Six days ago, I stood staring at an open casket, eyes locked on the face of my father. The funeral home had suddenly become familiar territory: Mom, at age 92, died just 15 days before Dad, who was 89. For more than a decade prior, my wife Jill and I saw them morph from my parents into what can only be described as our best friends.
During that time, about 500 of our weekly Game Days cemented an unexpected bond and left us weak with laughter. Each session was like four teenagers gathering for hours of teasing and repartee. As with any game, Mom focused on winning, but I was there to socialize. We always had a ball.
We each experience things differently, and for me, Dad’s wake was unique. Jill and I arrived early, and for a half hour, we were there in solitude. Jill sat off to the side, crying quietly and feeling guilty for not standing there and comforting me. But it wasn’t just my loss. For a long time, they had been her best and closest friends. And besides, I didn’t need comforting. I was lost in the past.
Standing there by the casket and staring seemed like an odd thing to do, and doing it for so long seemed odder yet. But with my eyes riveted on his face, my mind was elsewhere. Like a near-death experience where your life seems to flash before your eyes, I was drifting through vivid memories of my own personal history, viewing them much like the home movies my dad shot so often in the 1950s and 60s.
Though we had grown close through the weekly visits, it wasn’t always so. As I wrote here last year on Father’s Day, I was once a rebellious, bullheaded teenager and Dad was a know-it-all father. Some of our most intense arguments involved politics and religion. He was a World War II veteran, and my oldest brother John was in Vietnam, but I took part in anti-war protests, complete with long-haired hippies and VW microbuses sporting psychedelic paint jobs.
We were raised in a religious atmosphere and attended Catholic school, so everyone knew the rules. To my dad, it was in no way appropriate when I compared our Catholic, non-questioning faith to Nazi blind obedience, and as you can imagine, he didn’t appreciate it. We argued often about lots of stuff, and on many occasions, his final words were shouted at me: “It was good enough for my father, and it was good enough for me, so it’s good enough for you!”
It’s hard to describe how much I hated those words. There were several reasons, one of which I could never reconcile in my mind. How could a man so smart and wise say and believe something like that? To me, questions were a sign of intelligence, of wanting to know more. To this day, I can’t embrace the notion that blindly believing something … anything … is a good idea.
Dad was so intelligent—I’ve always said he’s the smartest man I’ve ever known—that in my adult years, I was able to respect and admire his faith while not at all understanding it. He was quite anxious for me to leave home after I graduated from high school, and though I didn’t want to go at the time, I did. But neither that quick departure nor disagreeing over religion was ever again a sore spot between us.
From that time forward, I always admired him. As adults, many of us believe we’ve improved on the old model, and in certain situations, we might sometimes think to ourselves, “I’m nothing like my dad.”
But looking at Dad lying there before me, I was transported back to my youth on what seemed like just about every Sunday afternoon. There he was, asleep on the couch. Football was on television, but Dad was as far removed from the world as one could get—until you dared change the channel. He’d somehow awaken and say, “Hey, I’m watching that!” So I’d dutifully turn it back to football, and Dad went right back to sleep. I still don’t know how he did it. Some kind of Dad magic, I guess.
Returning briefly to the present, I looked down at him and wondered, “How could he be gone?” And as I stared, I recalled my childhood years, when Dad frequently seemed to drift off mentally to some unknown place, staring blindly. It often took a “Dad. Dad?” and then a loud “Dad!” to bring him out of it and get his attention. And here I was in the present, doing the very same thing that he once did.
But I could never really be like him … never that good. I tried, but he set the bar pretty high. Now he was gone, but as I went from scene to scene in my mind, I realized how much of him remained. After all, I work hard at writing for public consumption, and he surely had a hand in that. My love of books and writing has many roots, including the heavy influence of seeing Dad read the New York Daily News. I read the same paper every day when he was finished with it. And he was always engaged in one book or another.
I love sports. My sons were MVPs in several sports for multiple years, and while they were introduced to much of it by me, I got a lot of it from Dad: the love of a good game, whether participating or watching. I realized I was merely the conduit, passing the good stuff from my father to my children.
Our family loves music. Among my parents’ children and grandchildren are several very talented musicians. They’ve added their own stuff to the mix, but is it just coincidence that Dad often had Glenn Miller and other oldies going on the record player? That he was always singing or whistling a song? That he built an electric organ from scratch and then taught himself how to play? That he let my brother’s rock band practice in our kitchen while young folks listened and danced?
Or that he regularly played the clarinet and led the family in sing-along’s and impromptu concerts? At times there was Dad, his mother, and some of us singing; my sister Sally on piano; and my brothers Skipp and Tom on guitar, banjo, or other string instruments. The roots of all that musical talent and the great fun it generated over the years may well have sprung from the seeds planted by Dad.
In our youth, Dad taught us the joys of fishing, especially for trout. Some of our fondest memories are family picnics at favored fishing spots. My brother John was a good fisherman. Tom was and is a great fisherman. And from ages 8 to 15, I virtually lived in the river that half encircled our yard.
Dad wanted me to be a Little League baseball player. I felt his keen disappointment when I balked, but he gradually embraced my fishing abilities, listened to my stories, and unbeknownst to me, bragged to his friends at work about his young fisherman son.
