Happy Father’s Day

My father, who I called “daddy,” died of a stroke when he was 48 and I was 10 years old. That was in August 1960.

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of him and am tortured at my having practically no memories of him. It always hits me that I am 22 years older than he was when he died. If he returned, I would be old enough to be his father.

It was late summer and I was asleep in bed at our bungalow in Staten Island when he left for work in the morning, like he did every day. Within an hour he developed a horrible headache and stopped at the Bendix Diner on Route 3. They called an ambulance but hours later he was dead of a cerebral. hemorrhage. My mother was able to see him in the hospital but I don’t know if he was conscious.

When he left, he took the key to just about all of my memories of him. I believe it’s called traumatic amnesia.

If I’ve tried to recall him once, I’ve tried 10,000 times, without much luck. Some memories are like that. Once locked away, without a key you’d have more luck getting into Fort Knox.

I’ve been told that if I want to see my father or my grandfather, for that matter, I should look in the mirror. I would rather have the real memories than a reflection of my DNA.

I have a few memories but I’m not even sure if they happened or if I told them to myself so many times that I convinced myself that they happened.

All I have left of him are some old photos and two hats. One is the blue police hat that he wore as a special officer and the other was a white cap that he wore as a volunteer with the ambulance squad. Both hats are more than 60 years old but they’re still in pretty decent shape. I look at them from time to time to jog my memory about him but to no avail.

There are fading photos of him and mom, him holding one of the three kids, him at the beach. One is of him in front of the ambulance squad. He isn’t smiling in any of the pictures. I don’t know if that says a lot about him or if he just didn’t smile in photos.

My father, Jerome or Jerry, had a hard life. He did not get along with his stepmother and he ran away from home when he was 16 to join the Merchant Marines, sailing to India. I can’t imagine traveling alone to another world when I was 16. I have some photos of him with dark skinned sailors aboard a big ship that was apparently docked at the time in India.

I wonder if he was homesick and regretted leaving home. I wonder if he had a lot of regrets about his short life. I wonder if he had big plans or any plans at all.

After a stint with the Merchant Marine, he returned to home in West New York where he started working as a truck driver, driving mostly in the northeast for Yale trucking, a company that no longer exists. I’m told that driving a truck caused kidney problems and that he took sulfa drugs to help his kidneys but that the drugs raised his blood pressure and eventually led to the stroke.

I guess he had a pretty short fuse. His temper got him fired pretty frequently when he talked back to bosses. But it was a time when jobs were pretty common and he’d always bounce back with another company.

I’d describe him as swarthy; dark skin, black hair, like me. He was my size, about five-feet-seven. I guess he weighed around 180, with his noticeable pot belly.

One visceral memory is how it felt to lay my head against his soft, white T-shirt or to feel his day growth of facial hair. I know he wore brown sandals with white socks. It was fashionable in those days although it could get you shot for looking dorky today.

His police gun, a .38 revolver, was holstered and hung on the door to his bedroom closet. I imagine he was like Barnie Fife, with one bullet in his belt. Why he wore a gun is a mystery to me. He directed traffic on Sundays outside of Our Lady of Visitation Church. Maybe they feared a wave of killings by kids who couldn’t stand going to church.

I remember one day he got home from work and brought me a kit with wires and bells and lights. You connect the wires and ring the bells and light the lights. I found it extremely interesting. I think he brought it to me. Maybe it was my mother. Whoever gave it to me, it was fascinating.

One time he had some kind of fight with my mother and I heard him tell my mother he was going to get his belt. My mother got me in the car and we drove around for a while. She said daddy got mad quick but cooled down just as quickly. He never used his belt for anything other than to keep his pants up.

And he planted a row of evergreens along the property line with our neighbors, the Appelbaums. They were small but grew pretty tall in the years after he died. He also planted a row of hedges along the rear patio.

I think I remember him dressed in a white shirt and tie, with a yarmulke on his head as he attended Saturday morning services at the Jewish Community Center. I may just be recalling a photo I saw of him at services.

We had a piano at home and daddy played it while mom sang. It doesn’t qualify as a memory. My mother told me about it.

There are some things I’m sorry I never saw. I wish I had seen him cry or belly laugh. That sounds weird but I hunger for some memory that would tell me something about who he was.

And that is the big thing; I have no idea what my father was like. I know he liked fishing off Staten Island. He had a small outboard and there were at least a dozen rods and reels in the storage room at our home.

But he never took me fishing. We never went to a baseball game or talked about life or really much of anything. He will remain a mystery to me but inside I know he loved me and that I loved him. I just wish he hadn’t died so early so that we couldn’t share the stuff that dads and their kids are supposed to share.



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Phil Garber

Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer