And Then What Happened?: Working for the big boss

  • Nick Doneilo taking his grandmother Pat for a ride. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


For the Recorder
Published: 11/29/2020 2:06:53 PM

Back in the olden times when I lived in New Orleans, a friend and I had a design studio, and we built some pretty striking stuff for some pretty impressive clients.

So one holiday-time day after I moved up here in 2005, I was downtown in Greenfield and, looking around I thought, “I could build something much more eye-catching than what they’ve got here for holiday decor!” So, I went to the Greenfield Business Association, made my pitch, they liked it, and that’s how Greenfield got the big shooting-star decorations that we put up for about 10 or 12 years. (“Oh!” you say, “That was you?” Yup, now you know.)

And then, in 2018, the people who are responsible for decorating Shelburne Falls at that same time of year asked if I might attend some meetings and throw some creative input in over there. I agreed, and at the very first meeting I met a young man named Nick Doneilo who showed an interest in Shelburne Falls’ holiday decorations that was hardcore serious. It was an interest in decorations that you don’t often see in 23-year-olds, especially ones who by day have their own landscaping business, working six days a week.

Generally, business owners get yanked off committee work by their own work, especially when all of the decoration labor is volunteer, but Nick attended every meeting with the same intense flint-steel interest in what I might be thinking about for his town.

You can’t own a restaurant in Ashfield for longer than a week without hearing the name; the Doneilos have owned, ruled and run around this town for generations, but I had never met one up close. As I set to designing, this young Doneilo became my herd dog, nudging my extravagant ideas into the corral he felt they needed to graze in.

“Now, (Nick starts most conversations with the word, “Now”) what color are these lights going to be? I don’t like blue lights at Christmas, Christmas isn’t blue.”

Now who the heck are you, young man? Do you know I have designed for Jimmy Buffett and Bill Clinton? They never took issue with any color I might want to use and you’re being more demanding than they ever were!

Then, in one late-evening meeting I learned the call to light that galvanizes Nick’s holiday determination, who the big boss driving this particular design job is: his grandma, Pat. Nick wants the town to look something like it might have when his grandma was coming up. He takes my ideas to her to see what she thinks. He makes her changes through me. And then, after everything is up, the two of them pick a night where he drives her around to see the finished product and to get the reviews.

In this world, some bosses heft way more weight than others.

I called Nick’s grandma to find out how I was doing.

Like a true Western Mass. New Englander of a certain age, she wasn’t sure at all she wanted to talk to me, but it didn’t take too much of a conversation for her to settle in and decide I might be OK. I do, after all, really like her grandson, and beyond anything else that might divide us, liking Nick united us. She told me that Nick started his initial lawn care business when he was 10, pulling his wagon full of equipment behind a riding mower he bought new, at age 11, all over town. He got his wisdom and his ways, she says, by hanging out with the older people — his constant companion in his early days was his great-grandmother on his mother’s side.

Pat herself always worked, even in the days when women didn’t often toil outside the home. She was a secretary at Greenfield Tap and Die, then cooked for the Catholic church. She was a grocery store cashier, and then waitressed for 12 years at the old Howard Johnson’s before finally retiring in ’94 or ’95.

Now, especially since the pandemic set in, she watches the town from her porch — the very porch of the house she grew up in, and goes errand-driving with Nick, who takes her with him to deliver invoices to his customers. When I asked if she might have a picture of the two of them together, she said, “Ask Nick. He takes pictures of us all the time.”

I asked Pat how I was doing in the design department and she said that, so far, I was doing OK. She likes the stars on the Bridge of Flowers and the tree, and is glad we aren’t using blue bulbs anywhere.

“I don’t like blue lights at Christmas,” she said. “Christmas isn’t blue.”

Yes, indeed. Working for the big boss, the biggest boss of all: Love is what drives a young man to volunteer 80 hours a year to make sure his grandma gets a Christmas that speaks to her heart. Year after dedicated year.

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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