Armand Miele passed away in March, 2013, at 85 years of age.
Everyone knew that my father was a fighter.
Born Minus, Armand’s 2011 autobiography, tells many stories about a man from an historic generation who knew that life was hard work, and that success could come only from never giving up. At age 4 he sold shopping bags in Arthur Avenue Market in the Bronx. By the ripe age of 7 he graduated to shining shoes. He graduated high school against the odds, the first in his family. He built his own concrete business after high school, when discrimination against his ethnicity and class prevented him from getting a job. The draft took him to the Army during the Korean War, and caused the loss of his business. He survived cancer, not once but three times, and became a successful businessman.
No struggle or hardship could compare to the agony of losing a daughter, my younger sister, in 1991. Yet he found new life fighting for conscientious and fiscally responsibility in local government, by becoming an outspoken voice in the community, even running for local office. When he finally became the publisher of his beloved Rockland County Times, he found his true calling at nearly 70 years of age.
The stories that did not make it into Born Minus tell about a man who believed in honoring human relationship. One young friend met him only once, but never forgot him. She was only about 10 at the time, and had to stay overnight with our family after a painful trip to the dentist. My father made her laugh while she was alone and in pain. Another friend, whose own family life was in some turmoil, very simply remembers feeling as welcome as family at our dinner table. She remembers my father Armand treating her as warmly as his own. A niece remembers him driving her to a job interview in Queens. She was not a New Yorker. He made sure she got there and back safely, and when she got the position, he made sure she had a safe place to live, taking her apartment-hunting in unfamiliar neighborhoods.
He often played yenta when there was a question of making the right match. He met another niece’s boyfriend at a party. They’d only been going out a few months. But he began introducing the young man around as “My niece’s fiancé.” She and her boyfriend were both mortified, but they did indeed marry not long after. Another young acquaintance stayed single into her mid-thirties, and what was the question she heard from my father every time she saw him?
"But why aren't you married?"
She recalls, "Sure, it made me bristle a bit, but I knew it came from a place of valuing family above all else." She counted as proud moments the day she was able to introduce my father to her husband, and a couple of years later, to their daughter.
My father’s shrewd advice was very freely given, and not always welcome, on any topic under the sun. Even when it was hard to hear his words, you knew he offered them in perfect honesty, with a vigorous interest in your well-being and success. If you were courageous enough to follow his advice, you were likely to overcome your problems with flying colors. Again and again, people of younger generations remember Armand Miele as being like a father.
My mother saw yet another side of him, a vulnerable side, sometimes silly, but always protective of the family. Their relationship began with her professional assessment. She was a young doctor training as an anesthesiologist when she met Armand. The first time he held her hand, she grew very quiet. He asked what she was thinking.
"I'm taking your pulse," she said. "It's a little irregular. And have you ever noticed the shape and color of your finger tips?"
Even then, she diagnosed the lung problems he would have all his life. They started with smoking cigarettes as a child, he would want you to know, and he would remind his readers that yes, you know who you are, if you’re still smoking, you’re a jerk.
My mother remembers diving into a swimming pool on their honeymoon, surfacing and looking back, expecting to see him right behind her. But he was still on the steps, splashing water on his chest and arms, complaining that the water was cold. He was cold. In Jamaica, in May! But when they were out together, when he sensed the suggestion of a threat, his first response was to put her behind him. She remembers him being sick from radiation treatments the first time he was diagnosed with cancer. He weighed no more than 90 pounds at his worst. He drove from New York to Maryland for five days of treatment each week, then home again on the weekends, because, he said, it was his family that he was fighting for. On one of those weekends, an electrical fire started in the bathroom wall, behind an old-fashioned cast-iron claw-toothed bathtub. At ninety pounds, sick from radiation, he pulled the cast-iron tub out of the floor and ripped open the wall to extinguish the fire.
My favorite story about my parents’ married life begins with my father being not so nice. My mother was just learning to cook. She is from the Philippines, so the first thing she cooked for him was plain white rice. He told her that he was Italian, and he didn’t eat “this stuff.” His idea of a meal was bread and pasta.
Five years later, he was fighting for his life after the heavy radiation. He kept losing weight, and no one could understand why. After a last-ditch exam, a gastroenterologist diagnosed sprue—celiac disease, as we know it now, a debilitating sensitivity to gluten. The doctor told my father that if he made a drastic change in diet, he might get well.
“Doctor, what do I eat?” he said.
The doctor said, “Well, no more bread and pasta. You have to eat rice.”
Boiled white rice.
For this reason, my father always said his marriage was made in heaven.
My father’s last battle was complicated. He fought so many illnesses, from cancer to celiac disease to chronic kidney failure and diabetes, that no one was really sure what took him in the end. He seemed to just shut down, after looking around him and deciding that his work was done. His family, three generations of struggle and striving, was together. His business, after nearly seventy years of integrity and sacrifice, continued to solidly support that family, though he had retired a few years before. He had nothing more to want or fear. He died surrounded by love, and if love reaches beyond the grave, he lives on surrounded by love, honor, and the warmth of memory.
Donna Miele is an attorney and mother of five sons.