The Old Man used to work a lot. I suppose this was his way of controlling the uncontrollable. My Mother used to say, “He works hard so he doesn’t feel old or helpless.” She said, “And the older he gets, or the more helpless he feels; the bigger his projects are.”
My Old Man was always awake before the sunrise. He left for work before I was out of bed in the morning, and he came home after the sun set. I can still recall the scent of hand-cleaner he used at his shop. And though he washed his hands several times before leaving, the filth from machinery was embedded in his fingerprints.
He came home to reheated food because dinnertime had already come and gone. He would eat quickly and somewhat silently as my Mother sat nearby or moved throughout the kitchen, sharing with him the pieces of her day and creating the sound effects of stacking plates, washing dishes or the tin-like sound of silverware being clenched together. The Old Man would finish his meal down to the last piece of food with a slight bead of perspiration above his top lip. My Mother explained, “That’s how you can tell if your father is enjoying his meal.” She said, “He has sweat above his top lip.”
After his meal, The Old Man moved into the den to watch television. He sat at the same end of the couch, in his usual work clothes, which were jeans and a flannel buttoned down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. He grabbed the remote control, clicked the various buttons to find a program worth watching and then The Old Man settled in. His brow pushed downward with a look of intensity. Perhaps, he thought too much about his day at work or the bills at hand.
His salt and pepper hair parted to the side, and his skin was the shade of light almond. His hands were rough, as if they carried the weight of the world, and since the day of their wedding, The Old Man never took off his wedding ring.
He was tough. He was brought up in a different time with a different mindset. The Old Man was not always accepting or understanding. I say he was tough, but he was equally loving. He was troubled by the things that trouble those that head their own household. He had his list of complaints and I made that list several times. But when a father works as my Father did, it leaves little time for him to be a dad. I regretfully admit we rarely bonded or spent time with each other without some form of tension in the air. I was usually in trouble and The Old Man grew frustrated trying to reach me. On the other side of this; I grew frustrated trying to express myself, which, I assume would explain my explosive behavior.
This does not mean we never had our moments together. We had our own traditions, and currently, I still honor one of the most important traditions. It started when I was a small boy. The Old Man bundled me up to protect me from the cold. He stuffed me inside my over sized, blue, down jacket; he covered me with a knitted hat, crocheted by my Grandmother, pulled mittens over my little hands, tied my shoes and then we went to the beach to walk along the shore. This was our New Year’s tradition.
We went early and headed to the beach at Point Lookout. The Old Man would park his truck in the front row of spots in an otherwise empty parking lot. The wind would howl and the sea gulls flew overhead, screaming their screams while echoing in the tumbling surf. I could hear the sound of waves crushing into the sand. Then I heard the slight hiss as the waters retreated back into the ocean before the sound of crumbling waves repeated itself. To this day, I do not think there is a more beautiful sound.
We headed west down the beach. The cold winter wind blew into our faces. I was covered in several shirts and tucked in thermal long-johns beneath my pants to keep warm. Meanwhile, The Old Man never wore jackets. He never wore anything other than his usual flannel shirt, jeans and work boots.
“The cold never bothers me,” he’d say.
“My feet get cold. And my hands too…..but other than that, the cold really doesn’t bother me.” He contributed this lack of feeling to temperature to the years he spent sweating away inside boiler rooms and repairing heating equipment.
We walked together as father and son. We counted the dead seabirds that washed upon the shore. We collected seashells and noticed the remnants of summer life still imprinted in the sands of a hibernating beach. This vacant shore was our moment together. We would walk for what seemed like miles to my small legs. But that was fine with me.
During my youngest memory, I would follow along and step in my Father’s footprints. I did this because I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be exactly like him. Even as I grew older, I still made sure to step in at least one of his footprints. And as I grew older and the trouble in my life began to mount, The Old Man and I used this day as a day of truce between us. Even then, I made sure to step in one of the footprints he left in the sand.
However, there was more between us than our New Year’s walk. But the ocean was our biggest connection.
We fished in the summer months. Though not often enough, we fished near the shore at Wantagh Park and took our chances with rod, reels, floats and bait. We fished for snappers and after my usual list of questions that come from young boys delivered to their fathers, I allowed the quiet surrounding of the waterfront to overtake the moment.
We waded into the waters, casting our lines as far as we could. I watched the red and white float as it bobbed along in the rippling water, and when it sunk, I reeled as fast I could to bring another fish into our bucket. As the day gained momentum, the sun grew hot and the bronze in my Father’s skin glistened. His hair, becoming grayer, flew in the August wind. His eyebrows folded downward as if he thought too deeply, and like me, he enjoyed the feeling of man and son together.
He was a hard man. He worked hard and he always ate everything on his plate. He drank beer, though never excessively, and on days when it was too cold, The Old Man enjoyed blackberry brandy. I thought this was what men do. Real men work hard. They eat everything on their plate; they sit at the head of their table. They drink beer, and when it was cold outside, they drink blackberry brandy to say warm.
The Old Man passed when I was 17.
He never saw what happened after I turned my life around.
Now at the age of 41, I wake before the sunrise. I work long hours and I come home at nightfall. On some nights, I work through and sleep on a couch in the engineer’s locker room at my job site. I spend hours working on heating equipment. I often come home smelling from the hand-cleaner I use several times to wash my hands. But the filth from different machinery embeds itself into my fingerprints.
I sit at the head of my table eating reheated food, or take-out. My wife sits nearby, or she moves throughout the kitchen creating the sounds of stacked dishes and silverware being clenched and shoved into their spot in our dishwasher.
I eat quickly and somewhat quietly.
I finish everything on my plate….and then I make my way over to the couch and sit in the same spot each night.
I suppose my brow folds downward and the expression on my face is intense.
I suppose, I need to unwind and forget my day at work or the pile of bills that continue to stack beside my computer.
I suppose I often seem frustrated with the general concerns that come with being a homeowner. And in order to keep up with the pace of life, I work as many hours as I can.
I seldom, if ever, wear jackets. The cold does not bother me. But my hands get cold and so do my feet.
I stay away from blackberry brandy and I said farewell to beer a long time ago, but I do enjoy a good cup of coffee.
As a writer, one of my proudest moments was meeting a reader while I was out with my daughter. The reader smiled and said, “This must be Punky,” because Punky is the nickname I use for my daughter in prose. She is my most precious creation. However when a father works as much as I do…..it leaves little time to be a dad.
I suppose all of those times I stepped in my Old Man’s footprints paid off…
This morning is Father’s Day.
I wish he was here. I wish he could see what I have become.
I wish I could walk the beach with him, or stand in the shallow waters at Wantagh Park and fish for snappers.
You would have liked my Old Man. He would have liked you.
He would have told you stories and made you laugh.
If by some chance you see him somewhere, please tell him I miss him.
Let him know I’m doing well and I finally understand all of those lessons he tried to teach me.
Tell him it’s been a while since the snappers ran like they used to, but it would be nice if we could get together and fish like man and son.
If you see him, tell him to come by….
I have some very special people I would like him to meet.