When I was young, on the weekend my father would shake my feet to wake me up and then do the same to my older sister, Eva. He would happily say, "Wake up; I want to go out and play today." He would make us breakfast and then we would get into his light blue station wagon still half asleep and venture out for the entire day. He didn't have a lot of money to spend, but Eva and I never knew it.
He always had a plan and would study the road map he kept in his car before telling us where we were headed. We went to air shows, zoos, horseback riding, the United States Military Academy at West Point and even on a submarine once. He paid for us to go on a tour of the submarine and had us lay on a cot in the berthing area so we could experience what it would be like to travel underwater for months in such small quarters. He once took us to Amish Country in PA and as we toured a home he explained their unique and different culture to us.
From our apartment in Guttenberg he drove us to Union City, Hudson County, a predominately Cuban neighborhood in New Jersey, for Cuban sandwiches. Although he never graduated from high school, he taught himself some Spanish and encouraged Eva and I to learn Spanish as we got older. He read five newspapers a day, cover to cover, and loved to share current events with us. As we ate our Cuban sandwiches he explained who Fidel Castro was and why so many people had fled his regime to begin a new life in America. Eva and I were very impressed as he spoke Spanish with the shop owners.
My father was a quiet and a gentle man. Always soft spoken. I adored him for as long as I can remember. I loved the way he treated people with such respect and kindness. I always admired him, and as I got older I noticed that other people did too. When I was a kid I thought my father was like everyone's father -- turns out that was true.
During our weekend rides it was commonplace for him to pickup hitchhikers and if he picked up a serviceman in uniform he would go out of his way to deliver him to wherever he was going.
Eva and I watched from the back seat as he would engage the serviceman in conversation and encourage him. "Keep up the good job and when you leave the army you'll be better prepared for life," he would say.
Sundays we usually took the bus into Manhattan, where we would do interesting things like ride The Circle Line. He would point out every landmark and tell us the history behind it. He loved to take us on the subway to Nathan's in Coney Island. Once there, he would give us each a five dollar bill and then he would settle into a booth for the afternoon with his newspapers. Eva and I would buy food and then run around Nathan's playing and laughing at ourselves in the fun time mirrors. I remember that five dollars he gave me went a long way back in 1970.
In 1968 we went to see the movie Oliver, a Charles Dickens' classic tale of a young orphaned boy. On the walk home from the theater that afternoon he told us how he was raised in an orphanage in New York after both of his parents died. Never one to complain, he told us the nuns were wonderful to him and loved him like a mother would. As he got older he was placed in a few foster homes before he joined the Army. He often joked about how lucky he felt to own two pairs of shoes while in the Army. He later had a long career as a maintenance man with Western Electric in Murray Hill, NJ.
As teenagers he still took us out each weekend and he would ask us to invite specific friends to join us and he would pay for them. We often went to Yankee Stadium to watch the baseball game and he bought us tickets in the least expensive seats. To keep the cost down he waited for us in the car where he read his newspapers and then took a nap. On a hot July day he once took Eva and I along with several friends to The Liberty Motel on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen and rented a room. He read his newspapers enjoying the air conditioning while we swam in the pool the entire day.
At the time I didn't realize that most of the other neighborhood children he invited didn't have steady father figures in their homes.
Once while walking along Park Avenue in Guttenberg I saw an older man we kids called, "Georgie, the shoe shine man" because he shined shoes to earn extra money. I noticed the winter jacket he was wearing look funny on him because it was a girl's jacket. I also thought it looked like the new jacket I just bought. When I went home I looked for my new jacket, and my father told me he had taken one from our closet to give to George that morning. It just happened to be my new jacket.
I was shocked one day when a Guttenberg police officer told me my father bailed a young man, jailed for a minor offense, out from jail. He didn't have the money to do that. I asked him why he did it and he responded with his favorite saying, "Everyone deserves a break in life."
After Eva and I moved each an hour away, we became concerned while he struggled to pay his bills. When we talked to him about it he told us how his tenants hadn't paid their rent in four months. He explained that they were good hard working people who fell behind after the man lost his job. Eva and I were angry with them and wanted to discuss this with them, but they didn't speak English.
I remember that year as we walked through Shop Rite the week before Thanksgiving he purchased five turkeys. By now my mother had died and I laughed as I asked him what he would do with five turkeys. When he returned home he rang the bell of five people in the neighborhood and handed them out. He said they needed them. He repeated another favorite expression to me that day, "Everyday is Thanksgiving when you live in America."
He was always happy and appreciated everything he had. He felt blessed. He adored his two little girls and later his two granddaughters. He gave so much, yet he had so little. He thought he was the richest man in the world.
I was still heartbroken in 2002 on the one year anniversary of his death. I drove to Madonna Cemetery in Fort Lee to place an American flag on his grave. I noticed a man walking around in the cemetery and became frightened when he began to walk towards me. He waved behind him and a woman and a young girl got out of their car and together headed in my direction.
As they approached me, I was so surprised when I recognized his tenants. By this time his tiny house had been sold and I had no contact with them. I wondered how they even remembered it was the anniversary of his death.
The young girl translated for her parents and told me they called all of the funeral homes in the area asking where he was buried. They found the cemetery and she told me they had been there for two hours walking up and down looking for his name when they noticed me. I was dumbfounded and so touched. Both the man and the woman were crying as we stood before his grave. Not able to speak much English, the man hugged me and said, "Your Papa is my Papa." He just kept repeating that as his wife gently caressed my father's headstone. And then the man took the small American flag from my hands and placed it on his grave.
I miss you Dad. Happy Father's Day.