Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Remembering Daddy's lap


Did I ever have a wonderful Daddy. His lap was the safest place in the world for me, and I cherished his laugh, his affection and his continued optimism in the face of defeat and what I now realize was humiliation and despair.

Born in Massachusetts in 1906 with severe club feet, he endured 12 painful operations as a boy and lived with one shriveled calf for the rest of his life. He never complained, though as an elder he had severe hip pain and trouble getting in and out of cars as a result of those early surgeries. At least he wore normal shoes in a time of mockery of those with such birth defects and looked handsome in his pin-striped suits. He may have felt lucky to be alive, since his mother bore 12 children, only three of whom lived to maturity (she lost three in the flu pandemic of 1917).

He married my mother at the age of 20 and was always devoted to her. Somewhere later I put together that there were some strains in their marriage because of external events, but I never heard either of them utter a bad word about the other. The word I got when my father would drive me to the market or drugstore was "respect". He hoped, of course, that the boys I was beginning to date would respect me as he did my mother, his indirect way of hoping I wouldn't succumb to their advances.

The boys who came to my home in those high school years in Burbank, Calif., adored him. Before our dates they would linger in our small living room to talk with him, laugh and perhaps share some anecdotes about the track meet or basketball game he had attended in a continued effort to be involved with me and my school. Even at reunions, my classmates asked about my dad at about the same time they remembered who I was.

Our time in Burbank was marked by the failure he experienced in his professional life. In San Francisco, he had been a top network radio announcer. Early on, I sat on his lap at the old Don Lee broadcasting studios and learned to be comfortable asking for donations to the war effort (my father, because he was ineligible to serve due to his feet, was also director of the San Francisco USO during World War II.)


Towards the end of the war, we moved to Los Angeles to be near my elder sister, who was dying of tuberculosis. We couldn't find a sanatorium in the Bay Area because of the full occupation of all medical facilities with injured troops returning from the Pacific. My father's pride emerged and he found it too daunting to audition for radio jobs in Los Angeles with 50 or 60 other competitors, most of whom lacked even a bit of his experience. So the man who had read poetry on air in the evening and received fan letters from women in Boston left the biz and began a decline of self-respect and income, culminating in his later years by his selling advertising specialties out of a rickety Studebaker.

Though this spare period coincided with my teenage years, it never negatively affected me. I was aware of nights he spent on the patio drinking sherry and Bubble Up, and of his sad expression when the bills came in from Montgomery Ward. But he was unfailing in his optimism, often repeating the same platitude, even as he lay dying just a few years after my mother died at the age of 59: "There's light at the end of the tunnel."

Somehow our lack of supposed material comforts spurred me on in several ways. I learned to sew my own clothes, even fancy semi-formal dresses. Sometimes I'd get an outfit I had wanted for my birthday or Christmas several months later, thanks to the layaway plans my mother learned to use. And I always had plenty of the rich and wonderful Swedish food my mother prepared. I wasn't interested in fancy cars or big houses. I loved the one I lived in with my younger brother and my parents and my special place in Daddy's lap.

Now I get to see another Daddy in my life, my wonderful son-in-law, who will celebrate his first Father's Day with my daughter and grandson, born just three weeks ago in San Francisco. He will hold yet another precious baby in his lap.

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