I remember my dad. I remember that hot, summer day when I prayed at his grave with tears streaming down my face, "Oh, my God, may he find the peace and joy he lost on this earth."
As a reviewer said about my recent novel, my memories of my dad are a mixed bag. I don't remember a distinguished or handsome executive barely at home for dinner. I remember a broken man, balding, slight build, sitting in a worn out recliner chair watching television in a little house not much bigger than a trailer, squished between two other similar houses on the poor side of town. When he discussed anything, it was generally with anger and gloom, but he would "vote for a dog as long as it was a democrat."
In contrast, I remember a top hat and sleeve garters dancing up an down as he pounded out "Beer Barrel Polka" on a piano on the Holiday Inn circuit. His gravely voice came of age in his late 50's, crooning "Ace In the Hole" and old 40's hits or the newest songs that he could pick up and play with just a few notes hummed by a patron.
I remember when I was a child of nine, how he cried on Christmas Day as he was served divorce papers and left my house. I had never seen my daddy cry. I had heard my parents' shouts and screams on occasion, but not often. I didn't understand that Christmas day at all. That day and the following years changed my life too.
I remember his old beat up jalopy with the pavement showing through the rusted out floor. He drove with a cigarette in one hand, lighting one off the other. The divorce broke his heart, his health and his wallet. He had nothing but a little motel room in a cabin on a lake. I would paddle his flat-bottomed fishing boat in circles as he fished, seldom catching anything, on our madatory Sunday visits.
I remember being ashamed. I was ashamed of his poverty of spirit, his depression, his angry view of life, his broken old car. The only joy I saw in his eyes was when he played piano. Then, he was a changed person, a man of the world, a thrill a minute to sit beside on the piano bench as his worshippers gathered around and belted out the old songs or spun around on the dance floor.
He was failing by the time my son was born. My little boy would sit next to him on the piano and pound on the keys, a broad grin on my dad's face. I often hoped my son would inherit the musical skill of my dad. It missed me. So far, it missed my son as well.
I was in Asia when my dad needed a leg amputation to save his life. He said he'd rather die. I flew home, my little boy in tow, and convinced him to have the surgery. As he recovered, I listened in awe as the four year old boy and the 59 year old man had a deep and philosophical discussion about the missing leg and its artificial replacement. The conversation was detailed as my son examined my father's remaining stump and tried to get an understanding of how he was going to use the artificial leg.
As the only gift he had, my dad wrote little stories about chipmunks and squirrels and birds for my son. I'm sure he doesn't remember his grampa reading those stories, but I do. I still have them in some remote file box somewhere in the memory bins. I gave my son my dad's ring, his flag from service in the U.S. Army during World War II, and his bible. My son was too young at the time I gave them to him; I doubt he still has them. It's okay; he remembers his grampa a little.
My dad was raised by his father and aunts. His mother died when he was just a baby. He served his country; he lived a life of hard work as a union man installing steam heat in high rise buildings, a dangerous job. His talent with the piano was magnificent, but never fully exploited as a weekend entertainer. He drank too much on the weekends; he smoked too much. He gave up both of those at 39, after the divorce and his first heart attack.
The last couple years of his life as his body was ravaged by diabetes and arthritis, a relative drove him to the various hospitals, assisted living and nursing homes where the occasional notes that his arthritic hands missed went unnoticed by the singing and clapping audiences with their wheelchairs and walkers and the memories he brought to them.
My dad was an unassuming man; he always helped friends in need when he had no resources for himself; he was honest. I always felt he was proud of my accomplishments in his own quiet way. He tried to be considerate of others. On his last night on this earth, he asked the ambulance driver to go slowly and not use the siren; he didn't want to upset the neighbors.
Today is Father's Day. I'm in the middle of a major spring cleaning in preparation for hurricane season. It's been thirty years since my father's last song. In the box of "protect from hurricane" stuff is a picture of The Piano Man, top hat and sleeve garters, at the piano, the one place where joy filled his face.
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