The Father’s Day one, where dad is cussing
I’d like to wish Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, stepdads, moms who double as dads, and dads-to-be out there. You have a tough job. I know this because I was a kid once, and though although not wholly reprobate, my four siblings and I probably didn’t make it easy on our dad.
Dad passed away on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, which was not insignificant for him. Although he was too young to enlist during WWII, he joined the United States Air Force soon after high school, when the conflict had wound down, and Korea was heating up. Dad had multiple friends who lost family to that war. He said that when he was in high school, men in military uniforms would come to school with parents so that they could inform a fellow student about the loss of a brother, uncle, or father.
Dad loved watching the History Channel and particularly liked watching documentaries about WWII. As he would say, “I like to watch Hitler get his ass kicked as often as I can. Never gets old.”
My mother and father met while my dad was stationed at what is now Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. My mom graduated one year early from high school. They married in November when she was 17, and he was 21, and they had me 12 years later. I am the oldest of the tribe. It was [mostly] great to grow up in that noisy house in the DC suburbs.
Dad graduated from university: the first in his family to do so. He was the child of an Italian immigrant father, and his father couldn’t understand why dad would want to spend so much time pursuing a business degree from Syracuse. Our grandfather (“Pap”) would say, “If you send a jackass to college, you get a college-educated jackass.” I don’t think that he meant that to be directed at my dad specifically, but Pap worked his butt off on the Pennsylvania Railroad and had 13 kids to support. He didn’t have time for that kind of erudite nonsense.
When stationed at the Pentagon for the second time, my dad said that a stern higher-ranking officer came into the office where he was working, and declared, “I need people who want to learn computer programming.” Tired of “totaling rows and columns,” dad quickly stuffed his slide rule into his briefcase and followed the officer. He was going to be a FORTRAN programmer!
After 23 years in the USAF, dad retired with the rank of Major. Many of his friends went on to retire as Colonels and Generals, but my father had young children to support. He started a second career in the private sector. After a few years as the Director of Data Processing in the payroll section of the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public School system, he took a job closer to home as the Director of Data Processing for Kiplinger Washington Editors.
He and two of his associates at Kiplinger – or “Kip’s,” as they called it, literally started a software company in our basement, in late 1977. They eventually moved to an office, and, when I left Softworks, Inc., there were over 100 employees worldwide, and growing. Softworks had an impressive client list to boot. Dad worked late in the evening, many weekends, and most holidays to get the concern going. He missed concerts, ball games, first communions, and other events. In later years, he often told us how he regretted missing that vast chunk of our childhood years.
My father was the person who steered me toward my career in technical writing. I was floundering around in college, changing majors, trying to figure things out. I liked programming, but I didn’t love programming. But, I wanted to do something so that I could work for my dad’s company when I graduated. I configured my school schedule so I could work two days each week at the office. Dad took me to lunch one day while I was late in my second year. Whereas I was ready to give up on my college career, at least temporarily, my father would have none of it. I had threatened to quit school and go into the Air Force to figure out things. I liked writing, but I realized that I didn’t want to be a newspaper reporter. Over burgers at Joe’s El Rancho, my father told me, “There are these people – technical writers – and they are unique in computer companies.” He proceeded to tell me how the tech writers fill the gap between the engineers and the people who use the software.
“You should see how you can get that done. You can write: that’s the hard part.” I didn’t realize then how much he believed in me.
He encouraged me to do bits of documentation and customer letters and marketing pieces at his company. Before I knew it, I had a portfolio of sorts. When I transferred to the University of Maryland, I sought out the chair of the Independent Studies Program and met with her. We sketched out my “Bachelor of Science in Technical Communication through the University at College Park,” and this is what would lay the foundation for the major in Technical Communication Program at the UMCP. When I graduated, I was still working for my dad’s company. I didn’t go to my graduation ceremony because I would not become salaried until the following month, and I wanted to make some money that day. My dad and mom organized a surprise graduation party for me at work, and it was the best thing ever.
