Gifts My Father Gave Me

On the day before Father’s Day, my immediate family is gathered for a meal celebrating fathers and a couple of birthdays. Thanks to Alexa, we started listening to music to satisfy everyone’s tastes. My Girl, by the Temptations..Beat It Michael Jackson; and then Emily started playing ‘Feelin’ Good’, the version by Nina Simone. That made me think about Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes”. “Alexa: play ‘What a Difference a Day Makes” by Dinah Washington. There it was. I was immediately transported back to 1962 or so – when my mother and father were still together, and there was always something interesting playing on the stereo. My father introduced me to Dinah, to Judy Garland with her Carnegie Hall two record set (I still know all the words to every song), Barbra Streisand’s Second Album. But Dinah had a special place with me, as he loved her music and played the album often. And that is a gift he gave me. I still recall every word to the song, and can sort of sound like her singing it. Would I have ever found her without him? Not likely.

The art of Jack Amoroso, a Coconut Grove artist of little repute, but his vivid colors in his boat scenes still brings back memories. Danish modern furniture, including the Grundig Majestic hi-fi with a short wave radio built in that could pick up international broadcasts (like it was trying to go home to Berlin). His ’62 Thunderbird and her ’57 Fairlane convertible. He’d make razor thin slices of eggplant into the best parmigiana dish ever tasted. To this day, I can’t eat sloppy joe without a dollop of sour cream on top – his legacy too. Those were the good days. But there were always hints of random bad days, and worse days to come. When I was five and we were supposed to go to the school carnival, but he came home drunk (apparently – I was too young to know about that) and threatened to shoot her? Or how eventually, since his drinking episodes were so unpredictable, I stopped inviting friends over to the house completely. Then the divorce, her acrimony and inability to recognize her own contribution to the demise of the marriage. So many painful issues, never addressed and never resolved.

How could two people who could have been decent parents have gotten it so wrong? How could grandparents, aware of the impending disaster, have given up and moved away so they didn’t have to see the carnage? Was it the times – the era of the Cold War or a generation that was between the conformist Eisenhower era and the hippie ’60’s with nothing to claim as their own? Boredom? Midlife crisis? But these afflictions didn’t seem to affect my friends’ parents. Why were mine so screwed up, the effect of which was to maim, in varying degrees and in varying ways, their children?

I have begun to understand a little of how he ended up the way he did. His older brother – the favored one by both parents – the musician, the one with the beautiful blonde girlfriend that eventually married Dean Martin – died an alleged war hero in April ’44. Younger brother – dad – was in ‘flight training’ in Arkansas when older brother was a KIA. That was an event that family could neither talk about nor overcome. Nothing was ever the same for anybody in that immediate family. Dad hated his older brother; they’d have fistfights that drew blood as a reflection of their mutual hatred. But when older brother died, jeez – how do you compete with that? Those pictures on the wall of the grandparents house – the fighter pilot in his sheepskin-collar flight jacket, looking dashing but now long dead. He might have been short, but he was tanned, buff and good looking. But then there was dad – pale, thin, white-blonde hair and only a navigator that never saw action because it was all over essentially by the time his training was done. So what does he do? HE TRIES TO TAKE THAT DEAD BROTHER’S PLACE…but he could never succeed.

He wanted to be an architect; he became a lawyer and joined his father’s practice, as his brother would have been in law school without the war. He was involved in the gun range and shooting clubs, but his heart was never in it – his brother in law Jim took his place in that venue, so he was even more alienated from his father – another perfect man that everybody loved and respected. And then there was the child that wasn’t his – our oldest brother – the product of my mother’s brief ‘marriage’ to a navy man named Kane after dad went off to training and wouldn’t marry her before he left. She just wanted to get away from her mother – another bad family dynamic, with a twin sibling that her mom always favored. So they were two disasters that came together to create three additional children that I don’t think either of them ever had any interest in or wanted.

But the entire family was schooled in never being willing to face any of their demons. I suppose it’s a fairly new phenomenon with the advent of self-help books and psychotherapy to dredge it all up and get past it. But they wouldn’t – or couldn’t. So here I am at age 68, finally coming to grips with the whys and hows, and being truly grateful for the few good times and pleasant memories of my childhood. So on this Father’s Day eve, now that you are no more, bye Dad. I wish things had been different. But I’m still grateful for the gifts you gave me.

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