MISSING DADDY (STILL? …Always)
September 21, 2016, would’ve been his 91st birthday. On that date, he had been gone from our lives two years, eight months, and twelve days. It feels both so much longer, and shorter, simultaneously.
Sometimes entire days go by and he doesn’t cross my mind. Other times, I am steeped in memories and plagued by things unsaid. To say, "I miss him" seems a gross understatement, yet what more can be said?
Lots, I suppose.
He lived 88 years, 3 months, and 19 days.
He was a good man; An exceptional husband; A kind father. He was a hard worker; A strong union man. He was a respectful human being. He had a soft spot for indigenous peoples, in particular the children, and to that end supported a few charities for Native kids. He was a man grounded by family, faith, and responsibility. His faith lead him to support some Catholic charities. He was an athlete, a baseball player, specifically, though he played some sandlot football, too. He was a story teller. He liked people, and they liked him. He was easy to be around, a comfortable personality. He had many jobs over his lifetime, and he did each one to the best of his ability. He was the union steward at one place, and he enjoyed that role. He also worked as caretaker of the Slovenski Dom (the Slovenian Hall), a fraternal organization in Lawrenceville, for many years. Part of his role there required him to tend bar in the evenings and on weekends. It was the place where my brother Vinny thought Daddy was happiest.
Perhaps part of the reason for his contentment at the Slovenski Dom, was his familiarity with the place. During the Great Depression, Daddy’s own father also held the position of caretaker. And though his parents owned a house on 57th Street, during the Depression, the family lived in the apartment that occupied part of the first and second floors of the Slovenian Hall. So, when Daddy returned there in the 1980s, with some of his own children in tow, it must have been a kind of homecoming for him. A return to a place of simpler times and memories of his own childhood, since he was probably a preschool age kid when Pap-Pap was steward at the Slovenski Dom.
His life wasn’t easy. He was a first generation American, born to immigrant parents, in the period before the Great Depression. Yet, all the photos I have of him as a youngster, show him as a happy, caring, animal loving, and cowboy loving, kid. He grew up number four of six children, though there were nine years between him and his next younger sister, Rose Marie, who wasn’t born until 1934. So, I’m guessing, for all intent and purposes, Daddy was treated as "the baby" for at least eight of those nine years. His next oldest sibling, Jimmy, was two years older than he was, to the exact date, September 21.
I loved Daddy’s stories of growing up in his extended family. I loved hearing about the aunts and uncles, cousins, and just good friends and neighbors who populated his youth and young adulthood. The stories were always happy ones, revolving around family and group activities, like playing pinochle, listening to radio dramas, or music. The home my Dad grew up in was a welcoming one, a gathering place.
I know that Daddy, (AKA: William, Bill, Billy, Will, and Buzzy), loved music, and had a decent tenor voice. He sang in the Men’s Choir, at St Mary Assumption Church. He enjoyed playing characters in local theater productions. In one of those performances, he portrayed what Dr. Larry Canjar said was a great "old, Jewish, immigrant accent". Daddy told me that the director of a local theatre group saw one of his performances and wanted to cast Daddy in a production in Oakland, but Daddy declined. Maybe if he hadn’t fallen in love immediately after World War 2, and straightaway begun a family, he might have tried his hand at acting.
Instead, at eighteen, he went off to be a soldier, in the European Theatre. In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of his two older brothers, Joe E. and Jimmy.
Will left Pittsburgh, in November 1943, shortly after his eighteenth birthday. It must have been both scary and exciting for this young man who had never been out of Pittsburgh, and rarely out of his neighborhood. Traveling with other young men, uncertain of their final destination, knowing only they would ultimately be off to "fight the war". It had to have been hard on him, too, especially when he missed his first holidays with his family. Holidays were always an important to Daddy’s family. And, Christmas, without fail was always special, both as a holiday and a holy day for Daddy.
Daddy did his basic training in Georgia. He shared stories from basic training, where he met a young man from New Orleans,who became his friend and bunk mate. Jim Byrnes was the gentleman’s name and they maintained a lifelong, long distance friendship. They sent letters and exchanged Christmas cards, and on more than one occasion, Mr Byrnes invited my Dad to New Orleans, but Daddy never went. And it was a deep blow to him when he one day received a phone call from Mrs Byrnes, saying that his friend had passed away.
There were stories about the other recruits, and stories of playing baseball in the red Georgia clay. But, of the time after basic training, spent in Ft Lee, New Jersey, little was said. From NJ, he and his comrades in arms, headed to England, and then to the European Theatre.
