I have always shied away from writing a piece on Fathers Day. It seems a day for perfect fathers, fathers who fit the larger than life model found on the features pages of Sunday publications.
My father was not that kind of father. Still, I loved him and know he did the best he could.
For you, Dad, long overdue.
A World of His Own
My father was an enigma to me. A paradoxical parent, whose stories kept changing. A man who often retreated to the shelter of his garage and workshop to keep our cars and bicycles running, refinish furniture, fix the neighbors’ small appliances, and relive a life he kept to himself. A man I am still trying to understand.
On the walls of his garage workshop, Dad kept curling photographs of women who were not my mother. Gals, he called them, he met during World War II, when he was a Navy photographer, stationed in Iceland. He used his photos as studies for the oil paintings he began and rarely finished. Flitting from project to project, he filled the workshop’s air with cigarette haze and big band music emanating from a hissing box radio. Scattered on the center worktable were empty coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. Also cluttering the space were tubes of oil paints, brushes, turpentine, art canvases, pads of art paper, and tools of every conceivable kind. Propped in one corner sat an old violin case.
Adjacent to my father’s workshop was a photography darkroom that doubled as my little brother’s workshop. When photos weren’t being developed in this space, my brother used it to build Estes rockets and breed test pilots: mice. This is also where my brother and his friends had their first cigarettes and beers.
Over the course of his life, my father held many jobs. Sometimes, two and three. When I was very little, he worked nights as a mechanic and I seldom saw him. One day, he came home early, about six at night. Mom was making dinner as I was watching our blonde console television, sitting way too close. I remember the front door opening and Dad shuffling behind me to my parents’ bedroom. Confused, I turned to my mother and said, “Mom, who is that guy?”
Later, when I was in high school, my father worked as a design engineer for a company that made night vision equipment for the military. He took me with him to work once. Wandered away and handed me over to one of his co-workers who gave me a tour of the testing lab. Once inside, the co-worker placed a pair of night-vision goggles on me and turned out the lights. Looking around the room, I saw the world cast in an eerie green glow. What, I wondered, would it feel like to have a guy with a gun rush toward you in that ghostly light. Whatever I said aloud at that moment caused Dad’s co-worker to laugh, just about the time Dad banged on the lab door and yelled, “What the hell is going on in there?”
Demons and Secrets
All my life, Dad called me his Pearl Harbor Baby, as I was born on December 7th. I didn’t mind it as a child, but when I became a teenager, that moniker weighed on me. My generation’s battle cry was about peace, free love, and stopping the war in Viet Nam. But the soundtrack playing in my house was the blare of a WWII movie on the television and strains of swing music. Adding to the growing tension and cacophony were the rants from Dad at dinner about courageous, fighting men, and condemnations about my generation being dirty Communists and drug-crazed hippies. Unable and unwilling to take on my father, I often left the dinner table in tears.
To say Dad was an impatient man is an understatement. Fatherhood, it seemed to me, was a major annoyance to him. As his daughter, I struggled to understand his anger. What I have learned over time is that Dad was fighting numerous demons. Demons he seldom talked about, like the nightmarish images of women’s bodies floating in the North Atlantic. Plane crashes in Iceland’s frigid and unforgiving interior. Events that remained classified all his life.
And then there were other secrets. Secrets my mother only told me because I was the oldest. Secrets she swore me to withhold from my brother and sister.
A Good Catholic
My dearest friends growing up were Catholic. They wore the uniforms of their special club, talked of rituals I could not participate in, and lived their lives by a set of rules that made sense to them. I desperately wanted in.
“Dad was raised Catholic, right?” I repeatedly asked my mother.
“Yes. His mother made sure of that. Raised him to be a good Catholic. He went to a Catholic school. Went to mass every day before school.”
“So how come I’m not Catholic?”
The answer I always got as a child was that Dad was a “fallen Catholic,” whatever that meant. Much later, Mom told me she once went to Cardinal Cody in Chicago to petition for Dad’s children to be raised Catholic. He turned her down, saying we would always be considered bastards in the eyes of the Catholic Church. The reason? Dad had been married twice before he married my mother. That was the first I knew of it.
That explains why my Catholic friends were a constant thorn in my father’s side. Why he went ballistic when they took me to Ash Wednesday service with them or said it was a sin to step on an ant. Once, I told him that Judy, my closest Catholic friend, had told me Dad was going to “h-e-double hockey sticks” because she heard him use the Lord’s name in vain. In response, my dad pounded his fist on the kitchen table and turned to my mother, saying, “The goddamn Catholics. See what they’re filling her head with.”
