Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father’s Day

I had wanted a younger photo of my father, as a young boy, but with time constraints and wanting to maintain an element of surprise, I could not get it. The photo above is from 1958 when my father was 20 years old and I (that’s my head) was less than six months.

My father was born at the height of the Depression and grew up poor as the oldest of eight. He got his high school diploma from night school, if I remember correctly, because he started working, perhaps some three years before this photo was taken.

When my father was that age he certainly had no idea what his life would bring: at 28 his second son (my brother) would die at the age of six (I still remember when he came back from the hospital to tell my mother), sometime thereafter I think he would begin a short-lived bout with alcoholism, at 35 he would have a traffic accident for which he died three times on the operating table, at the age of 39 his daughter would have to have open-heart surgery, his younger brother (mine and my sisters’ favorite uncle) would die at the age of 49 and he himself would have open heart surgery at the age of 69. He went through it all with a quiet strength and humility. I hope he doesn't mind me mentioning these things.

There are also the positives: he held the same job (although it changed as the owners changed) all his life, he became a happy grandfather at 42, he and my mother are still married, he became sober at 37 and continues to be sober and recently became a great grandfather.

He faced his responsibilities from a very young age and never shirked them. He and my mother struggled and sacrificed to give my sisters and myself the best life they could, and provided us with as stable a home life as possible.

Although I have very many memories, some are special. I can remember lying in bed in the mid-60s when he would come home from work late at night and get a Pepsi and Cheezits or pretzels and watch Johnny Carson, I particularly remember him laughing at Peter Sellers in “A Shot in the Dark”. I remember him taking me to buy my first bicycle when I was ten and taking me to get my first pair of glasses when I was in sixth grade, carrying me along the Ohio River after I stepped on a nail, I remember sitting on his lap and steering the car down our street when I was about five.

He woke us up while sleeping in a motel in Tennessee on one vacation so we could watch Armstrong walk on the moon. I also remember the day he gave me permission to ride to Sears to buy a Starship Enterprise model when I was eleven. I thought I was on the top of the world.

He took us on vacations to places we found exciting: Florida, the Rockies, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and everything in between. That may be where I got the desire to live away from home, first in New York so long ago.

Because of his example I became sober at the age of 35 and still am. I have his basic work ethic, although I have had many jobs. His wit is always easy and precise, and he worked crossword puzzles all the time. We used to race to work the daily word puzzle in the newspaper. That may be where I learned my love for words.

For all the things my dad did for me, I haven’t done much in return. I left home at 24 and never lived there again. I’ve provided no grand children, nor have I become stable and secure. Maybe sometime soon.

I think one of the greatest things children can do for their parents is to recognize them as human beings instead of simply as the roles they fill. My father was young once and had no idea the difficulties life would throw at him. Through it all he survived.

My father never tried to dictate my life to me. He never tried to talk me out of doing what I have wanted with my life. He gave me the freedom to make my own mistakes and to learn on my own.

As I mentioned to him recently, he should be proud that his children love each other and are as close as we can be, unlike many siblings in many families these days. He and my mother instilled a strong sense of family in all of us. Because of that, and everything mentioned heretofore, my father did what a father is supposed to do without complaint. For that I should thank him forever and honor him.

Perhaps the second greatest thing children can do for their parents is to show appreciation and understanding of their hardship and sacrifice and say to them publicly: I love you very much.

Happy Father’s Day, dad.