My sister recently posted this family photograph on her Facebook page. My dad’s birthday was February 5th, and I was thinking about him on Sunday, in part because my dad was a huge football fan. He loved the Chicago Bears, and in some strange coincidence went to Chicago Vocational High School with the famous Chicago Bear, Dick Butkus. We had some book, maybe, that was signed by Butkus in our house, or at least I think so. My memory of these things has faded, and I’m never sure if I really remember, or if I’ve just implanted a memory from listening to my siblings or relatives. My dad might not have been so thrilled about this particular Superbowl, but he’d have watched.
I’ve written about my mom, maybe because I’m trying to figure out how to be a mom myself, but I’ve not written about my dad. I suppose I’ve never been sure what to say about him. My cousins always say how much my mom and dad meant to them, and to my aunts and uncles, and I have lots of memories about them, but even now, not so long after my dad died — in May of 2000 — my memories challenge me to find a thread, a common theme, something that holds it all together, to give a center to the story.
My dad’s life was not easy — that is what my mom used to say. She would recount stories of him trying to make peace between my grandfather and grandmother, two people with addictive personalities, so much so that my grandmother died within a month of her husband (and both of them in their early 50s). My mom also told of my dad’s shattered dreams. At CVS, my dad took drafting, and had a talent for architectural design, but going to college wasn’t in the cards for him. Family and finances held him back. I remember him wistfully talking about how he had dreamed of applying to MIT when I was doing my college applications. My mom confessed to me that my dad never forgave her for getting rid of his blueprints — the evidence of his deferred dream.
My brother-in-law tells a funny family story about my dad, when he was coaching little league. My brother-in-law, then a neighborhood kid, thought my dad was a doctor because when another kid got hit in the head with a line drive, my dad ran out onto the field, in his plaid pants and white leather belt, to take control of the situation. Apparently, my dad seemed to know what to do, and he was ordering everyone around. I am not sure how much of my brother-in-law’s misinterpretation held him in awe of my sister, but I suppose somehow, he got over it to finally marry her–and ultimately realized that my dad, like all the others in our neighborhood, was just a working class stiff.
The salient point about his story, aside from the side-splitting humor for the family, is that my dad seemed to know things, and he took care of people, helped them out, did what he could. I guess all families have these stories — stories about working together, helping other family members, or neighbors, so my dad is no hero by those standards. But, he did manage to live with his own in-laws for much of my life (and his married life with my mom), and that can’t have been easy. He did put aside his dreams, dreams that never came to fruition for him in his job as a railroad cop, in order to take care of his family.
My dad was the kind of dad who would do whatever he needed to for his kids. When I was a freshman in high school, I was on the Festival of Nations planning committee, and we sponsored a dance, a dance that happened to fall on the night of the worst snow storm in the winter of 1984-5. I wasn’t driving yet, and my school was in a then un-gentrified urban center, not a neighborhood that my parents wanted me taking the bus to in the evening (even though I took the bus every morning and night). I was devastated that, as one of the organizers, I wasn’t go to make it to the dance. Never mind that hardly anyone would show up, given the weather conditions. I begged and pleaded, even shed tears, and my mom was firm. NO, I could not got the dance, and the committee would just have to deal with it. I could talk to them on Monday. My dad, however, caved in, and because he knew I really wanted to be there, drove me to the dance, in what seemed liked a full on blizzard. A handful of die-hard kids showed up, and we had a great time, but even now, I cringe a little, recognizing that my dad took me, as my mom would say, because he never wanted any of us to be sad or disappointed.
It is impossible to tell all of the stories that paint a complete picture of my dad. I need to become more of a story teller — so that I can tell Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl about their grandfather, and so that even though my memory fades, or becomes attached to my yearnings and desires, I can tell a story that might preserve something of the man my father aspired to be.