Sunday, October 17, 2010
My father died Monday night.
I'm the oldest of five. Dad told all of us at different times that he thought people shouldn't live much past 75. That was old enough for anyone. If you live longer, all right, but you don't need to. He was about 85 when he started saying so. He was 92 when he passed. So I can't say that he felt like it came too soon. He didn't. He was ready, and by being ready, he helped us.
He disliked the idea of lingering, too. And he got what he wanted. The end came fast. He decided not to drive any more only a few weeks ago. On one of his last visits from any of us, when he was feeling very tired and short of breath, he apologized for not being able to entertain. He was getting a little forgetful but not much. He was in pretty good shape till almost the end. I'd love to go the same way.
When my mother died back in 1995 it was a shock. She was only 73 and was taken in less than a month by a fast-growing cancer. We didn't expect it. And she wasn't ready. There's something else too. While I knew in my head that people die, I don't think I knew it in my heart. It seemed distant and too hard to imagine. It wasn't real. The possibility seemed outside my experience of the world. And then suddenly it was real. That was hard.
This time, we expected it, and even my father expected it. And we knew in our hearts that it can happen. It didn't seem terribly wrong. My father was at peace and so were we. Without realizing we were doing it, we had an Irish wake. The five of us told stories of what we remember doing with our father, and we each remembered different things, some memories we'd forgotten and some things we'd never heard. We laughed, and we felt good about having a man like him for our father. Our ten children, his grandchildren, had heard very few of these stories, and they laughed too at what nuts their parents, aunts, and uncles had been. We had, in a weird way, a really wonderful time.
My father was born during World War I. His father Peter and mother Nora were Irish immigrants who came over separately in 1906 and met at the socials in Brooklyn a few years later. He was an unskilled laborer, and she had been a housemaid, before she married. They weren't much, you might say, but I respect them for the hard work they must have done and the spirit they gave to their two children, Peter and Mary. His father died some time around 1936 to 1940 of a burst appendix ; his mother, who I knew, lived until 1962.
My father told me once of two early jobs, a delivery boy for a department store and a photographer's assistant. The photographer took photos for magazines and catalogs. He recalled a shoot of Cole Porter. To save money on model fees the photographer sometimes used my father as the model, for clothing catalogs and for magazine fiction illustrations. I wish I had one of those to show you.
He took the Civil Service exam. Around the time war broke out, he was hired for the reservoir police, who patrolled the New York City Water Department lands in Westchester, checking for German sabotage. This is where he met my mother. Her family lived in a house right next to an aqueduct. Here he is looking pretty serious, about age 24.
He entered the Army Air Force around 1943. After training in Texas, he was assigned as a bombardier in the Eighth Air Force, 388th Bombardment Group, to fly missions over Germany from a base in Knettishall, Suffolk, England. He flew in the late months of 1944 and early months of 1945. Many men were killed and seriously wounded by ground anti-aircraft fire in those missions. My father was the only one of his original crew to come back unharmed. He would never talk about the war until he was in his eighties. Here he is at an English railway station, between missions.
After the war, he took some classes at Syracuse University, but left, and he started his long career with the Fire Department City of New York. I remember him studying to be lieutenant, and captain, and chief. A book he was reading had mathematical formulas I couldn't understand about water pressure and distance, and the strength of different kinds of building materials. I know he worked early on at a firehouse in Ogden Avenue in the Bronx, and then another in lower Manhattan, and sometimes he was called to fight brush fires in Staten Island. His last position was Battalion Chief for Manhattan north of 155th St. He retired in 1983 mainly because there was a rule about retiring at 65.
Here are the new parents with me, their first child, in a backyard in Brooklyn.
And a few years later, I'm a fat kid squinting in the sunlight on the front steps of our suburban home. My father was a sharp dresser as you can see here.
There are a lot of photographs taken by my father but not that many of him. I have a few good ones on slides but I can't find the plastic holder to scan slides with, so you'll have to imagine it.
I'm just going to jump way forward now. Here he is with my daughter around 1990. He loved kids.
I could tell you some of the stories about us growing up, but for some of them I think you had to be there. Maybe I'll figure out which ones to write about later on.
It's been a long week.
He liked swimming in the ocean. I guess he must have gone to Coney Island when he was young. Our vacations tended to be places along the Atlantic coast, as far south as Georgia.
I'll leave him here, somewhere on the Jersey shore.
Dad, this one's for you.