I have memories of my father speeding through the bustling streets of Milan in his brand new Alfa Romeo equipped with the equally brand new shades he kept pulled when transporting a woman other than my stepmother. The fact is that everyone in the rione (district), including my stepmother, knew that when the shades were drawn he waswith his lover of choice, but he insisted on pretending otherwise. When she saw him, my stepmother would begin cursing in Venetian dialect at her misfortune in having moved to Milan and being stuck at running a dry cleaning shop (his idea!) to make ends meet while he frolicked around with other women. “Va remengo ti e to mare!” she would yell (go die somewhere, you and your mother!). It felt like a scene from a silent 1920s movie, the protagonist a caricature of his own agenda and motives.
Or when I lived with my grandmother many years earlier and he would come visit once in a while. He would talk over me at the table with my grandmother, asking about me. “Is she making any friends?” tilting his head in my direction. His lips were tinged purple. His fingernails were buffed. Before anyone could answer, he switched topics, and bragged to his parents about a recent gig at Dimitri’s, a jazz bar where he periodically played the piano. “Standing room only,” he added, lifting his chin, his grin unabashed.
I would run to the bathroom and stare at myself in the round mirror that hung above the sink, searching for proof that the man lingering over tortellini at our table was not my father. Fathers adore their daughters. They embrace them with arms held wide. They teach them about the necessities of life. The man outside was an old acquaintance of my Nonno’s; a neighbor stopping by for a friendly chat. It was no wonder he was cordial but indifferent. The similarities between us, however, were unquestionable. Same brown eyes, almond shaped as if were both of Asian origins and not Italian. Same thick eyebrows. Our pretty, small ears were nearly identical. His girlfriend at the time, a full-breasted twenty years old, would whip at me with her thick pony tail every time she turned her head, which was frequent, all the while clucking at everything my grandmother served. “Ah! Wonderful Russian salad! I love Russian salad!” she’d chirp away while licking her fingers like a homeless kid feasting on her first meal in days. My father was in his forties, I recall, and she was much younger in every which way. I heard later that one day she took off from the apartment they shared with the excuse of buying milk and never returned, heading straight for the church where she married another man her age.
When in my late teens I moved with him and my stepmother in Milan, he buzzed the intercom at dinner one time and asked for me to meet him outside. “What for?” I asked. I was busy with night school and my full time job, on top of helping my stepmother raise my two-year old brother, the fruit of their union when everyone believed he was still faithful to her. “Someone is here to meet you,” he replied. I catapulted myself downstairs, hoping for something fun and yet wanting to get this over with. Instead, I was confronted with a bleached-blond, short woman of some sort with crooked teeth and a fake smile. She at once grabbed my hand, her sweaty palm rubbing against my fresh skin. “I love your father and we want to run away,” she declared in a mellifluous tone. I stared back at my father, my pupils becoming as focused and as dark as two bullets. “I think you, Father, need to run away upstairs and eat your minestrone. Your plate is getting cold,” I replied, my stomach into a knot. His languid expression stared back at me as if to say, “How can you be so cruel?” I left both in the street and climbed the steps four at a time, disgusted at my one immature parent, and totally confused over his role as a father. To protect my stepmother from needless hurt I lied and told her that a neighbor was with him, but I could tell from her expression that she knew better, having faced his frequent disappearances with stoicism and resignation.
Years later my father would contract lung cancer, the three packs a day doing him in. His chest had collapsed into a sunken little cave, and his manliness had become a faded memory of the past. During those months our encounters had become brief and hurried as I had moved out and moved away to the United States, but his demeanor had changed to that of a loving, all-devoted and focused father figure. Once, during one of my visits, he bought me a clock from Switzerland, one of those wall apparatuses with a funny-looking bird emerging at given times to spell the hour. He thought it was the most useful thing to own and I had complied with his credence, finding it rather amusing that his clearly underdeveloped emotional side had led him to buy me something as useless as a clock. Another time he had gotten me an encyclopedia, which I had been forced to give away immediately as I lived in the US and couldn’t possibly transport. But his love at last had come through in quirky ways.
The last time I saw him he took me to the airport as I was leaving to return home to my new husband. “I’ll never see you again,” he said, his down-tilted eyes aiming for his chin. I shrug my shoulders and headed for the gate, turning one last time to wave goodbye and not believing a word he uttered. He stood there, his Humphrey Bogart hat in his hands, his head bowed as if in prayer, his eyes spelling Goodbye, his chest a miniature of his old self.
He died three months later, suffocated by the tar that occupied all of his lung’s space. As he predicted, I never saw him again, but those last few encounters made up for all the errors he committed in his earlier years.
With time and patience, I came to realize that people and parents especially love us the way they can; they give however they are able to, and their own upbringing issues are often at fault for their less than being-perfect, less than omnipresent, less than loving. In looking back, I saw how his love for love itself was a cry for being accepted and understood as someone who didn’t get what he needed as a child when war ravaged his home, his surroundings and destroyed his own family of origins. He had me and then my brother, but he still longed to be loved as the kid he never was. We, children first and teenagers later, are quick at judging and demanding, but we often forget how every human being is imperfect and every person does what he or she can.
The Swiss clock? It still stands proud and loud on my wall in my living room, testament to my father’s child-like persona and love for his one daughter he couldn’t provide for in the way we think our fathers should.
Let’s celebrate the next Father’s Day with respect, honor and most importantly love for those who have given us our precious Life. Let’s remember to tell them how much we appreciate their efforts and embrace their errors as part of a common path we all share, that of learning and growing.