Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Lifetime of Memories

Father's Day always brings me around to think of my own father. I miss him a lot, he was a good man and we had a good relationship up to the very day he passed away. Mother's Day is always such a big deal and we hear about it for weeks in advance, but Father's Day is somewhat low-key and almost overlooked, almost like these men who worked so hard to provide us with everything we needed.

My dad was born on April 2nd, 1915, in the early days of World War I. He was born at home, not in a hospital, and lived in that same home until he enlisted in the Army and was sent to serve in Italy, where he was shot in the right thigh in combat with the Germans. He returned to live in that some house after the war and only moved out when he got married, and he and his brother Albert bought the duplex house right across the street. I've lived in probably seven different towns and cities in my life, but my father never left the street on which he was born.

He never talked much about his time in the Army fighting World War II, but one day he did open up to me and told me many stories about being in the Army and the camaraderie he had with his fellow soldiers. I was completely fascinated when I heard these stories because it caused me to look at my father in a totally different light, as an individual person with wants and needs and experiences outside of the context of our family. I always knew him as "Dad" but now I saw a whole different side of him, and it was amazing and enlightening.

My father married my mother in 1946, when he was 31 years old. My older brother was born three years later in 1949, and I came along two and a half years after that, in 1952. Dad was three months away from his 37th birthday when I was born. That was pretty late in life to have children, even by today's standards, and I can't help but wonder how drastically it changed his life. I wonder if he had any regrets about that. He never mentioned any, of course, but I can't help but think that he might have had a second thought or two. Especially when he found out that his two sons were going to be complete, polar opposites.

I will admit to being somewhat of a difficult child. People who know me usually end up gasping with apoplectic disbelief (although some of them say "gagging" is closer to the truth) when I say that, but I readily admit it. From the very start I had absolutely no interest in sports of any kind, and still don't to this day. I was a loner who preferred solitude, reading as many books as I could. My brother was a joiner who was never without a large entourage of friends, engaged in some sporting activity. I was a non-conformist, stubbornly independent, and I didn't care who didn't approve. My brother was a total conformist who found his greatest comfort in sharing a group identity. We were at each others' throats regularly, and the only interactions we had were meals shared around the dinner table; otherwise, we essentially lived in separate worlds and had nothing to do with each other.

It's not like my dad didn't try to get me interested in what were considered more "normal" childhood activities during the 50s and 60s. Every three months or so he would drag me outside and force me to play "catch" with him, tossing a baseball back and forth. I thought this was the most outrageous, ridiculous and painful torture imaginable and I dreaded it every time it came up. To me it was the dumbest and most pointless activity possible, and I always felt like I was being punished for something I couldn't remember doing. I made it clear I was not having the tiniest amount of fun and gradually he just gave up on the "catch" thing. He tried to interest me in golf and get my uncles to take me out fishing, but nothing worked. I would not have any sports in my life, at all, and still don't.

Very early on in life I came to realize that the vast majority of adults with whom I had to deal were complete idiots. This made me exhibit a rather obvious contempt and resistance to their attempts to control me and tell me what to do, and it led me to do a lot of mouthing off and talking back. I'm sure it caused my father no end of frustration and embarrassment when he heard that I talked back to a nun in Catholic school or told my aunt off in her job as clerk at the local drug store. But he also knew that that was just my nature, who I was, and rarely made me feel bad about being different.

I grew up in a blue-collar family in a blue-collar town. My hometown was a small place, around 2000 people, and you could not get lost there even if you wanted to. Everyone knew who you were and who your parents were. It was a pretty idyllic existence, and I have many, many fond memories of beautiful spring days bursting with flowers and gentle rain, endless, sun-drenched summer days, the majestic beauty of the fall foliage, and icy, snow-covered, crystalline winter days. We had most of what we needed, but few luxuries. My father's work at the steel mill was steady and provided for us. After twenty-five years at the mill my father was eligible for their extended vacation benefit, which gave him 13 consecutive weeks paid vacation every 5 years. Sometimes we would take a family vacation, which usually meant going to Conneaut Lake park in Ohio for a couple of days, or to Presque Isle on Lake Erie in the north. It wasn't a week at the beach or in Europe, but it was fun and memorable just the same.

Tragedy and misfortune did befall us, as it does all families. My older brother was killed in a car accident on the evening of my parents' twenty-first wedding anniversary. I don't remember a lot about it, as time fades memory and my own brain has blocked a lot of it out, but what I do remember was a nightmare of epic proportions. He had been diagnosed with leukemia some months before that, and it was a double blow to my parents. My mother never came to terms with losing her firstborn and it haunted her for the rest of her life. After his death she had what was called back then a "nervous breakdown" and spent time in a psychiatric hospital. They subjected her to ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), also called "shock treatments," in which her brain was subjected to blasts of electricity in hopes of "rebooting" it back to a normal state of being. She also took what she called "nerve pills," probably various anti-depressants, for decades afterward. My father had to deal with all this horrendous stuff as well as take care of me and the house and do his job, and I honestly don't know how he handled it all. He protected and shielded me from a lot of it, and had to cope with it alone. I realized this in time and still marvel at his strength through what surely had to be the darkest times of his life.

Dad and I locked horns often during the late 60s, as the cultural revolution swept the nation and I joined the hippie contingent in our town. I went to college and more disagreements and divisiveness followed. But I never lost my love and respect for him, and I'm sure he never stopped loving and caring for me, no matter what. As I went out in the world and they grew older, my father and I grew closer, realizing how much we had been through and how much we really had in common. He was plagued with a case of gout in his ankle, and I remember him hobbling around the house and I would tease him for having the "rich man's disease," as gout was called. I remember joining them on vacation in Las Vegas, which they thought was the most glamorous and exciting place on earth, and we had lots and lots of good time. While I never regarded my father as an equal, I began to think of him as somewhat of a peer and a very good friend, and it only served to enhance our relationship on deeper, unexpected levels. We would talk often on the phone, and I really miss not being able to call him up and chat with him.

My father died on January 1st, 2001, of congestive heart failure. It snowed in Pennsylvania the day of his funeral, but it wasn't a gray, dismal kind of snow. Innumerable huge white snowflakes drifted down from a bright sky, spinning and pirouetting as they fell. It was a unique and special day, a fitting farewell for a unique person. My dad has always been a rock, a compass in my life, and a beacon of love and understanding. He taught me, by example, of what it truly means to be a man. Just as I said goodbye to him on a bright, shining day, I look forward to seeing him again, on another bright, shining day.

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