For Father's Day: Holding on to Memory
When I was a little girl I used to lie in front of the kitchen door at five o’clock every afternoon and wait for my father to come home from the shipyard. Every day, he’d open the door, pretend not to see me and step gently on my stomach before I’d squirm away in laughter, so proud of myself for fooling him again. Then he’d pick me up in the air and tickle my belly with his bald head until I begged him to let me down. I remember the faint smell of engine grease on his clothes, the roughness of his hands and the wrinkles on his forehead.
My Dad worked two jobs to pay his mortgage and save money for his kids’ education. He was the son of immigrant parents, a union member and an Independent. He believed in the value of education, the Catholic Church, and that the only food worth eating was Italian. He always drove a Ford because that’s what his brother-in-law sold, and family loyalty was more important than driving an Oldsmobile. He grew the best tomatoes on the planet, and could fix just about anything that broke, though it might take him a few years to do it.
When he retired he spent his winters in Florida, where he played golf and listened to Rush Limbaugh. When he came home he complained that our neighborhood was being taken over by immigrants. He complained about his taxes, wrote letters to the editor about waste in the public schools, and kept his TV tuned to the news. He volunteered every Wednesday to make lunch at a school for brain-injured children. He visited his brother-in-law in the nursing home every Sunday, even though Uncle Eddie didn’t recognize him. He cared for my mother with a tenderness I never saw in him when she was healthy.
He was proud that his daughter was a doctor, even though his father had told him it was wrong to educate women. He was even prouder when I went to work at the VA and took care of his fellow veterans. When I visited him, I’d find him listening to talk radio, with a stack of books by Fox news anchors at his side. I’d try to keep our conversation light. If I complained about the cold weather, he taunted me about the myth of Global Warming. I was his “tree hugging liberal” and even worse, I was gay. If I tried to defend my views, our tempers flared before we came close to understanding each other. I often left his house in tears and came to dread visiting him, but I did, at least once a week.
My father died on the morning after Father’s Day ten years ago, quickly and peacefully at the age of 89. Our final hours together were spent around the dining room table. We were all on our best behavior. The conversation was light and my brother entertained us by keeping the spotlight on himself. When I left I said, “Happy Father’s Day, Dad, I love you.” He said, “Go slow,” the same words he said each time I left his house since I started to drive.
I’m glad my father’s not around these days. As unbearable as it is to watch our country being consumed by a cancer of fear, hatred and intolerance, it’s even more painful to think that my father could have been part of that malignancy. That’s not the man I want to remember. I want to remember the kind man who came home from work and pretended to step on his daughter’s belly but who would never want to hurt her.
Natalie Mariano is a semi-retired physician at the VA in Hyannis.
This piece was edited by Viki Merrick at Atlantic Public Media