The day I got married, my dad and I waited for the limousine to come to pick us up for church so that he could walk me down the aisle. We had not been alone in years. And, I had certainly never seen my father get choked up. But, as we sat there enjoying some mutual awkward silence, he turned to me and said, “I missed so many of your growing up years. And now, you’re getting married. I remember changing diapers, all you kids…” Then his voice trailed off. He became quiet again and stared ahead. He stopped short of apologizing verbally, but that was his way of showing me that he was regretful about not being able to rewind and take back those years.
I wasn’t looking for an apology: my father was a great provider. He put five kids through college, and not one of us had to take out a student loan. Unlike many of my friends, I started my adult years debt-free. He taught me how to pitch a softball and how to play racquetball. He paid for my violin and voice lessons. He taught me how to swing a golf club. He and I coached a kids’ soccer team together when I was in my first year of college. When he realized his dream of buying a Porche, he let me take it for a spin. He did what he could to spread himself around while keeping a roof over our heads.
When my mom passed away, my youngest brother was only 17 and still at home, starting his senior year of high school. Dad and Mike were living as bachelors and trying to figure things out. Dad had never really done the grocery shopping, cooking, let alone cared for a kid by himself. All this was in addition to running his software company. It’s only an observation, but I believe that mom’s passing, and dad’s shepherding my brother through his last year of high school, changed his outlook on things. Work didn’t seem as important. Certainly, workaholism didn’t seem necessary.
Dad was understandably sullen and introspective the year following mom’s passing. He walked around like a sighing zombie. After what they would, in the old days, have called a “respectable period of mourning,” some friends introduced him to the woman who would become his second wife. Lee made him happy: they traveled, socialized, and dad seemed to awaken from his widower’s hibernation. He moved to Florida to be closer to Lee, and they married eight years later. They had been together for so long – engaged for several years, even – but I believe that his first heart attack made my dad realize that we are rarely given a second chance at life. He was ready to be a husband again, after several years of dithering.
I stayed in my dad’s hospital room with him the night before he died. My stepmother and her sister wisely suggested I do so. They knew that he was not long to be with us, and didn’t want him to be alone on his last night. I was in denial about the severity of his situation and the probability of his passing away immanently.
Being Italian, dad loved to sing, especially after some chianti or a couple of martinis. And, despite his being Italian, one of his favorite songs was Danny Boy. He asked me to sing that with him at about 11:00 p.m. that evening. I sang while he sort of conducted with his eyes closed, moving his lips to sing, but with no sound coming out. I now know what a blessing it was to be there. He passed away the next morning.
My father died as a result of trying to beat back an avalanche of snowballing health issues. Those existing health issues were exacerbated by a fall that broke his pelvis. The broken pelvis required him to stay at an in-patient facility. I am not a doctor, so mine is not an official medical assessment. However, my observation – and I was there with him during a phase of his steep decline – was that they over-medicated him with opioids. He appeared stoned when we visited him; I hate to say. When his cardiologist complained to the facility about the amount of oxycodone he was receiving, they made him go mostly cold turkey, instead of weaning him off of the medication. He as 84, and, with his other problems, was already health-compromised. He had a stroke as he withdrew the opioids from his system, and about 24 hours later, his tired old heart stopped in response to the shock his body endured.
I wish I had written most of these words while my dad was still alive to read them. It’s too late for me to tell him that, despite his short fuse, some personal digressions, exceptionally corny dad jokes, and despite missing several of our childhood years, he was an excellent father. I ask you that If you are lucky enough to have your dad still, take a bit of time and tell him what he means to you this Father’s Day. Will you regret it if you don’t? Probably: I know that I do.
You may feel like you know John reasonably well because of what I have already told you. However, here are six more things that I think you might need to know about him.
Number 1: “Your dad was a pioneer.”
After I decided leave dad’s company “to break out on my own,” I joined a software startup located in the DC suburbs of Maryland. I was helping out at the Group 1 Software User’s Conference registration desk, and I saw a smartly dressed woman who approached me to retrieve her nametag. When she said her name, it was a name I had heard a thousand times. I asked, “Are you the same Paula C., who worked with John D. at Kiplinger?”
“I am. Do you know John?” she asked.
“I’m his daughter, Maura.” She reached over and grabbed my arms from across the registration table.
“Can you talk?” I walked out from behind the table, and we talked for about one hour.
