Our Gussie

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

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.

The Only Advice I’ll Ever Need

When I left for college in 1986, it wasn’t easy for Gussie. His mother had just died, his father and his second wife had decided to move to Florida, and all the change at once had hit him hard.  

He pulled me aside after he and my mother moved me in to my dorm room and said “Listen. You’re on your own now. There are no rules like at home and nobody is looking after you. It’s going to be different and maybe rough, so remember three things: who you are, where you come from and where you’re going.” (A few months later I had a brain fart and forgot the third one and asked him to tell me again. He chuckled and said “I’m glad my advice left such an impression on you that you forgot already.” I told him that if it hadn’t meant so much to me I wouldn’t have asked him to repeat it.) 

The “who I am” part was easy. I was my father’s daughter. I defy adversity, just like he did. He drove over the bumps in the road and kept going, even if he got a little roughed up from them. I’ve learned from my father’s mistakes, even though it took a long time and I had to repeat the same ones he made in order to learn my lesson.  

My father’s unwavering faith defined him. It was important to him that I not abandon my religion, so after my first time at Mass on campus I became active in the Catholic Campus Ministry, served on the executive board for three years, made very good friends and ran some important programs for children. Gussie’s lesson paid off– it was because of my religion that I stayed at that university. The first week of classes had been rough. Homesick, I wanted to transfer and I put the ball in motion to leave after the first semester. Within a few weeks, though, I had made friends with the same values and beliefs as I, I didn’t feel alone, and most importantly, I had remained active in my faith. 

I remember the second miserable night I was there… I was at a loss for something to do..With no extracurricular activities, not having joined the campus ministry yet, I sat in my room by myself, missing home. I didn’t know how I would make friends or occupy what seemed to be a huge amount of free time after classes and schoolwork. Everything in which I had participated in high school was over. I called my parents to check in and told my father I was homesick, bored, and lonely. My roommate, who I never met, had dropped out of school just before classes started and I was alone. My father told me to go do the same things I did in high school. I remember telling him nobody was going to let a freshman write or draw for the newspaper or edit a yearbook– my two favorite school activities. Not out of impatience but perhaps frustration at me imposing limitations on myself, he simply said “‘Go do it.” 

So, I did. The next day I was assigned a story to cover and write for the university newspaper and about two weeks later I was made an editor of the yearbook.  It happened because I knew who I was and what I was capable of doing- I had just forgotten. But more importantly, my dad had not. 

It’s impossible for me to forget where I come from but my father didn’t mean logistically. He meant my roots, my people, his people. My father was a proud Italian-American- first generation. The struggle and resilience, along with the culture, language and traditions, were fresh for him. They became a bit diluted by the time I was born but not for his lack of effort. He always said he voted based first on pro-life, then Italian, then Republican. He always believed we should patronize Italian-owned establishments if possible, maintain the traditions and he was happy when I dazzled him with my four semesters of broken Italian. He would comfort me when I was teased for my dark skin and when I was called “dago,” and used those opportunities to teach me to be proud of my heritage.  Our holiday traditions were as much about family as they were about being Italian-American. I try to keep almost all of the same traditions of my parents, though I see no reason to wait until March to eat a St. Joseph cake. That’s just unreasonable. 

The “where I’m going” part was the toughest. Gussie knew that. He didn’t baby me. Nobody had babied him. High school to military– no college for him. He learned how to be a man by being a man. When I realized I no longer wanted to pursue, or had the talent for, commercial art, I dreaded the phone call home. I had decided to major in Spanish, which I loved, but not to teach, which I did not love. My mother told me not to worry and come home and work for the Acme grocery store. My father was less than pleased. “What are you going to do with… SPANISH?” he roared. “I, I, uh want to be a translator?” I didn’t even know. I was still 18- I didn’t know anything except I sucked at art and excelled at Spanish. My father tried to convince me to be a teacher for a year after that, and I rejected the idea each time. “It’s an honorable and respectable career,” he told me. I was being guided and given direction and fought it tooth and nail. That’s more than Gussie had been given, but since hard-headedness runs in the family, it was no surprise to him that I remained adamant. 

Three months into my senior year, after realizing that translation jobs were sparse in my area (this was 1990) and interpretation was really hard,  I decided I’d like to give teaching a try. So I graduated, then went right back for my teaching certificate. As I did my field work in schools and worked with kids, shared my love for Spanish and my excitement for learning it, I was convinced this was my path. It seemed natural for me. Why hadn’t I thought about it before? 

