Seventeen Years Today Since I Lost My Dad

My mother died a few weeks before my third birthday. When my dad passed away from smoking-related cancer, I was a few weeks shy of my 23rd birthday.

Twenty years provides a significant perspective.

For starters, I barely remember my mother: I have a sum total of two memories of her, in fact. My dad, on the other hand, while he didn’t raise me, occupies a much broader space in my memory. A couple of months ago, I wrote about my dad giving me away. The story was met with an overwhelming amount of support for which I was grateful. It was a story about what it was like for me, a child at the time, which led me to think about the fact that all of us parents were at one time children. Our own children obviously didn’t know us then, but the truth remains that a lifetime existed before we became mom and dad in the story.

I distinctly remember thinking how long ago and far away the childhoods of my parents were from my own. The stories they told were imagined in black and white in my mind to further support the nostalgia of it all. There were world wars and poodle skirts and scary nuns all rolled up into some ancient tale of yore. It might as well have been a hundred years instead of thirty. When I look at my children and realize this is how the 1980s must seem to them, it is impossible to comprehend, considering it feels like last year to me some days. Which is how my parents must have felt about an Eisenhower presidency. Strange.

Today marks seventeen years since my dad died, and instead of remembering his as my dad, I wanted to share a little from that first of his lifetimes – before marriage and children and all that I knew of him firsthand.

Aloysius Joseph Morson was born in 1938 to Mary Agnes in her home. She was 38 years old, considered well past childbearing norms for the day. Although he was her third son, she had previously been unable to pass on my Pop-Pop’s name, as he wouldn’t allow it. But Pop-Pop was a trucker and not present when my dad was born, so Grandmom finally got her wish.

Baby Brownie
Baby Brownie

My dad had a couple of nicknames when he was little, the cutest of which was Brownie, for his super dark brown eyes. This one stuck with him into adulthood, then shortened to Brown. He was Uncle Brown to his many nieces and nephews.

no smiles for school

As a little boy, my dad got himself into a bit of trouble both at home and at school. You can even see the impishness in his eyes in all of the photos. I have no doubt his charm saved him from half of the punishment, which is typical of youngest children as well. My dad was very smart, but school wasn’t for him. I’m certain the nuns and priests who taught him had their work cut out for them, including then-Father, later Cardinal O’Connor, who drove my dad to school. They were all probably relieved to not be parents after having such a student in their classes.

my dad with his dog, Mike

As a child, my dad loved animals. He had a pet chicken called Cluck-Cluck that lived in the backyard. At least he thought he had a pet chicken. Cluck-Cluck was destined for the dinner table, a fact that led my dad to steer clear from poultry from that meal on. There were always dogs and cats for pets, however, and they seemed to gravitate towards my dad.

My dad and his brother, the father who raised me, were best of friends. they were only a year and a half apart, and a full decade behind the next sibling up, so their adventures were often combined. Unlike my dad, however, his brother was much more responsible. I like to imagine they balanced each other out: one keeping the other out of far greater danger, the other helping to keep things fun and interesting. Double-date stories are some of my most favorite of the pair. My dad enjoyed telling on his sainted brother, including one particularly ridiculous moment when they showed up for a blind date with a pair of nurses. As the legend went, the father who raised me took one look at his intended date who was less than attractive, and had jumped a fence and run off before my dad knew what had happened. My dad laughed until he cried while recreating the cries of, “I’ve got to gooooo” as his brother escaped off into the distance.

My dad was a thoughtful dreamer, for sure, and he wrote my mother little cheesy love poems. They were as heartfelt as they were terrible. I have to admit, it took a lot of guts, considering the talented writer my mother was. He definitely lived to make her happy. And as cheesy as it sounds for me to say, I hope the two of them are together again, living out the life they never had time for before she died, leaving him heartbroken after four short years.

I miss my dad everyday. I wish he could have met my babies and been their Grandpa. But today I remember all the silly stories of his boyhood. And when I look at my son, who carries my dad’s name in his own, I will practice an extra dose of patience for the little charmer with the twinkle in his eye.

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The Graminator Strikes Again

My grandmother was ninety years old when she came to live with us. She stayed with us until her death at the young age of 101. Those eleven years are a treasure trove of stories ranging from the challenging to the ridiculous, and sometimes the cringe-worthy. Of course, perspective is everything here, and what may have started off to be a particularly dark moment is now the stuff of family legend.

Take for example my cousin’s wedding.

As luck would have it, I missed this particular event because I was at Girl Scout camp, but the basic premise was fairly routine: getting a large family which included a ninety year-old grandmother out the door on time for an event two hours away. It just didn’t happen.

So my family barreled up I-95 in the big brown van, running woefully behind, and strategizing how to quietly sneak into a wedding in progress. At least it was summer, so no overcoats would be involved.

