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KNOW THYSELF

My Father Was A Man To Contend With

My father was a man to contend with.  Daddy wore white, white shirts with the sleeves rolled up because he worked hard; as he got wealthier he rolled very expensive cuff links up into these neat, even folds.  His father before him had dug ditches and my father put every bit as much back breaking labor into pushing buttons, printing out metal die castings and selling his product.  The sweat of the brow was the highest sign of achievement in our family. And he cherished the progress he had made from his immigrant laborer roots:  “Brute strength never got anyone anywhere,” he would say on the average three times a week.  But every night a six sharp when he came home from the “shop” I thought I could see the muscles in his brain sweating and straining and begging for rest.

            The dinner was the relaxation arena for him but not for us.  My mother announced “your father’s home and his harem of three, obediently trooped downstairs to kiss him hello and help him change hats from King of the Die Casting Business to Benevolent Dictator of the Dinner Table.

            One of us was usually engaged in the number two homemaker role and running around the kitchen hoping to finish setting the table fast enough to catch a few minutes of television before dinner.  But often the drama of his homecoming beat any TV sit com.  There was always so much to wonder about.  Was he in a good mood?  Had there been knuckleheads on the road?  Was dinner on time or would we be treated to the ten-minute efficiency lecture:  “I run my business on a time table, Jane (my mother), I don’t understand why the household can’t conform to normal business hours as well—you have the whole day to yourself.”

            My mother bowed her head and shook it not understanding how the heiress of a minor WASP fortune could have become ensnared in the nets of a Greek male’s lair.  Their marriage was one of those mixed one, a blending of personalities which was truly Darwinian.  Her cool, under-wraps upper crust breeding, attempted to civilize the immigrant Greek and guide him on his upwardly mobile way; while his hot pushy blood infused her bleached genetic line with passion and striving.  You can see why the drama had more depth than Leave It To Beaver ever could.

            Whether the dinners were on time or no, we sat down as a family and proceeded to eat.  The napkins rings were silver and engraved and the napkins cotton restaurant surplus—being Greek there was, of course, a restaurant in the family.  After the necessities of pass-this-or that were over, we prepared for the family dinner conversation which my father believed was the key to keeping a family together.  “And what did you do today to justify your existence?” he queried us.  Each of us tried to remember some tellable anecdote to prove we were worthy of swallowing whatever we had on our plate.  Sometimes his question provoked general conversation.  Sometimes there were deadly silences and then someone suggested playing the “I-see-something-on-the table beginning-with S game.”  Sometimes someone spilled their milk.  Now, in anyone’s house this is a somewhat messy interruption to the dinner but in our house it was an act of sabotage.  It was willful and meant that the spiller had a malicious heart and was probably capable of undermining the entire foundation of the American family.  Probably in later years the spiller would be an easy target for Russian defection.

            After the initial assault the spiller was stunned by the audacity of the event and the other two, in mute sympathy looked at each other trying to gauge the reaction level of the superpowers.  Then the spiller sprung into action, grabbed a couple of dish rags and started a mop-up operations.  The room was silent except for the spiller’s apologies or if she were feeling particularly vulnerable her protestations that the dog had jostled her.  Quickly, quickly the offensive white blight was removed and father with a scowl and raised right eyebrow tried to resume his dinner.

            Over time he instituted a number of rules to keep order and decorum at the dinner table and to teach us manners.  He was a stickler for the left-handed-non-switching method of using the fork.  The fork must be held in the left hand, prongs down, with the forefinger on the curve of the stem but never touching the top of the prongs.  The knife, in the right hand, was the cutter and used to push the food onto the fork.  This was the way it was done in Europe.  Cutting, and then changing the fork from left to right was a waste of time and so unforgivably American that it branded the changed a boorish boor for life.  To ensure these rules of correct cutlery use, Daddy placed a long loaf of Italian bread by his right side.  The loaf stayed there like a ready lance and when he saw a finger chase a stray pea toward the waiting fork, WAP, the loaf descended on the unsuspecting finger or head.  Sometimes instead of a loaf of bread he used a long handed wooden spoon and that was tough.  It smarts to have your head bonged by a spoon.

The dinner drama was not one-sided.   My mother added her own divine comedy.  She was Catholic—half WASP, half Catholic:  a deadly combination, second to none in boring food, devotion to absurd rules, and duty.  And Catholicism, that magic blend of seething sin, virgin births, suffering and incense, was rendered as cool and bland as the Methodists minister’s handshake at a country church social.  Friday was fish night and my mother entertained the notion that filet of sole was the fish of the gods.  To make the taste travesty complete she accompanied the poached sole with lumpy mashed potatoes.  Hungry Jack’s mix was a favorite at the time, and boiled cauliflower—frozen of course.  Not a speck of parsley, nothing to enliven this Siberian Tundra.  We ate it dutifully and then my father rebelled.  He finished dinner politely and then craftily went to the refrigerator.  Inside there was a beautiful hunk of Genoa salami; he silently and deftly cut four or five slices for himself and then turned to us and asked “anyone want salami?”  We punked out, every one of us, and responded demurely, “No Daddy we can’t eat meat.  It’s Friday.”  We felt smugly satisfied that we had saved our souls but there was a taste in the back of our mouths that could only be satisfied by salami on Fridays.