It was so strange…I didn’t know where I was going for four years. I was clueless. 

And then suddenly, I wasn’t. 

Honoring a Patriot

My father enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and was deployed to Germany as a member of the post World War 2 Occupational Troops.  

He initially taught radio systems but then became a Military Police officer. He served with pride and was shocked and humbled by what he saw in post-Nazi Germany: the “showers” where Hitler sent thousands of Jews to perish, the concentration camps in Dachau, and the destruction of human spirit that Hitler had left behind. He was profoundly moved by his time in Germany and has much of it documented in photographs, which I will share in future posts. 

But for now, I’m posting my father’s beautiful military funeral, complete with gun salute and the playing of taps. He would have been touched that these men, retired military, who had never met him, would consider him a comrade and would volunteer to provide this ceremony for him and my family. God Bless America and our Gussie. 

Please click below for the video. 

If you have Facebook, click here: Gus Fanelli military burial

Dad Was My Father

Do you use “Dad or “Father”? It doesn’t seem like a difficult question, right? Well for me and my sister, there was no question at all. 

Gussie was proper about a lot of social protocol. For example, if one of my sister or my friends called and my father answered the phone, he expected the caller to say “Hello, Mr. Fanelli, may I speak to …” His reason was that since he was the only male in the house, our friends knew who was answering if he picked up the phone. If we had company, whatever we were doing at that moment stopped and we went to greet whoever had stopped by, and made ourselves available to say goodbye when they left. 
He also disliked people using “hi” for a greeting instead of hello (bonus if hello was followed by a name) and most of all when kids would say “my dad” instead of “my father.” I can’t remember how many times he corrected me for referring to someone’s “dad.” “Dad” is what you call him, “father” is his title,” he would chide. It sounded old and stuffy to me and made little sense to me at the time but I was careful to never say “This is my dad” to a new friend. A stern look would ensue. He’d then shake the person’s hand and say “Nice to meet you, I’m Claudia’s father, Mr. Fanelli.”

My daughter helped me understand this distinction by explaining that among her friends and classmates, many of whom have divorced parents and some of whom don’t have good (or any) relationships with their fathers, some people aren’t worthy of being called one’s father. And, that to some, that term implies a lofty position in a child’s life. Anyone can be a “Dad” and of course, when we are children, we often use the term “daddy,” directly to our fathers and that’s a special word, too, but not for referring to someone. The current term “baby daddy” isn’t used to denote a good father, just the man whose DNA the child possesses. “My baby’s father” implies a stronger connection. 

   (Gussie the little man, ten years old)

There is more than grammar and semantics to this story. My father had trouble with the concept of “father” vs. “Dad” from his childhood. My father’s parents divorced when he was young. It troubled him greatly when his mother re-married because he felt conflicted calling his mother’s new husband, “Dad” when he already had a “dad” who was in his life. As an adult, he even went further to make the distinction of loyalty by using his step-father’s first name to refer to him to people and “my father” to refer to my grandfather (though he still called them both “Dad” when speaking directly to one of them.)

He specifically recalled a day when he was young when his step-father dropped him off to see his father. He got out out of the car and ran to my grandfather and said “Hi Dad!” Then he turned to his step-father in the car and said, sheepishly, “Bye, Dad.” He felt conflicted and unloyal to his own father to call them both “Dad.” It must have been confusing to a little kid, yet so strong a feeling to my father that it was something he remembered some 65 years later.  

So it’s obvious that my father had some strong convictions about why he wanted us to refer to him as “father” to others, and not “Dad.” He wanted that title- he took it seriously and it was the most important job he ever had. He did pride himself on correct English, of course, but instead of thinking of him as a stickler for social graces and proper English, as an adult I now realize the layers of meaning and experience behind his insistence on the term. 

One of the definitions of the word “father” is “a man who gives care and protection to someone or something.” By definition, then, Gussie was certainly our father, he cared for his children and protected us physically and emotionally from situations and people. 

So, though it’s easy to slip into common vernacular and refer to him as “my dad,” I’m careful to avoid it, especially now that he’s not here to reprimand me. 

Breakfast with Gussie

Gussie has been gone for seven days now. Although for the month prior to his death which he spent in the hospital and palliative care, he wasn’t able to communicate much, and not at all on the phone, I still reach for my phone at night to say goodnight to him, as I have done practically every night when I wasn’t living in his house. During the last year our conversations were short and somewhat frustrating because he was losing his hearing and blamed my phone for the problem, but I couldn’t go to sleep until I told him I loved him. 

