Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day

I should be headed off to church this steamy and certain to become more so New Port Richey morning, but instead I’m sitting – uncomfortably - in my desk chair writing this while waiting for the muscle relaxer and pain pill to convince my back that such tactics are not required to garner my full attention.  Really, a cup of coffee and a simple good morning would have sufficed.
Today is Father’s Day.  I have celebrated this thirty three times as a Father, nine times as a grandfather, and in varying degrees for fifty eight years as a son and/or grandson.  My story is not unique, and I don’t have all the exact dates, times and ages at my fingertips – a point I blame on the cumulative effect being a father and grandfather has on you, but events are clear enough to paint you a picture, even if the timeline is lacking pertinent detail.
I knew the man who was my sire for about eleven years.  Midway through this time he and my mother, for reasons they know better than anyone, went their separate ways.  As is most often the case we three boys went with my mother.  I was five or six.  I’m not entirely certain which.  I know we lived in South Plainfield in the two-story house with dirt parking lots on the north and west sides, and a huge grass field to which I once accidentally set fire to on the south, and I was in first grade at Roosevelt Elementary School.  He played the sweetest trumpet you ever heard, taught me to love Ellington, and Mom was his drummer.  He taught me to fish, swim, and hunt rabbit, although I only actually excelled at swimming. 
Somewhere along the way Daddy stopped coming home at night and ‘Uncle Gene’ started.  In the late summer of 1964, just before we moved to Florida because it was presumed the job market would be better, I spent my last Sunday afternoon with him.  We moved to Florida with my new Dad and I never saw the biological one again.  He kinda disappeared.  No records.  No paper trail.  No nothing.  He just vanished – ‘Disappeared’ as thoroughly and completely as if someone, somewhere signed an edict (like “in the forty-third year when Nebuchadnezzar was king over all the land, he issued a decree saying…”) demanding that my father be ‘disappeared’.  And thus it was.
A funny thing happened in Florida.  It was like another decree had been issued by another king.  This new king stipulated that the preface ‘step’ be removed from and all familial titles.  Likewise, the word ‘half’.  The use of titles like ‘step-father, half brother, and the such faded from our everyday use more by the example set than by any decree, official or otherwise.
Don’t worry if this seems to be jumping around a bit.  The muscle relaxer is taking effect.  Under these conditions, when combined with the petite motor control issues in the fingers of my left hand, a switch gets flipped from WORST to WORSTER.
Any way, we were one really big (8 kids plus strays – stray kids, not dogs), dysfunctional family instead of two smaller ‘blended’ dysfunctional families shrink wrapped together under the same branded logo.  This is not to say that it was either utopian nor was it purgatory,  It just was.  We had our problems just like any other family except we had them together and with our own secret eleven herbs and spices tossed into the blend.  In December of my twentieth year I graduated from Jr. College and got a job.  The following January I moved out and got a place of my own.
Sometime between South Plainfield and graduating from junior college, ‘Uncle Gene’ became ‘Dad’.  Sometime after I moved out, he became ‘Pop’.
For fifteen of the twenty years I lived under my mother’s roof, he was the man I called Dad.  For ¾ of my life to that point, this is the man who raised me.
I learned a lot from him, some intentionally, some not so much.  Both ways by example.  He taught me to fix my car by bringing out a beach chair, umbrella, his tools and a cooler full of beer.  “Give it a go,” he said, “and when you f**k it up, and you will, I’ll show you what you did wrong and how to fix it.”    I did, and as promised, he did.  Until automobiles became so packed full of electronics that you need a degree in computer science to read the altimeter, I could maintain my own car without having to take it to Mr. Goldwrench.
I learned to have a good work ethic from him, the importance of family, to not drink or smoke, and that it is never good form to strike a woman. 
This was the first score of years in my life.  It wasn’t perfect, and I skipped over a lot of things.  Think of it like Moses wandering around in the wilderness for the first 80 years of his life so he could be fit to lead the Nation of Israel to the Promised land during the last 40.
I learned to use much of what I learned in the first two decades in practice during the next two when I would transition from ‘son’ to ‘father’.
It was also during the second score of years that he and I would reconcile our differences, and in a move I would not have placed in any spot on my bucket list, I would be called upon by my Mother to conduct his funeral.  I’m not going to go into any details.  That was twenty years ago, and it’s still difficult to relive.  Suffice to say that when I got home from the funeral I sat at my dining room table for over an hour crying bitter torrents of gut-wrenching sobs, because now that it was all over, the reality that I would never again hear the words “Give it a go,” he said, “and when you f**k it up, and you will, I’ll show you what you did wrong and how to fix it,” settled on me like a blanket of Mississippi river mud, and when all was said and done, I missed my Dad.
And I suppose that’s really the best tribute I can give the man.  He never said the words ‘I love you, Son’ but even when I was too rebellious to grasp the reality of it, I knew he did.  He described me to his family and friends as ‘his son’.  Not step-son, but son.  When he married my Mom, he took upon himself the responsibility of raising three boys he didn’t father, and did it without ever looking back.  He fathered five children of his own, but never to my knowledge made the distinction.
He was sick when Grandchildren came along and we lived almost fourteen hundred miles away, so Sunday afternoon visits were never part of our program.  I wish my children could have known the good parts of him better.  They outweigh by far the human frailties.
No, I’m not looking backwards through rose colored glasses to canonize him, but neither can I demonize his humanity.
What I can do, for my mother, my brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and probably, truth be told, most of all for me – is just say simply, Happy Father’s Day, Pop.  I love you, and I miss you.
Your son, David.

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