Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Entertainer



My dad loved to make you laugh. Or sing along with him when he played the keyboard. Or counter his quick wit with similar humorous asides. He didn't try to seek an audience, anyone who got to know him even briefly was quickly aware that he was just a likable guy. As a dad goes he could be funny and affectionate, strict and inflexible, and freakishly intuitive when it came to knowing what I was up to.

He was self taught in many areas - reading music, running a business (from mom and pop store to night club), adapting to the computer age, to name a few. He had grown up with street smarts rather than academia. The son of Italian immigrants and the youngest of three, he dropped out of school at a young age to help support his family. That didn't stop him from wanting to learn, and it certainly didn't keep him from jumping in to help me with those last minute elementary school projects. I am convinced he looked forward to delving into new ways to turn popsicle sticks into some type of structure... though probably not the night before it was due. My dad was also an army veteran who didn't talk much about his experiences, saying only that he didn't really see heavy action in his position as company clerk. I do remember a couple of his stories, one in particular about a barracks pillow fight and a sergeant stepping in to feathers flying everywhere.

Unfinished Chapter

A year and a half ago, at age 85, he was suddenly gone. It has been a long, sometimes difficult year for my mom, my sister and myself, muddling through decisions to be made, suddenly understanding just how much he took care of. The burden falls mainly on my sister, who lives just minutes away from our mom, whereas I moved four states away 15 years ago. It was the best decision my little family ever made - Maine is such a great place to raise our daughters, and we found a calmer, kinder sense of life that didn't seem to have a fighting chance in many other places. But it came at a cost of losing that physical connection with their grandparents and our other relatives still in Connecticut. While we are blessed with strong family relationships, we can't just pop over for a quick visit.

He was not happy when we moved, though he never came right out and said so.  His eyes said it all. Up to the last year and a half of his life when he was beaten up with medical issues, there had been the perpetual glint of a mischievous little boy hidden behind an aging face - until something made him unhappy. His baby girl moving away made him unhappy.  In a touch of irony, my parents had relocated to Connecticut from New York when my sister was very young (long before I was even a twinkle in their eyes) for some of the same reasons we left Connecticut. He understood that we saw our move as a way to give our children a better way of life... and he fought internally with losing us. Over the years I tried to visit as much as possible, but I knew it could never be often enough. I'm not sure the real distance hit me until I got that call from my sister late on a Sunday night. I was suddenly a million miles away from where I should have been and nothing could change it. There would be no do-over.

Funny thing about my dad - he often knew me better than I expected him to. He understood my restlessness, and to a point, I felt he saw some of himself in me. As the youngest child, which he had also been, I had a tendency to push the envelope and (something YK also excelled at over the years) wear them down easier than my older sibling did. And I happened to get into a little more trouble (as trouble was defined in the '60s). For instance, there was the time I bit my sister in the stomach. Hey, it was her own fault - she had a halter top on and she was shaking me by the shoulders. How much more obvious could a target be? There was screaming and yelling and the exasperated threat of, "Wait until your father gets home!" from my mom while my sibling fled into her room to survey the damage. When I did hear him arrive home after a long day of work, knowing my mother was retelling every detail of my misdemeanor, I listened at my door to catch pieces of their conversation and awaited my punishment. Then I heard him laugh. He tried not to (especially because my mom was definitely not laughing) but I knew the fates were on my side. I vaguely recall a stern talking to from my dad as he held back the snickering.

Limits (or not) and the Second Child

What I mean by "real threat" is that, no matter how riled I could get my mom (and oh, I was proficient at it), I did not - I repeat DID NOT want my dad mad at me. Was I afraid of him? You betcha. Not for the reasons one may assume. Our house was not big on physical punishment. It was "The Look" that you wanted to avoid at all costs - that "I'm so angry at you right now, I can't even look at you" expression - that disappointment.... that "Aaahh" type of sigh he would let out as he waved you off and turned away.

It. Was. Devastating.

I'm pretty sure my dad knew the power he wielded. I will admit I was subject to it more than my older, wiser, more cautious sister who had nobody ahead of her as a guinea pig to test the limits. To say I tested them was somewhat of an understatement. I redefined them in many instances, taking advantage of the fact that there was a nine year age difference between Sis and myself - and let's face it - my parents were tired by then.

When I was in my early teens during a stretch of time when he and my mom owned a business and he would come home for a quick dinner, I thought I would show off my cooking expertise by making pancakes for him. The first problem with this was that I had not a shred of expertise in cooking anything. This was in the days of adding several ingredients (not just water), so I followed the directions to the letter. Except for the part about the flour. Instead of using the pancake flour - in the box that I was reading the directions from - I used regular flour. The difference in the pretty, fluffy pancakes on the box and the pieces of simulated cardboard on his plate was obvious, and a little frightening. He didn't want to upset me but you know he had to ask exactly what I had put in the pancake batter. Through my tears I explained the process. That man sat and ate every one of those flat, tasteless pancakes, thanked me and gave me a kiss, and headed back to work. Here I was mortified at my mistake only minutes before, and then consoled by his simple sacrifice. I didn't even care that he may have stopped at MacDonald's on the way back to work.

