My world in Queens, circa 1960, revolved around my mother. To me, she was the end all. The bee’s knees. The most beautiful mother who was always there for me. My father, on the other hand, was of a different ilk. He wasn’t around much and didn’t go with us on family outings to the city. But that’s probably because he was spending his time downtown, getting an education.
It seems that when he came to the United States, my father decided that if he was going to make a decent life for himself and for his family, he first needed to get a degree. He enrolled at New York University and he must have been there day and night, attending classes and studying late in the library, because his presence in our lives was minuscule at best.
And when he was around, he would yell and throw fits about anything and everything which absolutely terrified me. He also enjoyed a good scare. Like when he crept up on me when I was by myself in the basement, sent there to fetch the laundry basket for my mother. Pouncing, he began to make strangling motions around my neck. I cried in horror, which made him keel over with crazed laughter. I was only five.
Yet, despite this, my father had his “Father Knows Best” moments. At least when he wasn’t in his hyper Latin machismo mode. Like when I was 18 and about to go on an interview for a summer job. I had applied to be a live-in nanny for the Pellicane family’s four children (three boys and a girl). My father insisted that he come along for the interview so that he could meet the family with whom I might be spending the summer. He poured on his Latin charm for Mrs. Pellicane, taking her hand gently in his, admiring her well appointed Manhasset home. A regular Desi Arnaz meets Ricardo Montalban. During the interview, he asked questions and offered anecdotal information about his daughter (“She’s shy,” “A picky eater,” “Very impatient.”). I sat meekly beside him, silently mortified, and willed myself to disappear into the furnishings of the Pellicane home. I wanted to forget this interview ever happened. But the next day, when Mrs. Pellicane offered me the job, she cited as the key reason the fact that my father cared enough about me to take part in the interview.
Over the years, my first inclination would be to seek out my mother when I needed advice. Not my father. I considered him bull-headed and demanding. Yet, he was always there in the background, trying to be as invaluable to me as my mother. I resisted. That is, until my marriage began to fall apart.
My mother had been diagnosed with . Confiding in her was out of the question. I needed to talk, to get her insight, but since that wasn’t going to happen, I found myself turning to my father. He was 81 years old now and didn’t seem so macho anymore. During this time, my parents had moved to Florida and my father was receiving regular kidney dialysis. His legs were swollen, his body drained and he was just plumb tired of living. But his mind was intact.
The first time I called to tell him the news about my marriage, as a reflex, I braced myself for a scolding. I expected angry outbursts. I expected accusations that it was my fault, that I could have done more. I anticipated unequivocal fury. In its place, I got empathy and love. He listened as I cried and poured out my story. He quietly listened and when I could cry no more, he told me what I needed to hear. That he loved me with all his heart and that I would be ok.
Suddenly, with my mother in her own world, my father was there for me in a way I’d never seen before. It was as if my mother’s pre-Alzheimer’s spirit had taken over his body and, in a surprising twist of fate, it was now my father listening to me and sharing his wisdom. I knew he was in pain from the dialysis, but during our conversations, he never let on. It was the closest we’d ever been. My mother now in la-la land and my father a beacon of hope and compassion. The world was upside down and the impossible had come true.
Within the year, we buried my mother. A few months after that, my father. Hot headed and super macho, my father transcended all that he was, in order to give me what was there all along: his love. And maybe he didn’t always know best, but in the moments I needed him, he came through.