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54° Good Afternoon

The shock of my father's mustache gone

Matilda Russo of Bellport with her father, Nicholas

Matilda Russo of Bellport with her father, Nicholas T. Rizzo, in the 1990s. Photo Credit: Russo family photo

I hated it. It didn't even match. His hair was black and it was red.

My father, Nicholas Rizzo, started growing his mustache during World War II when he was 17 and joined the Coast Guard. That's also when he started losing his hair. The story he told me was that he leaned over the ship's railing and his hair fell into the ocean. That seemed feasible to me at the age of 4. All I knew was that he was bald (except for a swath of black at the back and side) and had a mustache, and that was the only way I'd ever known him.

It scratched me when he kissed me. I grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Before going to work as a supermarket manager each morning, my father would wake me with a kiss that would irritate my cheek. That, and the smell of English Leather cologne, which was pleasant to most but nauseated me. Yuck.

When we had our own children you could always tell, by the redness of their cheeks, when Pop had kissed them. By now it was white, along with the salt-and-pepper hair.

He turned 90 in July 2013. The next several months were tough ones. By the next March, he was so fragile he needed nursing home care after a difficult hospital stay on Long Island. We were lucky he was still alive. He had been in the nursing home for rehab several times before. They knew him. It was familiar for him.

He was admitted to the nursing home on a Tuesday in March. On Friday, I entered his room to see him sitting in a wheelchair, dressed, neat and clean. But with no mustache.

I kissed him hello and walked out of the room. I was shaking. A nurse asked if everything was all right.

"They shaved his mustache," I said.

"Oh, you didn't want it shaved?"

She told me I should have told the staff to make a note that the mustache stays.

My father was lethargic, hardly spoke. I couldn't tell if he knew what had happened.

I called my husband. Trying to make me feel better, he said, "It will grow back."

I called my brother. After he said a few choice words, he said, "It will grow back."

We all said, "Let's just pray he doesn't know."

It was the supreme indignity in a series of indignities that he had to suffer as he grew weaker.

He didn't have the chance for it to grow back. We had lost my mother in March 1990. By Sunday morning, she called him to be with her. I only hope she recognized him without the mustache.

I know we were lucky to have him for so long. I manage to hold it together because my rational mind tells me we didn't want him to suffer anymore. Circle of life and all that. It's been more than a year. Still, I'm brought to tears every time I think of my father's mustache.

Reader Matilda Russo lives in Bellport.


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