Friday, October 15, 2010

The best part of me is him

I love my mother. After reading my last post, "Putting the Fun back in Dysfunctional," she called me to say, "mkromd, I'm not at all the way you described me. I am NOT the epitome of a White Anglo Saxon Protestant Woman," and she actually even believed her own PR... until I reminded her that - when I turned eighteen - she handed me the keys to my car on a Tiffany's key chain with a card that said, "Happy birthday, sweetheart. The keys are the real gift. The key chain is because every woman should have a college education, a black bra, and something from Tiffanys... and she should know how to use all three." To this day, she thinks that's, "Just good life advice."

But this week's story isn't about my mom. It's about my dad.

You see, my father was born during the Great Depression. By three, he was performing in street theatre. By five, he was playing drums to help pay the rent. The story goes something like this... Every day, my dad would sit on the front steps of his apartment building and play popular tunes on garbage can lids and passersby would stop and watch. One day, the owner of a local shoe shop heard him and was so moved that he went to his store, got some leather from the back, and made a drum for my dad - the first one he ever owned. Mr. D liked to say that he discovered my father. My father liked to say, "There's probably some truth in that."

At any rate, by the time my dad was seven, you could tell he was talented. By ten, he was getting noticed. By fourteen, he was sneaking into clubs and playing Jazz all night with locals and legends. By eighteen, he was married, divorced, ex-communicated, and enlisted. And even though it was around the Korean War, the military actually saved his life.

Supposedly, one weekend on leave, my dad and his buddies went out, and my dad did what he always did. He got on stage, picked up the drumsticks, and played. Turns out, someone who knew someone, who knew someone, was there and got him an audition with the Commander and Conductor of the Air Force Band.

When the day came, he and the Master Sergeant for Percussion asked my dad to play something, so he did, and they were impressed. Then they handed him a sheet of music and asked to play something specific... and he couldn't. He couldn't read music. So, he did the next best thing. He asked to hear it played once, then he played it back to them... perfectly. They agreed to take him, but on one condition - that he learn to read music. When my dad said, "Why? If I hear it, I can play it." the Master Seargent replied, "But what about all of the music you never hear?"

He not only became my dad's mentor, they became lifelong friends.

And while our local shoe shop owner loved to take credit for my dad's career, it was actually during those years that he evolved as a musician and learned to play piano. In fact, as a result of being in the Air Force Band, he abandoned drums altogether and became a jazz pianist... a decision he never regretted. It was truly the second love of his life. The first he'd met some years later... it was our mother.

When they were introduced by a mutual friend, my mother thought my father was dashing and Beatnik. He read Kerouac and quoted Allen Ginsberg, and he was worldly and interesting and funny... He thought she was beautiful and brilliant and "a little intimidating," so he asked her out. Much to his genuine surprise, she said yes. So there she was, a week later, ready to go out. Too bad my dad had forgotten the day and time. He stood her up.

She was so offended and so irate that she called him the next day and lambasted him. Horrified, my father very sincerely apologized and asked if he could make it up to her. Begrudgingly, she agreed. Then he stood her up... again. He had gotten the flu, only this time - at least he called her beforehand to explain. Begging for one more chance, and reminding her that, "the third time is always a charm," she gave in. Turns out, it's genetic. God hated my dad, too. Because, on the way to dinner to meet my mom, he got a flat tire.

While he was changing it, my mother drove by, honked, waved, and kept driving. Within 15 minutes, they had both arrived at the restaurant and met in the lobby. My mother - calm, cool, and collected. My father - dirty, sweaty, and late. Instead of saying hello to her, he said, "Why didn't you stop to help me?" Without skipping a beat, my mother replied, "I only came tonight to tell you that you're an asshole. You were changing your tire. I figured you didn't need more bad news. Now that your tire's fixed... You're an asshole." And she walked out.

Clearly though, that's not where the story ends.

The next day at work, she got a long, slender, white box delivered to her office. When she opened it, thinking she'd gotten roses and an apology, she saw something that looked like a giant crowbar. The note read, "Next time you see me with a flat tire, you have to stop. You have my tire iron." Then he signed the card, "the Asshole." She still has it... the note, not the tire iron.

They were married for forty-five years until he passed away from cancer in 2006.

