Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Just Thinking About My Father

Dad's 73rd birthday was last week and we are celebrating it today when he and my mother come visit. For the past couple of weeks I've been thinking about the man and today feels like a good day to put some of that thinking in writing and see where it takes me.

He was born in 1938 here in Syracuse and has lived around here pretty much ever since with the exception of the past few years when he and Mom retired to the 1000 Islands. They'll be back in Syracuse soon as that place sells and it seems right for him to come back home.

He grew up at the base of Seneca Turnpike, dropped out of high school after his appendix burst (there's a great story in that), joined the army, then became interested in funeral directing. He graduated out of Simmons School of Embalming and took a job. Eventually he managed Garfield's Funeral Home on Westcott Street near where I now live. (It has since become Taps, a cleverly named bar.) In 1978 he bought his own business in Manlius and turned it from a run-of-the-mill funeral home into a thriving business that he ran through to his retirement.

Along the way he married my mother, had two sons (I was the second), rebuilt one house, rebuilt most of another, and did more things than I can even begin to list in 750 words. Instead, let me think of a few things that maybe only I can say.

He used to run with me from the neighbors house back home to ours. He had a halting run that was more of a shuffle than anything else. He always let me win. When he ran, the change in his pockets and his keys jangled like band instruments.

He wore black rimmed glasses when he had black hair. The hair turned grey early on, about when I was nine and he was thirty-nine, and he got metal framed glasses after that. The glasses were the kind that auto-tinted in bright sunlight and took a few minutes to come back to normal when he came inside.

I could always tell his step on the stairs even when he was barefoot and didn't have his usual change filled pockets. I used to try to walk upstairs the way he did. I still don't have it.

As with so many other fathers, he found it mysterious that I could never find the tool he sent me for. He often showed me the tools as he used them. He explained what they were called. He tried to get me interested.

And when he saw that I was more interested in sports, he helped me with that. Dad was at most every game. Especially for Pop Warner Football. He stood in the freezing rain and somehow kept a cigarette burning. I don't think he ever used an umbrella. Such things seemed beneath him. Besides, I was out in the cold, so he was too.

I looked through chain link fences at Dad. He would be behind the fence as I was crouched down playing catcher. He called out the occasional encouragement and I know he groaned inwardly when I dropped the ball or swung and missed. I know that he held his breath every time I came to bat.

He sponsored the little league team and he bought us ice-cream win or lose. He always did. There was no question about it.

When I crashed his car, I called home, told Mom to put him on the phone, and told him what had happened. He asked if I was alright. I was. He asked if the car could be driven home. It could. And then he asked if I wanted him to come up and get me. I said that I would be fine. He said that he would see me in an hour or so. And when he did, he took my picture next to the wreck.

He told me about flipping a car when he was in the army. It's a good story.

And now, Dad provides me with the silence I need sometimes. He sits in his chair next to me on the back deck looking out over the river. He asks a question and he'll wait for an answer. When I give him the answer, he listens. He's pretty good at that, better than I knew. I think it comes from the funeral directing, but it's more likely that it comes from having known me for 43 years, knowing himself for 73 years, and having in him a quiet fortitude that has seen him through everything and that has taught me more than I even know.

Write on, Dad.