She told me that dad “bragged about his kids all the time. He was so proud of all of you.” She knew about our pursuits and knew that our mother had passed away a few years earlier. I had never known that he felt any sense of pride about us or what we did. Why did it take a stranger to tell me this?
She had to go to her breakout session, and we agreed to meet for coffee during the break. “I have to tell you something else,” she said.
When we joined up at the break, Paula started by saying, “Your dad was a pioneer, you know.” It wasn’t a question. It was a strong statement. She proceeded to tell me that not only was my father a pioneer in computer software (really? My dad?) but a champion of women in tech. She told me that in the 1970s, when she had her first child, women didn’t typically come back to their jobs after having children. Paula had decided that she would stay at home. After a few months at home, however, she missed her job. Paula and her husband decided that they could make it work, and they agreed that Paula should resume her career. She approached my dad about coming back. Dad had already hired a replacement, and the company frowned upon her returning to work she had left them in a jam. Over some unknown length of time, dad fought for her. He reminded his management of her valuable contributions to the team. They ended up hiring Paula back after much intercession on his part.
“I will never forget how hard he fought for me,” she said. My father never said a thing about this, and he told all kinds of stories from work. I’m so glad that I met Paula and that I had the opportunity to hear this story right from her.
Number 2: The dogleg left
My dad enjoyed golf in his retirement years. He played starting in the Air Force and picked it up again when he started his company. In fact, Softworks sponsored a yearly golf tournament to benefit Lupus research.
Dad played regularly on Wednesdays. He was fretting about his slice, so he sought out help from some of the golf pros at the Andrews AFB golf course. As far as he was concerned, he was going to conquer one particular dogleg left that was vexing him.
Flash forward [I don’t know how many] months later, and he and his foursome approached the hole-y grail of holes. They all knew that it was my dad’s arch-nemesis, but they chided him about it. They would let him tee-off last so that his cussing would not rattle them. And so that they could poke fun some more.
Dad stepped up to the tee box and struck the ball. It sailed beautifully and went beyond the trees toward the pin. He was pleased, especially since the lessons were paying off. Everyone congratulated him on the excellent tee shot, and they took off toward the green to finish the hole.
Dad began to get frustrated. Everyone else found their balls and took their next shots. Dad still came up empty: there was no ball to be found. Nothing. He figured that he’d just take his lumps and go with the penalty for the hole. One of the foursome proceeded down to the hole to remove the flag.
“Hey, John. I found your ball!”
And with that, he had defeated the dogleg left. He didn’t mind buying everyone celebratory drinks when they returned to the clubhouse. Until the day that Lee moved out of the house they shared, Dad’s hole-in-one plaque proudly hung on the wall of their den.
Number 3: “I’m the sponsor of this show.”
I believe that this was my dad’s favorite saying. I mean, he punctuated sentences frequently invoking the name of our Lord and Savior or by asking for God to curse something or someone, but “ITSOTS” was his favorite saying. It was often the case. If you went to dinner with dad, and you tried to pick up the check, he’d grab it and say, “I’m the sponsor of this show.”
He was the sponsor of the show. He liked that role. He wanted to pick up the check or give someone a hand-up when they needed it. He freaking tipped the chef if he enjoyed his meal at a restaurant. He extended the open bar at every one of his kids’ weddings because he wanted the guests to have a great time.
He was perhaps a bit too generous with his money at times, and it sometimes attracted people with less-than-honest intentions. But, as cynical as he was, John saw mostly good in people. He figured since he had been a poor kid from Freedom, PA, and people had taken chances on him in his life, he’d keep it going. He was paying it forward, for better or worse.
He was, indeed, the sponsor of the show.
Number 4: Dad’s last words
So, I already mentioned that I spent dad’s last night on earth with him in his hospital room. After some hours of tossing and turning, he finally went to sleep. I went to sleep on a pull-out sofa, and it was quiet for a few hours.
Dad had not said much the day before, and he was parched from dehydration and the stroke had impaired his ability to speak. The staff at the hospital were limiting his intake of liquids and solid food. He was having a hard time talking, but I heard him quietly call my name in the early morning hours, the day he would die.
“Maura, I need something to drink.” He barely croaked it out.
