Thursday, August 23, 2007
A Man of Constant Sorrow - An Anniversary Rerun
My father died 12 years ago today. This photo was taken only a few weeks before his death, when Lucas was 8 months old. Although he could be a harsh father, he really loved babies and it shows here.
I thought it was fitting to rerun a post from March 13th.
One part Tony Soprano, one part Ralph Kramden and a pinch of Bugs Bunny...that pretty much sums up my dad, Sal. He grew up in the streets of Brooklyn, one of eight children (there was a ninth, but he fell from a fire escape as he played with his older brother, my Uncle Joey. Somehow I never trusted Uncle Joey). They lived in a tenement building above the barber shop that his father owned and next door to the woman who would become mymother. (and also "next door to Moider Incorporated")
A sweet, quiet man, my father served six years in the Navy during WWII, including a stint on the USS Lexington. He was at Pearl Harbor for a weekend of R&R when he and his shipmates were suddenly called back and they left, stealthfully, in the middle of the night. It was December 6th. Because of this incident, he was convinced that FDR knew the bombing of Pearl Harbor was going to happen, but allowed it as a way to get us into the war. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Lexington was torpedoed and poor Sal had to await rescue while bobbing around in the Pacific. As a kid, not realizing the magnitude of this event, I would tease him and call him "Chicken of the Sea" when he didn't want to join us in the water at Rockaway Beach.
Our relationship was a complicated one. For years I just thought he was a horrible, abusive father which in many respects, he was. He was generally sullen, having been forced to forego a dream of being a carpenter and moving to California in the 1950s by my mother: The Queen of Control and Manipulation. She insisted that he take the civil service exam, stay in Brooklyn near her mother and sisters, and get a job with a pension. He spent his working life delivering mail.
We paid dearly as a result. His hair-trigger temper and ill-fated attempts to control me, especially, resulted in aberrations of parenting that began with verbal lashings, humiliation and sadistic "discipline". We feared him. He never said much, but talked with his hands like Tony Manero's father in Saturday Night Fever. ("Hey! Watch the hair!") By the time I was a mouthy and wild teenager, he was hauling off and punching me full-fisted in the face.
It may seem strange to you, but after many years of psychotherapy I came to pity him. I realized that Sal was the puppet...and Margie Dearest was the puppetmaster. She'd instigate arguments between us, she'd put words in his mouth, she'd challenge him with "you're gonna let her get away with that?" until he had to take action to prove his manhood. He was miserable and he was trapped. I quoted him in my earlier post about marriage, where he said "If you wanted to be happy, what the hell did you get married for?" Sadly, this told me how low the bar had been set for him. He gave up everything to please a woman who could never be pleased.
I don't think I could have ever found it in my heart to forgive him had there not been moments of genuine love and affection that seeped through. Unlike my mother, I think he really did love us...especially as babies. This became evident to me when I had babies of my own and saw the warmth in his eyes. I knew, too, that by loving my children this way he was expressing a wordless apology to me. (My mother, on the other hand, once said "So sue me!" when questioned about her parenting style.)
I'm sad that Lucas never got to know my Dad. They would have adored each other. Thankfully my daughter did get to experience the "real" man...the one who wept as he held her as a newborn, who held my hand as an adult to make up for all the times he couldn't do it when I was a child. While I can never forget the mistakes he made, I am wise enough now to understand the grey areas.
My Dad and Emma at my wedding to Tony, 1993. Photo by Rob Fraser.