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My Dad has been gone 15 years in August, but on this Father’s Day, I still see his presence in who I turned out to be.
I’d like to tell you we had this Ward Cleaver-like father-son relationship, but we didn’t. He only saw me play sports once in his life, never came to any events I was involved in, and pretty much viewed his role growing up as providing a roof over our head, food on the table, and making sure I went to college.
Like all Dads of that generation, he was similar to the way Brett Favre described his father the night he learned he had passed away: Never said he loved you, never gave you a lot of credit for what you did, always scoffed when you asked him for money, but was always there. We could watch entire sporting events together and never talk about anything other than "that was a great play." Same was true playing golf together. We would talk during those times without actually saying anything.
It’s a stark contrast to how I acted when I became a Dad, and I’ll be honest, there were times I struggled with that. It wasn’t until he was in his 70s he decided he wanted to be friends and we talked about this sort of thing. The more we talked, the more I understood.
Like many of us, he learned how to be a father from watching his own father, an Italian immigrant who came to America in 1917, married, had 8 children, but then lost his wife (my grandmother) when my Dad was only 18. Because of that, my grandfather was angry at life and took it out on his sons, who as soon as they could, joined the military to get away from all of that. I got to talk to my last surviving uncle last week, and at 91, he still confirms growing up in that house wasn’t a lot of fun.
But despite all that, my Dad – like every Dad whether he wants to or not – taught me how to be a father by his actions. Yeah, he talked about the Depression way too often – you learned not ask for money from him lest you wanted to hear stories of only having dirt to eat for dinner and being thankful you had even that – but there was another message he communicated I have only recently understood.
He grew up and lived through the Depression, fought in World War II and learned to expect the unexpected. He was never satisfied with where we were financially, always fearing someone would come take it away. He taught me to always have a plan B because he just knew the minute he got comfortable, something would happen. It’s a fairly common trait, I’ve learned, of the Greatest Generation.
He was so entrenched with this notion that in his final year, he looked around the den at our home in Norfolk as if the CIA was spying on him, then quietly whispered “when I’m gone, there’s a Charles Chips can under the sink. It’s filled with sand. At the bottom is $500 I always kept in case something ever happened so we could buy groceries and pay the bills.”
He had lived through the depression and never completely shook that fear of having nothing. I told him that night that his house and cars were paid for, he had some money in the bank, and I had done pretty well. All he had to do was say the word and I’d take care of anything he needed.
“You hold on to your money for your family,” he said. “You don’t know when something could happen. Save it for a rainy day.”
He passed away that year, and I saw both the good side and bad side of that philosophy. Yes, you do save for that rainy day so your family is always taken care of. But over the years, I had also sent him a dozen new golf balls for Father’s Day and his birthday every year for a dozen years. After he died, I looked in his closet, where there was an old Navy steamer trunk where he kept his more valued possessions. All 24 dozen were in that trunk unopened.
He was so focused on preparing for that rainy day, he never stopped to enjoy what he had during the sunny ones.
I tell this story because over the years, I ended up being the same way. It’s one of the real battles in being a man, because no matter your plans, you are going to become your Dad whether you want to or not. You can fight it all you want, but there will come a day you look in the mirror, see a reflection looking back at you, and want to say “Dad?” The mannerisms, the laugh, the cough in the morning when you’re first getting up…. you notice them. And you can’t fight it.
I’ve never talked about the Depression, but throughout all the years, I’ve struggled with spending money because of this. I’ve been good at making it, and good and spending it on my wife and daughter. But my wife usually has to force me to buy nicer things for myself when it comes to a new car, golf clubs, anything I will usually first think “I can make do with what I have.” You know that guy who has a phone so old they call him Leroy Jethro Gibbs? That’s me. I’d much rather cook and stay in than go out, and while many enjoy yearly vacations to exotic places, I prefer driving down to Virginia Beach.
My family says I’m cheap and boring, and I don’t argue the point. I’m guilty as charged.
But I sit here today only a few weeks before turning 65, and realize I too have a nice home and good cars that are paid off. I was able to put my daughter through school so she could launch her adult life debt free, and I even had a few bucks left over to buy her a car at graduation. My debts are paid, there are sufficient funds to enjoy a comfortable retirement, and I met all my goals for my family.
I am in position to do what I want to do instead of what I have to do.
All this, I believe, was because of the frugal habits I picked up from an old Italian who told me stories of eating dirt and being glad to have it. A man who set the example for me as to how to be a man, a husband and a father. A man, who despite a gruff bedside manner, in his own way made most of this possible.
So on this special day for Dads, I’m thinking of him and all that’s happened in my life.
You’d be proud, Pops.
Happy Father’s Day.
Great post, Dave, and from one next gen Tony to the previous, thank you for your example.
I think your Tony would be proud, he succeeded at being better, and so have you.
I heard today that we don't need to earn a Sabbath, but we do need intermittent rest.
Thank you for your provisions, but life ain't over til it's over, so continue loving and learning and doing your best.
Your comments about your dad and generational relationships are a reminder that few will remember non-historical figures (like us) after a couple of generations. Emerson echoed this generational transition and loss in The Concord Hymn, glorifying the memory of Revolutionary heroes at the Battle of Lexington. He wrote:
“On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.”
Sadly, human memory does not reach much beyond the short span of two or three generations ― our "sires" and "sons".
In “Sailing to Byzantium" Yeats wrote about sailing “the mackerel-crowded seas,” coming to terms with the agony of aging and contemplating how the soul can rise above a heart “fastened to a dying animal.”
So, on this Father’s Day, those thoughts crowded my brain as I read your account and considered how true your sentiments are . . . for all of us dads and sons.