Sons are often defined by their fathers and necessarily reflect on the man who gave them life: Here he came up short; here he came up full. For me, there was much more gained than lost by his fatherhood.
For 50 years my father worked in his tiny flower shop in a section of Philadelphia called Paradise, 10, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, unless, of course, it was a holiday—Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day. Then he would work around the clock. He had to; he had six kids to feed.
He was slightly more than 5 foot 8, muscular and sinewy, and, boy, could he play football—he was a halfback. As I was growing up, his friends would tell me, “Your father was not only the best but the toughest football player I ever saw.” They were referring, of course, to the times he played with a broken nose or several teeth dangling from their roots. Villanova University recruited him, but his father died when he was in high school, and he went to work digging graves in a cemetery to help support his mother and five siblings.
The last time I saw him play football I was 8 years old. He was 34 and still playing in a club football league in Philly. It was his last game; he was retiring from the sport. Late in the fourth quarter, with his East Falls team trailing the Frankford Club, 14-13, he took a pitch out and cut, as if on ice skates, to his left, just out of reach of a flailing tackler, and raced down the sideline, feet ablaze, all the way to the end zone—a 62-yard game-winning touchdown run. When the gun sounded, his teammates hoisted my dad on their backs and carried him to the locker room. On the way, he tossed me his helmet, and I caught it. “It’s yours,” he said. I wore it in every football game I played.
In later years, whenever I mentioned to him that someone had told me what a terrific football player he was, my father would simply, and succinctly, reply, “I was okay.” That statement distills the essence of my father: He was humble.
And much more to me.
It seems to me these days that many sons are born blank and limitlessly malleable, seeking new identities apart from their fathers. I never wanted to disconnect from my Pop, particularly from his values—honesty, hard work, perseverance, an undying faith in and love for his family and church. Every Sunday I would see him walk to Communion with my mom in our parish church, Corpus Christi. At Christmastime he would donate red poinsettias to decorate the altar; at Eastertime he would do the same with huge gold vases of white chrysanthemums. I know. I would tote them across the street to the church and decorate the altar with them. Those values called to me like a famous proverb: “Blood calls to blood.”
Now my father was not a saint. He could be demanding—it was his way or the highway many times. He was the quintessential patriarch who changed tires instead of diapers, who did the handywork instead of the laundrywork, who put a cap on his emotions instead of letting them gush out. The only time I saw him cry was when Mom died. He was the old-time father who paid the bills, put food on the table and provided a Catholic education for his children. Today nearly 50 percent of children have no such father around to do these things.
I confess: There were times I wandered here and there from his ways. Disagreements are not unusual between fathers and sons. Once he kicked me out of the house because my hair was too long—he thought I was a hippie and he didn’t care much for hippies. Another time he wanted me to wear a suit and tie to a family function; I wanted to wear jeans and sneakers. I didn’t go. And some Sundays when I wanted to sleep in instead of going to Mass, he roused me and said, “As long as you live in this house, you will go to Mass.” I went.
Wanderers need an anchor.
Once when I was full of myself after scoring 29 points in a high school basketball game (he never missed any of my games) to put the team into the playoffs, I blurted, “I was the star.” He stared me square in the eyes and firmly told me, “That’s not for you to say.”
He was right.
He was usually right, particularly the time he hit a bull’s-eye on the biggest and best decision of my life. As we were working side-by-side in his shop one Valentine’s Day, he turned to me and said, “She’s the only one for you,” referring to a girl I was dating. “Give her these.” He handed me a dozen American Beauty roses. I gave them to her. Not long after that I married her.
And she carried a bouquet of American Beauties down the aisle on our wedding day. Arranged by my Pop.
So, yes, I have been greatly enriched in so many ways by being the son of a florist. Even now, 20 years after he’s gone.
Each day I walk along the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philly’s famous Fairmount Park I think of him. He had rowed along this river in the autumn and spring when he was in his 20s, and he always drilled into me that those seasons along the riverbank were about sensory experiences. In fall, there was a bite to the air, a rip to the river, a sun dropping down like a gold coin, the changing colors of the leaves—yellows, golds, reds and rusts that formed on the boughs of the trees, like bouquets we once made side-by-side in his tiny shop. In spring, the cherry blossom trees blushing, the geese frolicking along the banks, the warm sun flashing off the water like diamonds, the balmy air replacing the cold, spare winter.
My father’s gone now, to another paradise, but there is a photograph of him I keep in my office. He’s 21, on the beach in Wildwood at the Jersey Shore in a bathing suit, with a crop of wavy black hair, thick as cable wires, looking full of life in a Kennedyesque way. I often stare at it and become even more certain of this: My father, though not perfect, as none of us are, knew exactly who he was.
I may not have turned out exactly like him; but, for sure, there is much of his soul in me.