Best of 2020: Watching Andrew Cuomo's pandemic briefings finally let me grieve my father

Our 2020 retrospective continues with this tribute to a father's uncanny similarities to a governor in crisis mode

Published December 21, 2020 6:59PM (EST)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gives his a press briefing about the coronavirus crisis on April 17, 2020 in Albany, New York | Photo of writer as a child with her father (Photo illustration by Salon/family photo courtesy of author/Getty Images)
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gives his a press briefing about the coronavirus crisis on April 17, 2020 in Albany, New York | Photo of writer as a child with her father (Photo illustration by Salon/family photo courtesy of author/Getty Images)

This essay was originally published in Salon on August 30, 2020. We're revisiting Salon's Best Life Stories of 2020 now through the end of the year. Read more Best of 2020 here.

When Andrew Cuomo became governor of New York in 2011, my father said to me, "You're related to him. You should go talk to him and see what he can do for you." My father's mother was a Cuomo, Esther Cuomo, and she was the product of a two Cuomo marriage, the union of John Cuomo and Sara Cuomo. (It was the old country.) John and Sara immigrated to the United States around 1897 from Nocera, the same part of Southern Italy that birthed the Cuomo political dynasty. So does that mean we're related? Maybe. I think if you go far back enough the branches in our family trees probably cross somewhere. How far back? Too far back to ask for favors.

So this was kind of a dumb suggestion on my dad's part, but nothing to get angry about. But I responded badly when he made it and every other time he brought it up until his death in 2018.

The reason I reacted badly had nothing to do with the governor and everything to do with my relationship with my father. My father loved his family, I am certain. He told us so often, if flatly and dispassionately like a priest who does too many weddings. "Oh, I love my family," he would declare, apropos of nothing, and then move along, presumably to do something that interested him a bit more than we did. Where his money was concerned, he felt entitled to only what was left over after his children got everything they could possibly want. At the macro level of parenting, you couldn't fault him. At the micro level, he broke my heart. He was distant and joyless and bafflingly uncurious about his children's lives. Monotone declarations of love came easily and often; attempts at connection were rare.

To add insult to injury, I have one memory of my father being overcome by emotion and it had nothing to do with us. When Roberto Benigni accepted the Oscar for "Life is Beautiful," my father wept a little. I was dumbstruck. I turned to my mother who shook her head wearily. "He didn't see that movie," she said, "he just likes seeing Italian men win things."  

My brother made his peace with the strangeness, but I did not and it made for an ugly adolescence. Our father-daughter dynamic became like a child poking a hibernating bear with a stick. Teenage me preferred an explosive interaction to none at all.

But by the time my father started telling me to call the governor of New York for a favor, I was an adult. I had also, by then, had some success in my writing career, which led to a new strand of tension between us. When I got good reviews, my father sprang into action to have photocopies made and mailed to his relatives. It didn't look to me like paternal pride, however. It seemed to me that his zeal to share my press was mostly about the pleasure of seeing his own name in print. He was a dour man as a rule, but he occasionally lit up—eyes glimmering, smile beaming—when he talked about himself. His Italian lineage! His service in World War II! He was forever coming at me with maps of Italy and notebooks detailing the minutiae of his war service and I was forever pushing him off because when had he ever shown interest in my minutiae?  

My father telling me to call Andrew Cuomo enraged me because it seemed to spring from two of his most maddening qualities: autobiographical narcissism and a lack of curiosity about the finer details of my life. I write plays and television. What exactly did he imagine the governor of New York could possibly do to make that path easier for me? So I not only rejected the suggestion, I banished it. And I banished it to a degree that unnerves me. I have exploited far, far thinner personal material for wit.

In 2019, the National Organization of Italian American Women made me a recipient of their annual award. After the ceremony in New York, a woman approached me and identified herself as the Director of Italian-American Affairs for Governor Cuomo's office. She bore a boilerplate letter of congratulations and offered me her business card "in case there's ever anything we can do for you."  I thanked her and pocketed the letter. I said nothing.

Around the same time, my labor union, the Writers Guild of America, was lobbying furiously for a tax credit that would incentivize television shows that film in New York State to hire women and people of color. I traveled to Albany with the union on a lobbying mission. I wrung my hands in meetings about what it would take to get our bill passed. In a room full of writers, surely there was a joke to be made. Something about working it out with my cousin over Sunday dinner, maybe? Nope. Never even thought to mention it.

