Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

I see him all the time, looking back at me quizzically. He is thinking. I can see the wheels turn behind his eyes, as he would say, the knitting of his brow, and the way he clenches his jaw, tongue between his teeth. I think he's just as shocked by our resemblance as I am. He's trying to piece them together, the two lives.

My old man hated the Hallmark holiday,
the selling of phony sentiment he would say, but he reveled in fatherhood, the actuality of it, although he was constantly judging his experience of it, always gauging the moral weight he ought to bring to fathering, not having had much of a model himself. He liked to gauge things, that was a primary mode of being for him, to become an expert at measuring. And judging.

His father was sexton and organist at Our Lady of Ostrabrama in Cutchogue. Not much of a living, especially if you played cards and drank, and had a family to support. At some point things fell apart, or
reached a head, as my father would later say. And that's when his father's much younger -- and sickly -- wife and three children were sent to Greenpoint where relatives had an apartment on Kent Street. There they lived on welfare while The Old Man stayed out the Island with his all-men's choir, potato growers and fishermen, bull-headed illiterates from the old country who somehow knew how to sing. Heartbreakingly, of course.

So what, I see my father thinking, that explains so little, those were the times, it was the Depression, and families had to learn how to make do. "I am a self-made man, always a botch job, true, but I took responsibility for my life and my family." I look at him looking at me with those bulging eyes of his, with the broken veins on his nose, and his white hair and dry skin.

I ask him, "When did your rage for living turn into simple rage?" I know the answer, because I saw it happen, years before he died, when my mother lay on the blue couch in the living room, eaten away by disease, and there was nothing he could do. He had to stand there, frightened by his own helplessness, and give in. My mother was peaceful but he got angrier and angrier. He doesn't answer me because he can't see himself.

Instead he whispers, "I had nothing to show for my life until you and your brother came along. You were everything to me." That is my father thinking, looking at me as I look at him, trying to piece together the two lives.

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