ninety-nine years on

I'd been making notes for a blog post about my father for a couple of weeks, and I suddenly realized on March 7 that it was his birthday, and that, if he were alive, he would have been ninety-nine years old.

So, I pushed ahead to finish the blog post that day, until I realized that the math was wrong and he would have only been 98. At that point, I lost some momentum.

So, a bit later than planned (but 352 days ahead of deadline!), here are some things I remember about my father, on the occasion of what would have been his 99th birthday. By the way, I also wrote about him before.

My father was pretty much a textbook example of an agnostic. When I wrote Jan Sleet's comment about her father ("...I don't believe in god. I'm a good Italian girl, but I'm afraid my father is a bit of a free thinker, so I wasn't raised Catholic. Thank god.") I was thinking of my father. Like Vinnie, he was a guy from a small town, not rich, somewhat separated from his Italian roots, who became an intellectual largely by teaching himself.

Because of his agnosticism, he had no belief in any sort of afterlife. As he used to say, "You only go around once in life, and if you do it right once is enough." But, perhaps as a balance to that, he also advised, "Moderation in everything." Which in his case translated to things like having one drink (or two) a day, and not of cheap stuff either. In fact, any newspaper article which said that people who have one drink a day live longer than people who don't drink at all would most likely end up posted on the refrigerator door, next to the articles about the beneficial effects of garlic.

He left the Catholic Church around the time he turned 21. Not so much because he did or didn't believe in god (he was, as I've said, agnostic about that question), but because of the unfairness of the Church's dictum that, "If you're not Catholic, you're fucked." (Well, back then they would have said it in Latin, of course.) No matter how you lived your life, or what you believed in, if you weren't a Catholic, you had no chance. He couldn't accept that. Whatever else we disagreed about, and we disagreed about a lot, I was always grateful for that. It would certainly have been possible for him to do as many people did (particularly men): continue being Catholic on paper but never go to church and have as little to do with it as possible. But he had principles, and he quit instead. Good for him.

As I say, though, he was agnostic, and I remember a time my mother was really sick and he took me to a church and we each lit a candle for her. When I asked what this was about, he shrugged and said, "It couldn't hurt."

I used to work for him in the summers when I was in high school (half of my pay going toward a college fund and the other half going into my pocket), and there were lazy summer afternoons when he would lean back in his chair, dipping his hand into the drawer in his file cabinet which was set aside for cookies, and muse, "You know, if I had played my cards right, I might be Pope now." His secretary and I would gently point out that he had probably made this less likely by quitting the Church. To make up for it, his secretary would occasionally address him as "Your Holiness" (or sometimes "Your Excellency"). She reserved the word "sir" for when she was peeved at him. Her "sirrrrrrr" could scrape the varnish off the desks.

Every summer (before high school), my parents and I would go up to Cape Cod and spend a week in our cottage, preparing it for tenants. Then, on or around July 4th, the tenants would arrive, my mother and I would move to a small apartment in town, and my father would go back home (and back to work). Not that he wouldn't have wanted to stay (the combination of the idyllic surroundings and the artists and writers who flocked there in the summer made for an ideal vacation spot for him), but he feared (with good reason) what might happen at his job if he wasn't there to keep things from going off course. When he was at the Cape, once a day he'd get out all his papers and call the office (reversing the charges, of course) and talk to everybody there who needed talking to.

Because he mostly wasn't there during the summers, he always gave me summer reading lists (the only book I remember for sure was The Great Gatsby), and I had to write books reports. But I was used to that sort of thing because of "3 1/2 by 3 2/1."

When I was in third grade, my father looked at my math workbook (called "3 by 3") and decided it was too easy. So, he got a stack of paper and created a second workbook, just for me, called "3 1/2 by 3 1/2." So, every day, I had to do the assigned problems from my regular workbook, and then similar problems, somewhat more difficult, crafted by my father.

At the time I thought this was annoying. I had twice as much math homework as any of the other students. It was only later that I appreciated all the effort he put into this.

He also taught me many useful skills that I use to this day, such as how to write a business letter. He started by trying to teach me how to throw a football, but it would have been a toss-up which of us was less skilled at that activity, so we switched over to 1) going to see classic movies, and 2) learning necessary business skills. And I think I can safely report that, even if I'd learned to throw a perfect spiral, it would not have helped a lot in my life.

I'm sure I'll think of more things before 3/7/2012 rolls around, so maybe I'll post more then.

Later: One more thing I thought about my father (hey, this post is really early – I may just add to it and add to it until 3/7/2012) is how appalled he would have been by the people who get all of their information from Fox News.

Not because he would have been appalled by Fox News (though he probably would have been), but because it would have really offended him that there were so many people who got all of their news from a single source. That was no way to learn about the world, he thought.

He always watched the evening news (sometimes Huntley & Brinkley, sometimes Walter Cronkite – I have no idea who was on ABC in those days, so obviously we never watched their news broadcast) and then the local news at 11:00pm. And he watched The McLaughlin Group and another show of that type that I can't remember. He always got two daily newspapers (the NY Times and whichever of the tabloids was the less offensive – usually the Post in those days), plus whichever of the weekly news magazines offered him the best subscription rate. Every Saturday night he went out and got the Sunday Times (and he stood there at the newsstand and checked to make sure he'd got all the sections he was interested in).

He liked the New York Times, but he would never have trusted them as his sole source of news, and he certainly didn't let even the Times get away with anything. I remember a time when he thought that the paper's liberal bias had skewed how they had portrayed a conservative man who was being interviewed (the physical description of the man made him sound repulsive). My father wrote a letter and complained, and he got a letter back basically saying that he was right and apologizing.

When something was really happening in the world, he watched. I remember how much of the Democratic Convention in 1967 we watched. But he was not obsessive about it. For example, I knew people who were glued to the Watergate hearings pretty much 27/7 for weeks on end. He followed it, but he didn't arrange his life around it. Moderation in everything, after all.

Oh, and he gave me the best writing advice I've ever received. It's my mantra to this day:

"There is only one rule in writing: Write well."

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  1. Pingback: two days in one » Anthony Lee Collins

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