My childhood relationship with my father was never like the ones depicted on “Leave It to Beaver” or “Ozzie and Harriet.” There were no warm fuzzy father-son moments after I had done something I wasn’t supposed to do. No talks in Papa’s study. He didn’t have a study. Or a briefcase. He didn’t work in an office downtown, as Ozzie Nelson did, he pumped gas and fixed cars at a gas station he ran with my uncle Jack.
My father didn’t even look like a TV dad. He didn’t have those wholesome All-American features or that cultured way of speaking. He didn’t wear a suit and tie to dinner or maintain that Anglo stiff upper lip. He wasn’t Anglo.
He was bilingual (southern Italian dialect and South Philly English), extremely volatile and smelled of gasoline and sweat when he came through the door at night.
For all his strengths and weaknesses, he was the man who, along with Mama, helped make me who I am. Today, June 6, is his birthday. He would have been 105.
If he were alive today, I don’t know what our relationship would be like. A few months before he died, Papa allowed me to come home for an X-mas visit, having thrown me out of the house when I was 19 and then shunning me for 15 years because I was not only queer but public about it.
We spoke a little, mostly small talk. “How are you doing?” “Do you have enough money?” “Are you working?” There were a lot of awkward pauses. And tapping of his fingers on the table, a nervous habit he had.
On the way out of the house, Papa offered me an old jacket. He didn’t think the coat I was wearing was warm enough. It was nothing I would ever wear, but I accepted it as the olive branch it was.
I anticipated that we would see each other again, slowly build up a relationship.
Fate had another plan in mind.
Papa was the man everyone in the neighborhood turned to when they needed help. Having contacts with the local political machine, he could get tickets fixed or neighbors’ sons out of jail. He had a key for the fire hydrant that he used on hot summer afternoons to give kids a chance to play and women the opportunity to splash water on their steps and sidewalks.
He often bought lunch for the homeless guy who slept in the alley behind the gas station.
When it came to his own family, he was missing in action most of the time. He worked six, sometimes seven, days a week. He got up at the crack of dawn and went to sleep right after dinner. The only time I bonded with him in my childhood was when I was forced by a nun to become an altar boy (so that the world wouldn’t end, it’s a long story) and ended up serving 5:30 AM Mass for a few weeks.
Papa drove me to the church on those cold mornings. We didn’t talk much, but I felt a connection with him. Perhaps it was the fact that we were both forced to be up at that ungodly hour. I think it was the first time I realize the sacrifices that man made for la mia famiglia.
He never took vacations and seldom took us for family outings. Tuesdays from May to August, we took trips down to Atlantic City for the day. While those drives in his old Pontiac were fun when I was young, they were torture in my teen years. The last thing I wanted to do was to be seen walking the Boardwalk with my parents.
One year at the Steel Pier, he won me a pink elephant at one of those betting tables with the numbers and the huge wooden spinning wheel. I hugged it all the way home, afraid it would disappear.
As he did, shortly after we made peace.