in there instead of one. Duped! But on really bad throat days, that awful stuff numbed the heck out of my throat and allowed me to go to sleep. Father knows best.

So many nights as a kid I would be in bed, covered in Vicks and a flannel cloth courtesy of my grandmother, sipping tea and waiting for my shot of Chloraseptic so I could go to sleep. It was kind of an ordeal as well as a tradition. On days like today when I have a cold and sore throat, I wish my father were here to make me some tea or at least offer the advice as he had done for my adult life whenever I was sick: “Make yourself some tea with honey and lemon.”

This is my first cold where he hasn’t been here to give me that expected, yet sage advice. I’m an adult, I didn’t need him to tell me, but I was always glad he did. So, in his honor I had a spoonful of honey with lemon juice tonight.

I feel better already.

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