I missed those opportunities—opportunities for connection or merely for wit—because they came to me via my father. I had spent the entirety of my father's golden years asserting that his Cuomoness was worth nothing to me. As a person of integrity, I felt I needed to hold firm to that position.

But I could not have anticipated the coronavirus.

I started watching the governor's press conferences for the same reason most people did: I was scared. Overnight New York felt like a science fiction movie and, in the absence of a coherent message from the oval office, the speculation was nightmarish. I heard that the National Guard was out in HAZMAT suits preventing people from leaving New Rochelle. (Not true.) I wondered if I should take my kid and flee before they locked down New York City. But what if we left and they wouldn't let us come back?

In this time of surreal terror, a gaping leadership vacuum opened and the governor of New York stepped into it with 111 straight days of daily press briefings. I can't say I tuned in and immediately found what I was looking for because I was looking for Bill Clinton. I wanted deep, syrupy empathy and beautiful promises. Barack Obama would empathize in a moment like this, but he wouldn't sugarcoat. And I needed sugar.

Andrew Cuomo offers no sugar. His resting expression is dour. When he speaks emotionally—and he often does—there is a distance, a clinical remove from the content of his words. He says devastating things with a flat affect, things like "you're going to lose people. That's life. That's up to someone else. That's above my pay grade."   What he brought to the table in the absence of Clintonian empathy was, chiefly, math. He had graphs and tables and metrics illustrating the progress of the epidemic and he updated them daily. His language was the language of machines. Shutting down the economy was "throwing a switch in the basement."  How soon could the city re-open? That was like reading a car dashboard, he told us. It would involve reading dials and meters that would inform the turning of valves. There were blunt sports metaphors (the economy would bounce back like a football, not a basketball) and car talk. So much car talk.

Cuomo's mantra over the coming months would be "facts not emotions." His was a "data driven response," he told us repeatedly. It's not that he didn't acknowledge our collective anguish; he did. But he acknowledged it in flat, declarative sentences like "there is no doubt that this is a horrendous time to live through." And he wasn't averse to talking worst possible scenarios—flatly, unemotionally. Forget hope and comfort, he imagined disasters I hadn't even considered. "Don't be stupid," he told us often. What would happen if we were stupid? The infection rate would continue to rise and transit workers might stay home to keep their families safe. And if transit workers stayed home and medical personnel couldn't get to work?  Then, my friends, we would be in real trouble. My father did this, too—invited you to imagine the outer-reaches of catastrophe when what you were looking for was reassurance. When I told my parents that I wanted to have a baby on my own, my father's response was, "If the child was born with problems, that would be very bad." When I bought car insurance for the first time? He said, "I like to carry enough insurance that if I hit a school bus full of children, I would be covered." Prudent, sure. But did we really have to go there?

My father never really got it when I tried to explain why this kind of response was unsatisfying. Andrew Cuomo, on the other hand, got it, or at least to paid lip service to the critique, which was a start. His three daughters had made him aware of his "flawed communication modality," he told us. And he told us this often. But he also ended his briefings everyday with the word "love." Every day he told us that we had to be "New York tough" and then he asked us to also be loving towards one another. You can be tough and loving at the same time, he told us!  And how often he told us!  This point—the coexistence of toughness and love—seemed almost a fixation for him.

Andrew Cuomo looks like my father in his prime, if my father had hair. It's the coloring and the deeply etched bulldog lines in the face, the default-to-dour resting expression. They share verbal cadences and odd mannerisms, like shaking both hands at you to indicate they're about to change the subject even though they have so much more to teach you. I realized pretty fast that these press briefings were going to be a Proustian shit storm for me. It was uncanny and I could not look away.

They both do this annoying thing where they validate your pain by assuring you that it's awful enough to stand the test of time. When I had a miscarriage, my father said, "You'll remember this all your life."  Cuomo was fond of telling us that the Coronavirus would guarantee us a place in the history books. Um… good?

They both employ the same maddening rhetorical device in the face of conflict. It goes like this: "You want to do x? That's fine. But you have to do y."  I did a lot of adolescent screaming at my father about his deficiencies and his response was always the same. "You don't love me? That's OK. You don't have to love me. You do have to respect me." (My father, no lie, once changed a light bulb while telling me this.) Cuomo uses this construction a lot. "You don't want to wear a mask? You don't think it's cool? That's fine. You still have to wear one." And their delivery is the same! There's a bright, self-congratulatory lilt when they're embracing your flawed position. Then they drop the hammer. That nice little connection we just made? It doesn't actually change anything.

