It makes me sad, that for some reason most memories of my father’s true personality — before his “elder decline” — are closer to vague snippets, moments of response or general photographs, as opposed to videos of detailed dialogue and exchange. Maybe it’s because I did too many drugs in adolescence (and his decline began shortly thereafter). Maybe it was just too long ago, and within the inception of middle-age my own memory has begun to decline. Or maybe a good portion of our dynamic, in classic American patriarchal fashion, were not much more than vague snippets of response, general photographs of an adoring father, a loving man, but a man nonetheless, in the traditional sense of lacking where the feminine fills with greater depth, maintaining a dynamic based on the pragmatic: Great game today, son. How’s school? What do you want to be when you grow up? But this would be an over-simplification, a stereotype that Dad (and all dads) surely dip their toes in and share in its ven diagram, but doesn’t come close to comprise who he was (to me). In addition to the cookie-cutter parental inquiries, one of the most frequent questions I heard from my father throughout childhood, a repeated snippet if you will, was while holding me in his arms, either on the couch or lifted above his shoulders: Who loves you? I knew the answer every time.
Dad loved music and his BMW’s as well. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t categorize us as wealthy. We did not own multiple BMW’s — in fact while Dad was indulging as much, for most of my childhood Mom drove a 1991 Toyota Camry that I think was finally put to rest with just over 200k miles, a broken tail light, and a full banquet’s dinner worth of old food stains on the backseat. But before corporate America came to its realization that it didn’t have to give a shit about Americans, before they let Dad go and canceled his entire pension after forty years, there were free, luxurious company cars! And his was always some sleek-ass Beemer.
I think all of Dad’s kids and all of our cousins consistently remember Neil Diamond — Dad blasting his music in the car louder than most sixty-year olds would — and not at all to be “cool” or impress us. Quite the contrary, when Neil was playing I think he preferred no one in the car speak and interrupt the jazz singer’s brilliance with some trite childish inquiries. Even while driving, Dad would wave his free hand around like an orchestra conductor while doing his best baritone Neil impersonation to the words. I remember noticing that even on the thruway he’d use only a few fingers of one hand to guide the steering wheel, which I was in as much awe of as I was his love for the tunes. No surprise, Neil Diamond (at Madison Square Garden) was the first concert I ever attended, by my father’s side.
I remember Dad’s affection. He loved putting his arm around us all, also rubbing everyone on top of their heads, messing up our hair as if it were some tactile game for his own amusement at a carnival. I vaguely remember reaching the age where I had to request that he stop doing that. I had my hair styled a certain way and preferred it not revert to its chaotic morning look. A deeply sensitive man, in hindsight I’m sure this request made him sad, sentimental over the first symptoms of his child outgrowing childhood.
I remember Dad’s charisma. When we’d go to his office on 47th Street he wasn’t shy about making his presence known, a generally big morning entrance shouting salutations to all of his coworkers through their opened office doors on the way to his own, guarded by his secretary, Carmen, who consistently received from him a boisterous: Carmencita! To be honest I don’t know if he’d even had coffee on these days. An impressive morning person and I’m not sure if it was because I was alongside for the day, but everyone seemed equally excited to see him/us. Dad was definitely one of the guys.
I remember when Scott Norwood missed wide right in January of 1991 and in an instant, the Giants won the Super Bowl. Dad must have not been terribly fond of the Buffalo Bills’ head coach, Marv Levy, because his knee-jerk reaction was to jump off the couch and bring his extended middle fingers as close to the TV as possible while shouting: Fuck you Marv! FUCK YOU! Our house was filled with families we were friends with, over for the big game, including a few very small children who I hope were not traumatized by the event. Seventeen years later I’m confident my own reaction was identical, sub Bill Belichick for Marv.
I remember Dad’s burps. EVERYONE remembers dad’s burps, as to this day I don’t think I’ve heard one louder. Even in rooms that did not echo, it was as if they echoed off the walls, bellowing through the air, putting a halting stop to any and all conversation in the room. Vague memories of childhood friends in stitches, as if it were the funniest joke they’d ever heard. Later memories of high school girlfriends in fact equally entertained, appreciative of how comfortable he apparently felt around them. It should be noted that Dad was born in Staten Island in 1932, I never brought a white girl(friend) home and he never showed any hesitation in affectionately squeezing them all by his side, kissing them on the head, and messing up their hair too. Not that being not a horrible racist should be applauded as so impressive, but if I’m honest this truth is one I am grateful and proud to share.
I remember Dad’s farts. Thankfully I don’t think any of my ex-girlfriends do — he knew enough when to hold back — but my brother definitely does. Unlike any flatulence you’ve ever heard before, they sounded more bubbly than gaseous, as if some kind of disastrous jacuzzi malfunction, often with his back turned to us, refilling his glass of Scotch, followed by a fist pump: “Score!”
Why “score?” I grew up thinking farts were some kind of victory.
I remember the second time I got arrested. I was sixteen. Dad picked me up from the police station, quietly took care of whatever paperwork was necessary for the authorities, and on the way out to his car he walked up ahead of me. A wise man, he wasn’t yelling or screaming (like Mom did later), he didn’t call me stupid or a “jerk” like the cops had a few hours earlier. Instead he simply shook his head, tossed his car keys up in the air, and caught them in his hands, an expression of absolute confusion and disappointment I hope never to identify with. I’m sorry.
My final memories of Dad, before the fifteen year “elder decline,” were in attendance of Giants games during my first years as a stand-up comedian. Every Sunday morning on the ride out to the stadium I would excitedly relay to him my show experiences from the night and/or week before, like an eager child relaying his first times getting a hit in little league. I remember he was so interested in my journeys, so inquisitive about this world that was so foreign to him, and we never listened to one Neil Diamond song in the car ride. My final memory of a cognitively present Dad was a word of advice on one such day back in 2001: “You should keep a journal of these experiences.” I did so, for fifteen years, and have spent the same amount of time working on transforming it into a book.
Shortly thereafter I remember Dad growing disengaged with our dialogue on football Sundays. I knew it wasn’t because he wasn’t interested, nor that he stopped loving me. He just wasn’t connecting conversationally in the same way. These changes transpire subtly, especially when it is your first time observing it in a parent. At a snail’s pace, but just as undeniably, it grew worse, then worse again, until eventually I learned to not talk too much about my experiences in comedy, or anything for that matter. Dad wasn’t quite Dad anymore, although we were so lucky to have who he once was for as long as we did.
Maybe BMW’s, Marv Levy, and physiologically concerning farts are enough. Maybe it isn’t important to remember specific dialogue, or to be able to parallel a lost family member’s personality to that of someone else in our present life, with hypothetical curiosities such as: Who of my friends would Dad be? Who of my coworkers is he most similar to? I guess the loudest one. I guess that would be me. And maybe therein lies the answer: The reason it becomes increasingly difficult to place our finger on some precise point of who our parents once were is because it is too close to home to see with such clarity. He was me.