Tuesday, January 27, 2009
happy birthday to my Daddy
The way he tells it, his dad had to shovel a path for the midwife on that January morning in 1921. While the snow fell, his mother labored with him, and on that same day her mother gave birth to his aunt.
The youngest of four, not counting the two baby boys who had died before he came along, my father was born into a poor Slovak family in the hills of Pennsylvania. His father had immigrated from Europe just a few years earlier. When my grandfather married Anna, she was only 15, and by the time she was 25 she had her last baby, my dad.
His father worked hard in those hills, carving out coal from the dark earth. His back was marked, his lungs scarred, his spirit squelched. Not wanting a similar fate, my father left the mines for the Europe of World War II. Hitler apparently seemed a less daunting foe than those black caverns.
When he returned from the war, he had no intention of spending his life in the mines. His father had died while he was gone. His mother and sisters were going to Michigan. He soon followed, to take up residence in an apartment attached to the back of a home in Dearborn. That house belonged to my maternal grandmother. It was there that he met Joan, my mom.
They married in 1960 after a long courtship. Even though Dad had only an eighth grade education, he had a good job at General Motors Clark Street plant, where Cadillacs rolled off the assembly line in a steady stream. He was a union man: he gave an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, and when he came home each night, he worked hard around our home. He didn't expect much, just dinner on the table promptly at five.
Since he had to drop out of school at such an early age, he valued education greatly. Nothing pleased him more than seeing my brother and me graduate from college. It was something that he never dreamed for himself, but was thrilled to be able to provide for us.
Dad worked hard all his life, paying his bills, supporting his family, not seeking glory or honor. He had his struggles, his personal battles. He was not, of course, perfect. There were times when I think I hated him, and there were plenty of times I feared him. But he was strong, and loyal, and honest. I have never, to this day, heard him say a profane word. And each night of his life, he has knelt by his bed to pray. That's some kind of man.
We've never been the kind of family to share lots of hugs and "I love yous." I can still remember the first time my dad said those words to me on the phone. I had just given birth to my youngest daughter, and I was in the hospital recovering. I was 40 years old.
Now each and every time I speak to him on the phone he ends the call with the words: "Love you." I wonder if he realizes how much that means... It proves to me that it is never, ever too late to love.
Today my father turned 88. We joined together for dinner at Old Country Buffet, sharing chicken and macaroni and cheese, too much dessert, and many laughs. Dad doesn't usually smile for pictures, never has, but I captured a few smiles tonight. It was good to be together. As I snapped pictures I felt wise: I know I will treasure them.
Dad still talks about the things he loves: Mozart; the slopes of the Austrian Alps; praying the rosary; growing cucumbers in his garden; playing the lottery; baby girls. I have not always understood him, and I've often been impatient with him. But today I feel extraordinarily blessed to have known him.
Happy Birthday, Dad. Love you!