How can I describe my father? He was unique; he could have been a famous actor. He was full of “self,” meaning simply that his love of self and his large ego needed stroking many times throughout the course of a day. He was in many ways the opposite of me.
I am quiet, deliberative, shy, and unassuming, yet there exists in me the writer’s need to feed off people and to love and be loved. This trait is inherited from my father more than any trifling legacy, such as an ingrown toenail. This stuff is what makes people all too human. The character flaws that I inherited were all on the old man’s side.
He didn’t like to be ignored. He talked loudly and yelled louder when he wanted to make a point. He had a loud, jarring laugh and complained frequently about a close friend of mine with self-same obnoxious laugh. That gift was another of his great gifts, the need for complete and total lack of self-awareness. Most philosophers agree that one should “know thyself.” The old man didn’t know himself, but he was okay with what he thought he did know, so he never questioned the need to be anything other than un-self-aware.
He was a pretty good judge of people, though. It came from his profession of choice. He was a lawyer and became angry if anyone dared to use the word attorney. It was way too highfalutin for him. He didn’t like it when lawyers started advertising either. He was old school in that regard. True to form, he was a walking contradiction. He loved to show off and be the center of attention, yet he didn’t want the profession of lawyers to live up to their bad name of ambulance chasers. He hated what the profession finally became. He used to say in his later years that he had wanted to be a journalist.
He served in WW II and broke his leg sliding into third base playing baseball while he was stationed overseas in England. This was his war, and that was his war injury. He often told stories in his later years of riding in his jeep between the two bases in England when he would try to decide where to eat depending upon which base had the better meal of the day. His stories often took on the character of a Sergeant Bilko episode. The horrors of war were often negated by the unintentionally funny and semi-serious way he spoke of his war years. He also spoke of the girls he dated and could remember their names. He spoke of those girls in his hospital bed a few days before he died.
He also matter-of-factly stated without a bit of irony, “You know, we really were the greatest generation.” I just looked at him painfully and tried to figure if it was possible to interject the thought of humility into what he said, but I decided against it. After all, he was old, and that attitude was his way of getting something back for all the hardships and the pain that was wrapped up in the memory of the Great War. Let the old man have his due.
Once, he became irate about some neighborhood kids that he alleged had rolled the yard in toilet paper. When the mother of one of the boys came to the door, equally irate and demanding an apology from the old man, I had to reason with her. “Look, he’s old, and he says things he doesn’t mean. A lot.” This explanation placated her somewhat.
He used to go to his grandson’s baseball games and curse at some of the small children and the parents. Apparently it got bad enough for one of my brothers to employ the same reasoning. “Look, he’s old, just ignore him.”
The truth is the old man was pretty much like that his whole life. I remember a commercial some years back where a disgruntled looking actor puts a chip on his shoulder and says, “Go ahead, knock this chip off.” That was the old man. He walked around with a perpetual chip on his shoulder waiting for it to be knocked off.
He used to get copies of Sports Illustrated and we’d find the annual swimsuit edition with a huge stamp of his law office emblazoned across the model’s lovely features. “Why?” one would ask. “Because,” he said, “she was posing.”
The old man didn’t like people to be too showy. It was too “New York.” Another great pronouncement from him was “corny.” Anything that was overly sentimental to him was corny. That pronouncement summed up pretty much the entire latter part of the twentieth century for the old man.
He took quiet pride in his habit of walking down the street and slamming into people who didn’t get out of the way. I think he felt it was his due by virtue of his age and that people needed to get out of the way for him. I never really wanted to be with him when he was walking in a crowded downtown area. At times it was better to hear the stories rather than to be in the action with my father.
The other thing about him was that he had been a hard drinker. But he also stopped cold turkey when I was about sixteen years old. He was what you would call a “dry drunk” because he never acknowledged the problem, only embraced the solution and he never looked back. That was his greatest strength.
He loved life, and he loved the things in life that were fun, such as ice cream. We had a running joke in our family about one of the ads where the “man on the street” was interviewed after an ice cream parlor had supposedly replaced the ice cream with a well-known grocery store brand. Everyone in the commercial is surprised, but pleasantly so, and no one, of course, guesses the truth until he or she is told. Even then, everyone laughed about it and seemed content.
My brothers immediately came up with the “Dad” version of the same ad, where they stick a microphone in his face as he takes one bite and immediately says, “Wait a minute! This is store-bought!”
The hands-down favorite story my brother liked to tell was the one where Dad peed in a cup and threw it out the window while they were driving to an exclusive Florida resort. My brother was driving and my mom was in the back seat. Dad rolled down the window and threw the pee in my mom’s face as the wind picked it up and swept it over her. Thirty minutes later, he followed the same routine. My mom tried to duck, but she was sideswiped with a face full of piss as my Dad whisked it out of the window and onto her. My brother swears that it happened a third time and that by then he was laughing so hard that he drove the car off the road.
The stories of the old man are legion. They exist in time, and the memories are so vivid that as they say, “You are there!” I am still there, present in mind and spirit with the old man and his larger-than-life spirit that can never really die.
Author: Anne Safka