This is my dad. His name was James, but everyone called him ‘Jim.’
This photo was taken about five years before he died, much too young, a victim of lung cancer. It’s my favorite photo of him because he looks so happy.
Dad was a Depression kid, born into a hardscrabble existence. I think his tough past had a lot to do with the man he became.
His mother and father were miserable people (together and apart), and they went their separate ways during an era in which divorce was frowned upon. Back in those days, a man could leave his family and not provide much in the way of emotional or financial support for his kids. My grandfather was a cold, selfish, vindictive man. He left his wife with four boys to take care of during one of the worst economic periods in U.S. history.
Later, in spite of periods of coolness between them, my dad continued to maintain ties with his father. I marvel at this. I never thought of it while my dad was alive, but it must have taken a big heart to forgive a man like my grandfather. I don’t know how he did it. Perhaps everyone needs a father, even a bad one. I don’t know. But I do know my dad kept in touch with his father until the day his father died.
My grandmother had her problems, too. I don’t remember much about her, to be honest. But I do know that she remarried when my dad was only thirteen, and when her new husband didn’t want my dad around, she shipped him off to live with her sister.
My dad kept in touch with her, too, for the rest of her life.
He was a better man than I am a woman, I think. When people hurt me, I open the door for them – and then push them through it! But my father never closed the door on either of his parents.
My dad was a smart man who could add long columns of figures in his head – a trait he passed on to my sister and which entirely missed me. He also had a talent for putting words together on a page. Unfortunately, when he was sixteen, he dropped out of school to help support his family, and he never went back.
He worked behind a deli counter in an old time grocery market until he was drafted. This was during the Korean conflict. He was stationed in Germany and France. He never forgot his time in Europe, and decades later, he and my mother visited those countries. When he died, my mom gave me a photo album that contained all the photographs he and his Army buddies had taken during their time in the service. It’s odd to see your father as young boy, a raw youth.
A few years after he’d come back to the States, he started going to church and one day saw a pretty black-haired girl singing in the church choir. He asked who she was – it was my future mom, Audrey. They fell hard for one another, and soon married.
My dad then worked as a postal employee until he finally reached retirement. He was a lifelong member of the American Legion. He marched in patriotic parades every year. He was instrumental in having a park established in a poor neighborhood so kids would have a place to play ball. He was a member of the Democrat Club, and he loved discussing politics. My dad and his pals were once interviewed about local affairs by a newspaper reporter. I still have the newspaper, now yellowed, featuring a large photograph of my dad. He looks great – enthusiastic, eager, totally engaged in the discussion. He was happiest when he could hold forth on world events and the political scene. I like to remember him that way.
My father was an ordinary man. He believed in the United States, that it was the best place on earth. He strongly believed in the power of the vote, and he made sure we believed in it, too. I vote in all elections – local, state, primary, general. My dad taught me that. He used to say no one has a right to complain about the government if he sits on his butt on Election Day.
I loved my father, but I can’t always say we got along. He was a stern man. If something was put on the table, he didn’t want to hear excuses – you ate what was placed before you, and you liked it! You don’t take food lightly when you’re a Depression baby – and he never did.
He wasn’t a demonstrative father. I can’t remember him ever saying aloud, ‘I love you.’ But I have memories of his picking me up from school and taking me to the movies. He was usually tired and would fall asleep during the picture, but his heart was in the right place. Whenever one of those movies we saw appears on television, I get a warm feeling, remembering the dad-and-daughter outings.
The night before I got married, my dad sat across from me during the ‘rehearsal’ dinner. I was excited and happy, full of myself. I noticed my dad’s eyes on me – and then I noticed they were moist. He didn’t have to say he loved me. I knew it.
After he died, my mother was going through his things, and found a poem I’d written when I was a kid. I was surprised and touched that he had held onto it all those years. He was proud of me. My dad was proud of me. I still have the poem, and when I look at it, it’s like my dad is sending me a message even now: I may not have said it, but I love you.
My dad wasn’t perfect. But he was my dad. And I miss him. And each year that goes by, I find I miss him more.
Yesterday, I wrote a story called ‘The Red Sweater.’ It didn’t occur to me until after I’d finished the story, but I was writing about my dad. He was that elderly man who missed his dog. During the worst of my father’s illness, my mother’s dog (Gretchen) used to stay by my father’s side. When that dog died, my father used to dream about her.
Sunday is Father’s Day, and this is my tribute to my father.
Happy Father’s Day, dad. I miss you.