As a semi-rebellious 18-year-old (in the context of an 18-year old in an Italian household with a curfew of midnight) I had an opportunity to audition for lead vocalist in a local wedding (slash bowling banquet slash volunteer firefighters Christmas party, which by the way, they left for a fire in the middle of) band, unbeknownst to my parents. My desire to follow through with this opportunity wasn't much of a stretch. My sister and I had been raised to sing practically as soon as we could stand. My father played dozens of tunes on the keyboard from his well worn fake books, (which I believed as a child was illegal to have and you didn't tell other people about it because someone might arrest your parents - don't ask me where I got that), adding effortless harmonies once we would learn a melody, and over time honing that same natural ability in my sister and myself. We both grew up 'thinking' in harmony, often learning that part of a song before the actual melody would stick with us.

The band audition was with a local wedding band, and I had a week to prepare. I cocooned myself in my bedroom and stood in front of my mirror for endless hours, belting out tune after tune along with my Donna Summer 45's, clutching my hairbrush turned microphone. It wasn't until the night before my audition that I got up the nerve to talk to my dad about it. This was an important step in the approval process, as he would be the one to convey the information to my mom in a way that wouldn't send her into a tizzy. Let this be a lesson to you kids: Always, always go to the parent with the most pull first.

Here's the thing. He already knew. While my mom carried on without a clue, my dad had zeroed in on my extended stays in my room and my slightly louder-than-usual vocals practically breaking the sound barrier. He also noticed I was quieter that week - something I hadn't tried to be, but since I was wrapped up in trying to form the perfect reasons for wanting to sing in a band I'm sure I was off my game a bit. I did get the job and sang for a time in a couple of different bands. My parents were truly my biggest fans and came as often as possible to see me on those occasions when we played a public venue.

" Now the Curtain is Going Up..."

Once in a while my dad would talk about what he wished he could do, or had done. In the last 20 or so years computers were his obsession and his nemesis. He often said he was born just a little too late to grasp the knowledge needed to really do something with computers, but he forged along to learn a little programming and he constantly tried to create new ideas from already established web successes.

He also expressed more than once that he wished we had gone public as a duet many years ago. He would smile and say, "We could go on as Daddy and Me. I could introduce us. I would say 'I'm Daddy and she is me'".... lips comically pulled in, laughing eyes turned toward the ceiling. I love that memory to this day, even knowing it never came to fruition. The fact that he had wished it to be so was enough for me to comfortably claim my Daddy's Girl title.

Whenever Dad sat down at the keyboard he would play "The Entertainer." He might play it several times, pressing buttons and testing out various sounds to accompany him, seemingly seeking perfection. It could be the first thing he played, somewhere in the middle, or the last piece before closing down, but it was always part of his repertoire. This was such a big part of our life with him that my sister and I requested it as a part in his funeral. The priest (after explaining this was not exactly 'funeral' music and we shouldn't count on it) kindly slipped a recording of it in at the end of his homily, much to the bewilderment of just about everyone else in attendance. It only mattered to the two of us who were struck by its intimate meaning, sitting tearful and smiling in the front pew of church.

I miss calling him on April Fools Day when we regularly tried to trick each other by fabricating some unusual circumstance. Once in a while the joke would last for a few minutes, but mostly it was simply a ritual that gave us cause to laugh together.

I miss him calling me "Neen," and to this day allow only a chosen few to use this nickname for me.

I miss his breakfasts that he thrived on making whenever we visited. My kids loved the way he cut and arranged their slices of french toast as if they were in a restaurant. It was all about bringing us together for a time, and he did so lovingly, even when he badgered them about not eating their crusts.

I miss harmonizing with him.

My girls have a very close, strong, thoroughly imperfect relationship with their dad. On some days it reminds me of my own fascination and frustration with my father growing up. I love knowing their memories in years to come may not be of an extraordinarily exciting life, but they will be of a family life. It will be knowing they were always loved, even when they didn't like him very much, and in recalling that, in between the times they thought he was too hard on them, they were deeply aware he would do anything for them.

It will be in savoring the fact that they were both Daddy's Girls. And that's all a Daddy really wants.
"The Entertainer is taking his bow...."

2 comments:

  1. Very well said. Thank you for sharing. I too have found that I have much to say as I reflect on everyday life. It is a cleansing of the soul to put into words what is on our minds.

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  2. Janine, Beautiful words about a great person I am so lucky to have known Tony. For that matter your entire family. Thank you for sharing this again. Melody

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