Friday, April 1, 2016

Finally - Dad. (Part 1)

I prefer to remember my dad the way he looked as a young man. The way he looked in the pictures I saw of him taken in the 1950's and 1960's. Not when I knew him when he had that wild, curly, 1970's hair that used to reach the roof of his car even though he was only 5'10." In the 1980's, he lost that 70's hair.  Not because of the cancer treatments he started in 1981 (oddly enough, he never lost his hair like the majority of patients do) but rather because the styles changed, just like the best things in life always do.

After he died in 1984, I took out his college graduation picture and made a conscious effort that any time I thought of him, I'd only think of how he looked in the 1950's and 1960's. Somehow, it made thinking about him less sad.

My father only walked this earth for 41 years, and I only knew him for about one decade of those if you count the years I was an old enough child to have a clear memory of him. A few decades later, he has become an almost mythical figure to me, and I have to rely a lot on what people older than I am can remember, and I'm always anxious to hear stories about him. Luckily, my relatives and his friends are always more than happy to share what they remember of him with me.

One of my favorites comes from my mother's first cousin, Carol. My mom is an only child who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and every summer to escape the City, she and my grandmother spent the entire summer in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with her my grandmother's sister who is Carol's mom. My grandfather joined them on weekends. When my mom and dad became serious, she brought him along on one of the visits to meet Carol and her sister, Barbara, who were like sisters to her. Carol told me about the first time she "almost" met my dad. She said she went out to her country backyard to meet him where he had climbed a tree and was just sitting at the top it, enjoying the country air. She told me that when she spotted him all the way up there, she thought: "Well, I guess we're not going to be meeting him today."

Even though my father had what many people would consider a short life, he did a lot in those 41 years. He was a Language Arts teacher for 17 years at Prall Intermediate School, I.S.27, on Staten Island, New York, and he was also a singer and songwriter. He enjoyed teaching and often brought in his song lyrics to have his students analyze them as assignments.  One of the projects he had done in the late 1960's or early 1970's was an album based on Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" poetry book. Whitman was considered pretty "out there" for his day so he self-published and paid for "Leaves of Grass'" first edition and even did most of the typesetting. So basically, Whitman joins the ranks of today's indie writers like myself (or on my bad days, I choose to think of it this way). What my father did with Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" is kind of like what Kate Bush did years later when she wanted to use James Joyce's Molly Bloom monologue from his novel, "Ulysses," as lyrics for one of her new songs and wasn't granted permission. Instead, she wrote "The Sensual World"  and just changed the words, writing her own version of the original prose, keeping in line with the feeling of the words, which in the end is all that really matters - what feelings pieces of music bring to its listeners.  

After my father died, I went through every single loose leaf paper he had in his bedroom dresser drawer, and there were tons of them. It took me months to go through them all, but every weekend when my mom and brother were out with their respective friends, my 15 year old self grabbed another pile from his drawer, sat on my living room swivel chair in front of the TV, and read through every single word. When I read the lyrics based on Whitman's work, I hadn't yet read the original "Leaves of Grass" that they came from. As a grieving teen, I don't think I was really ready for it. It wouldn't have impacted me the way it did when I finally picked up the book several years later. When I read through "Leaves of Grass," I was amazed, and I could see what the appeal of the book was for my dad. It is a celebration of life. It was written for people who enjoy sitting at the top of trees all by themselves enjoying nature around them. I imagined my father reading Whitman in college and embracing his days as a young man, enjoying this earth while it was still his.

My father was a well-liked person because he accepted everyone as being the same as him. He felt a connection with others and with nature around him so I can easily understand his identifying with "Leaves of Grass." Below is an excerpt from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" which is part of "Leaves of Grass":

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

My dad wrote this song version of Whitman's "Song of Myself":

My dad wrote at least 9 songs based on "Leaves of Grass." Once I read the original book, I was happy it moved me as much as it moved him because there was now another reminder I could forever have of him because these reminders keep his memory alive to me on those days when I really miss him. My whole life has been a quest to recapture what I can remember of him. Whitman wrote:

“Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.” 


Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" is both a celebration of life and also a celebration of nature. He believed we should enjoy the little things in life and embrace the natural world that was given to us. His words are affirmation that every human being is connected to one another regardless of generation or even century of time.  He believed human life was carried on THROUGH nature because every generation walks the same green earth. He meant this figuratively AND literally, proclaiming that human beings once deceased eventually are "reborn" again through the growth of the grass beneath future generations' feet.  This passage below is simply beautiful and is one of my favorites from "Leaves of Grass": 

"What do you think has become of the young and old men? 

And what do you think has become of the women and children? 

They are alive and well somewhere, 
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, 
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the 
end to arrest it, 
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd. 

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, 
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” 

That last line brings me comfort. I like to imagine my dad is in a happier place even though he can't be here physically with us. I know that I titled this blog entry "Part 1," and eventually I'll write a Part 2, but I have no idea when. Processing the loss of my dad has taken me a long time. In fact, it was not too long ago that I could finally display his school teacher picture in my house which is the picture I have that looks most like the way he looked during the years I knew him. So like I said, there will be a Part 2 one day. In the meantime, I, and hopefully now you, will celebrate Whitman.

Dad and Grandma in the 1970's

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