And they both exhibit—not a criticism, guys, only an observation—a giddy narcissistic delight when they share something they like about themselves. Cuomo does this thing where he shares with his audience a quotation he finds especially relevant and profound. Then, with a glint in his eye, he says, "Do you know who said that? I said that. That's me."  Toward the end of my father's life, he leaned in very close to me and smiled. He said, "Gina, I am so proud…" and, as I readied myself to accept his praise, he finished the sentence, "… of my war service."

And how many days did I feel the pain of the Cuomo daughters? This, for me, is where this whole thing got weird. The more I watched Andrew Cuomo flail awkwardly at showing affection for his daughters, the more acutely I missed my father. Oh, Governor. When you unveiled the renovation of Terminal B at LaGuardia and compared it to the birth of your daughters? Then I missed my father. Giving your youngest daughter your watch as a graduation present? Very Sebastian Gionfriddo. I know she asked for something that had meaning for you, but by your own admission, "She won't be able to wear it because it's a man's watch."  I missed my father every time you took a stab at paternal empathy and mangled the moment awfully. To his daughter, Mariah, missing her boyfriend, the governor observed, "That old expression, if you love something, let it go and it will return to you. And if it doesn't return, then it was never meant to be… Words to that effect."

By 2020 I had come a long way toward forgiving my father for not being the dad I wanted him to be, but the place I found myself wasn't exactly love. It was chilly acceptance that he did the best he could and gratitude for his financial generosity. Two years after my father's death and four years after my mother's, my eight-year-old daughter saw me ache for my mother in difficult moments. "You don't miss Grandpa," she said flatly. And she was right. I didn't.

My father was no fun and he brought almost nothing to the table—to use a favorite Andrew Cuomo phrase—"on a personal level."  But I would probably not have the life I have today without his financial generosity. He did not ask about my feelings, ever, but he paid for a hippie private school that did. I have no student loans. My father supplemented my teaching income when I was struggling for time to write my plays. When I went through a series of health problems in my twenties, he offered no words of comfort, but paid for any treatment I thought might work. Maybe I would be where I am today without my father, but probably not. A cursory googling of Andrew Cuomo tells me that he is viewed, in the political arena, as effective, but not liked. His father, Mario, was a philosopher, they say, whereas he is a mechanic. Also his former in-laws have accused him of not being fun.

I am very familiar with this particular configuration of attributes.

I've been at this essay for a while now and I resolved to put it away after today because, candidly, personal introspection essays do not pay my bills and I have been neglecting the writing job that does. I have a lot of murder television to write, so it's time to end this thing. I was hoping that a coherent thesis would emerge and that hasn't happened. But writing this has felt thrilling because it put me back in touch with the reason writers write: we think that if we keep hacking away at a thing that confounds us, we will break through to illumination on the other side. Not this time, apparently. The human psyche is a dense, unfathomable swamp.

This is the best I can do: In a time of personal and global terror, I took comfort in watching Andrew Cuomo because he reminded me so much of the father who never offered me comfort. He was not the balm I went looking for in my COVID spring, but for 111 very bad days, he was there, sharing scary facts and scarier projections after which he would empathize awkwardly and disappear to, presumably, go be the unlikable guy who makes your life possible. And sprinkled throughout these briefings were flights of bizarre autobiographical self-indulgence—projecting his mother and his daughters on screens behind him on Mother's Day, for example—that were simultaneously so heartfelt and so tone deaf. It was in those strange moments I saw my father most clearly and was surprised to find that I missed him. I came to believe, over those 111 days, that Andrew Cuomo cared a lot, in spite of communication tics that suggested otherwise and I think that journey has made me willing to make that leap with my father. Which, I will give you, is way, way too much to put on gubernatorial press conferences, but there it is. It's not rational; it's some weird inner child healing thing. Don't tell me Andrew Cuomo underfunds public education. This is not a data driven response.

And the irony is sweet. Nine years after my father told me the governor of New York could do something for me, he did

By Gina Gionfriddo

Gina Gionfriddo is a playwright and television writer. She is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her plays, "Becky Shaw" and "Rapture, Blister, Burn." She has written for the television dramas "The Alienist," "Cold Case,” "Borgia," "House of Cards" and three incarnations of "Law & Order." Currently, she is a Co-Executive Producer of the CBS series, "FBI: Most Wanted."

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