Thursday, July 14, 2011
My father was something of a stoic. When he sliced across the palm of his hand with his chainsaw while cutting up the big blue spruce which had come down in a storm, he did not panic or yell. Calmly, he wrapped his profusely bleeding hand in his jacket and stuck his head in the door (no further in order to not drip on the foyer floor) and said softly to mom, “Terry, I need for you to drive me to the emergency room now.”
This stoicism sprang from a number of places. He was one of two brothers, brought up in a small apartment in Brooklyn during the Depression,. It was a time where most everyone around had to suck it up and move on with things. The Patterson boys had no father around and were raised by two women – their mother (my magnificent grandmother) and HER mother. They called their grandmother ‘mom’ and their mother ‘mother’. Don’t ask me why. I believe they were protective of these two women’s emotions and were not inclined to accept much babying or sympathy.
My father’s father left his young wife and two tiny boys when my father was two years old. Saying he was headed out to California to find work and would send for them when he was established, he left and never returned. Both my dad and his brother Ed went on to have successful and long marriages. They did not repeat the abandonment trend despite not having any real fatherly presence in their lives from which to copy and fashion themselves.
Dad’s stoicism had a bit of a flip side. His outward strength could turn to anger and, although he loved my brothers and me, he could not show much affection beyond the occasional game of catch. And there were unbendable rules. No radio playing in the car. No twisting electrical cords. No slamming doors. No leaving the table until dinner was over. No talking back. Once I asked him something and he did not hear me. I repeated my question and he said “what?” mildly annoyed. “Oh, forget it,” I said. SLAM! His hand whacked my cheek so hard my head hit the wall. “Never say ‘Forget It’ to me!”
William Flynn Patterson was born on June 24th 1926, in Sacramento California. His mother followed her new husband out there where she had grand dreams of Hollywood success for herself. She had, on her lunch hour one day, tried out for the Ziegfield Follies. She got a callback, but did not go. I’m not sure why.
From the get-go, little Billy was destined to become an engineer. He tinkered with crystal radio sets and salvaged old appliance motors from the trash. One such motor was so covered in tar, rendering it unworkable, that he had the bright idea to melt the tar out of it. He put the motor on the stovetop in a saucepan, added water, set it to cook and went to do his homework in the apartment living room. After a while, he noted that the fire engine sirens outside seemed awfully close. He looked out the living room window to see two scary things. One was firemen running into HIS building. The other was smoke pouring out of HIS kitchen window. The motor was no longer tarred, but Billy got the tarring of his life!
Bill and Terry met at Our Lady of Refuge, where both of them were parishoners. They were married there and I was baptized there. They moved to Long Island when I was a week old and never left. They were as devoted a couple as one might ever find and in many ways, typical of the times. Bill went off to work each day and Terry took care of house and children. They traveled to Europe on vacations and took a cruise to Alaska.
I like to think, in some ways. I was my father’s favorite, not so much because I was the only girl, as I was the one who liked working alongside him at his basement bench, hammering, drilling and sawing. We borrowed a cigarette from the neighbor to sodder a small piece of metal and he let me smoke the rest of it. He taught me how to mow a lawn, keeping even rows and overlapping just enough to get a clean carpet. He took me to the local liquor store where the eccentric owner had a large monkey cage in the middle of the floor. He took me to Carvel and taught me how to eat an entire cone without dripping a drop. He ran alongside me as I learned to ride my brother’s cast-off two wheeler. And later, he taught me to drive, clenching the armrest and gritting his teeth the whole time.
Eventually, we three grew up and out, heading off in different directions. I married and had five kids, dad’s only grandchildren. In his own dignified (some might say stiff) style, he relished this new role and, I believe, found a renewed sense of the joy of life in their growth and development. All five tell stories about happy times at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
Grandchildren grew up, and mom and dad slowed down. Mom was diagnosed with Altzheimer’s Disease and left us quite a while before she died. Dad lost his eyesight and became lethargic and depressed. Without Terry – even a sick Terry – he was lost and lonely. We visited him in his dark and quiet house where the ticking of the Grandfather clock seemed incessant and loud, but he was fading away from us.
It’s a strange thing. My mother died two years ago and I grieved. But it was only when my father died too, this past February, that I truly felt them both gone.
It is true, and thankfully so, that we remember mostly the good things in people. My mind re-visits times with the good mom and the fun dad. He never left us, even in his mind, my dad, unlike his own father, who abandoned his young family.
So now, I am an orphan. First in line at the pearly gates and sitting behind the desk where the buck stops. I walk through the empty house where I grew up and hear children's voices - mine and my brothers' - and those of my own children when they were young and running into the kitchen for Grandma's brownies. Thinking of the times I was home sick and my mother would buy me a Venus Paradise Coloring Set to work on in bed. Thinking of the times my dad would let us climb the ladder to the roof to hammer nails into the shed he was building onto the back. Thinking about learning to ride a bike and dad running alongside, letting go just at the right moment as I pedaled away.
And with that image as metaphor, I will close this entry. I am pedaling away. Dad has felt free to let go. I ride down the block and turn the corner until I can no longer see him waving.