I never really knew my Dad… he died the month before my 8th birthday.
My mom told me the story many times… of how they had an argument before he left the house that morning, although she can’t remember why; how she didn’t kiss him goodbye. From the stories I have heard, my dad had a quick temper, and I assume that particular morning was no exception.
It was a typical summer Sunday. My dad and oldest brother were racing in the Summer Series at Monmouth Boat Club on the Navesink River in Red Bank, NJ, I ‘helped’ keep score, and my mom stayed home to get things done around the house in peace and quiet. I don’t know where my other brother was that particular day… I’m guessing he was playing tennis on the clay courts next door.
Back in those days, the signs of an approaching heart attack were not known. The pain in my dad’s arm that morning was not the muscle strain he thought it was, but rather an obvious sign he was about to have a massive heart attack. As a 3 pack a day chain smoker (unfiltered Camels), and a very social drinker with a short fuse… upon reflection it is no surprise this would be his demise.
Dad was skipper, and my brother the crew… they sailed for the finish line, in first place… when the attack reared its ugly head and squeezed the last breath out of my dad. My brother, at the tender age of 13 took control of the tiller, brought the boat over the line, and signaled the rescue boat for help. The hospital is located right there on the river, but by the time anyone got to the boat to help, it was too late. My dad was gone… and the truth of his life would soon unravel.
At the time of his death my parents had been married for 13 years. Mom was now a single parent with 3 mouths to feed, clothe, and shelter with not a dime to her name. As in most families of that generation, my dad was the bread-winner while mom stayed home and raised the kids. She helped to make ends meet with occasional catering jobs and working the counter of a much-loved local delicatessen… she was no stranger to hard work and long hours. Once the shock of losing her husband so instantly wore off, she gathered her wits and began thinking about her next move.
My dad didn’t have any life insurance, but he DID have plenty of savings bonds. He worked as an engineer, designing tools for the government, so certainly there would be some sort of compensation and perhaps some Social Security. Mom was secure that she would be able to pull enough money together to help stay afloat long enough to tide us over until she found a full-time job. Imagine her surprise when applying for benefits she was informed she was not legally married and therefore did not qualify for any benefits. To add insult to injury… the Savings Bonds listed his parents as beneficiaries, and they were not the sort to share.
When Mom and Dad met on the Belmar beach, they had both been married and divorced. Mom didn’t believe the Good Lord intended her to be beaten within an inch of her life every Friday night, so she drove to Florida where divorces were legal and filed the papers. Raised as a devoted Catholic, she did this knowing full well she would be excommunicated from the church.
Dad told her he had married, but still needed to get to Florida and do the paperwork for a divorce. A few weeks later he was hired to sail a yacht down the coast… to Florida, and he would do it then. Mom followed him down south where they dated and fell deeply in love. When summer was over, they moved back north and settled in to their regular routines… and saw each other every chance they could. By June she found herself ‘in the family way’ and my dad immediately married her. He grabbed a friend who just happened to be a minister, and on my mom’s 21st birthday they said their vows on the Belmar beach in front of a handful of friends. There was no reason anyone would have thought this was not a legally binding marriage… especially my mom.
It’s not clear if the friend of my dad’s was a real minister, or not; however, the paperwork was never filed and a marriage certificate was never issued. Thirteen years later, what IS clear is that for some unknown reason my dad’s divorce NEVER took place… and upon his death he was legally married to someone else.
Growing up I only got to know my dad through stories. I have few memories of my own. I knew he loved me, of that I am sure. I also saw glimpses of his temper, and had been on the receiving end only once that I recall. THAT story involves a racoon, coal bin, and apples… which I will tell you all some other time.
His friends paint a picture of a handsome, outgoing, party guy with a clear analytical and intelligent mind, mixed with a broad smile and quick temper. They all revered him and looked to him for guidance. My mom of course paints a different picture. Once she stumbled on the truth, her view of him did a 180. She hardly spoke of him at all. Although she told me a few stories, which is how I know the little I do, she preferred to not speak of him at all. He died in flesh and in spirit that summer.
I have a friend whose father also passed away earlier than expected. Thanks to their mother they have a totally different feeling about their father. Their mother kept their father ‘alive’ by commenting how proud he would be if he were alive to see them get good grades, excel in sports, do well in life and more. My friend strived to make their father proud, and continues to do so on a daily basis even now that we are grown adults.
I wish I had that growing up. My dad simply did not exist in my life. He was hardly ever a thought. My mom did her best to cut him out of my life. I understand she was stunned, hurt, humiliated and mad as hell… but he was my dad after all. He treated us well, and never once gave us a moment of hesitation that we weren’t his only family.
My brothers stepped in as able substitutes. One attending school meetings and functions when a parent was expected, turning his gold signet ring around to suggest it was a wedding ring; and the other who gingerly held my hand as he led me to the front steps to empty the snow out of my boots. Teaching me to ride a two-wheel bike, and then to drive a car… both watching nervously as I began dating. On my wedding day when a girl usually is walked down the aisle by her dad… I was thrilled to have both brothers do the honors… one on either side.
So here is my first ever tribute to my Dad… where ever his spirit may be. I know he loved me… and through stories I know I was the light of his life. For that, I am grateful. I also know that had he lived, my life would have been an entirely different story.
My Dad was my first ‘crush’ and my first heart-break.
Happy Father’s Day Dad!!!
And more importantly… Happy Father’s Day to my two brothers!!!
** The above photo is the ONLY picture taken of our entire family TOGETHER. It is a digital reproduction of a very crumpled and ruined picture taken on the steps of Monmouth Boat Club the year before my dad passed away.