As fate would have it, they arrived during the bridal procession. My mom corralled everyone in the parking lot to wait out all of the pomp and circumstance, planning to shimmy up the side aisle as soon as all the attention was refocused on the front of the church. It was a solid plan, and one I have also had occasion to implement.

It was at that moment that she realized Grandmom had made a break for it.

My grandmother was a smaller woman, not much over five feet, and she had a strutty way of propelling herself forward which involved a Kramer-esque head jiggle. She always nestled her one arm under her bosom and swung the other one a bit, leaning back as she went, seemingly fueled by her matriarchal pride.

And she was at that moment strutting herself toward the center aisle of the church, a few paces behind the bride.

My parents tried the loud church whisper, and whether it was grandmom’s failing hearing or a dedication decision to ignore them, on she went, right behind the clueless yet beautiful bride of my cousin, smiling and nodding at everyone she passed, certain they were all pleased as punch to see her.

Thankfully, my cousin’s wife is a gracious woman, and while this might have infuriated a good number of brides, she took it all in stride. Maybe Grandmom didn’t hear my mom, maybe she just relished the attention, maybe she was reliving her own wedding, no one knows. But at least everyone was able to have a good laugh.

Grandmom at nineteen.
Grandmom at nineteen, pre-wedding crasher days.

My Grandpop, Solomon Decker

Today would have been my maternal grandfather’s 112nd birthday.

the little boy in the middle is my Grandpop.
the little boy in the middle is my Grandpop – so cute.

He was living proof that the greatest of people need not be physically impressive. At just over five feet tall and just under a hundred pounds, my grandfather made people nervous with how fragile he appeared. His stick thin arms looked like you might be able to break them just by brushing against him. But he would carry me whenever I asked him to do so, usually on escalators which terrified me for some reason.

My grandfather emigrated to America from Russia in 1922 at the age of 19. He came here with his youngest sister after his own grandmother had passed away. His mother and other siblings came to America before him, but they didn’t have enough money for everyone, and so Grandpop stayed behind with Miriam and the grandmother.

My grandfather's naturalization..
His naturalization petition.

Not that long after he arrived in America, Grandpop met and married Ida, my grandmother. They lived together with her three sisters and their spouses as well as her parents for many years until they were able to strike out on their own, at which point they lived in the misleadingly-named Strawberry Mansions neighborhood of Philadelphia, still known to be one of the most dangerous and economically-disadvantaged locations in the city. He made a living as a presser for a garment manufacturer. I can’t even comprehend how he had the muscles to operate the machinery, but he did that for nearly forty years, providing for his family and even managing to stash away some savings.

The story is a bit fuzzy, but at some point before my grandfather made his escape, the Bolsheviks were systematically destroying all of the Jewish villages, known as Schetls, and as they were going around shooting people, my grandfather hid underneath his grandmother’s bed to evade capture or worse. When they saw how old and sickly his grandmother was, one of the soldiers said to his cohort, “Don’t waste your bullets.”

Someone also told me the story of how my grandfather carried the body of his father in a wheelbarrow to the potter’s field for burial as they could not afford a proper burial. Prior to the revolution, they had some wealth, but that was all taken from them.

Grandpop never told me these stories himself. I was fascinated with the portrait that hung in his home, transfixed by the beauty of the clothing and the richness that emanated from it, but could only ever get him to share the names of those pictured, and sometimes a quick detail about their occupation. He would wave a tiny hand at me dismissively and say, “These were not happy times, no, let us not talk about them. Now are the happy times. We will stay in the happy times.”

I’d like to say that was possible, but having already suffered from the trauma of his youth and then later losing his only daughter suddenly, my grandfather could not help but succumb to his depression.

But on this day, the occasion of his birthday, I will remember the spry fellow who wrestled his dog, Shadow. Who got tipsy from half of a beer. The man who loved to play checkers with any worthy adversary, and who loved his family. The man who helped raise me.

I will stay in the happy times.

My Jewish Easter Bunny

As a child, before I landed in the home in which I was raised, I spent about two years going back and forth between my Irish Catholic grandmother, my father’s mother, and my Russian Jewish grandfather, my mother’s father. If that sounds confusing to you, try being a preschooler.

My grandfather was a wee wisp of a thing, standing tall at about five-foot one, and weighing in at maybe ninety-five pounds. Although he’d never been formally educated past the third grade, Grandpop was brilliant – he had grown up during the Communist Revolution and while his family and community spoke Yiddish, taught himself Russian so he could eavesdrop on the soldiers. I imagine being able to move his tiny self about unnoticed helped in this as well. After emigrating to the states, he then taught himself English.

