Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Sunday Memory Drawer - When Father's Day and Your Dad's Birthday Came at the Same Time

Here's Dad in a photo I have used before.  I don't have many others because, frankly, my father was usually the guy behind the camera as opposed to in front.

I am guessing this is some sort of graduation or confirmation photo, because Dad was usually in a suit for only two possible occasions---a wedding and a funeral.  Otherwise, he was dressed the same way.  A polo shirt, slacks, and a windbreaker.  And that's how I had him dressed for his own trip into eternity.  But, that's not the focus today.

My father's birthday was June 20.  So, each year with the timing of Father's Day, I had a double whammy.  Two celebrations rolled into one.  Every six years, the two "holidays" coincided.  Yes, I was able to get by with one gift.  But, when the dates didn't sync up, I was often faced with coming up with two different commemorations. 

As a result of this mess of a calendar, all the birthdays and Father's Days sort of morph together.  I don't have specific memories about them.  But, there were three Father's Days that do stick out of my memory drawer with great prominence.  Some I have written about before, but all good memories are always worth repeating. 

Take, for instance...

On a very hot Father's Day, my family made their usual holiday visitation to see all the dead relatives at Ferncliff Cemetery. Alongside the street where "Uncle Fritz" was buried, everybody hopped out of our car to do the necessary grave trimming. Grandma bounded out with hedge clippers in hand. But my dad and I sat in the car, glued to the Met game on the radio.

Except this was no ordinary contest. My father explained.

"This is history happening. The guy has a perfect game in the ninth inning."

I was a baseball fan, but I still didn't the complete significance.

"But the Mets are losing."

Minutes later, we listened to Phillies pitcher Jim Bunning strike out Met John Stephenson for the final out in this masterpiece. I didn't understand why this was such a big deal, but Dad did. That was good enough for me. Outside, Grandma continued to pull weeds out of "Uncle Fritz" and called out to my grandfather for assistance.

"Pop, get the shears!"

And here's another one from many years later.  On this particular year, the birthday and the Dad's Day festivity was on the same day.  So, I decided to leave it up to my father as to what he wanted to do.  Most of the time when I did this, he'd simply shrug and say he'd be happy to stay home and read the Daily News funnies. 

Except, this time, I was startled. 

He wanted to go to the movies.


Yep, another story told here previously.

When I got to the age of 10 or 11, I stopped going to the movies with my parents. There were friends, both boys and girls. Cousins. Classmates. I learned how to do the whole cinema thing without parents intruding pretty darn quickly. Eventually, the only way my father was playing into the movie going experience was by dropping us off or picking us up at the Loews Mount Vernon or RKO Proctor's.

Until a few years later. When "The Godfather" came out. And became the absolute "must-see" movie across all sexes and age groups. It was Father's Day and my dad's birthday at the same time.  I offered to treat him to something.  Imagine my surprise when he blurted out his request.

"Let's go see The Godfather."


In previous years, such a suggestion from my father would have found me quickly putting on my jacket and running to the car like Maury Wills.

But not that day.

"Er, okay," I responded with a lump in my throat.

It was one thing for me to sit alongside my father in a darkened theater and watch "The Longest Day" or Jerry Lewis in "The Nutty Professor." That was a snap and the Milk Duds would easily slide down my gullet with those movies. But, "The Godfather." This was a relatively adult movie. Well-reviewed but certainly much more mature than "Operation Petticoat." And there was one very specific segment of the film that I really dreaded seeing on the big screen with my dad ensconced in the adjacent seat.

Page 23.

Mario Puzo's novel had already made the rounds of my neighborhood buddies. For us, reading that book was a rite of passage. More so than "Silas Marner" or "Last of the Mohicans."

And it was because of Page 23. The very start of the Corleone saga set at Connie's wedding. When Sonny Corleone takes one of the bridesmaids upstairs and violently...well, you know.

We knew all the words by heart. It was like sex education. Right there in front of us. On Page 23. It was raw. It was real. It was relentless. And easy to share with your pals up the street. But, in front of your father? That was one of those planets we didn't orbit ever in our household.

As I sat on the passenger side of our huge Buick LeSabre, I secretly hoped that Francis Ford Coppola had neglected to film that scene for the screen. But, from a friend who had already gone through his cinematic de-flowering, I knew it was there intact for all to see. Maybe the film would break. Perhaps a fire would break out in the smoking section of the theater right at the beginning of the movie. I hastily devised a plan to spend a lot of time in the bathroom for the first ten minutes of the film. Sorry, Dad, lunch didn't agree with me.

No such luck.

As soon as the first strains of Nino Rota's haunting theme, I was glued to the street. There would be no missing reel. No smoke. No imagined diarrhea. My eyes were riveted on the screen.

Page 23 comes very early in the movie. I avoided all side glances to my dad. I focused on the screen like I was reading an eye chart in the optometrist's office.

There was no sound or motion to the right of me. As quickly as James Caan had started the process up on the big screen, it was over. It was never discussed. Either then or later. My dad and I simply proceeded very nicely to the graphic murders, horse decapitations, and all the wonderful other fun that is "The Godfather."

My father and I never saw another movie together.

During his last years, the Father's Day/birthday celebrations got very simple.  All he wanted to do was go out to dinner.  Eventually, we even locked into the same location.  

A Victoria Station in Yonkers.  Famous for steak.  And, more importantly, for Dad?  

A fully-stocked salad bar.

I remember my dad's euphoria the first time he saw one.

"They have beets!"

"They have hot peppers!"

"German potato salad!!!"

This was all stuff my father used to buy regularly at a delicatessen on White Plains Road in the Bronx.  Now he was seeing it for the taking in an honest-to-God restaurant and he couldn't contain his excitement.

The hell with the steak.  Dad made three trips to the salad bar alone.

"Will they let me take a new plate?"

Of course.  They're chilled in the refrigerator.

"Chilled plates??!!"

This concept alone was equivalent to a polio vaccine for my father.

These were his later years.  And, conveniently, these very simple pleasures were his favorites.

Happy Father's Day today, Dad.  And, oh, yeah, happy birthday on Tuesday.

Dinner last night:  Hot dog at the Hollywood Bowl.

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