My sister gave me the chance to do that the night before he died. She put me on speaker phone and I said, as I always did, “Good night and God bless you, I love you.”  He was unresponsive- the morphine and infection had him in a state of semi-consciousness.  But I know he heard me. I didn’t figure it to be the last time I’d tell him, but after I hung up I was fairly certain it was one of the last. Little habits and traditions come to mind now- the good night phone calls for one, and breakfast for another. 

After college I moved home and began teaching in Delaware. Gussie was my alarm clock every morning. “MAESTRAAA” he would call to me from downstairs in our split level home in Spanish but with an Italian accent, “wake up and come eat breakfast!” It was unacceptable to leave the house without eating something. My mom was already at work so Commander In Chief Gussie prepared my bagel or Eggos or English muffins or poured my cereal and had it waiting, always with the non negotiable glass of orange juice (which was nasty after having just brushed my teeth- but brushing teeth as soon as you got up was also non-negotiable) that I was never allowed to forgo. I ate quickly while Gussie drank his coffee and read the paper, quipping about what he was reading. Sometimes we talked about the previous night’s hockey game that I inevitably fell asleep watching, or baseball news. 

My favorite breakfast commentary with Gussie was always the day after Jay Leno’s Headlines which I often tried to stay up to watch or my dad would tape for me. We recounted them at breakfast the next day. He liked them so much I bought him the books of headline compilations Leno wrote. 


After my divorce I moved back to my parents’ house. My breakfasts were on the run now- my routine had changed: I now had a two year old who stayed with my parents while I worked, my mom was retired, my newly-widowed grandfather was also living there and Gussie still made me drink my orange juice, knowing it was likely all I’d have for breakfast. (It often was.) I left my daughter sleeping, kissed everyone goodbye and headed to Delaware. I missed the short breakfast chats with Gussie, but I still had my bedtime chats with him. That’s another story that merits its own post. 

It’s funny how something so remote and seemingly tiny at the time, a toasted, buttered bagel on my plate, the way he would wake me up by calling out “teacher” in Spanish (he was so proud I was fluent in Spanish and a teacher) seems so huge and important now. Simple gestures that my father made- and I was in my twenties, no longer a child, that I recognize as so important now that I will never experience them again. 

Honoring My Father

Three weeks ago, I promised my father, just before he entered palliative (pre-hospice) care, that I would be OK if he was ready to leave this earth. I’m not going to lie, I had to be sedated to say this to him. My sister told him the same thing. They were the hardest, most painful words either of us have had to utter, and yet, the most important.

My father, you see, always counted on me to be a rational, steady, reliable, yet hard-headed person, able to face obstacles thrown in my way, personal strife, and general in sundry disappointments in life. I always bounced back. My biggest tragedy to date had been the death of my maternal grandmother in 1998. I was the mother of a toddler who needed me more than I needed to withdraw into a corner and cry for my loss. Bouncing back was not easy, but it was necessary. And as my father had calmly assured me, I would eventually not hurt as badly as I was hurting at that time, but the hurt would never go away entirely. He was right.

Now my children are older- one in college (that little toddler who wiped my tears when my grandmother died) and the other a teen who no longer needs me hovering over her- I find it easier to curl up with my pillow and cry for hours at a time.  Not that I want to cry, I sometimes just can’t keep it in check. My husband, who lost his father over 30 years ago, understands my grief, consoles me, but allows me space. And in that space, I cry.

So, after making this promise to my father, which I admit I struggled to make because I didn’t really know if I would be ok without him, our goodnight phone calls, his words of wisdom and his ability to solve any problems I brought to him, I didn’t think about what it actually meant. Yet I made that promise to him so he could let go and not suffer any longer.

In the past five days since he died, I’ve alternated crying jags with devouring articles about grieving the loss of a parent and making this website to keep his memory alive for everyone who loved him. In one of the countless articles I’ve read, a woman who lost her mother at 99 mentioned “honoring” her. I let that percolate for a bit. My father would be crushed to know the agony I am in because he is gone- after all, I told him I’d be ok. Ideas raced through my head. Then quickly, within minutes, it all came together in my mind. How could I honor my father’s memory and keep my promise to him that I would be ok even though inside, I’m so very far from ok? Could it even be done, given my state of mind? And my ideas started to gel. And if you know me, you know that once I get started, I’m like a run away train. (I’m composing this at 2:00 am, if that paints a picture for you.) Hence, this post.

