I suspect that a man learns to forgive when he moves away from a melancholy interpretation of events and toward the delightful. Either that or he simply grows too old to consider himself so important as to claim past injustices committed against his person as a worthy cause for sympathy.
Dad was a storyteller.
“Once upon a time, I was working for the railroad company, Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line,” he said to me. “I was part of a crew of men who lived inside a box car and traveled the rails from town to town. When we reached a station where repairs were needed, to the tracks, to the cars, or to the station house itself, we did the work.”
Dad loved the railroad. I knew this because whenever he told me stories of his adventures there, I could smell creosote in the air around us.
World War II had recently ended. Dad came home from North Africa to Atlantic City, New Jersey — to the house where he’d grown up on Arctic Avenue — and he found himself lost, lonesome and depressed. He slept on the living room couch, because he didn’t feel like climbing the stairs that lead to his childhood bedroom, and because he realized that he couldn’t be a child any longer. Most mornings, as he told me, he failed even to shave his face. Why shave? Shave for whose sake?
Today we’d describe his malady in terms of difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Back then, no one bothered with any such description. Men were supposed to be men. Oprah Winfrey wasn’t born yet. Veterans were expected to become part of the super-dominant society that the USA had become and to get their butts back to work.
And so Dad went back to work a lonely man who grinned his way from one sunrise to the next.
“She kept the cleanest counter inside any Newberry’s Five and Dime I’d ever seen. She was pretty, Anthony. She reminded me of Claudette Colbert. I knew I was going to marry her. Love at first sight; that’s real, I tell you.”
Only problem, as my father’s version of the story had it, was that Dad’s best friend, Frank DePalma (fourth from the left in the crew’s photograph) fell in love with the same girl. But as Frank was indeed a best and noble friend, he gave way and space to Dad. Frank let Dad have first shot at the girl.
Mother resisted Dad’s every flirtation for a while. After all, she yet pined away for Wayne, the Navy man who suffered a “nervous breakdown” soon after his discharge from the service, a disgraced patient of Ward Eight.
As all such tales of film noir romance must end, however, Dad’s grin won the day. On one spring evening, the aroma of love mixed with that of nubile honeysuckle dominating the atmosphere, young Rosario Toscano showed up on Florence’s wooden porch and knocked on her door. She opened both the door and her heart, and accepted the one-quarter-carat diamond mounted on a sliver of a golden band that he offered her.
One day later, Florence changed her mind about marrying Rosario; but her father, Anthony, insisted that she’d made her bed and now must sleep in it.
A June wedding was planned and later executed. May God bless the ancient Romans for the chosen date.
Rosario and Florence spent their first honeymoon night inside a room of a favored hotel. Many years beyond the first and final take of this scene, and well out of my mother’s earshot, Dad told me another short tale.
“She was a virgin, just like The Virgin Mary I prayed to when I was lying on that couch on Arctic Avenue. And she was scared to death of sex. So when I tried to hold her, she went for the third-story window. I think she would have jumped out and down if I hadn’t saved her.”
In years now gone by, I’ve oftentimes written about the misery of my childhood days and nights. The beatings, physical and emotional, born of early resentment and doubt. Oh woe is I, said my melancholy mind.
More recently, however, after looking at some photographs of those early times, photographs I placed as part of a tribute to my dead brother John, a cherished friend wrote to me to say:
“It is the photos of three brothers that I dwell upon, and what I see is almost an exact negation of some of the word-meanings in the accompanying text. And also within your previous postings over the years that have forlornly mourned the horror of persistent maternal misbehavior.“
At that time I considered writing to my friend to explain that my parents were masters of the setup shot. Each and every family-album photograph was staged both to present the face of perfect love and to hide the sadness of the third dimension.
Yet if my friend is reading this article here today, may he know that he did me a favor by way of his remarks. True enough it is that my mother and father pretended to live a life of 1950s’ marital bliss, and true enough yet again that I fell victim to their pretense. True as well, however, is the happiness my parents discovered within the boundaries of an anguished home.
So where, then, is my delightful interpretation of this cheerless story?
Mother and Dad loved each other, that’s where the tale must begin and end.
Well, I am here to interpret events in the fullest manner they deserve.
Inside the smile that this moment shows itself upon my face.
So, Happy Anniversary, Mother and Dad. Thank you for the stories, and thank you for my life.