This morning i awoke to a fearful feeling that something was amiss. I explored this feeling while still waking slowly into the day. There was light coming in through the window, it was not grey, not raining & it looked like a sunny December morning. December! December 1st!!! Today is my father’s birthday. He would be 89. He was born in 1920 into a family of poor immigrants from French Canada. They migrated here at the very end of the 19th century and my grandfather like many migrants from Canada at that time went to work in the textile mills that were the sustenance for Fall River, Lawrence, Woonsocket, Lowell and other such “mill-towns” as they are still called today.
My dad was always a passionate man. He worked twelve hours a day six days a week, fifty-one weeks a year from six o’clock in the evening to six o’clock the next morning. He had a lunch bad, a brown vinyl bag that had an aroma of stale food mixed with oil and lanolin. My mother would pack it for him with sandwiches of white bread and inexpensive meets like olive loaf and salami. she would wrap them in cut-rite wax paper and by the next morning the bag would return nearly empty–except for a candy bar that he would sometimes buy for me and leave it in the bag as a surprise and his way of saying, I Love you. The candy bars would appear only “sometimes” but frequently enough that I would never miss a day searching the brown vinyl bag for what he might have brought home for me–a Babe-Ruth, an O’Henry bar and my absolute of all the Sky-bar, wrapped in yellow paper. It was like getting four bars because each piece was its own special flavor.
It is only now that I have grown children that I can look back and remember to the multitude of ways that he gave to me and shaped my life. I have his dark hair, I have his brown eyes, but most of all I have inherited his flaring temper, his absolute passion for the democratic, liberal party and in general his love of life and sense of humor. He would laugh until his eyes were wet and running as if he was crying.
He was a totally untrained musician. But on Sunday mornings he would return from church and pick of the accordion that he brought back with him from the war. He was stationed in occupied germany for the first year of my life and much of what I knew of the war was the celebration that we had won and the spoils of war was this black and gold diatonic accordion. He loved his collection of 78 rpm’s and I loved them as much as he did. Mostly, I remember the the French Canadian music that was so full of life and so fiddle-happy. He played the harmonica and tapped his feet in a folk lore manner. He clapped two spoons together and could make a rhythm with the bottom side of a kitchen pot. He played and he made himself laugh and we all laughed too, because it was so wonderful to see Dad happy & just to have him around.
We had so little money and he worked so hard, but I never knew that, at least I do not remember knowing that until I became “old-enough” to understand why there would be no birthday presents this year. I was initiated into the big-people club simply by being supplied the facts that we were broke, and despite the fact that Dad seemed to be forever at work, his pay came home in a small manila envelope just large enough to hold a few folded bills, and some loose change and by the first of month my mother had scrapped $66.09 and i would take it to the corner store where they made money orders and Mrs. Gagne would take my little envelope of money and after punching the numbers in a big machine with a yellowish-ivory handle, she would crank the lever and the numbers $ 6 6 dollars . 0 9 cents would be embossed in red ink and the house was ours for one more month.
Dad loved his cars. He would spend hours polishing the chrome, cleaning the upholstery and windexing the windows. The car that I loved the most of him many trade-ins was the 1953 Silver-blue, Chrysler Windsor Deluxe, complete with semi-automatic shifting and a chrome nob shift lever on the steering wheel and a push button radio on the dash. That car one day would become my first car. But the day that he brought it home from Franklin, Massachusetts was a terrible day for me. Somehow, it never occurred to me that getting a new car meant getting rid of the old car. I can still see and smell the crushed, rough velvet maroon upholstery and the hugh steering wheel and the little triangular chrome, trimmed windows that were as much vents as the were windows. My Dad’s 1940 Cadillac–I think that may have been the first time that i understood loss. It pained me that I would never see it again. i cried a lot. I was seven, and Dad was mad that I cried. In French he bellowed out a gruff, stern command—“STOP-THAT!!!
I learned to scare my own children with that gruff voice. Very early on, well before i understood that it might be damaging, I learned that it was effective. You want to shut-up someone–yell at them, it shows them you are fearless and you will stop at nothing to get your way in the moment. It’s a wonder I ever learned to like the Chrysler, but by the time I was seventeen, ten years later–when the Chrysler became my first car, the Cadillac was only a vague memory and would not return to consciousness for many years. The old black cadillac remained as an unwatered seed in the slowly accumulating garden of grief.
Dad took us camping, bought us a huge, above ground swimming pool, he bought stereo’s, and T.V’s and there always was enough food for Mom to cook. And one year when it was still the early 50’s Dad and a few of my uncles build a cabin in the back yard. It was a little screen house constructed out of old oil soaked two-by-fours that came from the mill. The little house smelled of the same odor as did my father’s vinyl lunch bag. He even wired it for electricity and we were the envy of the neighborhood on warm summer nights, watching television or listening to the radio in the little screen house that became know as the “night-owl” because we stayed up so late to remain there.
I love my memories of Dad, perhaps even more than I ever loved Dad himself. He was a kind and gentle man that was sensitive and loving except when he was mad. And for so many years, I only remembered that he was mad. My kids do that to me today. I think sometimes that they only remember that I was mad. I am like my Dad in many ways–some of the ways in which I am like him embarrass me. I am too sensitive, I have thin skin, I explode and even can hold a grudge when it is called for. He drank way too much beer and when he drank whiskey–he was a different man, someone who I did not know and whom I did not wish to know. I hated the Saturday nights Nights when his brothers came to house to play cards…They were all gruff, they were all about teasing and tickling and looking back they may have all been drunk. I never got his family. When his father died, his brother’s and sisters refused to chip-in to by a tomb stone and every Memorial day when we did the annual pilgrimage to the local cemeteries with pots of red-geraniums to visit the long and not-so-long dead ancestors, my Dad would get Mad all over again that their was no head-stone to mark the final resting place…never looked a lot like rest to me..
So, I guess what I want to do today, is to say, “Happy Birthday Dad, and if you can hear me, if your soul has some consciousness remaining about the form you had when you were with us, I want to tell you that you were a good Dad, at the very least a good-enough Dad.” “I want to thank you for the DNA that you passed on to me. It suits me well and although it has taken almost a life time to grow into it, I have become comfortable with who I am, with what you made me to be and how I slowly became more and more like you. I still have brown hair, Dad–just like you did until nearly the very end.” “I don’t even remember what it is that I needed to forgive you for.” “I just know that growing up with you and Mom was a real joy. Like the old Cadillac, it has taken many years for that thought to re emerge into consciousness. But spending this time with you this morning, today on your birthday, I am proud to be your son. Oh, just in case, i forget to mention it while you were alive, thanks for loaning me the money to buy my first house and for giving me the father-clock that you so loved. I look at the accordion, the father-clock, your harmonica, and I even forgive you your whiskey.”
“I really do not know if I will ever see you again. It was so comforting to believe, like a good catholic boy, that some day we would all be together in some special banquet room in heaven playing music, drinking beer and hooting it up for the holidays; but frankly, Dad, I just don’t think that will ever happen. I am pretty sure that the only way we can be together now is when I conjure you up, that snappy, young handsome man who was so proud to drive his 1940 Cadillac. You made a good choice, Dad, Moody Street was a wonderful place to grow up in the forties and fifties. Thanks…for being you, & one more thing: I Love You,