On the 13th of January at 7:50 in the evening, my father slipped the bonds of earth and left us.
My father’s first name was Joseph. People called him Joe. His parents had always called him Son. My mother called him Smitty. He was the only child of a Depression-era, multicultural marriage. My grandfather was the oldest child of Italian immigrant parents. He might have been a happier man in his youth but I didn’t see much of that as his grandchild – he was always kind to me, but he could withdraw into a cold anger, and his way of dealing with that anger was to stop speaking to you. This was a trait he passed on to my father (and in turn to all of us children, each one of us dealing with it differently). My father’s mother was a Pennsylvania Dutch farm girl who eloped with my grandfather before she was 20. The marriage was not a happy one – and ended after 50 years when my grandmother learned that she qualified for subsidized housing. I used to say that my father inherited a fiery Sicilian temper and the German talent for keeping it all inside, but course it was much more complicated than that. In some ways he was Sicilian to the core, and at the same time an affable, hard-working local boy. Not that those things are in any way mutually exclusive; it just depends on who’s on the receiving end.
My parents met on a blind date on New Year’s Eve, fell in love, got married, and had children. My mother became a school music teacher, eventually getting her master’s degree. My father had attended a military academy but not college, and served in the Navy before settling into sales jobs back home. He was a sales rep for grocery stores, driving around his territory, taking orders, checking the displays. He would bring home overstocks – lemonade mix, soap. He would do paperwork at home at his desk, just off the kitchen, filling out forms printed on pastel-colored paper. He must have had lots extra, because I was allowed to take it for drawing, something I did a lot as a child. I was always doodling, so maybe this was my parents’ way of keeping the margins of their books undecorated. Although I don’t remember Dad being much of a reader. He read the newspaper, of course, and maybe magazines. I don’t remember ever seeing him read a novel.
There were four or us children, spread out over eight years, with the first three coming one after the other in quick succession. My Dad came from a generation that must have felt like the rug had been pulled out from under them in the late 60s. As children, they had been shown tough love, were disciplined for any infraction, formed into adults through fear and respect for their elders. They did everything expected of them because there was little alternative, and yearned to be free by becoming adults. But they then watched as their own children grew their hair long, took drugs, dissed the establishment, took an interest in socialism, played loud rock music in their bedrooms, talked back. And no amount of iron fist was going to make things go back to the way they used to be. His relationships with his older children grew strained. The younger ones learned by watching and walking on eggshells when necessary.
My Dad enjoyed hunting, and kept a small collection of rifles and other firearms. Deer mostly, also pheasant (and once a rabbit that I remember being prepared by my Mom for dinner – his dinner, as none of us would dare to eat poor Thumper.) When hunting season rolled around he would spend evenings in the “gun room” he’d staked out in the basement, filling shells. He’d been an NRA member but left the organization when it started getting political and survivalist.
He was very adept with tools of all kinds, including power tools. With a house on two acres of woodland, you had to be. Chainsaws, wood chippers, pressure cleaners, the ATV with the trailer to haul logs up the hill and the plow to clear snow from the long driveway. And he was as strong as an ox, even into his eighties.
In retirement, he and my mother did a bit of traveling. They bought a van that was outfitted for camping and took a couple of road trips around the country, including a long one to Alaska and back. Despite my Dad’s fear of flying, they even visited Europe a few times. Looking back, I suspect that by their last trip, to Germany to visit me, the dementia was starting showing itself in subtle forms. A year later, it was noticeable in ways that I still didn’t associate with illness. My father was not one to share his internal life with us, or to ruminate about the state of the world or ask us probing questions about our lives. Like the fathers of many of my friends, if he answered the phone when I called, we’d talk about the weather for 2 minutes and then he’d say “I’ll get your mother.”
But one time he surprised the heck out of me. I was living in Salzburg in the 1990s, when cell phones and home internet weren’t things that everyone had yet, and so many of us expats had fax machines to send messages that were quicker than mail and cheaper than a long-distance phone call. One afternoon, my machine started spitting out… a love poem. One or two pages of it, and then a note from my Dad, explaining that my Mom had written it for him back when they were young. He’d kept it safely tucked away in a drawer and their anniversary was coming up in a few months, could I make a song out of it and record it for him? That he thought out this plan still astounds me today, not least that he knew how to use the fax machine without being able to ask my Mom for help, since she was the main communicator in the household.
But back to now – he held steady for several years, but the inevitable slide came over time, and in the end he died at home, cared for by my mother and my sister, two heroes to the end. Thank God he didn’t contract Covid-19, as his condition would not have allowed him to understand what was happening, and he wasn’t always cooperative with nurses.
About three days after his death, I was busy working at the computer. Suddenly, I distinctly felt that he was there, or somehow the essence of who he was, as if he had swooped down on his way out, just to communicate that he was OK, and that he loved me. It lasted for about a minute. And then he was gone.
Rest in peace, Joe.