Here we are again at Father’s Day. Tell you the truth, I don’t think about it all that much now. My father passed away in 1977. My wife put the whole thing succinctly last night. Sparked by one of those many Father’s Day TV commercials, she lamented on no longer having a father to send a card to this year. We lost Dad just this past February, a gentle, good man with simple tastes and abundant kindness. I miss him, too.
Losing parents are markers of our own journey in life’s rhythms such as finishing school, getting our first job, falling in love, and becoming parents in turn. When we lose our parents we find ourselves advanced to taking the point position. Now that can be pretty sobering.
I can’t send a card anymore to my own Dad, make a call, or do a visit. After some thirty-five years, do I ever think about my father? Might as well forget there’s a sunrise, I think of him so often.
Pa, as we called him, was uneven as a performing father. He had excess appetites, particularly for alcohol. He could be crude and sometimes violent, not just when he boozed. He treated Ma badly and drove her from us. He was very Irish in the wrong way.
And yet I can honestly say I owe him considerable debts. I know no one who’s influenced me more. We don’t get to choose our parents, and some are blessed with drawing the best hand. I had to play with the hand I was dealt.
Pa taught me to be discerning when it came to people. Though poorly educated, not uncommon for workers born before 1900, he could read the con and cross the street in time.
I became a news buff like him. Each day, there he was, in his leather chair in the kitchen, by the window, bent over the Philly paper, often reading portions to me. On Sunday mornings, he’d send me up the street to get the massive paper, a feast for both of us, as he’d give me one portion while he read another. There I was, a ten year old boy, sprawled on the living room floor, reading the latest about the Korean War. It almost seemed I knew Harry Truman personally.
Pa didn’t like you wearing a hat at the supper table. He found it rude to wear a cap in the house, period. There was this one time my brother didn’t respond to his request to take off his hat at the supper table. Pa never asked twice. Suddenly his hand struck. To this day I have an aversion to people wearing hats while eating. Today he’d be aghast at how common it is, whether in restaurants or classrooms. Pa was spared seeing men not removing their caps at the ball park while the National Anthem is played.
He taught through example the virtue of working hard. I know of no man who worked harder. On occasion, I’d visit him at the leather factory just around he corner, You could smell its toxins on those unrelieved humid summer nights in Philly, not a breeze between the Schuylkill and the Delaware. He worked on the third floor, tacking skins to boards, nails held between his lips, several of his fingers of his nailing hand permanently positioned from long years of tacking, a family tradition for us in those days when America made its own shoes. Fiercely independent, he eschewed welfare.
Pa was an obsessive letter writer and in the ensuing years when life found his four children scattered across the landscape, he unceasingly wrote all of us, urging us to stay connected, and we did and still do. Like him, in those days when email, messaging, cell phones and Skype were unknowns, we became letter writers in turn.
One of my best memories of Pa was his love for baseball. We didn’t have a TV in those days, so while I played with my toy trucks on the floor, I’d be imbibing radio broadcasts of the Philly and Athletic games. A New Englander, his real passion was the Red Sox, an addiction he passed on to me, adding to life’s groans. Mornings saw me playing stick ball against factory walls, into the hours, with my fellow Fishtown rogues.
Like a good many Irish, he excelled in story telling. How often into the night, no matter the retellings, I listened entranced to stories of his own parents or of the World War I battlefield, or of his run for political office, or of his work struggles during the Great Depression, or of his replay on getting the Pearl Harbor news that terrible Sunday morning, and best, those anecdotes of the family tribe, of aunts and uncles and countless cousins, of rumored Indian origins. Fact or fiction? Who the hell cared. The embroidery was wonderful!
Pa was a grab-bag of good and bad. There was the drinking and its legacy for bad memories. But then he was also a victim of a hand-me-down culture, or as James Joyce memorably put it, “Ireland sober is Ireland free,” a witticism that liberally applies to its Diaspora.
I think it was Nietzsche who said that if one didn’t have a good father, it was necessary to create one. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing here. I see it more from the reality of acknowledging the human condition, or as Anais Nin said so well, as always, “The human father has to be confronted and recognized as human.”
Whatever Pa’s faults, good things fell from his table, and in reconciling the books, I’ve found the assets outweigh the liabilities, and for this I remain a grateful son, his bucko still.