I remember the day my father, in a fit of rage, locked himself out of the house and onto our porch where he proceeded to smash an oak table into splinters with his fists. But I also remember sitting on that same porch, my sister on one of his knees and I on the other, as the summer rain fell on the flat, tar-paper roof. I can still hear his quiet, deeply resonating voice, like a gently rumbling motor in his chest, as he hugged us close and said, “Listen; just listen to the sound that rain is making. One day, when we’re not together, you’ll hear that sound again and remember this moment.”
I grew up walking the tightrope of my father’s extremes, and for most of my life, until he and my mother separated when I was sixteen, I trod cautiously in his presence. He was the fist behind the maternal authority exercised in our family’s day to day activities. While Dad left for work at five in the morning, nursing one of the dilapidated, hundred-dollar junks he drove the thirty miles to his job in the city, Mom was in charge. When he returned, usually after nine o’clock at night, having stayed to hang around and play cards with his friends from “the old neighborhood,” he would get a report as to what his children had done during the day. Depending on his mood and our offenses (or lack of them), he would then dispense doses of affection or punishment as my sister and I were in the process of falling asleep. On the occasions when he came home before our bedtimes, we’d hug and kiss him, all the while torn between having time during the week with him and hoping that he’d remain affable.
My father spoke fluent belt. For the longest time, the most frightening thing in my world was the sight of him reaching to unbuckle the encircling yard of leather and pulling it from around his waist. It was a form of punishment he’d learned from his own father, and it reflected the harsh reality of the way he’d grown up on the mean streets of Depression Era Chicago. My grandfather had emigrated from the southern part of Italy and had found work in the cotton mills of Milwaukee. He married young, and my grandmother bore him three sons. Dad was the second oldest, but when he was still quite young, his big brother died, and his father developed white lung. The family moved to Chicago where there were relatives who might be able to help them out. They didn’t, couldn’t, and when his mother died during childbirth, Dad and his young brother grew up with only their father’s “old country” values. That included taking a beating when they challenged his authority.
Dad once told me how he was trained to accept his father’s punishments, beginning from a very early age. Whenever he was called into account for a serious transgression—be it public behavior that would reflect poorly on his family or trouble gotten into at school—he was expected to take a standing position, arms at his side, and wait for his own father to deliver the blow to his head. He knew it was coming but waiting to be struck intensified what was likely a not-too-forceful connection from the older man’s hand. This was especially true by the time he was a teenager who was physically larger, stronger, and quicker than his semi-invalid parent. Accordingly, as I grew older, the wild, uncontrolled swings of his belt were replaced by a similar requirement that I, too, had to stand at attention and wait for the smacking I was about to endure.
He was physically powerful, wiry and fast, constantly active, which made him popular with the handful of boys my age who lived on the road where our house stood. He was always ready to play ball, ride bikes, and go on hikes with other kids whose parents allowed them freedom to push the boundaries of exploration because there was an adult with them. The guys would often seek him out on weekends to join in their impromptu activities, and most of the time he would acquiesce and insist that I join in. That I wasn’t as physically coordinated as most of the others and lacking the stamina my father exuded, these excursions felt more like a chore than an opportunity to bond with him.
Still, I loved him. He was wise in the ways of the world and often tried to give me advice—kernels of insight that often went over my head or conflicted with the religious instruction I was receiving in my weekly catechism classes.
“Son,” he said on more than one occasion, “this world is full of rotten motherfuckers, and I’m the rottenest of them all.”
These verbal pearls were usually given out of the hearing of my mother, who detested such language. And while I understood that he was trying to set an example of how manly strength should be expressed, I was always aware they contained nuggets of ironic humor in them.
Once, as we were raking leaves near an open kitchen window, Dad watched me as I huffed and puffed carrying bushels full of damp, rotting materials to a common pile in a nearby field. He paused to make a point.
“Hey, boy, just remember: There are two types of people in this world. Those who work with their heads and those who work with their bodies. The ones who work with their heads are very, very smart. The ones who work with their bodies are assholes.”