There isn't a day that goes by where I don't miss him, and when he was dying, he pulled my sister, my brothers, and I into his hospital room and one-by-one told us, "I can't believe God is so cruel that he wouldn't let me take one memory of each of you with me." Then he proceeded to tell us what those memories were. Here is the one he wanted to take of me...

When I was in sixth grade, I told a dirty joke at school... and I got caught. The joke goes something like this (I apologize in advance if it's not politically correct. It was the 1970s, no one was politically correct): Two midgets went to a convent. The first midget rang the doorbell, and when the nun answered to door, he said, "Excuse me Sister, are there any midget nuns at this convent?" To which the nun replied, "No son, there aren't. I think you've made a mistake." Then she thanked him for his time and closed the door. A minute later, he rang the doorbell again, and she answered again, only this time he said, "Excuse me Sister, are there any midget nuns in the city?" To which she replied, "No, no there aren't." And though she continued to nod disapprovingly, he continued to ask, "What about the state... the country... the world?" Frustrated, the Sister replied, "Sir, I have been all over the world, including the Vatican, and I have never, ever, EVER seen a midget nun. Please go away." When she slammed the door in his face, the second midget turned to the first and said, "Told you that you made it with a penguin."

In my defense, it wasn't a funny joke but it wasn't awful... unless you happened to attend Catholic school... which I did.

Luckily, when they called my house, they got my father, who immediately came to school, only to find me... feet kicking the air... sobbing... outside the Principal's room... again. With a slightly exasperated look on his face, he walked past me and shut the door to her office. After five minutes of dead silence, I heard him laugh at the top of his lungs. Clearly she'd told him the joke. Within a few more minutes, the door opened, he walked over, grabbed my hand, and walked me to the car. As we pulled out of the parking lot, he turned to me and said, "I told you that you made it with a penguin?" and he chuckled. Then he added, "Funny, but wildly inappropriate. Comedy is all about timing... and knowing your audience." When I laughed, he said, "Speaking of knowing your audience, let's not tell your mother about this." And we never did. We went for ice cream instead. We never told her about that either. Instead, the only thing he ever told her about it was, "Anyone can raise an ordinary child."

But now... it's my turn. I get to tell you my favorite story about him.

When I was a Freshman in college, I had a roommate from New York City. She introduced me to smoking, mixed drinks, and swearing. She was a terrible influence, and I loved her dearly for it. At any rate, like most students, Fall Break hit and I went home for Thanksgiving. There I was... full of independence... armed with an arsenal of crass phrases... helping with dinner. When the timer went off, my mother asked me to get the food out of the oven but warned me to watch out, as the dish would be hot. Without paying attention, I reached in, grabbed the food, scalded my hand, dropped the pan, and screamed, "FUCKITY FUCKING FUCK FUCK FUCK" at the top of my lungs.

Please note that, prior to that awkward moment, I had not once, not ever, sworn in front of my parents.

And, if my sister hadn't been so shocked that she'd dropped a plate, the silence would have been deafening. In fact, my father was so appalled that he couldn't even scream. Instead, he whispered very loudly, "mkromd, go into the sitting room and wait for dinner. I'll come get you when it's time to eat." After what seemed to be an eternity, he walked to the door and found me much like he had that day in grade school... sitting on a chair... Dr. Martens kicking the air back and forth... sobbing... waiting for my punishment. All he said was, "Come eat." When I got to the table, he explained that, "Tonight, when you need anything, you'll use the words fuckity fucking fuck fuck to describe it. For example, if you want the mashed potatoes, you need to ask for the fuckity fucking fuck fuck mashed potatoes. When you want the milk, you need to ask for the fuckity fucking fuck fuck milk."

While this may not sound awful to you, there is no way to describe how horrifying it was to me, as I was always loathe to disappoint my parents.

Thinking that this would be my Last Supper, the home edition, I tried desperately to avoid asking for anything, but in a large family with siblings who are DYING to torture you, there's no reality in that goal. And when I "forgot" the expletive, my dad would correct me. Until finally, at the end of dinner, my father said, "mkromd, in this family, if you cannot use a word in polite dinner conversation, you cannot use it." Then I got stuck with the fuckity fucking fuck fuck dishes. As I stood at the sink washing them, my father came up beside me and said, "Anyone can raise an ordinary child." The lesson stuck, because I never swore again in front of my parents, and I'm 273 in dog years.

Anyway, gotta go. Sorry for the lapse in writing. It's been crazy busy. Talk to you next week.

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