            The Catholic Wars were another drama of growing up and this made Sundays a very particular battle ground.  We trooped off to Church with mother while my father made himself elaborate pancake breakfasts.  Invariably as we were going out the door he would say “I just can’t see the sense of cooping God up in a stuffy house with anemic priests.”

            Dad was keen on religion and patriarchy but guess who was the only patriarch put on earth to love honor and obey?  He had his own philosophy and dispensed it to us through the years.  “Never Be Afraid of Anything or Anyone.”  We always said “Yes, Daddy” with our knees shaking.  “Everything in Moderation.”  This served to remind us not to eat candy except once a week, proved to us that he was not a drinker, although he never failed to join mother at cocktails, and succeeded his bellowing of ‘Simmer down, someone is going to get hurt” whenever we were having fun.  And “Know Thyself.”  The Know Thyself was a softer admonition.  Sometimes there was a feeling of helpless sadness when he used this one because he knew it implied the vast contradiction of life—his and our own.  He never really could accept those contradictions.

            As we got older the business claimed more of his time and he calmed down.  I don’t think he meant to relax his grip but there just wasn’t much time and we had all become very clever at disguising any controversial event or topic to maximize our chances of having our own lives.  Then came the pilgrimage.

            Daddy and Mom went to Greece.  There he was the great American success story and his relatives welcomed him with open arms and open pocketbooks which he took great pleasure in filling.  He dragged my mother to every village where there was an Uncle Pericles or Aunt Aphrodite.  We received ecstatic postcards about how beautiful it was and how kind his relatives were with frantic postscripts from my mother about how fat she was getting from eating two or three family dinners a day.

            He returned after two months a changed man.  He carried a pair of worry beads in his hands and played with them constantly.  He made little demitasses of Greek coffee in the morning and triumphantly told us that he had succeeded in teaching his secretary how to make a perfect cup.  Our meals changed completely and my poor mother was inundated with demands to expand her cuisine to include stuffed grape leaves and moussaka.  Then my father hired a Greek tutor from the Greek Church to come every Wednesday night to give all of us Greek lessons.

            This was the beginning of the end.  My sisters rebelled and informed Dad that they considered Greek lessons a waste of time and were not going to read unpronounceable foreign letters.  They were fuled with all the ammunition he had taught them.  “Know Thyself,” one sister flung in his face.  “Daddy, I know myself and myself doesn’t want to study Greek.” The other sister said this Greek kick was not in moderation and refused to attend classes.  “All right,” he retorted “then for anyone who is so stupid as to miss this opportunity they must spend the time in an equally mind improving endeavor.”  One sister decided to read all of Shakepspeare’s plays.  To which my father said, “Fine, but remember Euripides was first.”  The other decided to study the guitar and was not dissuaded when Dad suggested she try the bouzouki.  Much to my surprise I stuck with the Greek.  I enjoyed it, though I knew I risked being heir to the mania.

            The last chapter in the Greek saga began when Daddy decided to build a marble barbecue for roasting whole lambs at Easter.  Then he decided to add a group of Doric columns to the backyard.  At this we had to protest.  We pleaded with him and told him how embarrassing it would be to have half a temple and a barbecue in the backyard; then we suggested that it was not moderate and a swimming pool would be a better idea.  We tried everything but he wouldn’t budge.  Our presentation must have made an impression on him because he gathered us together and said very solemnly that his life’s dream had been to rebuild the Parthenon but after seeing it he felt it was best left as it was.  But, he continued, the barbecue and columns especially were his life’s work and essential to him.  What could we say?

            The barbecue was square with an open front and chinks in the side to hold the lamb rotisserie.  It was huge, at least five feet tall with permanent metal grates installed to hold the coals; both the outside and inside walls were covered in marble.  Then the columns went up—four of them arranged in a semi-circle.  They were made of wood, painted white, and Dad found a special carver to get the Doric capitals exactly right.  He was full of plans for the Greek Easters he would hold and how we would all dance the sirtaki in and around the columns with the relative he was going to bring over.

The barbecue was never used and one day in a terrible storm lightning struck one of the columns and split it in half and the wind blew the other three down.  It was lucky Daddy didn’t see them destroyed; he had died several months before.  After the storm my sisters and I went out and looked at the tumbled columns.  We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.   It felt eerie.  I think we half expected him to come from heaven and raise them up.  That didn’t happen.

            We left the temple ruins in the backyard and got in the habit of calling the barbecue the Tomb of the Unknown Greek.  After a while I liked seeing the columns there.  It seemed to me that nature had created the perfect monument for the father I loved.

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