Musings & Observations / Barry Halpin
Published 1:03 am, Thursday, June 10, 2010
It's 11 p.m.; I'm munching on an Irish cheddar and jalapeno pepper grilled cheese sandwich on Brennan's white bread, the incredibly flavorful and basic pan loaf in Ireland, while listening to The Rolling Stones "Exile on Main Street" reissue. With a Cadbury Flake bar waiting, it's the perfect antidote for a crazy, stressful, head-spinning day.
I reach for the photo album Erin left on the kitchen table, absent-mindedly leafing through pictures of Ireland, when I come across pictures of my mom and dad stuck in the back. I'm flooded with memories of my parents and my days growing up in the Bronx. I can't take my eyes off one of the pictures of my dad, where he's sitting with my mom at the kitchen table; I smile, thinking how much more I look like him these days. Over the years, I have come to accept the fact that his DNA is firmly embedded in me; all of his facial expressions, physical mannerisms and offbeat habits that drove me nuts as a teen don't seem so weird now that they're a part of me.
It wasn't until I was in my late teens that I truly began to accept my father for who he was, instead of wishing for a super dad, who could be anything and everything -- from the neighborhood candy store owner to Mickey Mantle -- and satisfy my every need and expectation. Once I accepted him for who he was, eccentricities and all, we developed a wonderfully open, honest and caring relationship
I remember watching my dad multi-task way before it was a way of life; sitting in his favorite easy chair, clipping out newspaper articles to be read and savored later, while watching Walter Cronkite on "The CBS Evening News" and humming along to Mozart.
I marveled at the ritual and chuckled to myself as he painstakingly went through the month-old pile of papers, cutting here and snipping there. This was always precipitated by my mom coming into the living room and saying, "Fred, don't you think it's about time you got rid of that pile of papers you've saved?"
For me, it began innocently enough years later, when on a rainy afternoon in June, I cut out an article from the Sunday New York Times Magazine section. It's now thousands of articles later and as with other things, the first time was by far the toughest. It's become second nature to me and I'll cut out articles on any subject that strikes my fancy: from sports to medicine, film to philosophy, and Indian cooking to Ireland.
The other day in a Twilight Zone deja-vu moment, my wife came into the living room and glaringly said, "Barry, when are you going to get all those papers off the dining room table so we can all eat together once in awhile!" I immediately started cutting out articles and adding them to my stashes in the hutch and file cabinet.
My dad had "kaleidoscope eyes" and faced life with a child's sense of wonderment and curiosity. He loved meeting people at the ballpark or at a restaurant and carrying on a conversation about politics, theater or some current event. He didn't have time to be bored; there was too much to do, see or learn about, and he always found something new to appreciate in every experience. His passion for baseball, travel, music, theater and politics, have long been my own, as has his predilection for striking up a conversation with strangers, whenever and wherever. My dad was an idealist, a dreamer and a lover of life, who felt that life in all its majesty and mystery was to be embraced.
Even though my dad wasn't "the Mick," he did teach me to play baseball and instilled in me a love of the game. He taught me how to hustle free tickets outside Yankee Stadium just as he had done when he was a boy growing up in the Bronx. And once inside the stadium he showed me how to sneak down to the best possible seats.
The first time I tried, I snared two free box seat tickets. It was a rite of passage and I remember how proud he was of me that day. A pat on the back, a tousling of my hair and a "great job son," on top of the free tickets and great seats made that day as good as it gets between my dad and me.
A day at the ballpark with my father, from the first hot dog, bag of peanuts and coke to the last out was always a joyous occasion. I miss not being able to go to the ballpark with him but when I do go to a game, I will make a special effort to sneak down to a better seat. I know he would like it that way.
I think my dad possessed an inner child that he gave voice to way before it became fashionable to get in touch with that inner child. He acted like an adult in his relationships but was truly young at heart, which I feel is one of the key ingredients for a healthy and successful parent-child relationship. I know that his boundless energy and positive approach to life had a strong influence on me growing up.
More importantly he was a loving husband. I never, ever heard my dad so much as raise his voice to my mom, let alone give her the relationship glare or drip any sarcasm into their conversation; he treated her with the utmost respect and affection. There were times I would go to him with a question or ask if it was OK to do something and he would say, "go ask your mom," with a look that spoke to the fact that we were all living in a "Mother Knows Best" world -- and it was definitely OK with him.
When I think back, I realize how much they complemented each other and how they always seemed to be in harmony. They enjoyed each other's company: sitting in the quiet of the living room, Mom totally absorbed in a book and Dad sitting with a month's supply of newspapers, painstakingly clipping articles that would be read, savored and shared with me at a later date; having a lively discussion and sometimes disagreeing about a recent lecture at the 92nd Street Y; taking turns playing classical pieces on the piano; watching political speeches on the television, dad ranting about clueless politicians and how if Richard Nixon could be president so could I, and Mom cautioning him not to get too excited.
Mom was a great listener, calm during a storm and always understanding; she knew just how to nudge Dad, who was stubborn and never took anything stronger than an aspirin in his life, to go see a doctor. Once, after watching her give one of her fine tuned, surgical nudges, I asked him what he thought would happen if Mom ever quit nudging him to do stuff.
Dad's quick response was: "I'll be just fine," but the look on his face spoke volumes about how much he understood and appreciated her loving nudges.
It's 1 a.m.; I'm alone with my thoughts listening to Miles Davis', "Kind Of Blue." Father's Day is coming up and my thoughts turn to some of those magical moments with my dad that never evaporate:
"¢ I arrive home after going to the Woodstock Festival, caked with mud from helping to push the cars out, wrapped in a blanket and holding a kitten I found. When my dad answers the door, he does a classic double take, with a look on his face that is absolutely priceless. It quickly turns into an ear to ear grin and he gives me a big old hug and tousles my hair.
"¢ My dad coming home with bagels and salt sticks, hot out of the oven from Pakula's Bakery. We immediately slathered the salt sticks with butter; it's bread nirvana!
"¢ Special Sunday drives to Nathan's Famous in Coney Island or Patricia Murphy's in Westchester. Dad loved getting behind the wheel and letting the open road take him wherever; if he got lost, no problem, it was all part of the adventure and a chance to explore new places.
"¢ Coming home late one night, I find my dad sitting on the stool in the kitchen, absorbed in one of his passions, repairing old radios. We share some ginger ale and the conversation turns to baseball, some of the great players he had a chance to see and the time he met Babe Ruth. My dad is a great storyteller and I am mesmerized.
My father's strange habits aren't so strange anymore -- or maybe you should ask my wife for a second opinion. But, I don't need a second opinion to know my dad gave me the greatest gift a father can give a child: he loved my mother. Come to think of it. My dad was a super dad!
Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.