My paternal grandparents were immigrants. Georg, my grandfather, grew up on a horse farm near Tilsit, East Prussia. The family farmed and raised horses for the Prussian cavalry. Anna, my grandmother, grew up in Budapest, Hungary. I know little of her life before coming to America. Georg died before I was born. Anna was a troubled woman I met shortly before her death from dementia. Dad was their only child.
What my father never mentioned was that both Georg and Anna worked as domestics when they first came to this country. Georg was a mechanic and chauffeur for a wealthy family in Rye, New York. Anna worked as a maid and cook. The three of them were listed as dependents for the family on an old census record I found. Later, shortly before his death, Georg opened and operated a car repair shop with my father.
Dad only spoke of growing up near the ocean, of summers on Long Island Sound in his sailboat. Frustrated in the Midwest, he was always seeking a body of water, always trying to find an old boat to fix up. He never talked about life in the servants quarters or what he did while his parents were tending to the needs of their patrons. My mother said they never even told her parents about his upbringing. Dad was too embarrassed by his meager immigrant roots.
Art, Books, Music, and Strays
Although my complex father and I weren’t always close, I never doubted his love for me. Always short on cash, Dad would give me whatever he had in his pocket whenever I came by the house. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say, stuffing the money in my hand.
And I know the passions I am drawn to were passions my father nurtured in me.
As I mentioned, Dad loved art. I think he was a frustrated artist. His work was very good but not master quality. He was constantly trying to improve his technique. When I showed an interest in art, he was quick to get me all the paint, paper, and colored pencils I wanted. He bought me books on art and talked to me about perspective, shadowing, and texture. These are some of the best memories I have of being with him.
Dad also loved to read. He was a voracious reader. I am sure I got my love of reading from him. It wasn’t unusual to see Dad return from the library on a Saturday afternoon with books stacked chest to chin in his arms. This often got a passive-aggressive response from my mother like, “So I guess I can’t count on you for help this weekend.” In her defense, my dad was not much interested in keeping up with house or yard maintenance. Mom was pretty much on her own.
Music was Dad’s biggest passion. When he was 17, he toured with Tommy Dorsey’s B band. A sax player, he was always trying to turn the family into his own swing band. Dad and my brother each on saxophones, Mom on piano, and me, at one point, saddled with a promotional accordion. (That is a story for another time). Sadly for Dad, I became a massive Beatles fan in my teens. He despised them and demeaned them to me repeatedly. When John Lennon was shot, he actually said, “What’s the big deal?” But once, when I was singing, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Dad overheard me and said he liked it. “It’s got good syncopation.”
He nearly keeled over when I told him it was a Beatles song.
Dad was a people person. He could talk to anyone about anything, often taking the differing point of view just to keep the conversation moving. Down in his garage workshop, neighborhood men came to ask for help with a broken item and stayed for hours, once they got talking. My mother would often have to go down to that hallowed outpost to tell the men their wives had called the house looking for them.
Then there were “Dad’s strays.” That’s what Mom called them. The curious people Dad met at work and in the world who soon became regular coffee drinkers at our kitchen table on Saturdays. The deaf co-worker and his teenaged daughter. The partially blind man, who ran a used bicycle shop and got me my first bicycle. The sad man, a former war buddy, who was down on his luck. Our dentist, car mechanics, policemen, electricians, and members of Dad’s church band were all potential faces that would show up unannounced.
One of the last times I spent with Dad was at his assisted living apartment, shortly before he died. My sister and I had agreed to stay the night in his tiny home. As we were settling down, we noticed Dad’s anxiety and agitation, more pronounced than usual. Signs of dementia that would take his life.
That night, we tried to think of ways to calm him. Nothing seemed to be working. Then, suddenly, he turned to us and said, “Let’s make something.”
“What do you want to make, Dad?” I asked.
He stroked his chin. “How about a boat? You girls got a boat?”
My sister and I stared at each other. “No, Dad. We don’t have a boat.”
“No? Every girl needs a boat. Fellas like gals with a boat."
My sister and I have never forgotten that. Often, when life is getting us down, we’ll turn to each other and say, “Maybe we need a boat.”
That is my wish for you, Dad, on Fathers Day.
Wherever you are, I hope you are in a boat, sailing away.