“If you only lived the life of my father” is a phrase that emanates from my mouth whenever my children fail to deliver enough effort or try to avoid work or chores. My dad, who was the most responsible person I have ever known, set the bar high. His standard was impacted by his time serving in the Army.
My late father is on my mind often and always on Memorial Day. What I can’t help but think of on a day like today is where are all of the flags? When I was a child, our yard was decked out with Old Glory. Over the years, no matter what city I’ve been in during Memorial Day, I’ve noticed a dearth of flags waving on a day in which we should honor those who died while serving our country.
I’ll never forget the tales my father spun while we sat around in the evening with the television off and the porch light on. My father was well into his 40s when I arrived. I was his only child after my mother suffered through five miscarriages. Both of my parents were from big families, and the boys from both sides served their country.
Less than three months before Pearl Harbor was bombed, my father turned 18. He was drafted shortly after the day that will live in infamy. For nearly four years, my father survived while stationed primarily in Europe. My father’s brothers said very little about their experiences battling abroad.
I was reminded how little my Uncle John revealed during his eulogy delivered by my cousin, Chickie. “When I asked him how Italy was during the war, he said, ‘The wine was good.’ How was Africa? ‘It was hot.’ Terse answers from a man who clearly wanted to forget.
However, my dad couldn’t have been more open and honest about life during wartime. There was nothing he loathed more than watching his friends die. “I could hear people screaming the last screams of their lives in the heat of battle when I was in a foxhole with my guys,” my dad recalled.
“One time, I was in a foxhole with my best friend, and I knew it was bad up there. We were outnumbered by the Germans. He wanted to get up and fight. I grabbed him. ‘All the heroes are dead,’ I said to him. There was a time to fight and a time not to fight. We lived to tell the tale.”
My father had a dalliance with a young French lady, and he spun a colorful tale about hiding out in the closet of her apartment when word spread that the Nazis were on the block and knocking on doors.
My dad endured the war, returned to the States, met my mother and married. Since much of my father’s young life was fraught with relentless challenges, I recall a man who possessed remarkable grace under pressure. When the construction business went bust during my childhood, my father, a talented contractor, shifted gears to provide.
My dad was unflappable and proud, which was the norm for “The Greatest Generation.” I think of his dogged determination whenever my children want to take the easy way out because he laughed at shortcuts. “If you do that, it’ll come back to bite you,” he said.
When I look back at his 84 years on this planet, I’m always amazed how such a mountain of a man with such a gruff exterior, which frightened casual friends, was so gentle.
The old man who couldn’t wait for me to become a father was 75 when I made him a grandfather. I’ll never forget the happy tears he shed when he embraced my daughter Jillian for the first time.
And then there was the time he spoke of passing on the family name. “You know that all of your cousins have had girls,” he said. Thank you for the pressure. I know how tickled he was when my son Eddie was born.
My dad held Jillian, Eddie and my younger son Milo as if they were his lifeline since he knew his time was limited. I’ll never forget how he let Eddie, then 2 years old, sleep on his tired, broken and arthritic body for four hours at a time.
“I didn’t want to wake him up,” my dad would say. When my mother would play on the floor with Eddie, my dad beamed. “He looks so much like Edziu (Eddie in Polish, when he referred to me). You think he’s Edziu, don’t ya?” Then he would laugh.
My father spoke Polish even though his ethnicity was primarily from the United Kingdom. But my mother, to whom he was married for 57 years, was 100% Polish, and he worshipped her. My dad embraced polkas, pierogies and all things Poland. My dad is even buried in a Polish cemetery with his bride.
One of my favorite memories of my dad was how he wouldn’t react when my mother insulted him. “What’s wrong with you, ya big beast?” she would screech at him while he was relaxing on his recliner watching one of his beloved Westerns. Dad would laugh. “You can’t let the small stuff get to you,” he said.
He was right, as usual. My father sounded like the grizzled character Clint Eastwood portrayed in “Gran Torino,” but, unlike many of his peers, he had no problem expressing his love and affection for me and his grandchildren. Even though my father had endless crosses to bear throughout his existence, he never blinked or delivered a discouraging word.
I remember how exhausted he was coming home from work covered in dirt and soot from a tough day on a construction job where he braved the elements to erect a building. No matter how tired he was, he would hoist me skyward and kiss me on the cheek.
Despite how creaky his bones were, my father would attend his grandchildren’s baseball games, recitals and plays. He and my mother delivered my greatest parenting lessons by being selfless even at the very end of their lives.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I remember my dad telling me that when I sell his house, I would have no problem since it would be in perfect shape. He was right. The plumbing, electrical and all of the appliances were all in line.
When my father passed away in 2007, I couldn’t help but think of him rendering his “all the heroes” are dead story. His message was to stay alive. “Life is for the living,” my dad said. “Live it to the fullest. Your obligation is to help your children become the best people they can be. You have three children (my father never met my daughter Jane), so you have your hands full.”
Thanks, Dad, for handing me the template. I can’t help but take a moment and tip my cap to all the heroes who are dead who risked their lives for our country, which wouldn’t be the same place without their service.
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