In Champlain village, where I grew up, there were two bridges, and I fished from both. During summers, I became a fixture there, often fishing alone and loving it, but seen by everyone who passed by. At noon, the fire whistle sounded, and that was my cue to reel in and hustle home immediately to eat.
But one day, that changed. As the whistle sounded and I turned to leave, a loud voice halted me in my tracks. It was some man I didn’t know, but he told me it was okay with Dad if I stayed to fish. He was one of Dad’s co-workers who wanted to see what all the fuss was over this young boy reportedly catching big fish. For the next half hour, he was appreciative of my “work.”
The next day he showed up again, this time with five friends in tow. They ate sandwiches, drank whatever they drank, asked lots of questions, and watched me fish for muskies. I wasn’t accustomed to an audience, and it was very intimidating. But as a fisherman, I had tryout spots and sure things, so with everyone watching, I worked the sure thing. It was amazing: just like a ballplayer with fans, here I was fishing before an audience, watching me catch fish!
It didn’t end there. There were many repeat performances, and they even booked me for an appearance at the other bridge, where bass were the principal target. There I had a helluva day—several nice bass and a couple of big ones—while grown men laughed, joked, and celebrated my catches. From then on, anytime one of them drove by and saw me fishing from a bridge, they tooted their horn. And I beamed.
I developed friendships with some of my “fans,” and several became customers, sending messages home with Dad that Bill, Joe, Leo, or Puggie needed some live bait for an upcoming trip. I was a regular provider for them and got paid for my services. Without my dad teaching us about fishing and letting me roam the river, it’s unlikely any of that would have happened.
If you noticed, Dad wasn’t among the group who came to watch me fish from the bridge. He knew that I knew of his disappointment when I didn’t join Little League (my tears during one of those discussions let the cat out of the bag). Wise man that he was, Dad also knew how special and surprising it would be when a half dozen of his friends, without him dragging them there, showed up to watch me do what I loved. Sometimes dads are pretty intuitive. Mine sure was. That was pure parental genius.
As I mentioned earlier, my love of writing was strongly influenced by Dad. He was so smart, and a whiz at crosswords, so I became one as well. I’d make copies of the New York Times puzzles so we could face off against each other.
I always considered him a Wordsmith of the highest order. He knew grammar, spelling, and other stuff so well that he would constantly screw up on purpose without letting on, waiting, with a twinkle in his eye, to see if anyone noticed. When Jill joined the family and we began playing games with Mom and Dad, this was all new to her. She’s smart and quick and sharp as a tack, so there’s not much that slips by her.
Because she had no background with my parents, she wrote her own rules, and it helped reveal a side to Dad I had never seen. Well, I had seen the side, but never at that level. The repartee between them was so funny that Mom often had to stop and wipe tears from her eyes. Jill could say things that family members felt they shouldn’t or couldn’t say, and Dad loved it.
It was like a comedy team, bustin’ on each other at every opportunity. It began with her weekly greeting: “Hey, old man!” He’d start laughing, and then he’d start saying stuff to make her laugh. That’s how it went, week after week, year after year, and it never got old. We loved his humor, which focused on being silly with words. I’m sure my siblings have heard many of the same old lines. Like his comment about game strategy: “I’ve got to try new tic-tacs,” instead of tactics. Or announcing a big play on the game board, he’d say, “There, take that and smoke it in your pipe,” instead of the old standard, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” It was all intentional, and funny as hell.
Our favorite? When I bemoaned the arduous task of editing, Dad said just about as seriously as one could say it: “I can edit your books. I know English good.” Even now, through tears of sadness, the memory of it still makes us laugh.
During the last several years, dementia crept up on Dad, removing pieces of who he was. But a lot of great stuff remained. We still enjoyed Game Day, followed by the two of us playing pool and having a ball. You see, Dad bought a pool table when we were young, and friends often congregated at our home to share music, play pool, and generally horse around. I remembered it as such a socially valuable thing that I long ago bought a pool table so my own children could have the same experience, and it worked out great. All because of Dad, and stuff he got from his own dad. Every week he’d say to me, “My dad was a great pool player,” and I always answered, “So is mine.” I still have my table today.
Near the end of his life, we saw Dad in the hospital and the nursing home. He didn’t know me. I tried different things, like mentioning pool, which was a strong link between us. He finally nodded yes, but I could see that it hadn’t registered. He was just saying it to be nice … or to shut me up.
But then Jill leaned in, and with a big smile, she said, “Hey, old man!” His eyes lit up, his mouth smiled, and his crow’s feet wrinkled into shape. There he was! The clear recognition lasted a few seconds, and he appeared ready to offer a snappy reply. But then he was gone again, and we didn’t get him back.
I see now the effect that board games, card games, baseball, fishing, writing, music, pool, repartee, politeness, respect for others, and doting on loved ones have had on my own children. It all came to them from Dad, with me as the conduit. And for the first time, when I consider those pieces of him that linger, I can see where Dad’s weak, old argument is something that finally makes sense: “It was good enough for my father, and it was good enough for me, so it’s good enough for you.”
Right again, Pops, as always.