“Catch me if I fall,” the child trills from the limb of the cherry tree.
“I’m right here,” replies the father. “I’ll catch you.”
“Catch me if I fall” – that universal prayer to the father who will be always be there under the tree we are climbing, in the car we are driving, in the race we are swimming. And while we thrill to the excitement of independence and self-determination, we are, at the same time, afraid we may go too high, too far, too fast. Catch me! It is this request that lies inherent in all of our prayers as we ask the father to be there as we climb the cherry trees of our relationships, our careers, our ambitions. We ask him to be our safety net, for with this security beneath us we can dare to be brave.
He was nine years old and part of the Italian immigration that arrived in America at the turn of the 20th century. He and his older brother, Dominic, and his younger brother, Louie, arrived with their parents in 1912 and went directly from Ellis Island in New York to a small western Pennsylvania town where other friends and relatives had settled. The family rented an apartment above a bar in the lower end of town where all of the other Italian families lived.
Of the three brothers, Dominic, the oldest, was the most ambitious. He would eventually end up with the largest house in the better section of the town and outlive his two brothers. Louie, the youngest, had striking Italian good looks, and was the most out-going and charming of the trio. He had a quick wit, a ready laugh and a kind heart. He drank more than he should have, lost money playing cards and never amounted to much but everybody liked him.
The second son was named Sante, nicknamed Sandy, and he had neither Louie’s good looks and bon vivant indifference to fate nor his older brother’s canniness and drive. He was the middle of the three brothers and this middle position seemed to color his appearance too, for everything about him was medium – his height, his weight, the color of his brown hair and eyes. Only the space between his two front teeth was unusual and in later years, these teeth would be lost one by one and it would be the jack-o-lantern smile that would be remembered.
He had little patience and a short temper that would be dramatically lost upon occasion accompanied by much door-slamming, Italian swearing and arm waving. He smoked long, skinny black Italian stogies and on the Sunday afternoon drives he took with his family in the car the air would be thick with acrid smoke.
Leaving school after the third grade, he completed his education at the local steel mill and foundry which was named Shenango, an Indian name for the river that ran through the long valley. His lack of a diploma seemed not to interfere with his life for his ambitions were not high. He could do enough math to watch his money and could read well enough to follow the sports in the newspaper every day.
Sports were his great love. His favorite game was baseball and his team was the New York Yankees. But they were far away in New York and he in Pennsylvania so he concentrated his energy on the local high school teams and would follow them to out-of-town games. One year, when the local high school won the state championship in their class, he took the whole team out to a local restaurant for a celebration dinner.
Along with team sports, he loved to hunt and fish and every year he was part of the fall exodus to the mountains where he would try his skill at rabbit and deer hunting. He kept a few hunting dogs over the years but did not seem to have any affection for them, treating them with a careless indifference that edged on cruelty.
More than anything, Sante wanted a son. But he was infertile and believed he was less of a man for it. Because he yearned to have a boy to share his love of sports, he became a big brother to some of the youngsters who were kept at George Junior Republic, a county institution that cared for boys who were delinquent, orphaned or from broken homes. And over the years, these big, gangly boys from across the state would be taken to games, taken hunting and fishing and when they were old enough introduced to the fellows at the neighborhood bars.
In 1945, after nearly twenty years of marriage, a mutual relative told Sandy and his wife about a man who helped people just like themselves – who were too old or too poor or too ethnic – to arrange private adoptions for a consideration. There were a lot of young girls with soldier boyfriends in the 1940’s and a lot of babies without homes. Sandy would have preferred a boy but that summer only girls were available.
Shortly after the baby was adopted, the first signs of Sandy’s future health problems started to manifest. He had to quit working at the steel mill and took a job as a bartender in the neighborhood bar he had once lived above. On the weekend, live hillbilly bands would play in the dining room and everyone would drink too much and dance. Later he would work at the Italian Home, a social club with a bar, restaurant and meeting hall.
But even this work proved to be too much, and in 1953, he and his wife decided to build a small dairy store on the extra lot they owned beside their house. It was open from 7 in the morning to 11 at night, and often later on the weekends when traffic from the local football or basketball games kept everyone hungry and excited. A combination dairy store and luncheonette, the store sold a little bit of everything and could provide anything from coffee and donuts to full dinners.
By 1955, Sandy was diagnosed with diabetes and the next year he had an operation for kidney stones. In 1957 he caught double bronchitis from winter cold but by the time his illness was properly diagnosed, his heart had enlarged and his ability to work was even more restricted. Then one a Friday night in 1960, after attending a local football game, he died of a heart attack on the way home.
They came from Detroit and Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, from Youngstown and the Valley, singly and in pairs, the relatives and friends he had made over the years came to say good-bye, for he was a well-liked man. The baskets of flowers accumulated around the casket, fifty-three in all, just four short of each year of his life. On a cold, rainy day in late October he was buried and his obituary was published in the sports column of the local newspaper.
My father died when I was 15 – before I ever had a date, before I graduated from high school, before I finished college, before I married, before I had the two sons he had been waiting for all of his life.
When I think of him, I remember being three years old and laying on his chest as he sat in the easy chair while he sang “Daddy’s Little Girl” to me. I remember walking with him to the news stand every pay day where he would buy me my favorite comic books. I remember the pair of ice skates with black and white pompoms he gave me when I was 11. I remember working in the store the evening he furiously warned off a local boy who was talking to me. I remember him coming home drunk one night and bragging to the friends who brought him that he had enough insurance to send me to college when he was dead.
Although he respected the feminine, it was the masculine he loved and I longed to be the son he wanted. He never took me fishing or to a baseball game; we never had a beer with the boys down the club or stood around at family gatherings out in the yard discussing politics.
Now, when I climb too high or too far or too fast, there is no father beneath to catch me, there is no one to protect me from myself. But the lessons he taught me have served me well in my life’s battleground. I learned how to fight and how to stand alone; how to be strong rather than vulnerable; how to lead and not to follow; that intelligence endures longer than beauty; to watch what a man does, not listen to what he says; and to always sit with my back to the wall and my eye on the door.
Sometimes I think of this man who held me in his lap while my head lay on his chest listening to his heart beat and if I am very quiet I can hear him singing to me again. Thank you, papa, for everything. I wish you could have known my boys, I wish I could kiss you again. And to all the fathers everywhere, I hope we made you proud of us.
“You’re the end of the rainbow, my pot o’ gold
You’re Daddy’s little girl, to have and hold
A precious gem is what you are
You’re Mommy’s bright and shining star
You’re the spirit of Christmas, my star on the tree
You’re the Easter bunny to Mommy and me.
You’re sugar, you’re spice, you’re everything nice
And you’re Daddy’s little girl.”
(Sung by the Mills Brothers, late 40’s)