He never really spoke of his deployment in Europe. He shared transport stories of sea sickness. Daddy shared reminiscences of the brief layover in England. There were tales of the cold forests of central Europe, on the way to Germany, where he got frostbite on his toes. I remember his accounts of trying to keep warm in the back of transport trucks. But, never did he talk about the war, combat, what he saw, or did.
Once, in the mid 1990s, while watching a TV news segment about the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I asked him if he had been near any of the concentration camps when he was in Europe. He became very quiet. A look came over his face that I cannot describe, except to say, a darkness. He paused. Then he said, "No. But I smelled them." I asked a few more questions, but he answered tersely, so I didn’t press. At one point, he said that some of the other guys in his unit went into the camps, which had already been liberated, but that he did not. I know little about his wartime experience. It was not something he wished to share.
At the end of the war in Europe, he returned home, to the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville, where he picked up where he had left off. At least that’s what I assume. How different it must have been, though. An innocence lost. Daddy returned home, as did his oldest brother, Joe E. Uncle Jimmy, with whom Daddy shared a birthday, was shot down somewhere over France, lost his life, and is buried in France. So, the house on 57th Street was a little emptier, and touched by the sadness of losing their middle son. Although I am certain there was some of what we now call survivor’s guilt, Daddy got on with his life. The sorrow of losing Uncle Jimmy, was something I realized more from watching the women in my Dad’s family, in particular my Gram, and my Aunt Barb, who was the oldest of the siblings.
But there were happy stories after the war, and Daddy shared those, too. I especially loved hearing about interactions between my grandparents, from Daddy. Theirs must have been a happy marriage, especially based on the reports from my Dad. It seems that my Gram was a strong, sensible, kind woman, and that she, perhaps, "ran the show". There was a lot of good natured teasing between Daddy’s parents, at least according to Daddy’s shared recollections. I loved hearing the stories of his parents, Rosie and Joe, in which Daddy would always speak in Pap-Pap’s accented voice. I so miss hearing that! I wish we had made recording of those stories.
In January 1949, Bill married Jean Marie Brogan Savage, a girl from the neighborhood, who lived six houses up the street. She may as well have been from another galaxy. Neither her Scots-Irish family, nor Daddy’s Slovenian family approved of the union. I’m not sure why, really. Perhaps it was cultural, just a desire to keep to their own ethnicities. Perhaps it was because Jean was adopted. Perhaps it was because Jean’s parents looked down on immigrants. Or maybe there was some other reason. I simply do not know. I have some ideas and suspicions, but no actual knowledge. But, marry, they did! And with both families in attendance, they were joined in holy matrimony at St Mary Assumption Church, with a reception luncheon following at the Fort Pitt Hotel, in downtown Pittsburgh. They honeymooned in New York City.
When I look at their wedding photos, I see two people very much in love. My mom, Jean, has been gone since August 1976. But even in the intervening years, Daddy never stopped loving her. In fact, when his granddaughter, Hannah, was in college around 2009, she asked for me to email her a photo of her grandmother. I sent along Mummy’s senior portrait from high school. I shared with Daddy, Hannah’s response to seeing Mummy’s photo. Hannah said that her Grandmother was "quite the looker". Daddy smiled broadly, and replied simply, "I always thought so." Even after so many years without her, he still loved her, deeply.
Daddy was a kind man. A gentle man. Although, he could get riled up at times. Discussing sports sometimes made him agitated. Especially, baseball. Most especially the Pirates, under Clint Hurdle. He could also get fairly worked up about union politics. He was shop steward where he worked for many years and often became irritated with his union brothers because he felt they lacked follow through. Yet, in spite of his strong union stance, he maintained a positive working relationship with both owners and management, as well as with his union brothers. My Dad was a reasonable and balanced human being, who in most instances saw both sides of an issue. Even in the turbulent late 60s and early 70s, I never heard him speak unkindly of any of the players on the stage of social change. I never heard him speak derogatorily of civil rights leaders, though I remember hearing such hate speech from various Uncles in the family, but never from my Dad. He respected people - all people - even his oldest daughter, the rebel and hippie.
If I regret anything in my younger life, it is any pain or embarrassment I caused my Dad. I was the epitome of the strong willed child! I was thoughtless and headstrong. I often say that I thought I had all the answers, when, in truth, I didn’t even know what the questions were. Yet, I remember my Dad coming to my defense against drunken slurs against me made by one of his in-laws. I remember Daddy coming to my high school graduation and my nursing school graduation. Was he perfect? No, and neither are ANY of us. I am grateful that one of the final interchanges between Daddy and me included me saying, "I’m sorry, Daddy. I never meant to hurt you." To which he replied, while looking deeply into my eyes, "I know, kid." God! How I miss him!