“Dad, I have to go get the nurse. They are monitoring anything you take by mouth. I can’t give you anything.”
“Will ‘ya just get me some water?”
“I can’t, Dad. I’ll go get the nurse.”
He balled up his fists and squinted his eyes. As he struck the bed with his fists, he loudly proclaimed, “This…is…BULLSHIT.” I think he also stuck the gerund form of the f-word between “is” and “bullshit,” but I am not 100 percent sure. I was kind of stunned.
He was right, though. It is, and it was, on many levels. And those, my friends, were the last words I would ever hear from my father. You might think, “That’s terrible” or “How awful.” But, if you knew my father for any bit of time, you would know that those words were quintessential to him and kind of summed it all up.
After my dad passed away, my siblings, nieces, and all requisite significant others made their way to Orlando. The day everyone arrived, we met at Beer World (also appropriate for my family) to discuss funeral arrangements and such.
“So, do you guys want to know dad’s last words to me?” After I told the story, when we all had tears of sadness and joy in our eyes, we all decided that every time hence that we should get together, we would need to do a toast, raising our glasses, invoking dad’s last words.
Number 5: The mortician of the menagerie
If you are a parent, you know that you wear many hats: chef, tutor, chauffeur, and others too numerous to name. My dad had to deal with all of the animals we brought home. I found an Afghan hound that we kept for a couple of weeks until someone answered our “found pet” ad in the classifieds. Then there was the litter of found kittens, and the box turtle whose shell dad and a neighbor had to pry open after it closed on my finger. Then there were the fish, a rabbit, and a toy poodle that were our official family pets.
My friend, Richard, had too many guinea pigs. Although I was allergic, my sisters and I convinced my mom that we should be able to take a couple of the rodents off of Richard’s hands. I forget what we named them, but we soon had two squeaky pets in an aquarium on the bar in our family room. They smelled awful, even after changing the cedar chips and scooping poop. Regular maintenance of the guinea pig habitat was part of the deal we struck with mom.
Dad was not keen on the guinea pigs. He called them “the rats,” and he wanted us to keep them outside on the carport as much as possible because he hated the smell, and I was sneezing my head off. He was busy running a business, after all, and had a short fuse for the menagerie.
Although Richard promised us two male guinea pigs, we awoke to a third, tiny one, a few weeks after acquiring the two. Don’t think that dad ever let Richard forget about that. Yes, even into our 40s, my dad would remind Richard about the “two boy guinea pigs” whenever he saw him.
One of the guinea pigs fell ill. We don’t know what happened, but despite our upkeep, one of the little pigs perished. One of my sisters went to feed them on a particular morning and the one did not move. She poked it, and it was stiff and unquestionably dead. Being kids, and being that one of our pets died, we had to do the wailing and crying thing. After we flitted from mourning to something else of a high school drama nature, my dad scooped up the deceased into a brown lunch bag and started off to his car to go to work.
He noticed my two sisters and I were watching him, wondering what would be his next move.
“Look, I am sick of being the God d@^^n pet funeral director. I’m taking him to the office, and I’m going to put him in the dumpster. Whatever you do, don’t tell Mike.”
We didn’t argue. We felt that we had mourned. We knew that over the years, yes, dad HAD been the pet funeral director. We let it go. As you can guess, this did not stay a secret for long. Mike had a soft heart for animals, and it would upset him.
Well, you can probably see this coming: We don’t know how it happened, and, to this day, no one will fess up to it, but someone got miffed at dad about something and spilled to Mike.
Mike was furious with dad. He waited for him to come home from work that evening. And, in all of his seven years of pent-up fury, Mike confronted dad. “When YOU die, I am throwing YOU in the DEMPSTER DUMPSTER,” he warned.
“That’s up to you,” dad replied. “I won’t know the difference.”
We reminded Mike about this threat when we met up at Beer World to toast our dad. Instead of a dumpster, our dad rests in dignity in Section 55 at Arlington National Veterans Cemetery.
Number 6: Meatballs!
Dad hadn’t cooked much as an adult. He went from his parents’ home to the barracks, to marrying my mom, who was a pretty decent cook. There just wasn’t a need. He did the de rigueur dad grilling, but, other than that, he didn’t go out of his way to create a meal from scratch. And he never did the dishes.
