If you’re like me you may find yourself pretty exhausted with the year. I’m a generally optimistic person, though, which can be a bit unusual in my family. I come from a long line of realists and my father in particular was never one to pretend things were good when they were not. He had his share of challenges, and these made him become a friendly and tolerant person. I especially loved his tolerance. He was strong in his own beliefs, was willing to engage with others, and was also willing to adjust to make them comfortable. He figured it didn’t diminish him to make others feel included. I loved that, but only now, and especially during the holidays, do I realize how special that openness can be.
But dad grew into his tolerance, it didn’t come overnight. This was a guy raised on the far west side in what is still one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago, and who fought his way through. His school was a melting pot that would often boil over. He said there were the Italians, the Jews, and the African Americans and the groups stuck together and never mingled. When they would clash they’d meet in an empty lot and fight. Knives, baseball bats and fists. Rarely a gun but guns were around, make no mistake. Dad was a hot head and would fight at the drop of a hat. He told me “I was always angry.”
He married my mom, an Irish girl from a nearby neighborhood, and she wanted to be a singer. She urged him to move to California. What is surprising is that he did, because Italian families like to stay close by and this was a break from tradition. What happened next changed my dad’s life.
They fell into a creative group and my dad, who never really embraced that side of himself, started reading Hemingway and writing songs. And he loved it. He said he’d never met people like that. They’d get together with the crowd and talk late into the night about literature and music and politics. The man that was truant countless times, fighting on street corners and barely graduated high school found a love for the arts and conversation.
|Dad with his dog Sheba
In later years he moved back to Chicago and then to St. Louis and became a postmaster in a rural town in Missouri. By then he had friends of all religions and colors. There was a Buddhist monastery nearby and he enjoyed talking to the monks when they came to mail things home to far flung areas of the world. He started carrying a zippered document pouch with a wrist strap to hold his money and numerous packs of cigs, (always the cigarettes-he was a three pack a day man and died of lung cancer in 2013), and when a patron that he didn’t know came in and pointed to it and called it a purse and denounced him as gay and a threat to the rest of the rural town, he laughed out loud. Told the patron that he wasn’t gay but saw nothing wrong with being so. That patron had no idea who they were dealing with at that moment and how dangerous such a claim would have been had it been flung at him earlier in his life. He kept carrying the bag-he still didn’t back down, but instead of fighting he would laugh.
And now in my house we welcome all. We strive to say Happy Holidays to those who don’t celebrate Christmas, Merry Christmas to those who do and Happy Hanukkah, because he taught us that to be polite takes nothing from us and embraces others. On Christmas Eve we’ll head to a Jewish and Christian family’s house and by the light of a Christmas tree and a Menorah sing Christmas carols and other songs and will toast to peace and love and laughter. And we’ll talk books and music and politics. The kind of night dad would have loved. And dad will be there in my heart and the heart of my kids and husband who loved him dearly and will miss him.
Happy Holidays to all!
Love these holiday stories. So many memories…
Happy holidays to you. What a lovely tribute to your father and the ability to expand our circles.
Jamie – Great post about a great father and how he came to be so friendly, tolerant of others and able to pass that along to his entire family. Thanks for posting and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you!
Thank you all! It's been three years but I still tear up when I think of him. I guess that will never change. Thanks for the good wishes!
I lost my father forty years ago at Christmas, Jamie, and his absence still hovers over every holiday. We learn so much from them, particularly in the void they leave behind as we struggle on.
Forty years! You must have been very young and to lose a parent young must be one of the toughest things to go through. You are so right, they leave a real void behind.
This explains a lot about your fighting spirit!
What a wonderful reminiscence, Jamie, and a lesson for all of us. I love that he ended up in Missouri!