He was a good listener. I miss being able to talk to him. I miss having his ear, knowing that whatever I told him would go no further. He was not a man given to gossip. I miss the fact that he listened yet never felt compelled, as some men (and women) do, to try and fix whatever was wrong. He truly listened, knowing that sometimes the person talking just needed a comprehending ear. How I pray to be more like my Dad!
When I said that his life was hard, part of the reason for the difficulty was that our family grew rapidly over the years. From their first child, a girl, arriving a month after their first anniversary, to the appearance of five boys, then another girl, and finally, the last boy, my parents embodied "the good Catholic family" of the 1950s to 1970s. I am not certain of the motivation behind having eight children. To place the blame of the Vatican seems a bit unfair. And we were an oddity, even though we were not the only, nor the largest family in our immediate neighborhood. In really thinking about it, though, most of the other Catholic families on our street, consisted of three kids, maximum. So, maybe we were an oddity, but I never realized it at the time.
My Dad did not graduate from high school. I am not certain of all the facts or reasons, but I do know that he left Central Catholic HS after 2 years. Without a high school diploma, even in the 1950s, jobs were hard to come by, especially when relying on public transit. My Dad never learned to drive. In fact, he had no desire to learn, and no extra income to purchase a car, anyway. And I remember when I bought a used car in the 1980s, he kept asking me, "Why?" He was a believer in public transit, and thought the "need" for everyone to own an automobile was ridiculous.
Early in his experience as a father and husband, I remember him being organized, neat, and trying to impress those qualities on his kids. In the basement, he had a workbench with a peg board behind it. On the pegboard, he kept his tools. And on the pegboard, he had drawn an outline of each tool, so that even as a child, I could see by the shapes, which tool went on which hook. I remember having a fascination with Daddy’s tools, especially his hand drill. And, I also remember his displeasure when Mummy or one of the children would remove some implement and NOT return it to its place on the bench or board. After awhile, I think he became less stringent in his organization, maybe because living with a messy wife and a bunch of kids can do that to even the most organized individual.
There were times when we kids were growing up, that the gas or electricity to our house was shut off, because we were poor. In spite of those occurrences, and the embarrassment it must have caused Daddy, I remember those as fun times. It is my belief that my perception was mainly the result of Daddy’s attitude. He made a game out of being in the dark, when our electricity was off. We got to carry old, kerosene, railroad lanterns upstairs to the bathroom, and sleep with oil lamps in our bedrooms. He made it a fun experience! I remember Daddy putting blankets over the dining room table to make a tent for us kids when the gas was off and it was a very cold early March. He made it seem like an adventure! We got to "camp" in the dining room. I remember telling him a few years before he died, how many pleasurable, good memories I had from those times. He said that if he had known it was enjoyable, maybe he wouldn’t have worried so much about us.
Daddy liked to cook. I remember him making pigs in the blanket, potica, donuts, and potato chips. He also baked from scratch chocolate cakes with delicious, cooked, butter cream frosting. His spaghetti sauce was extremely tasty. And he was always willing to try different things. I remember making collard greens and neck bones for him after I had been exposed to some down-home southern cooking, and he liked it. Some of his sons seem to have inherited his gift for cooking and baking.
Daddy seemed to lose a little of himself when Mummy died. He was only 50 when she died as a result of lung cancer, so he had spent more than half of his life to that point, as Jean’s husband. Perhaps he felt lost. I have often reasoned that were it not for his youngest son, who was just five years old, he might have allowed himself to die of a broken heart. To his credit, he hung on. He was a survivor, in every sense of the word.
He lived longer as a single parent than he had as a married Dad with a partner. He always was willing to take his children back under his roof if they asked. In nursing school, I returned to his home for a period of time, after a failed marriage and relationship. At the end of his life, he lived in a home purchased by my brother Vinny and shared with Daddy and two other unmarried brothers. I think Daddy did much of what he did because of a deep ingrained sense of obligation. His duty to his family, his spouse, his children, his faith, and even his country, sometimes led him down roads he might never have traveled except for his imperative of living up to a commitment. That is something about him, that I have come to appreciate more deeply as I age. Mostly, though, I am simply grateful that I am his daughter, grateful for him as a husband, father, son, brother, friend, and grateful for his example and perseverance. And though he never told me he loved me until I was in my 20s, he showed his love everyday, and for that I am especially grateful.