My father came to this country in 1924 at the tender age of 17. Alone.
I know he worked for the railroad for a time and Marshall Field’s during the depression. He said one of the best days of his life was when he gave Marshall Field’s notice that he was leaving. He was appalled at the way employees were treated during that time. He eventually became a painter and he did that till he retired. He refused to join the union.
One of the stories I remember him telling was he didn’t know what a banana was until he got here. This new fruit was a favorite, so he ate the whole bunch! He told me he was so sick that his landlady went to check on him. My father spoke no English, but when the landlady found all the banana peels in the garbage, she figured it out. He learned a lot from other people in those days. There was no one here that he knew, so the landlady, the grocery store owner and others he met along the way taught him English and how to use money.
He got married at age 24, but not to my mother. He had two sons and a daughter. The marriage lasted 16 years and ended badly. His first wife’s name was never mentioned in our house and it wasn’t until both my parents were gone and I found the divorce papers that I learned what it was.
My dad married my mother in 1951 and I was born in 1952. Photograhs of them newly married and my mother pregnant with me look like any typical couple. But as the years go on, the photos reveal the darkness in my mother’s eyes.
I have a better understanding of my father than my mother. My dad’s divorce troubled him deeply and he was hoping for a chance to have a happy family. It didn’t quite work out that way. I think he stayed because he felt obligated to take care of my mother and me, but he was also afraid of what would happen if he left me with her. It was his biggest regret that he didn’t take the children from his first marriage with him after the divorce. The court had granted him custody, but he thought they would be better off with their mother.
I became engaged to a guy, but it didn’t work out. We dated a long time after we broke the engagement. When we finally broke up for good, my dad was not happy. I couldn’t tell him why because he liked the guy and I felt it wasn’t worth breaking both our hearts. When I told my dad I was getting married to my now husband, I think he was relieved. Finally someone to take care of me! I guess the fact that I lived alone for ten years didn’t count, but he was “old school,” what can I tell you?
When I told my dad I was going to become Catholic, it was like telling him I had decided to turn my skin green. He didn’t understand it and in my fervent early faith, I didn’t have the words to explain it to him. But he did accept it.
My dad was around when my sons were born. Sometimes he would ride his bike to our house and spend some time with us. Once, as he watched the boys playing, he remarked to me that it was too bad I didn’t have a little girl. Little girls were special, he said. Six weeks after he died, I became pregnant with my daughter.
My dad was my balance. He taught me to love books and he taught me how to play guitar. He would be thrilled to know that all my children play instruments. I also think he was as perplexed as I was about my mother. In those days you didn’t talk about such things. Neither one of us knew what to do.
So, I had one good parent and if I had the opportunity to ask God about that, I think I would just say, “Thank you for my dad.”