I just read an article about how someones dad, when laid off from work in the 70’s, turned himself into a landscaper. Got me to thinking about my dad, the king of bad decisions.
My dad started out, the child of a bootlegger and a drinker — the little brother of a beautiful blond haired beauty, my aunt Nita. Stories of their youth sound a bit horrifying to me — taking care of each other while pop made night runs and mom sat at a speakeasy drinking. Not the stuff Holiday cards are made of. But they survived. She ran off and married a handsome soldier in the mid 40’s — dad and pop drove out west and dragged her home, twice I think, before pop finally relented. Pop never was crazy about Uncle Eddie, and his “polish” family ways, but that is another story. They spent everyday of their life together, raising three children, until Aunt Nita passed. Then Uncle Eddie stayed in their little brick house until he joined his beloved Juanita in Heaven.
Dad dropped out of school shortly after 8th grade ( can you say, bad decision) and joined the navy as soon as he could convince them he was old enough. Served during wwII, lots of pictures remain of him drinking in Puerto Rico, manning his gun on his ship, hanging with friends and sailors…We also have several pictures of his boat, the tops of onion skin paper letters that he wrote my grandmother…only a few words written in his beautiful tight script left on the 2 inch letterhead that he eventually cut off the letters. I have no idea why the letters werent savable, the words I can read speak of beautiful islands, longing for home and assurances that he would be okay.
When he returned he ran ragged for a while ( bad decision) drinking, wrecking cars and raising hell. One particularly bad night resulted in the death of a friend in a car accident that may or may not have been dad’s fault. He spoke of that infrequently, but always with sorrow and regret. There were women — many of them and fights and beer. Somewhere in there he reacquainted himself with the woman that would become his true love, my mom, Betty Ann. They had known each other when she was 10 and he was 16, and if you believe my dads story, one day he and pop were riding through Dover, shortly after he returned from the Navy and she was walking down the street, no more than 14 years old. He said “pop, Im gonna marry that girl some day”. And so he did. A month after she turned 16 — took her to her grandmother who had raised her and said ” Im gonna marry Betty Ann this weekend, ok?” And that was that. ( one of the good decisions!) They didnt have, as my mom would say, a “pot to piss in” for many many years. They moved a lot, ran shoe stores ( bad decision leaving that field, apparently dad was a great salesman and mom and he worked well together) , were caretakers at a lodge ( Big brother pushed bigger brother off the dock one day, ran like hell back to the house to hide), sold freezers….and then dad landed the job of his life: on the line at General Motors.
Their life changed then and dad began a lifetime of bad decisions that led them to a point,when for all intent and purposes they should have been sitting pretty, where he said “Im worth more to your mother dead than alive” as he bemoaned the fact that when he turned 65 the value of his life insurance was cut by 3/4 . Dad knew how to spend money, but not how to save it. His pride and the fact that my mother had become pretty much a “hood ornament” a beautiful woman that he liked to show off and have host parties, kept her from working much and his job at GM , where he eventually made it into supervision
(imagine that, without even a high school diploma) paid well, but not well enough to warrant the lifestyle he loved. I never, never heard that man tell me I couldnt have something. My first car was a 190 sl mercedes. My brothers had matching corvairs in the late 60’s, their own band that dad drove to gigs in Atlantic City. When I couldnt learn to drive the stick shift that the mercedes had, dad bought me a cougar: the mascot of my school, and in school colors. He gambled and drank, spent every penny he earned in that cycle of poverty that people who grew up with no money often do, and when at age 54 he had triple bypass surgery and was retired immediately ( 1979 ) he had no savings. Did that daunt dad? Hell no, he had his retirement, which in the late 70’s was good, he had GM (“Dont worry honey, people will always need cars, GM will always be on top ….bad decision) and he had the belief that since his dad had died at 62, and he had his heart attack at 54, he wasnt going to live long. Hence the term life insurance that in his head would keep mom, along with 1/2 of his retirement pay, in her current lifestyle ( I have lost count of the number of bad decisions there) . Over the next 13 years they lived the life. Bought a travel camper, drove up and down the east coast ( mom was afraid of flying), hit Disney world, Cape Hatteras, kept a place in Cape May for years. Bought cars — on their credit card, no lie, selflessly gave my children gifts and trips and experiences that shaped their lives, but still no saving, no thinking about the future. When my grandmothers died, there wasnt enough money to buy tombstones. In 1992, dad sold their house, he couldnt keep up with it anymore and they needed cash. They had close to 100000 in equity line on a house they had paid 13000 for in 1962 — and bought a modular home. From this modular home they lived like they were at the beach, they loved that place. Until the first tornado watch was issued. They were scared. I talked them into coming here for the weekend, tried to get them to come here permanently. Dad went through the depression that follows a second heart surgery, the loss of his insurance, General Motors cutting benefits. He suffered from the lack of a formal education, and the man who would do anything for anyone, the man who could fix anything and whose hands could hold the weight of the world, became confused and scared. He bought ridiculous things from telemarketers. He bought hundreds, HUNDREDS of those state coins and stashed them, later to use them for common purchases. He gave my son his little s10 truck because he liked it, and bought yet another car.
The bad choices of his youth and mid years caught up with him. Dad lasted 82 years. It was a hell of a ride. He had alot of fun, in the end his financial decisions about his retirement check have allowed mom to live a good life. He taught us all lessons about love and giving and enjoying the day. He was, and continues to be my favorite person in the world. I miss him more than I can say, and when the strokes and dementia stole him from me I hung on to him, pulling out moments of lucid conversation and joy. My husband would roll him down the halls of the nursing home, telling tales, listening to dads stories, searching for the “little people that had rolled” him across the lawn the night before. I convinced my mom to let me bring him here about a month before he passed. It only lasted a week, she couldnt handle the fear being alone with him brought her when I was at work, but one moment in that week will always be etched in my mind as the essence of dad and my’s relationship. He was asleep in the living room, where we had set up a temporary hospital: complete with special bed, medicines, equipment and 24 hour nursing. I was spread out on the couch, in case he woke up. In the quiet, he lifted his head and looked at me. I said “Knitting”, he nodded and said “Napping”. And that was it. lay his head down and went back to sleep. That was all it ever took. A word or two. Dad and I knew that we were there for each other, always. Bad decisions, mistakes and regrets aside, he was the best, and while he never made it big, he always made me, and the others around him, feel they had it all.