Last Saturday was the 25th anniversary of my father’s death. He died when he was 60 years, 9 months old. I was really hoping that California Chrome would win the Triple Crown on his death day, as he was a big horse racing fan. In fact, he died at the race track, but the odds of that happening were pretty good since he went to the track every single day. The last time a horse won the Triple Crown, my father was 49 years old. When Ruffian, the celebrated filly, had to be euthanized in 1975, my father cried.
My father was the older of two sons. His parents were born in America at a time when most of his peers’ parents were European immigrants. His mother worked outside the home when almost no mothers did that. In fact, she was a businesswoman and owned a knitting store. She was a very good knitter and taught my father to knit. I learned how to cast on stitches from my father.
My grandfather was a bus driver, and later on worked in various auto parts stores, including Pep Boys. He looked just like one of the Pep Boys (Moe, the one in the middle), so I thought he owned the store.
My father was very devoted to his mother. The story goes that he started working at a very young age, and with his first earnings, he bought her a washing machine. As an adult, he called her every single day. It was devastating to him when he and his younger brother had a falling out and my grandmother took Uncle Paul’s side. This rift lasted for several years, ending with my uncle’s untimely death. My aunt and my grandmother would not let my father attend the funeral. He had been very close with his brother before the fight, and the whole thing — the fight, his mother’s taking sides, the death of his brother, being banned from the funeral, really took its toll on my father. I always thought he died of a broken heart — on my Uncle Paul’s birthday.
But what I remember most about my father is that he was the life of the party – any party. He felt it was his sacred duty to go to funerals, wakes and shivas to make everyone laugh. He could be crude and sometimes offensive (my family members do not have much of a filter) but he was never boring. He loved his life and his lifestyle. He would bet on anything, and in his later years, he was successful enough in business (after years of sketchy jobs) to be able to afford to gamble as a hobby. Not that that ever stopped him when he couldn’t afford it. My parents fought a lot about that.
They fought about a lot of things. They were a curious pair: my high energy, outgoing father and my introverted, depressed, homebody mother. Their relationship was based on this tension and they put a lot of energy into being the irresistible force and the immovable object. As the years went by, however, my mother became a willing gambler, and after my father died, she continued to go to the Atlantic City casinos on her own.
My father and I fought a lot too. He did not like my independent streak, and both my parents thought I was too “fresh.” I am still not sure what that means – it’s a word you don’t hear much anymore – but I think it had to do with my questioning of decisions they made and generally not following the “children should be seen and not heard” doctrine of the ancient past.
My father loved being a grandfather. He was 52 when my first son was born in 1981, and it was a really big deal for him. He brought so many balloons to the hospital that someone stopped him on the street, thinking he was a balloon seller. When we visited my parents in Philadelphia, my father would get up and change the baby’s diaper and play with him, letting me sleep in. He kept asking me, “When is he going to be my FRIEND?”
Eventually, my son and my father became great friends. When we visited my parents in Margate, New Jersey in the summer, my parents would play miniature golf with my son as many times as he wanted. This was most definitely not their type of activity, but for their grandson, they would do anything he wanted. This amazed me, because they were not the sort of people to willingly leave their comfort zone. I finally understand that level of devotion, now that I have a grandson of my own.
My father always had a fancy car, and had a special horn that loudly played the racing fanfare (“Call to the Post” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_2QdFrcTFU ) when he drove up to my parents’ condo. My son would run out to see him, which was a big thrill for both of them. They liked to wash the car together.
Three other grandsons came along in 1986, when I had my second son, and my brother and sister each had their first sons. I have videos of him playing with all 4 kids, rolling around on the floor with them and letting them ride him like a horse – a game we called “Tricks” when we were kids. When I ask my second son if he remembers Zeza, he describes that day, but he’s not sure if he actually remembers it or just replays that video in his head. This is one of the reasons why I think it is SO important to take lots of videos of your kids when they are young – not only to remember them with those impossibly high sweet voices, but also to preserve memories of happy times with people who are no longer around.
When my father died, the grandsons were 8, 3, 3 and 2.5 years old. Nonetheless, he remains a huge force in their lives to this day. We talk about him all the time, tell his corny jokes and quote his street wisdom. He always believed that when a person dies, it’s like taking your hand out of a bucket of water – nothing remains to show you were ever there. But he was wrong.