We may all know a person, but we may not all know the same person. And obviously, we may not know the real person, the person inside.
The rare stories that my father told about his youth all involved fun—-sledding and playing soccer in the shadow of the pagoda in Patterson Park, jumping off the piers at the foot of Broadway, learning to shuck oysters from the oystermen there, playing with his brothers. (Ten sons in that house! Can you imagine? Even in the heyday of big families, they must have made a singular impression. Someone should have put a derrick on the roof of that house on Chester Street—it could have been the Saudi Arabia of testosterone.) My mom, who talked about things a bit more than he did, always remarked on how handsome he was (and he was), how lively, how funny he was in Charley’s Aunt in the parish dramatic club. And my sister Rose has strong memories of an active and involved father who did things with her and my older brother Clem.
But my memories of my dad, like most people’s memories of their dads, didn’t really begin until I was school age, and the fun-loving man had disappeared. When I was in second grade, my brother Clem died age 15 from a blood disease, and that shocking tragedy opened a wound in my father that festered for years. Most of my memories of dad follow that event. And they are not of a fun-loving man. Usually he seemed short-tempered, abrupt, grouchy, lost in work.
But let’s be clear: to his enduring credit, he did not quit on his family. He did not go over the hill, and he did not crawl in a bottle. He kept trying, kept taking us places like ballgames and Gettyburg and the beach, and he was dutiful and responsible. But I can’t say that he was warm or affectionate or particularly understanding. It couldn’t have helped that when I was little I was always more bookish than boisterous, and that later, when his wound may have begun to heal, I was a rebellious teenager in the rebellious sixties and a full of himself twentysomething in the full of itself seventies. So maybe he was making an effort and I didn’t recognize it, and for many years we had a relationship was proper, cordial, respectful, but not exactly warm.
But things changed when I became a father. Because then I began experiencing all that he had gone through—all the work and effort and hope that he invested, all the dreams he possessed, all the love that he felt. I, too, knew that moment when a little face looks square at you and beams a pure smile of love, and part of you feels the warmth of love and another part feels the chill of responsibility, because that little face knows nothing of the world—its trouble, toil, trauma, terror—none of the T words–and you are obliged to his or her protector, just as my father knew he had to be the protector of his children. And I then knew more viscerally what I always knew intellectually—that his failure to protect my brother, though he was in every way blameless, just tore him up. Having grasped that, I became more grateful for everything that he did do and tried to do, and that replaced all feelings about his shortcomings.
And he changed, too. Dad’s normal tone of speech was loud—the legacy of forty years amid the machines of Western Electric. When he spoke loudly to my very young daughter, she was scared. And when he saw that, he changed–he made an effort to speak more softly. He wanted to love his granddaughters, all four of them, and he wanted to be loved by them, and he worked at it. One day, when Molly was around five, we went to the Westchester County Fair, and Dad and Molly went on all the rides, including the rollercoaster. On that day I realized that the fun-loving guy from the foot of Broadway, the one who had been so long absent, had returned, and one could at long last see the man in full. And in later years, at Christmas dinner and at graduation parties and other events, he always seemed very content, happy in his role of paterfamilias. And we were glad he was there. The 20 years since Molly was born were the best years of the relationship between my dad and me, and I am grateful for them.
So long, Dad. We love you, we thank you, we will miss you always.