by: James Di Fiore
Nostalgia always gets me in the end.
I’ve been spending the last 5 minutes trying to establish how the smell of our cottage floods my consciousness with childhood memories. Moments earlier my son took his first steps. It’s also his first birthday. The nostalgia trip has taken hold.
I shook off the cobwebs and did a quick inventory of all the coincidences, emotional triggers and skipped beats I just experienced. I don’t know what it means, but it means something. It has to mean something.
I often neglected to find these cerebral silver linings along the way from boyhood to manhood, especially as my relationship with my father deteriorated. We saw each other three times in 20 years. I’ll never know if it was his fault or mine. I’m told it’s both of our faults. If that’s the case it’s double the weight.
He died last year. My sister called and cried as she told me. I didn’t cry. I just wanted to get off the phone immediately. After all, I had been mourning him for two decades already.
He was a good dad when I was little. I remember being in my parents’ bedroom, waiting for him to come home from work and staring at the cars from the bedroom window. Every night he’d flick his headlights on and off. It was our signal…our ‘thing’. By the time I hopped off the stool and ran down the stairs he was walking through the door. The first thing he’d feel was a hug from his 6-year-old son as he dropped his car keys on the coffee table.
One night Dad was late. None of the headlights had flickered. 6:00 became 10:30. Then, finally, I heard his keys in the front door. I ran down the stairs, hugged him, cried because I was 6, and never asked why he was late or neglected to flick his lights. Dad permanently stopped flicking his lights when I was about 8 years old I guess. Not really sure why.
Dad was fiercely intelligent and loved baseball. He was my coach for a couple years and shared my tendency to get ejected from games for arguing calls with the umpires. While unspoken, I think we both liked knowing we shared that kind of fire. We turned our backs on each other eventually in real life, but on the field we had each other’s backs.
Those baseball moments were sprinkled with loads of stressful situations as I grew up. The usual family stuff cemented our detachment from one another. Our relationship became a pattern of silence broken only by me asking for money or him asking me why I didn’t have a job. Neither of us ever had good answers. He’d peel off a twenty and I’d just shrug. That was our pattern, our new ‘thing’, and it wasn’t helping me be a competent steward of my own life. We shared the weight though. The reason why the father and son relationship is so important is due to the enormous impact of guilt and anger each one can extract from the other. It can be a bizarre give and take of utter disappointment sometimes. That’s not an overstatement. Not even close.
So I drifted. I drifted from college to couches to shared accommodations to basement apartments to living with a girl to winging it to staying at my mom’s to finding another girlfriend to trying to break lifelong habits of irresponsibility and emotional distress to reconciling my identity to accepting all my flaws as well as my gifts, to where I am now; nestled inside the arms of a good woman and a 1 year old son to anchor me down.
My father was missing. He was not a demonstrative man, or a communicative man, or a positive man, or an emotional man. He made me feel, as a youngster, that I was taken care of and safe from poverty. But as we aged he became more and more withdrawn. I still loved him for who he was when I was young, but that love waned as I reconciled the idea of not having a real father as I grew older. I felt as if he had abandoned me, or was ashamed of me. Or perhaps he was ashamed of himself? I’ll never know.
My father was born in Montreal, same as me, and I know next to nothing about his childhood. His father was a tailor who used to sell Italian suits to Italian businessmen of various industries. Yep, that industry too. His father was also a severe alcoholic. My grandfather meant the world to me, but my father likely despised him. My father never drank. He used to put Kool Aid in his wine glass instead of sharing a toast. Whatever legacy my grandfather left when he died, it was not hereditary drinking…unless it skips a generation. I’m not really sure if that one is an overstatement, to be honest.
I’m an atheist. I think that’s actually hereditary because I believe my dad was too, but he never said it outright. He did swear a lot, especially while coaching baseball or watching hockey. He was a great cook, a computer programmer, and loved fishing. We took annual fishing trips to the French River and stayed at different lodges when I was small. We’d catch a load of perch, some pike and whitefish, maybe the odd trout. The only other time we took long drives was to our baseball tournaments. Dad would talk strategy in the car, telling me why I should throw an 0-2 slider instead of high heat. He was engaged when we talked about baseball. I miss that, to be honest. If I were given the opportunity to speak with him one last time, I’d choose baseball as our topic. Dad didn’t have to feign emotion when talking about what makes a good pickoff move, or how to tell when a pitcher is telegraphing his pitches. I felt his logic, and since that’s all I remember feeling, his logic is what I would want to feel again.
My son was 3 months old when my father died. They never met each other. I’m not sure how that makes me feel. I won’t pretend I know how to feel anything at all when it comes to dad. But, like my grandfather and the bottle, I will not pass down my father’s legacy of being absent in my son’s life. Call it my own glass of Kool Aid. Today I’m toasting my son’s 1st birthday, the intent of never forgetting to flick my lights, and one final goodbye to my father while in the shadow of my son’s first steps.
Well played, nostalgia. Well played.