From the window, my mother’s voice sounded a one-word admonishment.
Dad winced and immediately corrected himself.
“Axles, dear. They’re axles.”
The silent grins we shared in that moment were part of the bonds of friendship I would eventually come to experience with him as I grew into adulthood. In that vein, I recall a specific incident that helped me realize that he was beginning to recognize my maturing into manhood. He had taken me to work with him one day, and I rode alongside in the cab of his truck as he made local deliveries from Chicago to Gary and back again.
At the end of the workday, he had me accompany him to the dispatcher’s office where I sat on a chair while he turned in his paperwork. A half-dozen other men—all truck drivers with hardened, bronze faces—were also crammed in that room, waiting to be cleared for checkout. A moment or two later, another driver came in, scowling as he shuffled his pages, and snapping, “What the fuck—”
Then he saw me sitting there, and realizing whose son I was, shot an embarrassed look at my father and stammered, “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
Dad never batted an eye. Without missing a beat, he pointed to me and said, “It’s okay. I’ve never heard him say ‘Shit,’ but he probably swears like a bastard.”
The room filled with chuckles, and I had a sudden feeling of being accepted by my father’s peers. I was still in junior high, but that day I felt grown up. I was acutely aware that my dad was proud of me, that he accepted our differences, but that he also really wanted me to understand his world.
And yet, the fear factor still remained as a divide between us. But the year before he and my mother separated, that barrier was overcome. Not that I believed it at first, but even before he had an inkling that his domestic world would crumble, he made a verbal promise to me that he kept for the rest of our lives.
I had been my usual problem-child self that day. As a high school freshman, I had been sent to the office for making a disturbance in some class I had found boring. Mostly, my offense had involved my continued attempts to carry on conversations with other students, and after my third warning to quiet down, the teacher had kicked me out. This resulted in me drawing three hours of detention, served one at a time after school. When I called my mother to explain the situation, she was very upset as the school was seven miles away, and we only had the one car my father drove to work.
I was still up when Dad got home a bit earlier than usual that evening. He listened to my mother’s explanation of the frantic calls she had to make to find a neighbor who would go pick me up. She had been quite upset, needing to be at home for my younger sister, juggling dinner preparations, and coping with her advanced state of pregnancy. This was not something my father wanted to hear, and I could see his face darken with anger.
He raised his voice and began on a diatribe that I knew would result in physical punishment. I started to raise my hands in anticipation of warding off his blows, but he snapped at me to keep my arms down at my sides—as he had had to do for his father. His fingers locked, forming the open hand that could easily floor me with one delivered slap, and I braced for it.
But it didn’t come. Instead, I watched his as his shoulders sagged, and a look of compassion came over his face.
“God,” he whispered. “You must be scared to death.”
Then he was hugging me, squeezing me to him, whispering, “You’re too old for me to treat you like this. I swear I won’t ever do it again.”
And he never did.
Eventually, I graduated and enlisted in the Army. I enjoyed basic training because it was similar to the obstacle courses my father used to build in our backyard. I could handle Infantry training, knowing Dad had gone through it himself and that it was something I knew I could brag to him about when I got home again. I thought I might have to face combat like he did during WWII, but Uncle Sam, in his infinite wisdom, sent me to Germany, instilling in me a love of history and providing me with GI Bill money to help me get a college degree.
I had over forty years left with him, and as men, we were close; we were true friends. I understood much of why his life had taken him in the direction it did, and I understood that there was no need to judge him. When he died, in his sleep at the age of eighty-six, it was his live-in girlfriend who called to tell me. Their home was in Tennessee at the time, and when I got there to begin executing his will, she handed me a card he’d been carrying in his wallet for some time. It was for the funeral home with which he had made arrangements for this time. In the upper boarder, hand-written in the strong lettering that had always been his style, were the words “Call if I’m dead.”
I wish I believed in a place from which he could’ve seen my face at that moment, laughing and crying, and missing the man I would never be able to talk with again. And yet, I still hear his voice, as a deep and resonating memory of my sister and I curled on his lap, whenever summer rains fall on my roof.