January 22, 2013

Things My Father Taught Me

My father was an interesting guy with a lot of layers. He was a gifted craftsmen, a much better than average golfer, a decent amateur musician, and a backyard naturalist. He was very definitely old-school in his ways. This was a guy who always tipped his hat when he drove past the church and most often addressed a strange woman as "Madame."

Not that he was stand-offish. Quite the opposite. He could strike up a conversation with a stranger in any circumstance, a result of his fierce small-town egalitarianism. No one was better than he was. This was a guy who played with John F. Kennedy as a kid and who knew secrets about Humphrey Bogart. He treated people as equals and expected the same in return.

I absorbed much of this without really appreciating the gifts I was being given. We were very different people for most of the years we were together as father and son. After I got home from Vietnam, our relationship changed, but he died too soon for me to have much of chance to explore this new territory between us. Now that I have reached advanced adulthood, I can see that I have been influenced by him in many ways.

The most obvious legacy is golf. He taught me how to play in the field behind our house on Beechwood Street. I will never be as good as he was because I don't play as often as he did and I haven't spent the last 30 years hammering nails, as good a way to develop strong hands and wrists as any. But I love playing golf, and I still use the putter he gave me, a Louisville Lou #38 of uncertain vintage, but I would guess it has to be at least 50 years old, most likely more.

Another legacy central to my life is music. I don't play an instrument--he played jazz guitar and was a member of a local group that would meet once a month or so for "jam" sessions--but I was exposed to many different kinds of music, both from hearing him play and from listening to the records and tapes stored in his bedroom. Dad was as catholic in his music as in his religion.

Dixieland jazz was a favorite. I remember hearing the Dukes of Dixieland play "St. Louis Blues" or "Muskrat Ramble," music that always left me feeling happier. The world could use a bit more Dixieland jazz. He also loved big band music. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians were a favorite, as was that mainstay of 1950s and 1960's popular culture, Lawrence Welk. Life on the planet came to a halt when it was time for The Lawrence Welk Show. "Champagne Music." "And a one and a two." These were phrases we knew all to well, along with the Lovely Lennon Sisters, Norma Zimmer, and  Myron Floren, although I kind of liked the Irish tenor, Joe Feeney.

But it was the classical music that left the most enduring impression. As I type this, I am listening to Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, a concerto I first discovered in my father's collection. We also had Swan Lake and Enrico Caruso on ancient looking records. I never really wondered about how these made their way into my father's collection. I just listened to them, often without knowing what they were, just that I liked them.

I'd love to know more about his musical background. How it developed in a very traditional Italian household. When and why he learned to play guitar. None of this seemed important at the time, but that's how it is, I guess, growing up. We don't always know what matters until we reach a point where we can look back at ourselves and those days with a more informed eye.

I guess the other big thing I hope I absorbed from my father was his basic honesty. He was the kind of guy who was inflexibly and reflexively honest, even when no one was looking. If he found money and knew who it belonged to, it would be returned without hesitation. If he made a promise or quoted a price for a job, that was it. He would hold up his end of the bargain, and you were expected to do that same. Old school, you might say. I share that belief in the power of a promise made, a word given. I don't always measure up; few sons ever feel they do.

My father wasn't a saint, of that I am reasonably sure. He was aware of the opposite sex, and he would go on golfing trips to the Cape with his buddies, where I'm sure there was a fair amount of booze consumed and a bit of rough talk that would never be heard around the family. These were men of the world in their own way, but they drew a line between those private times and their public personas, one that seems nonexistent these days. Perhaps a necessity given that a small town beats Facebook any day in terms of knowing about people and their private lives. But also not that hard to do when your public and private personas were not all that far apart, as was the case with my father.

In recent years I have come to understand how good my father was at living his own life, even while living up to his responsibilities as a breadwinner and husband and father. He worked hard, was home every night, but there was always time for golf and jazz. He wasn't much of a reader, but he knew how things worked in ways you don't get from books but from taking things apart with your own hands. He rarely left Cohasset, but he understood the ways of the world. He was old world and old school in many of his ways, but he knew how to have a good time.

He died relatively young, when I was relatively young. That's too bad, because there are some pleasures in life that come only with age. Appreciating your parents as real people is one of those pleasures. I regret we never had time to talk more. But he lives on in ways expected and unexpected. My father may be dead, but I am still getting to know him.

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