I made myself, my father’s daughter, a few promises that will make my dad, who of course I believe is now my guardian angel, proud and happy. They are things we either discussed or which he asked of me in the last few years. Following through on these promises, in turn, will hopefully make my grieving process less painful because I will have focus and purpose. Here are my promises:

1. Attain the rank of competitively classified Sharpshooter in the National Rifle Association. I shot clays for the first time last May, impressed my dad when I nailed my very first clay target and subsequent targets my first time out, and he excitedly told me what shotguns were best. My father earned 3 sharpshooter medals in the military and had sharpshooter classification on the police force, so this has been a goal since I knocked that first clay out of the sky. It’s a long process, but I will do it.

2. Get my health back. I am the proud owner of a brand spanking new prosthetic knee and to maintain my new parts I need to get in shape. The caveats here are 1. I don’t feel like exercising and 2. my new knee can’t do much yet.  But I need to get at least to where I was before severe arthritis sidelined me two years ago. That’s a really long road for me, especially since my knee is only 3 months old. (Below is my knee 2 weeks post-op, with staples.)

3. Pursue photography again. In the last year or two I seemed to have lost my mojo for photography. My father was proud when I started a portrait business in 2010, complete with studio. In between portraits I hauled my gear through Florida, New York City and my beautiful, historic state of Pennsylvania.

Continue reading “Honoring My Father”

Remembering Gussie


  On June 11, 1933, Augustine, “Gus” Fanelli (known as Gussie by those who loved him), arrived into the world in South Philadelphia to Lena and Joseph. On September 12, 2015, God decided Gussie should be released from his suffering after bravely battling Parkinson’s Disease, bladder cancer and an infection resulting as a complication from Parkinson’s Disease. To say that those who love him miss him terribly is a gross understatement.  His kindness, his understanding and his sense of humor are just A few tiny pieces of what made him such a wonderful human being. It is no wonder the Lord wanted him with Him.

Knowing that he is with the Lord does not make it easier for those who are still on Earth, left to wonder how life will be without his presence, his smile, his words of wisdom.  It will prove to be an arduous undertaking, especially by me and my sister, to whom he has been a rock, a best friend, a moral compass, and a parent whose fairness and genuine goodness are the bar to which we can only aspire to reach as parents ourselves.

In attempting to deal with my father’s inevitable death this summer, I couldn’t help but think of a lesson I teach to my high school Spanish classes every year, the Mexican and Latin American tradition of the day of the dead (el Día de los muertos). To those who celebrate this day (ironically on my birthday, or All Saints’ Day), death is part of life. It is not to be feared.  Each November 1, the loved ones of the departed gather to remember those who have gone to the Lord and celebrate their lives through stories, symbolic offerings, photos and parties.  I think the tradition is beautiful but not one that most Americans easily embrace, especially me. I don’t cope well with death, and to be honest, I pictured my father as invincible, so although he was ailing and 82, I still thought he would beat the odds as he had done in the past. Therefore, his death is still a shock to me.

While thinking of the Day of the Dead, I thought, why not celebrate my father’s life all the time, whenever I feel like it? And why just limit to me and my family?  So, having spent the last 9 years as a blogger, I decided to do what I do best- start a blog to commemorate the life of my dear father to help me and my family cope with our loss, but also to open it up to extended family and friends to share memories, funny stories and photos with everyone else. I would love for everyone who sees this to subscribe to it and comment regularly with a contribution, or email me a photo to share with everyone.  It won’t help us miss my dear father any less, but it will help us all to remember the impact he made on the life of every person with whom he came in contact, be it in the family, in the South Philly and Springfield neighborhoods, the police force, the army, the town watch, his colleagues, the Men of Malvern, the Knights of Columbus, the Sons of Italy, his hunting crew, his friends and so many other people with whom he came in contact. He even charmed the staff at the nursing home where he convalesced in the spring.

So please, comment on posts, email me photos (just snap a picture of it on your phone or scan it if you have a scanner), share a story.  You will be helping me and my sister and our four daughters learn things about our Gussie that we may not know, and hopefully bring a smile to the faces of others who loved him as well.

For now I leave you with my two favorite photos of me and my father- one of him with me when I was a screaming new born (he called me chicken legs, as you can see) and one with him from 2001. I hope you will share your memories as well.


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cropped-img_2329.jpg  Dad and me

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