Sunday, December 19, 2010

We'll Fill Our Mouths with Cinnamon

Today is my father's 87th birthday. It's also probably a lot of other people's birthdays, too, but I don't know anything about them, which is almost true for my father as well. I learned far more about him after he died than in all the years we shared the earth. He's been dead a very long time, more than twenty-nine years, and the only things I've accomplished since his sudden end has been to have lived longer than he did and to realize how much alike we actually are.

My father filled up a room like no one else I have ever known-and my points of reference are rock stars, movie celebrities and world leaders (yeah, I've done some $hit if I have to say so myself) but my father owned every room he set foot in. He wasn't physically imposing, standing about five and half feet tall, fighting and usually losing a battle of the bulge with a headful of gray hair, he told us, from the time he was nineteen. He had a line he offered people who thought he was an old man because of the hair, 'just because there's snow on the roof doesn't mean there's not a fire in the chimney.' I suspect he said it in French and Latin, as well, because he could and that's how he was.

He was also someone whom, no matter how well I did, I could never please. It seems pathetic for a man 58 years old to admit to something like that, but if you know me, you know I am pathetic and aren't surprised at all. Being named for him didn't help and if I had a dollar for every time he told me growing up it wasn't his idea to name me after him, I would never have needed to go to work.

What I got from that, within eye blinks of learning Sigrid was pregnant with our son, was to vow we would NOT name that boy after me. Unlike so many other instances in our married life, that promise was something I did follow through on. Actually, the other thing I did was to work very hard to not be the father or husband that he had been.

The jury's still out on the first part, as our children are 28 and 23, adults of their own but I would hope my wife thinks I'm a decent husband, maybe even a good man, who does the best he can with what he has. Ironically, that's a legacy of my father-one that for many years I wasn't willing to grant to him.

Maybe, in the decades since his death, I've come to better appreciate how much work it takes to be a man who's there for his family. You get up everyday and do the best you can for you and yours and some days your road takes you places you hadn't planned on and you look up and realize you've lost your way. The trick, I think, is in knowing that you're lost but more in being able to find your way back. Our children never met or knew their American Opa; nor he, them. That's a regret I'll have until the day I die.

And while I think my kids can talk to me about anything (in Michelle's case, almost anything) even when I hope they won't, there's a hole in my heart my pride won't acknowledge and a hollow sound that no amount of outside applause can cover. There's a grinding of gears in the tears between the generations that I remember from my own youth and knew then, as now, I am powerless to stop once it has started. Arms to shoulder, we'll leave our tracks untraceable now. I think you'd have liked them, Dad-our Pat and Mike, you'd have loved them, I know. Happy Birthday.
-bill kenny


Adam Kenny said...

I wonder the same thing often about Dad vis-a-vis Rob, Suz and (in my case) Margaret since he knew none of them. I have come to realize that all of them he would love just fine. Me? Who knows...

Beautiful piece of writing Bill - just beautiful.

dweeb said...

I wrestle with my feelings about him every day because there's something everyday that I could always use some advice about.
Then I remember he was always only there for other people's kids, never his own.

Charles Lamb, who wrote as Elias, in the Romantic Era of English poetry, had a beautiful piece on Dream Children and I sometimes worry about the Dream Father I invented when I was a child to take the place of the one I had.

I get so tired of coming to the end of the day, and turning to say 'ta da!' to show him that I'm not as dumb or as slow as he always said I was, and he's not there.

In a sense I think I'm angry because I feel cheated. By the time I learned the rules of the game to being a grownup, making us equals, he was dead and a memory.

Pat Kenny said...

I often wondered about "American Opa" as a kid, and even as an adult. Was he the funny, silly Opa or the stern and gruff Opa? Did he seem mean but really had a heart of gold like in all the Hallmark Specials? I have never decided, I of course have the opportunity to make him as I see fit in my own head seeing as how he isn't around to prove me right or wrong. The one thing I do know, and this is a fact that I will battle to the death for, he is responsible for the most incredible person I have ever known. You're an amazing man dad and "American Opa" had damn well best be proud of you or he's an ignorant fool. I love you, Dad.

dweeb said...


The best moment of my life was your mom agreeing to marry me (she may have a different 'best moment' as she is, let us remember left-handed).

You and your sister are the two most incredible things since that moment to have happened and there's not a day that passes when I am not grateful for the path I have traveled that brought all three of you into my life.

Kelly said...

your paternal grandfather was many things.
He was a task master. He expected that his children would outperform their peers.Period
He had a twisted sense of humor. Your dad can tell you more about the bohemian water lilly that ended up in the Browning Library.
Francis Furter, by way of the back yard of 33 Bloomfield Avenue.
He was also known to rubberband and tape store bought vegatables to his Indian Mountain Lakes garden plants to fool Aunt Dot.
He was tough as nails.
He was driven, unlike anyone else I have ever met.
We once drove 2,000 miles so that he could spend 25 minutes with his mom in the hospital, before she died. I waited in the car in scenic Taylorville Illinois while he visited. He walked out of the hospital, got in the car, then drove home. Not one tear.
I did see him cry once. He was in intensive care @ St. Peter's Hospital and the nurses would not let him listen to the Rangers vs Bruins Stanley Cup Final game on the radio.
He was a pretty good hockey player. We used to take care of the ice (hot water to get a good top coat, cold water will just crust up, you goniff)and play after school, senior yr of high school. He was better than the idoits I hung out with.
He was stubborn.
He was not a believer in child psychology. He subscribed to the mindset that there was nothing a good beating wouldn't fix.
Unfortunately, this was okay for the boys but tough on the girls.
You couldn't buy him a present. If you did,(ho hum Uncle Fud, it's a treat to beat your feet while you eat the receipt)well, your dad can explain that silly ditty.
The fact that I am alive today, inspite of all the rotten things that I did as a kid, shows that he had developed some form of patience.
He drank too much. he was an angry drunk, and then he'd fall asleep. There were two occasions when I had to step in between he and your grandmother, both occurring after she winged a bottle of whiskey or vermouth at him. I can only suppose that he drank as he did in order to deal with the pressures and obligations that he subjected himself to, but this is just a theory, as we never discussed this.
He was neither infallible or immortal, but it's taken me several years to come to terms with that.
If he had lived to meet you, he would have loved you, he would have fed you silver dollar pancakes and made you read books. I don't know why but he had this thing about rotating the attic and basement stuff and reading books.
He loved all of his children, he just kept it to himself.
While I miss his presence, I feel his presence every day.
Warts and all, we could have done alot worse in the father category.
Happy bithday Dad, we lost to those Flyers again yesterday, but we may just get to the playoffs this year. We'll watch together