Happy Hapless Father’s Day!

For most of my life I didn’t get along with my Father. For one thing, I didn’t like him and I didn’t respect him. So that kind of put the ka-bosh on any type of relationship. Whether the failing was his or mine, who’s to say. But we were incompatible, two people with almost nothing in common, aside from our mutual biology which chained us together for decades in this hapless father/son relationship.

Years later I was able to appreciate that, considering the austere and barren background he came from, it was an accomplishment that he was able to uplift himself and make the life for himself that he did. His parents were two Italian peasants from Italy who immigrated from Sicily to America in the 1920s with little more aspirations than that their life couldn’t be any more dismal here than it was in the Old Country. As far as I could tell they were both illiterates with little interest in anything beyond basic survival. On the rare occasion when we, as a family, visited their home in Passaic, New Jersey (where my father was raised) they weren’t particularly happy ocassions. Everything in their home seem old and dusty and dead — like a mortuary. They showed zero interest in their grandchildren — or anything as far as I could tell — the adults spent the duration of the visit moping around like subhumans, muttering solemnly to each other in the kitchen, while we kids sat around the TV in the living room. My father also had two older brothers who spent most of their adult lives in mental institutions. And aside from that, that’s about all I know about my father’s side of the family (and I’m not sure I want to know any more).

As a young man my father took a stab at making a living as an advertising illustrater on Madison Avenue. And though he had some artistic talent, he quickly realized he didn’t have the skill or stamina to make it in that field. He even took a try at developing a comic strip (that’s one thing we had in common) doing a one panel “Hatlo’s – They’ll Do It Every Time” type of cartoon. I remember as a kid, him showing me some original samples of his old work, and they were competent, if pretty pedestrian (I’d love to look at them now after all these years, I wonder whatever happened to them).

I’m not sure how he settled on a career in the ministry. Knowing him he probably thought it would be a relatively easy gig, with no heavy lifting. And I’m not sure what other marketable skills he had. He wasn’t a particularly “spiritual” person as far as I could tell — he wasn’t thoughtful or philosophical or the kind of guy who pondered the meaning of life. But he was comfortable on stage delivering his sermons (he was a bit of a ham). And he was a very out-going, sociable, hail-fellow-well-met type (think of a short, pudgy Ed McMahon) so he schmoozed easily with all of his parishioners. In truth he was more like the director of a social club (which church’s largely are) than a religious leader. And to his credit, his spiritual message was largely benign and harmless (which is more than you can say for a lot of these Rev’s) basically preaching that God is our heavenly father who loves us and forgives us and wants the best for us and we go to Heaven when we die, The End (as to the more vexing theological and existential questions, Pop brushed it all under the rug of “Gee, the Lord can sure act in mysterious ways,” and left it at that). . .

When I was 18 I embarked on a desperate spiritual search for meaning myself, mostly immersing myself in Zen, Eastern religions, LSD and the books of Alan Watts. To which my father’s only response — even as this was his alleged field of expertise — was, “Gee, I hear that Alan Watts is popular with the young people nowadays.” And for years afterwards, whenever the subject of Alan Watts came up, my father would repeat that line as if saying it for the first time, “Gee, I hear that Alan Watts is popular with the young people nowadays.” And that’s exactly what my Father was like. About everything. On every subject. He had these pre-digested canned lines that he would repeat over and over. He largely lived on the surface of life. I was never able to penetrate beyond his surface. And I doubt he could, either.

To his credit, he was a nice guy. He never had a bad word to say about anyone or anything (another thing that makes it hard to believe I’m my father’s son). His main character flaw, I guess, was that he never faced anything if he could help it. He lived by the motto that no problem was too big that it couldn’t be avoided, rationalized, or run away from. Which, needless to say, caused all manner of turmoil in our household over the years, as all the unresolved and un-dealt with family problems compounded and festered and turned into ever bigger and uglier problems. But no need to go into the details here.

I don’t mean to be running him down with this essay. It’s merely an attempt to explain him and understand him. And I can truly say he did the best he could with what he had to work with. And I could have done a lot worse in the Father department. And wherever you are now, Dad — or “good ole Pop” as he regularly referred to himself — whatever realm of the Cosmo you’re now inhabiting, I wish you all the best. And Happy Fathers Day.

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