Walking with My Father

Among our many family photographs, there is one of me as a toddler, beginning to take tentative first steps. I am reaching out my hand to my father who is beside me, looking down at me with some concern, ready to grasp mine. I am dressed in a light-blue winter outfit, with the hood pulled up over my head, with a look that is an admixture of worry, ambivalence and not a little curiosity. I cannot walk, and I definitely cannot run, but at least I am standing up—a good first “step.” My father, Harry, is smartly dressed in suit and tie with a pen in the breast pocket.  He is walking me up and down the long narrow hallway with its green-and-yellow diamond pattern. We are near the French doors with the lace curtains adjoining the living room with its beautiful crystal doorknob (an accent that was common in Washington Heights apartments in those days, something my mother, Ellen, always loved). We were, father and son, at the beginning of a lifetime of walking together.

Our lives, when you think about it, doesn’t begin on the day we are born—it starts with the lives of your parents. Their memories become your memories and they become a part of you. My father was just one inch shy of being a six-footer and in manner of being, he was a straight-shooter. There is only one way to describe him, physically: he was a ruggedly handsome man, of the John Wayne type, but with a gentleness in his features that he was always at pains to conceal.  He was an honest, hard-working and religious man.

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Above all, he was a fair man, and that was how he treated people—fairly. Heaven help you if you didn’t act and feel the same way. There was nothing he hated more than unfairness—that was so Irish about him, that. There was an incident in his early life that provided great insight into the character of the man who was my father, the man who hailed from farmland but who eventually grew to love the sidewalks of New York. He often told the story of one of his first jobs after emigrating from Blacklion, County Cavan in the late 1940s. At the time he was a bellhop at the old Commodore Hotel in Manhattan. (He would hold many kinds of jobs in his life; but I found this one to be quite interesting.) One day he was assigned a particularly rough customer. It did not help that the man was Irish—and very well-off (in Dad’s eyes, a lethal combination). The “client” started to throw his weight around and treat Dad pretty roughly, in manner—and in speech. Dad tried mightily to ignore the taunts; he took him and his luggage to the assigned room.

Just as Dad approached the door, Mr. Irish Big Shot continued his barrage of insults until Dad could tolerate it no longer. Dad shoved the door wide open and he then promptly flung the guy’s luggage to the center of the room. For an encore, he was about to do to the guy what he did to the luggage. At this point, Dad didn’t care if it cost him his job—he wasn’t about to take guff (only Dad used a more potent word) from the likes of him or anyone (powerful or not). It didn’t take long for the big brave guy to be cut down to size; he tried to palm a couple of bills into Dad’s hands, only Dad would have none of it. He told him what he could do with his money and resisted the entreaties. For Dad, his honor and independence meant more to him than anything (though in those days, poor Dad could have really used that money). Dad would walk me through that—and many other lessons—as I began my own walk in life.

There are so many things to remember; some were quite funny and yet very poignant. My earliest memories are of Christmas. There was the time when he decided to show me around Washington Heights and meet the Sidewalk Santa. The problem with that was there was one on just about every street corner. Hence the question: “Daddy, why are there so many Santa Clauses? Isn’t there only one? Shouldn’t he be working on toys at the North Pole?” Now, Daddy wasn’t prepared for that one. That question belonged in the category of “Where do babies come from?” Dad quickly collected himself and came up with an answer worthy of a theologian: “Well, it’s like the Trinity, see, there are three persons, yet one God, and you see three Santas, right? There’s only one…” Son’s answer: “Oooh. Can I have a hot dog?” A few Christmases later, he decided to take me Christmas shopping, after looking at the Christmas tree at the Oval at Fordham Hill Apartments in the Bronx (to my young eyes it was just as snazzy as the one in that place called Rockefeller Center). We ended up at the cosmetics counter at some drug store on Fordham Road where he was going to buy Mom a nice bottle of perfume. He was about to pay for his selection when he felt a tug at his sleeve: “But Mommy doesn’t use that!” To save face and quickly get the hell out of the store, he paid for the correct item, wondering how this boy of his could possibly know that. No wonder, then, that for every Christmas after that, Dad liked to be the one to get the presents, not buy them.

If I was partial to Christmas, he absolutely loved St. Patrick’s Day. And in 1969, he brought to my very first parade on Fifth Avenue. We marched under the County Cavan banner, of course. I wanted to be fair to Mom and march under the County Mayo banner (as Mom was from that County), but Dad was a Cavan man, and that was that. It was memorable for me since I got to ride the subway and eat many hot dogs, using up Dad’s dwindling supply of quarters. Fortunately, I don’t remember getting sick, I was so excited. To top it off, I got to be on television (as I’d like to think): Channel 11’s cameras were there, broadcasting the parade, and when I saw Jack McCarthy I gave him an enthusiastic wave and cheer. The weather was brisk and Archbishop Terence Cooke blessed everyone. If the day began with Mass, it ended with the annual viewing of that quintessential Irish movie, “The Quiet Man.” When it first came out in 1952, Dad went to the theater to view the film, only to walk out ten minutes later—he thought it was hokey. But with the passage of years, he watched it religiously (and he thought Barry Fitzgerald the greatest of all Irishmen living, even if he was a Protestant).

There were many memories of Dad on Father’s Day, but he was not here, as he hasn’t been for the last six years. He died on a beautiful April spring afternoon, 18 days after my parents’ 55th wedding anniversary. He had had a stroke some years before and was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The morning before, we had one last laugh together, and I held his arm. He was 84 years old and died a serene and holy death, accompanied by many tears and prayers.

But when I think of Dad now, I think of his shoes. He was of that generation that was always careful of his possessions and treated them with care, whether they were clothing or food. He knew the cost and value of things, and they weren’t things to be taken lightly. He didn’t like waste; he would be upset if leftover potatoes were thrown in the garbage can (the farmer in him recoiled at such a horror). He took great care of his shoes—they were often black ones—and he wore them and walked in them throughout all the jobs of his life. After he died, I held his shoes. They looked so small without him in them.

If St. Paul ran the good race, Dad walked many a good mile (like the man in Robert Frost’s poem). When Dad went to sleep, we commended him to God. It was hard to let him go. But if I could hold his hand once more, and tug at his sleeve, I would gladly walk behind him. And listen to one more story.

Joseph McAuley is an assistant editor at America.

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