Pops is Tops

A few years ago I took a writing class that always ended with a weekly prompt. I’m always rattled by prompts! They call forth the “compliant girl” I was trained to be, but rattle my rebel self who taunts, “Keep it up, trained monkey!” Eventually the creative pioneer woman who lives in me, the one who finds a use for rusted kettles and the last of those soggy potatoes, chirps: “Now, come on, y’all — what could we make with that?” I find HER voice is most truly mine. Thus, “write something about any word that starts with D” took me on a journey from donuts to death, and I had almost lighted upon “diagnosis” — a word that was a big part of my life in those days — when suddenly one morning, there it was: Dad. Even just writing the word brought me to tears. It happened to be Father’s Day. That alone may have suggested it, but Dad had been waiting in my heart for 44 years. It was time. Father’s Day 2022 reminded me of this essay. Now I’d like to share my dad with you.

My Dad. I lost him so long ago. He literally dropped dead at age 61 — a heart attack, they said. I was 28 years old, living in a little farmhouse in Kansas with a 3-year-old child and a 5-month-old baby. Husband Steve was teaching English at the local high school. My sister’s husband called Steve there from Chicago with the news. Steve immediately came home, mid-morning, to tell me. The shock of Dad’s death, so unexpected, so unnatural, even before my 4 grandparents, was huge. The size of the crater this loss left in our family couldn’t have been more massive. We were stunned. But my youth, and the urgency of raising little children distracted me. Dad died and then time just marched on. As the years went by, Mom’s life and needs became the main event. But Dad waited patiently in my heart. He and my words about him were still there.

First the word: Dad. The word “Mom” is soft, like a big, yummy pillow. “Dad” has a softness too, but it seems more like an easy chair — a place of rest, but a place with structure. Those 2 D’s wrap around that little a and hold it in place like a wing-back chair. “Dad” supports your arms. “Dad’s” got your back. My Dad was all of that — a fixture, a place, a residence. For some, the word “Dad” conjures up a mystery, or a nightmare, or a tyrant. Truth be told, my Dad was a bit of these, too. But his love trumped all. As he liked to say around Father’s Day — Pops is tops! He was good at advertising jingles. They paid our way as a family back in the (happy) day.

Dad was born in 1917, the second child of miserably mismatched immigrant parents. He grew up running the streets of Chicago with a group of buddies so full of pranks, noise, and vandalism they were rounded up without warrants in their early teens and put in jail every October 30th, then released the day AFTER Halloween. Dad DID spend part of his 14th year at a reform school in Wisconsin. His days there were cut short when the place burned down 4 months after he arrived. Did HE set the fire? I asked him once. He neither admitted nor denied the deed. His blank stare simply said, “no comment.”

My mom first laid eyes on him when she was 16, working full time as a switchboard operator at an engraving company downtown. She and a girlfriend saw a fella walking ahead of them on State Street wearing a derby hat, a full-length raccoon coat, and spats. They laughed out loud. (I now know where I get my taste in clothes). She later met him “on business” — he was an errand boy for a printing company. Sometimes he’d stop to chat. Once he brought her an ice cream cone. They married in 1939. In ’41, Dad stepped up and enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, even though he was exempt, being married with a baby on the way. Mom had to sign a consent form.

Then they fought World War II together; he as a bombardier instructor in the Army Air Corps, she a gypsy wife following him around the country from base to base with their first-born daughter in her arms. My brother’s birth in ’43 on an Army base in Florida made them a jolly traveling troupe of 4. When the war ended, they moved way out in the country to a 2-bedroom flat they rented in his mother’s new boarding house, 9 whole miles west of Lake Michigan. Dad started working at an advertising agency in the city. He was good at his job and was steadily promoted, but his bad boy habits persisted. He ran around a lot, staying out all night to play cards, gamble, and drink with his buddies. He held onto his job, but was at risk of losing his family. When I came along in ’49, Mom was out of room and patience. With his next promotion, they bought a 2 bedroom tract house further west. It wasn’t much, but it was theirs. And there Dad established his kingdom, Mom built her world, and we kids had our paradise.

It was rough still, for a while. Dad partied on from the suburbs, some nights not coming home, sleeping it off on our couch over the weekend. A pulmonary embolism in the early 1950’s was an epiphany for him: his wife came to see him in the hospital. His drinking buddies didn’t. He left the hospital with a new resolve and watchword: “togetherness.” The drinking didn’t stop (ever) but the focus did. His full focus turned to us.

For the next 25 years, Dad brought the party home. He had a large spirit: funny, spontaneous, quick-witted, fond of surprises and giving generous gifts. He had the basement remodeled, adding another room with a fireplace and a curved paneled bar. One random Saturday he brought home a slot machine he’d bought from a shady friend in Riverside. He hosted a poker game every Friday night, which he called “the deacon’s meeting.” Mom stayed up late to serve sandwiches and coffee to the guys when the game broke up around midnight. He was a generous, fun-loving host and a sharp card player. I can still hear the shuffling of those cards and lots laughter coming up from the basement. Money changed hands at those “meetings,” but it was always in good humor. Dad was good at that, too.