After mom passed away, we would visit him regularly and help put together meals. One week, he invited us all over for dinner on a Saturday evening. We were blown away by what he put together: spinach salad, lobster tail, and steak. He had been practicing, and his practice was paying off. He wanted to make things as normal as possible for our brothers: Mike, who was still at home, and for John, who was away at school, but who would make his way home some weekends. Normal included trying to sit down at least a couple of times each week to have home-cooked dinner.
When dad moved to Florida, he started cooking up a storm. He focused on perfecting his Italian repertoire. He asked his sister, Aggie, for their mom’s gnocchi recipe. He was able to execute it respectably. He was making his sauce from scratch, simmering it all day. And his personal best, his “awesome” meatballs, were making him famous with the cocktail, bridge, and golf set in Windermere.
One Sunday, when I was making my weekly check-in phone call, my stepmother answered the phone. She was gushing as she told me how “John cooked a fabulous Italian dinner” for her girlfriends.
“He even did the dishes!” Say what?
The girlfriends were all taken with dad’s food, especially the meatballs. I had tried to make decent meatballs over the years, but they just didn’t quite reach my goal. So, when she put dad on the phone, I told him that I heard about the five-star review. I needed to get the recipe. However, true to his heritage, he didn’t have a recipe, exactly; Instead, he had a list of stuff.
I once asked my grandmother to give me her recipe for pizzelle, the anisette waffle cookies that every Italian feels obligated to make for Christmas. It was, “I use a handful of flour, some melted butter…” nothing was precise. I could never replicate it. I typically use a recipe that I find on the King Arthur recipe site, instead of the one that might have been passed down to me.
“Dad, the next time I visit, let’s make your meatballs.” It was on.
We worked together in the kitchen, which we had never done, and I watch as he assembled the ingredients, some of which I had considered unusual to meatballs. I copied the elements and method so that I could fashion a recipe for myself, based on dad’s process.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, “Meatballs by John,” with some of his tips thrown in. Note: I use U.S. measurements, sorry.
- One egg plus one egg white, lightly beaten
- 3 Tbs. milk; add more, one tsp. at a time, if things seem too dry to sop the milk
- Packed ¼ C Parmesan cheese, grated (Use fresh, “not that crap from a green can that smells like feet.”)
- Two thick slices of white Italian bread, torn into small bits
- 3 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley (“the good flat kind”)
- Six fresh leaves basil, torn into little pieces or sliced into a chiffonade
- 2 tsps. Italian seasoning or oregano, dried
- ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
- Fresh ground nutmeg, two passes over the grater (Sorry, but it’s the only way I can explain that.)
- ½ lb. ground sirloin
- ½ lb. ground pork
- One pinch each, salt and pepper
- Chicken or beef broth, white wine, extra-virgin olive oil
- Heat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare a glass or ceramic baking dish with a light brushing of extra-virgin olive oil. Add enough chicken or beef broth to cover the bottom of the dish, and add a splash of white wine or dry vermouth to the broth in the baking dish. Red wine discolors the meatballs.
- Combine all ingredients in a large glass (yes, glass) mixing bowl, except for the meats and salt and pepper.
- Break the meats into strands, pulling things gently apart and adding them to the other ingredients in the mixing bowl. Using a light touch, or two forks, mix everything, then add salt and pepper. Do not over-work the meat, or the meatballs may become dense.
- Form the meatballs, gently, and don’t pack them too tightly. Make them slightly larger than a golf ball for the best results. You want them to “just” stay together. Place each meatball into the prepared dish as you go.
- Cook for 15 minutes, remove from the oven, flip the meatballs, then cook for 15 minutes more. (Note from me: I don’t know why, but no matter the size you make them, this always works. Dad figured it out somehow.)
- Let the finished meatballs rest on a paper towel for 10 minutes before you add them to the sauce.
Enjoy the meatballs with sauce, with or without pasta, or in a sub roll with provolone on top. You can also wrap each meatball around a small cube of mozzarella di bufala as you form them if you want to give your friends a treat. When you raise a glass of Chianti, don’t forget to honor John with a hearty toast, maybe even the toast that my family uses.
Happy Father’s Day!