Father, cook, car lover, veteran. Born on March 3, 1926, in Sydney Mines, N.S.; died on April 8, 2014, in Toronto, of congestive heart failure, aged 88.
Francesco (Frank) Viva was born in Cape Breton in 1926, the youngest of 13 children to parents who ran a bakery and hotel in Sydney Mines. A handwritten account by an older brother tells of the family holding summer feasts with music and dancing for the area’s small Italian community. When the Depression hit, the family moved into the hotel and Frank’s father and older brothers worked in the coal mines.
In the winter of 1949, Frank and his sweetheart, Barbara McNeil, eloped to Toronto. They were married on Christmas Eve, with a stranger pulled in off the street as their only witness. They slept in the living room of a relative’s place until they could find work and pay for a cold-water flat of their own in the west end.
Neither had finished high school, but Frank got a job buffing toilet seats at the Viceroy Rubber Company. After Barbara gave birth to their first child, Karen, she found work as a long-distance operator at Bell Canada. They worked hard, saved their pennies and were able to buy a new house near Keele and Lawrence in 1957, the year I was born. My father loved cars and soon after moving into their new home, he bought his first one – an orange-and-white Chevy.
On weekends, he would take my sister and me downtown, to Dundas Street West, for lunch at Vesuvio Pizzeria and Spaghetti House. Then we’d go to the butcher shop, where the floor was strewn with sawdust; if we were good, we’d get chocolate doughnuts from the bakery.
Most of my friends were fed a steady diet of meat and potatoes, but my father was a great cook and raised us on salads, manicotti, homemade pizzas and stews. In the summer, he would prepare a big barbecue feast for the neighbourhood – usually a large turkey cooked over the spit, and lots of buttered corn. He would send everybody home with peaches from the tree he planted in our backyard.
When he tired of working at the rubber factory, he found a new job as a janitor with the North York Board of Education. He took a bit of a pay cut but made the switch because he felt the job was more stable and the benefits were better; he stayed with the school board until retiring at 65.
Our parents were frugal – and generous. They saved enough to help my sister and me through college, and gave each of us the down payment for our first homes. They saved enough to buy a vacation home on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, where they spent every summer in retirement. When we visited, my father would go to the commercial wharf to buy fresh crabs, lobster or cod direct from the fishermen. Then we’d have an open-air feast in his garage, with a spectacular view of the Atlantic.
My father was a lifelong car enthusiast: After the Chevy, he had Pontiacs, a Camaro, a few Buicks and finally a gold Toyota Camry (yes, he was one of those little old men driving below the speed limit). When I saw him on the weekend before he died, all he wanted to know was what kind of car I was driving.
He passed away at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in Toronto. He was in the veterans’ wing because, during the Second World War, he lied about his age and enrolled in the army at age 16. He was still in training at CFB Borden in Ontario when the war ended, after which he went back to Cape Breton and met my mother.
He outlived most of his male friends in the neighbourhood and, after a snowstorm, could be seen going house to house, shovelling the widows’ driveways. He was a good, gentle man who made lots of people happy, including his family and many friends. We are all very lucky, for he showed us how simple it is to live a truly wonderful life.
Frank Viva Jr. is Frank’s son.