Monday, August 16, 2010
My older sisters were entering 2nd and 5th grade at the Catholic grade school. I was going to the nearby public school, and on the first day of school my mother walked me there with my new brother in a carriage. I cried and didn't want to go in. I had never gone to preschool and had been the baby of the family for five years, so this was quite traumatic for me. I received the first homework assignment of my life that first week when the teacher asked us to learn our address and telephone number. I had no idea how I was to ascertain this information. Was I just supposed to know? Was an archangel going to visit me and bestow it upon me?
It is truly a testament to how busy and distracted my household was that it never entered my mind to ask my parents. Surely this wasn't something that I could bother them with considering everything else that was going on. So day after day for what felt like weeks, I would go to school, sit in a circle with all of the other children, and when it was my turn and the teacher asked me for my address and phone number, I would sit there mutely feeling stupid and humiliated. Then one night my father came into my room with our address and phone number written on a card. He quietly, almost sheepishly, told me that he understood that I was to learn this information for school. He drilled me on the address until I knew it by heart. Then he asked me something that for some reason has stuck with all these years: he asked whether I wanted to learn our phone exchange with numbers or letters. You see, I could memorize it as either 785-4309 or PU5-4309. I chose the PU (hee hee), which stood for Pullman. And finally, FINALLY, I didn't have to dread going to school (at least not for that reason), and could proudly recite my name and address for my teacher the next day: 53West124th StreetChicagoIllinois60628PU5-4309.
To this day, I'm not entirely sure what it is about this episode that makes it such a vivid memory for me. I think that I was shocked that somehow my father knew about my homework assignment. Was he omniscient or had an archangel visited him instead of me? His demeanor struck me as so odd: why was he the one acting embarrassed, rather than bawling me out for not doing my homework? He was even asking me how I wanted to learn my phone number. This is one of the few childhood memories that I have that involve my dad. Probably because we were rarely alone having any kind of a one-on-one conversation, let alone one where I wasn't in trouble or where he wasn't settling a fight with a sibling.
I will always remember my father as he was that day. And wonder how much it was an acknowledgment of regret that I felt I couldn't come to him, and that we didn't spend more time together. We were accidental tourists in this loud, multi-family, Italian household. He was a skinny Polish kid from Minneapolis who had to put up with Polack jokes and comments from a dago family that wasn't exactly royalty itself. In his final days, he repeatedly told anyone who would listen that marrying my mother was the best thing he ever did. Mean-as-a-snake father-in-law, crowded house, a kitchen table that was second only to Ellis Island for the number of D.P.'s whose asses were planted in those chairs, Polack jokes, and all. Now that's love.
So thank you for everything, Dad. For helping me with my homework. For not making fun of my tears when I lost that archdiocese spelling bee that I had pretended not to care about. For carving a Halloween pumpkin for my 2nd grade class (for which I still have the thank-you note that the class wrote to him). For that priceless look on your face through the smoke and haze of sawdust after I shot my bedroom dresser with a 12-gauge shotgun. And for the memory of you, lighting 4th of July fireworks with your cigarette, looking like something out of Mad Men, so handsome with your terry-cloth shirt and slicked-back hair.
I am so, so grateful that your suffering is over...and that you can finally rest.
Posted by Lynn at 8:43 PM