“Tell me, Dad. Please, tell me about you.” That’s what I would say to my father if I could sit with him at his kitchen table one more time.
I spent so many hours across a table from him, every day of my childhood, hundreds of days as an adult. We talked. But we never talked about his past. “Why should I?” he would say. “It’s over. Buried. Gone.”
Once, when I begged, he told me two things: that he remembered climbing onto a horse drawn wagon when he was small and sitting next to his father, who delivered gelatin; and he remembered when his father left him. He was 5 and his brothers were 6 and 1, and they would lie together in bed and listen to their father playing the piano in the barroom across the street.
Why did your father leave, Dad? Where did he go?
I visited his baby brother last year. LeRoy is 90, the last man standing. Tell me about my father, I said, and he told me about the day my father joined the Army.
“It was the summer before Pearl Harbor. Your grandmother had to sign a waiver because Larry was only 17. First we went to the Marines, but they wouldn’t take him because he had flat feet. The Army took him immediately. They put him with a bunch of other enlistees in the back of an Army truck and drove them to Fort Devens. ‘Tell Mom my pay will be sent to her. And tell her I’ll write.’”
My father was gone for four years. He followed General Eisenhower all through Africa and Italy and France. He never told me this. My mother did when I was in seventh grade and doing a report on World War II. He refused the Purple Heart because he didn’t want his mother to worry, she said. He was in Normandy during the D-day invasion, my uncle told me.
I didn’t know. There is so much I don’t know.
I know that my father wrote poems for the men in his unit to send to their girlfriends because I found them when I was 9 or 10 and snooping through my mother’s bureau drawers. I read them all, then called my best friend, Rosemary, and read them to her. “Why didn’t you tell me you wrote poems, Dad?” I asked him that night.
The next time I went snooping, the poems were gone.
He was on leave at home when the war ended, ready to be sent to Japan in what was to be a massive attack. This is another thing my uncle told me.
My father lived for 82 years. I should know more than I do. “Tell me, Dad,” and he wouldn’t. And I didn’t press. I’d change the subject. I wouldn’t today.
I gave him Pete Hamill’s book “A Drinking Life” certain he would like it. Like my father, Hamill grew up poor in the Depression. The book was raw and bawdy and honest. My father hated it. Who wants to read that stuff?” he said. “I can’t believe you thought I’d like it.”
He could be tough, but he could be tender, too. He spruced up an old two-wheeler and held on to me and it as he taught me to ride it around our block. He bought me my first car -- $50 from Mrs. Hedrick -- and taught me how to change a tire and check the oil and ace a three-point turn. I never asked him, “Did you have a bike, Dad?” Or, “When did you learn to drive?”
Once I sat him down next to my computer. I had a software program, Memories, which was on a floppy disc. For maybe 10 minutes, he opened up. He spoke while I typed. The first question was about grandmothers. “Grandmother Mary was the only grandmother I had, and she was sweet and little like my mother. She’d sneak you a dime on a Sunday when a dime was like a $50 bill. She was someone you could go to when you had a problem.”
“What kind of a problem, Dad?” I should have asked. “Tell me, Dad. Please, tell me about you.” That’s what I would say to my father if I could sit with him just one more time.Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.