Dad was an enthusiast, a comedian, a philanthropist, a sentimentalist. He adored my mother. He sent her a bouquet of flowers every week and bought her big, mushy birthday and valentine cards. At Christmas he’d urge us to “write Mommy a letter” to tell her how much we loved her. He doted on us. I recall him reviewing my report card and saying, “Good job! Your report card says “AAAAAAh!,” then pulling a $5 bill from his wallet to give to me. Once, to make a point he would NOT be defied when my sister said she would go out with her boyfriend on Friday whether he liked it or not, he slammed the dinner table with his fist, yelling, “You will do as I say!” After a moment of terrified silence, he softened the blow. Looking at his hand, he quipped: “I’ll never play the violin again.” We adored him.

He was the consummate Dad of the fifties. He taught me to make his cocktails and filled the bathroom and car with secondhand smoke. We couldn’t have a swing set because it was a “lawn wrecker,” and when we got a softball or kickball game going with the neighbor kids he told us (logically) to go play in the street. If I had a friend overnight, he’d remind us not to disturb his sleep next morning, saying, “tippy tip toe, wherever you — and hush when you flush!” But when Disneyland opened, he got preview passes for us and sent us there with Mom for a week. Wow. I was 8 years old.

Dad always wanted to go to church on Christmas and Easter and that annoyed my Mom, especially if he asked her to wear the mink coat he gave her. What would people think?? And he was always bringing people home for dinner. We took in cousins and other relatives who needed a place to stay. He paid friend’s rents; bought cars for relatives; found people jobs. He visited his parents every Sunday and he always brought his mother flowers or a coffee cake. My grandmother would use these visits to rant about Dad’s father, or his sister or his brother. They both had fled her years before, finding lives (and sanctuary) in California and Florida. But Dad kept showing up — hoping for her blessing, maybe. Hoping to make it better. He bought his folks a color TV, a car, whatever they needed, and took his hen-pecked Dad on yearly deep sea fishing trips to the Florida Keys. Dad just wanted to help everyone get along, you know? He bought one of my discouraged cousins a drum set, and another insecure cousin a nose job. At any dinner, he always picked up the tab. He wasn’t showing off — he was just generous. I think he wanted to make a few dreams come true — and maybe his own: that we would learn to take care of each other. That we would give to each other. That we would try to help each other’s dreams come true.

Dad was our leader. We sought his opinion, and sometimes we feared it. But we wanted it anyway. His life’s work was our family. And we all knew were in “good hands” — another little jingle he wrote for Allstate, back in the day. That jingle lingers on — an sweet reminder for me — of him.

Dad was haunted, though. I don’t know what demons kept him drinking, even when told by doctors he must stop. A miserable childhood? His beloved Chicago Cubs always in last place? Important but unlikely. Maybe big thoughts he couldn’t express? I got a glimpse into his soul one summer night. It went something like this:

Dad’s home from work. Dinner’s over and he’s had a few drinks. He’s gone out to the garden to have a smoke and survey his domain. But Mom’s worried. She fears he’s brooding. “Go out and talk to him,” she tells me as she wipes down the counter. Mom doesn’t talk to him about things like feelings. Come to think of it, she doesn’t talk to me, either! I am 15 years old. Dad and I always talk. I care about him, too, so I go outside.

Dad’s sitting on a bench by the pool. By the way, he’s got a lovely home now. He’s come a long way from the poverty and slums of Chicago, and he shares this home with everyone. This home, his last, has a nicer bar with a real beer tap and he keeps Michelob on tap. Dad doesn’t drink beer, but some of his friends, or his son’s friends, do. He is staring down.

“Hey, Dad,” I offer as I sit down across from him “How are you?”

“Ya know, Lol?” he asks. He takes a long drag on his Chesterfield Regular and looks back at me, squinting, then blows out all the smoke. “People are no damn good.”

“Oh, gee Dad,” I say, or something like that, pulling out all my youth and optimism and hope that are about to be undermined by free love, the war in Vietnam, Watergate, and JFK’s asassination. I tell him people really ARE all right, that people are innately good, and that I know it will be okay. He listens but is unmoved. But perhaps he is relieved. He has shared his heart with me. And that is what I miss the most about him: his heart.

As I’ve grown up and grown old, things have become so much clearer. I am not my Mom! I’m a lot like my Dad. Big parties. Big thoughts. Some say a big heart. I’d wear a derby and spats in a heartbeat. Oh — and coke in the fridge! I don’t drink it, but the grandsons do. I like to pick up the tab. And if I know you, I want you to know you matter. I care about you. And I want YOUR dreams to come true.

Here’s another Father’s Day slogan my Dad used to lovingly tease us with: “Make Dad Glad!” I hope I did. I hope I do.