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January 23, 2020
Remembering My Dad
Shiva was over right after Christmas. And now Sheloshim has passed. I continue to mourn my father.
It’s been more a mental process than a physical one; and a solitary one. Not something I can share with my family or know how they’d react if I did share the process. I don’t even know how my father would react to either observance, or if he would care that I will likely light a candle on his yahrtzeit every year from now on. I can’t say if it would please him or annoy him. Or if he would call the whole business “barbaric,” as he described the more common funeral home viewing and coffin-centered services. These last I suppose he would at least have some familiarity with. You see, my father, like most of my family, was Roman Catholic. I am not.
His passing was not what one could call sudden or unexpected. Whatever took him robbed us by degrees. His breathing went first. Then his strength. And somewhere else in the long, nearly three-year struggle, his mind. We had but a brief, shining time in the summer past when he talked and spoke and presumably thought like the father we’d all grown up with and loved, but it was not to last. The downward slide went fast after that. Still, the end hit like a hammer blow to the chest. Tears and frustration followed and the knowing that there will never come the answers to all the questions I wanted to ask my dad.
We helped my mother clear out his hospice room, my sisters, my husband, my brother-in-law and I , in the days afterwards: the sweaters he’d knitted himself some years past (one I keep with me in this office), the odds and ends and gadgets of everyday life. Mom also wanted his clothes taken from the apartment they had thought to share, but which had been her sole home for the duration of his illness. We found the plaid shirts, trousers and those awful Bermuda shorts dad wore in the summers.
And that stirred the memories: the flickering images of a home movie, Dad stands in the backyard of my childhood home on a summer’s afternoon, dressed in a golf cap, a white t-shirt, socks and sneakers and some rather ugly brown Bermuda shorts. In some kind of slow motion – purposeful or simply the old 8mm camera’s pace – he swings a golf club. A wood, if memory serves. He is practicing his golf swing. I doubt there was a ball at the nadir of that graceful swing; the yard was too close and such a shot would definitely either perforate a window or plant a hole in one of the wood clapboards on the house he scraped, primed and painted, one side a summer, every summer of my childhood.
From there I see him settle into a long lawn chair on the driveway in front of our detached garage. The dinner chicken or pork chops are stewing in an aluminum foil pool of my mother’s fiery barbecue sauce over the coals of the shallow cauldron of a grill. He draws a lighter from his shorts’ pocket and lights a pipe. I can’t say which one, but he would have chosen it carefully from his collection for just that moment. Each pipe had its moment: meerschaum, briar, clay. And we knew them by sight; my mother knew them by heft, as well, because she carried one or two with his tobacco pouch as part of her purse contents.
This was a summer Saturday.
Come fall and winter, Saturday afternoons took him and me somewhere else. Mornings for us girls were cartoons and breakfast and getting out from under mom’s feet, while dad slept in. But in the afternoons, there was opera. The Metropolitan Opera on the air. In his study, he set up his reel-to-reel tape recorder to catch every note of that day’s performance, then relaxed in his easy chair. I lay on the floor beside the encyclopedia. We listened to Milton Cross summarize each act and name the artists. Then I would drift off into my own imaginings of what he had described according to the music. Dad, however, needed more precision. He had in his study uncounted libretti * and followed along with the broadcast. I got dreams and storylines. I believe dad got a working knowledge of French, German and Italian.
Music for him did not stop there. He took the lesson books I abandoned shortly after my parents purchased an upright piano; and he taught himself, slowly, but with a determination that he would learn. Soon enough, he thundered away at Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” as a routine for after dinner, as if hammering the keys and the sustain pedal settled his food.
He showed a tolerance for other music as well. My sisters and I grew up loving the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, and so many other bands my mother called cacophony. I suspect dad half-liked some of what we listened to, particularly the Moody Blues and their orchestral arrangements, but he never said.
My father said what he wanted you to know. He taught my sisters and began to teach me to drive, each in our turn, by showing us the missile that could kill: his Chevy that we had nicknamed Goldy. My sisters braved the notion and learned to navigate a stick-shift car down our driveway with the trick curve at the forsythia bush. I never completed the lessons; perhaps I took his description of what a car could do to a pedestrian a little too seriously. I don’t know. We had shouting lessons when I could not shift gears or go in reverse to his satisfaction. I quit, never to learn to drive until much later. I suppose I simply was not ready.
Likewise, I was not ready for his response when I turned away from the Catholic faith he and my mother had raised us with, replete with holy days of obligation, rosaries on weeknights in May, and Advent wreaths. My mother fretted. My mother worried. Dad announced we would have a “discussion.” To keep it short, he spoke of his own faith, of its historical significance and resilience and the prevalence of Catholicism around the world. I listened. I did not argue, thinking one did not honor one’s parents by arguing; but I had the last word. “I hear you,” I told both my parents. “But I don’t think you hear me.” Sometime later, dad took me aside and said, “At least you have had the courage to stick with your convictions.” That offered us both peace.
My father learned. Every day of his life, until his body robbed his mind, I believe he learned. And he would be the first to admit he knew nothing. And yet he knew so much. He knew so many words he could make a pun out of anything. He knew so much strategy that playing Hearts, Pinochle, Whist or even Euchre with him was taking your nerves and your blood pressure on a roller coaster ride. And he could dance. My father could dance. For my 16th birthday “date,” he took me to my high school’s basketball game and dance afterwards. Dad was quite the star of the dance, because he could move gracefully and meaningfully no matter what the DJ played. I remember standing aside in awe as my friends gathered around him and tried to dance with him.
This, then, is how I remember him: the quiet, serious man whose conversations opened my mind to new thoughts; the lifelong student determined to live and learn; the silly punster who played Twister almost as if he were on the front line of a football team; the man of all household trades who could even cook eggs and bacon on Sunday morning after Mass and call the spitting bacon, “You dirty dog”; the man who rigged up his tape recorder and speakers so we could listen to the soundtrack of musicals and movies he liked during dinner, or Christmas carols on speakers behind carboard carolers in our front yard (though I often wondered what the neighbors thought of the Percy Faith Orchestra coming out of the “mouths” of those cardboard cherubs); the man who spent the Saturday before the 2nd Sunday in Advent testing and organizing Christmas tree lights (yes, if one went out, they all went out) and then, years later, saw the coil of lights and said, “Toss ‘em”; the ersatz professor who taught my sister to use a slide rule; the artist who painted trees in an ice storm; and the rich baritone of the Saint Jude’s choir.
Now the memories are all there are. The memories and the knowledge that so many questions will go unasked. So many lessons go unlearned. Except one.
This past summer, in that brief halcyon period, he taught me one more lesson: “You’ve got to understand how things are. Then you can move forward.”