Though brief, the memories I have of my father are perhaps some of the most vivid of my childhood.
I have experienced life with a father and without, so my views of fatherhood (and Father’s Day) are certainly filtered by that experience. My father passed away at 52, a stroke after his fifth heart attack. I was only nine at the time, but felt much older – and older still after his death. I consider myself blessed to have shared the years with him I did; my father was a rich person, in experience and desire, though he never had great monetary wealth. He himself grew up in grinding poverty in the deep South, and suffered tremendous abuse at the hands of his own father; he wasn’t even allowed to go to school and as a child never got past a fifth grade education. For many such suffering would have been a lifelong prison of bitterness and pain, but my father saw it as an invitation to escape and grow. He joined the military at age 17, a short time before WWII broke out, and in that time accumulated enough of an education to get college credit. Though he faced the horror of war in Italy and North Africa, he also took the opportunity to learn to read blueprints and learn to build bridges and roads. And he learned to speak a little Italian as well.
Coming back from the war he met my mom on a blind date in New Orleans, and married soon after. I don’t know how badly they wanted to have children at the time, but they weren’t to have any for eighteen years after their wedding. In many ways the choices my father made during that time illustrate what an eclectic person he was; a person unafraid of what others thought of him or what society told him he was supposed to be. When I think of my father, I often think of this line from the Whitman poem, Song of Myself–
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Though he had been a bomb squad sergeant in the war, he loved art and was himself an artist of some talent, often making a living painting portraits and billboards. Though quite sickly as a child, he later went on to compete as a body builder. He often worked with his hands, and yet I still have awards he got from his ability to ballroom dance with my mother. He could be quite intimidating; his stare would easily cause those who crossed him to cower, yet I remember him tearing up when one of our dogs had been injured beyond his ability to treat it. He could command with a word, yet I don’t ever remember going to bed without a kiss from him and a tender “I love you”.
In many ways I got from my father my protective nature, my strong sense of justice and hated of prejudice. Despite growing up in Mississippi in the 30s, he didn’t tolerate discrimination in any form – perhaps his own experiences fighting the hatred of Nazism in the war had extinguished any he had growing up. My mother often spoke of the trouble he caused when they still lived in the South because of his willingness to befriend blacks he met and invite them in for food or drinks, something unheard of at the time. He also hated bullies. There was more than one time when he stopped a man from physically abusing their children in public; a reaction no doubt to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his own father. From him I learned not to start fights, but not to back down. I learned to stick up for those who were weaker – a lesson I was going to have to put to use later growing up in a rough neighborhood with a younger brother and sister and no father.
My father also taught me to love learning. While he was denied a formal education most of his life, he was well read and taught me to read long before I saw a school. Though we were never wealthy, my life was rich with books and my father’s insistence on using every experience as a teaching one. I am certain the ease with which I went through school and onto college are due in large part to having this ingrained in me from a young age.
He wasn’t a perfect man, and many of his shortcomings also formed who I am today and resulted in me making different choices than he had – but I am so incredibly thankful I had him for the time I did, and my only regret is that it was so short.
If I could change anything, it would be to have just one more Father’s Day.