While I lived with my grandfather in Center City Philadelphia, I attended Hebrew Nursery School. I was presumably the only baptized kid in my class. While he worked very hard to strictly speak English, there were words from his first language that peppered his speech, and I adopted them into my own cobbled-together vernacular.

I can remember walking my grandfather’s giant sheepdog, Shadow, in the middle of what must have been the blizzard of 1979. The snowbanks were taller than I was, and nearly as tall as he was. Thank goodness Shadow was a black sheepdog, otherwise we might have all been lost for good. When we got back into the house, he heated up milk on the stove and poured in Hershey’s syrup from a can, and we sat at the corner diner-style table in his tiny kitchen on the green vinyl booth and drank it together. I still think of him anytime I smell that stuff.

Hanging out in the kitchen nook.
Hanging out in the kitchen nook.

Being downright Lilliputian has a number of advantages, particularly when one lives in a tiny row house. Had we been a bigger people, conditions would have been cramped. The only creature that might have felt the walls closing in on him was Shadow, but fortunately he enjoyed lazying about and being very close to his people.

I’m not sure why it happened this way as I usually spent the religious holidays specific to each side of the family with that side of the family, but for whatever reason, I ended up with my Jewish grandfather one Easter. There wasn’t a yard to speak of at our house, and aside from that, it was raining. I insisted on an egg hunt in spite of the obstacles.

I can remember dyeing the eggs together, something I am certain he’d never done previously. I explained, in the best way a four year-old might, that you put the colored eggs in the refrigerator so the Easter Bunny can hide them while you sleep. I recall agreeing to the terms of indoor hiding in light of the weather conditions.

The next morning, I came downstairs to a lovely basket full of chocolates and candy. The drizzle continued outside, but I was determined to start my hunt for the eggs. As I mentioned, the house was downright tiny and there couldn’t have been that many hiding spots, but as I surveyed the room I couldn’t find a single pastel egg interrupting the grey hue of the cloudy day. No egg in the piano bench, no egg in the china cabinet, no egg nestled on the candlesticks.

No egg to be found.

Grandpop was so proud of himself for hiding the eggs so well, but sensing my mounting frustrations, he began to give hints and direct me. “You’re getting warmer, getting warmer,” as I maneuvered toward the sofa. “Getting hot! Hot!” as I realized the gap between the sofa and the wall had grown significantly overnight.

I scrunched down, clutching my empty basket, ready to snatch up the first-discovered egg. Which is when I spotted the mint green tupperware bowl, draped with an open newspaper page which covered the entire lot of Easter eggs.

Apparently I had neglected to mention to my newly-appointed Jewish Easter Bunny that hiding eggs meant hiding them individually, not collectively.

Really, we should all just be glad he thought to hardboil them!

Running an Octogenarian Sweat Shop Takes Work

When I was just finishing middle school, my paternal grandmother came to live with us. She’d fallen into a bit of a funk after her birthday that year, and it was best that she no longer live on her own.

She was ninety.

A few years later, after some similar events, my mother’s father also came to live with us. He was a bit younger, still in his eighties, but while my grandmother had a memory like a steel trap, Granddad had a great deal of dementia. He mostly had no idea who any of us were except my parents. Incidentally, while Granddad had always been a difficult man, he was quite a pleasant one in those later years.

Being of sound mind wasn’t required for helping out around the house, though. And while Grandmom was into more domestic pursuits, Granddad preferred being outdoors. As his dementia progressed, he could no longer be trusted to make it home after a walk around the block by himself, so we usually tried keeping him relegated to the back yard where it was fenced and he could be seen. But on one occasion, he popped on his fedora and escaped out front to rake leaves, unnoticed.

After some time, someone took note of Granddad’s absence and the search process began. Unlike some other occasions, this was a short search, ending as Granddad was discovered prostrate on the front lawn. Thankfully, he was conscious, but seemed to be in some pain. So my mom loaded him into the van and Grandmom as well, and sped off to Urgent Care.

It’s tricky when you care for elderly folks, because there are sadly a number of people who aren’t kind in this world, and some of them take it out on old people in their care. When you bring an older person in for medical attention, it’s not unlike bringing in a toddler who has been hurt. So when my mother showed up with not one, but two very old people, saying they both lived with us, and one had a broken arm, there were some speculations. The doctor had some questions, and he intended to get answers.

“Sir, what were you doing when you got hurt?”

“I was raking leaves.”

“Why?”

Granddad pointed fearfully at my mother and cried out, “She makes me!”

The doctor turned toward my mother, the disgust painted on his face. And my mother, ever in possession of a snappy retort, gestured toward my Grandmom who sat there, bright-eyed and declared,

“That’s nothing! I make that one do the laundry!”

No further investigation was ordered.

Granddad Jack with his broken wing.
Granddad Jack with his broken wing.