Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Right Stuff

When I was a little girl, these were my heroes - The Mercury 7 Astronauts! You could have your cowboys, movie stars and superheroes. I could not imagine anything braver than going out into space, the great unknown, to see the stars up close and look for life on other planets. That was the kind of stuff that heroes did. Little wonder that some years later, the move, "The Right Stuff" became one of my favorites. However, none of these brave men were my very first hero. My very first hero was my Dad.

My dad was not very big in statue. He claimed to be 5'9", but I don't think he ever made it past 5'6". He was the youngest of three brothers with one sister who was the actual baby of this Italian family back in Brooklyn, New York. My grandfather, his dad, died in a work related accident when my father was only 11. Born in 1903, those were the days before workers' comp or social security so there were no death benefits. It was also before child labor laws and mandatory school ages were imposed. So at the age of 11 my dad left school to get a job along with his brothers to help support the family. He kept up his math and reading skills on his own and taught himself how to be an auto mechanic by apprenticing with someone. By the time he was an adult, he had taught himself enough to open his own service station which he kept up and running for over 40 years, and which supported his wife and children until he retired.

We were a family of 3 girls, so I, being the middle child and, therefore, neither the oldest nor the baby,  became the son he never had. He was always patient with my endless questions as I watched him work on cars, or fix things around the house. He would explain the different parts under the hood, what they did, and what they were supposed to sound like when they were working well. If I didn't understand something, he would draw me a picture to show me how it worked. He let me handle the tools and he never talked down to me because I was a girl. He treated me as a person in my own right. I repaid his kindness by being the one who sat with him on Sundays to watch his westerns and war movies with him, even though he had seen most of them a dozen times and usually fell asleep half way through them. Hey, you can never get too much John Wayne!

Even though he worked long hours and did not have a great deal of time to spend with us, he always asked how we were doing in school, what we were up to, and how our friends were. He always "showed up" to be a dad, even if it wasn't as often as I would have liked. He would be the peace keeper in disputes between myself and my mom, or myself and my older sister who was 2 years older than I (my younger sister came along when I was 8 and I became her self-appointed second mother). He was always calm in an emergency, always looked for the logical solution to a problem, and always told us that no problem lasted forever if we just let it go.

We lost my dad in 1991, right before his 88th birthday. Before the dementia and Alzheimer's claimed his memory and personality, he gave my mom a very special Christmas present, a Fisher-Price little boy doll named My Buddy. He told my mom that it was the son he was never able to give her. When my mom died 10 years later, Buddy came to live with me and has the place of honor on my bed - my little brother!

The first heroes in our lives should be our dads, and I salute all those men who "show up" and take on that responsibility. I know it isn't easy to raise kids in these days of terrorists and wars, and hate-filled politics. Our dads need to be the ones who let us know in no uncertain terms that he has our back and that we are safe. So for all of those dads out there who have The Right Stuff, I say Happy Father's Day. May you raise sons that follow in your footsteps, and daughters who marry a guy just like their dad.

And so it is.