The first song my parents danced to as a married couple was the Frank Sinatra version of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin." Forty years later, they celebrated their anniversary with "The Best Is Yet to Come." My father has stated he wants "My Way" played as we unleash his ashes and they are blown by the wind into one or more Atlantic City casinos. (This is not my idea.)
As I grew up in an Italian American family in Sinatra's home state of New Jersey, these were the featured songs on the sound track of my childhood. His music buzzed in the background during raucous Sunday dinners and loudly called all generations to the dance floor at family weddings.
So it's only natural that we paused to remember him Saturday, the 100th anniversary of his birth. "Cent'anni," we toasted, wishing he had had all of those years. We miss a man we never met.
Frank - and yes, everyone called him by his first name - was part of the family. And family is crucial to Italian Americans. I've always known that, but it came through in a recent four-hour PBS series, The Italian Americans, which looked at the millions of immigrants who came to the United States starting in the late 19th century. My ancestors were in that batch. So were Sinatra's. This is not Family with a capital letter, as depicted in mob movies. It's a pride in shared heritage, a shared home state.
Frank's hometown long honored him with signs that read: "Welcome to Hoboken. Birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra." His home state's official website includes instructions on how to best present "The Voice of Jersey: Frank Sinatra" to middle and high school students. The lessons, it notes, meet Common Core State Standards.
I know my family is not alone in this feeling of ownership: About 12 years ago this month, I found myself in a South Jersey hotel ballroom with 40 people from the local Sinatra Social Society. They were there to mark Frank's 88th birthday. He'd been dead for five years at that point. That didn't matter.
These were the fans of my parents' generation, slightly younger than the singer himself. They traded Frank stories: There was that time Frank sent one man's mother yellow roses, and she carried them with her to bingo for five months. One woman said she'd seen the so-called Chairman of the Board perform at least 1,000 times. Some were lucky enough to have touched him or exchanged words with him. Others cherished the moments they'd locked eyes with Ol' Blue Eyes.
Frank had a way of singing that would reach into your heart and soul, one woman told me. Another pledged that die-hards like him would gather to honor the singer every year until "they throw dirt on my face. That means I'll be dead."
It's true. They do. South Philadelphia's St. Monica's Roman Catholic Church has a long-standing "Sinatra Committee." On Saturday, they planned to host a birthday party for the man they call "The Voice" in absentia.
When my sister got married in 2004, we formed a kick-line on the dance floor during "New York, New York." We swayed more sedately to "The Way You Look Tonight" when I married in 2008. My nieces - ages 7, 5, and almost 2 - have heard Frank's songs, even if they're not yet aware of it. I wonder what they'll choose to play at their own celebrations.
Natalie Pompilio is a writer in Philadelphia