My father-in-law and I were always the early birds in the family. On one of their holiday visits to Buffalo, we’d had a big family celebration the night before. The kids were young and always excited to see their grandparents. I worked hard to get the house shining and cook meals that didn’t rely on Hamburger Helper. Their visits were sort of a big deal.
He and I were sitting in the living room, drinking coffee and talking about the night before.
“You know what I loved most?” Bill asked.
I knew he pretty much loved everything, but I asked, “What?”
“No one got drunk. There was no shouting. No one got punched.”
I knew he wasn’t making a joke, and that was the sad part. My father-in-law came from a family that early on stopped thinking of holidays as a reason for civility. Bill’s father had died months before he was born. He grew up the youngest of five children of an immigrant mother who washed floors at the movie theater down the street in Brooklyn. Bleak would cover it.
Then when Bill was only ten, his mother died, too. He went to live with his much older sister and her husband. It was here that my father-in-law lowered his standards about holiday gatherings for all time.
My father was born in Sanford, Maine. He was three when his mother died. His father was unable to care for him and his sisters for reasons that went unsaid. They were sent to live with different sets of relatives. Though French Canadians in their mill town stuck together, sometimes it was hard to find the next placement for an energetic 3-year-old. He might stay a month. It might be a year. He said he was always loved, just never permanently.
My grandfather left Sanford (and his heartbreak, probably) and moved to New York City to find work. Years later, when my father was ten, he was sent to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to live with his father, a man he barely knew. Their first meeting was at a drug store soda fountain. My grandfather spoke to him in the only language my father knew.
“This will be the last time I will speak to you in French,” he said. “From now on, only English. You have to learn English here.” My father remembered the last sentence in French his father ever said to him: “Maintenant, terminer votre crème glacée.” (Now, finish your ice cream.)
My grandfather had found janitorial work. The two of them lived in shabby walk-ups or boarding houses and regularly moved ahead of the landlord the night before the rent was due. It was 1930. Times were impossible.
Happily, I can flash forward to the rest of their lives. The two men married women who believed in them. They fought in the Pacific during WWII and came home safely. They had children and bought homes in the suburbs. The jobs they landed were the ones they kept until retirement.
Bill and my father never found much to complain about. Despite the pain of their childhoods, neither one felt sorry for himself a day in his life, and I marvel at that. Maybe they suffered in silence. Maybe it wasn’t manly to bring up childhood wounds, or they just couldn’t find a group with which to commiserate. Maybe they were too busy.
Father’s Day was never a big deal to either of them. My dad called it “one of those made-up holidays.” Bill had trouble keeping track of holidays that didn’t occur on the same day every year. Once I made my father a Father’s Day cake, and he looked a little embarrassed. When he got old, I’d send him flowers. He’d laugh on the phone and say, “You should save your money!”
When I think of them now, I picture them in the way they spent their days — putting one foot in front of the other. Laughing when things went their way and just getting on with it when they didn’t. Without role models or support groups, somehow they became tender fathers, men their children could count on. Firm but not judgy. Loving but not mushy. Imperfect but always present.
Happy Father’s Day to the good dads everywhere. And to mine. Both of them.