My dad

January 2nd marked a milestone: my dad has been gone for 35 years.  It’s so weird to realize that.  I always think what would be different — how I would be different — if he was still here.  He was only 51, so its equally surreal to think of him being 86.

I still remember him, although naturally since I was so young, I have less memories than my brother and sisters who were grown up then.  He and I had a lot of paradoxes in our relationship, but he was my dad.

Here’s one of my favorite pictures.  My dad went to Daytona Beach, Florida this year to see his mother after she had been ill. He took me with him because I was 3 or 4 and not in school. Here’s the two of us playing Monster’s-gonna-get-you! or something similar. Unfortunately, I remember this trip to the beach, but not this moment.

I love these pictures, because any pictures of my dad are rare, especially candids. So to have these were we’re playing around means a lot. (He passed away a few years after this.)

The picture of me leaning against the fence in the upper left also came from this trip.

One other thing that stands out in my mind is Daddy at Christmas.  If he could hear the people around me now who say Christmas is for kids, he’d laugh — or have some quick comment.  My dad definitely embodied two quotes:

“It was said of him that he kept Christmas well.”  – A Christmas Carol

And

“Though I’ve grown old the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

I like to think that I’ve inherited some of that from him.

Whenever we hit these milestones for my dad before, I’d call my mom and we’d get together for the day.  We’d visit the cemetery (either alone or with John & Ralph), and then sit to reminisce at brunch or lunch.

This year, when I realized it was 35 years, my instantaneous thought was “I have to call Mom”.  I can’t believe it; I thought I was past that.  I mentioned this to a few people in my family, and my sister Cathi said she’d come with me.  As I drove to meet her, I couldn’t help but think of the big milestone this was — the first time doing this without Mom — and then it hit me that Mullica Hill/South Harrison was both the last place we lived as a family and the same place where Mom and I spent our first years without him.  So when I met up with Cathi, I told her with a smile, “Get in the car.  We’re going for a ride!”

We visited the cemetery where my nephew Art is buried next to my dad.  There’s cameo (is that the right word) photos of them on the stone, both in tuxedos.  I told my aunt about this and she thought it was a wonderful idea.  So I promised her I would embed a tv screen running a video collage of her life with someone like the Movie Preview Guy doing the voice over: One Woman.  One Life.  One Adventure!

The funny thing is: my mom hated that picture of my dad!  It’s from my sister Terry’s wedding and while it’s a great one of him, he’s been “celebrating”… heavily.  LOL!  That was all my mom could see!

From there, I drove to the swim club that we belonged to while we lived there.   I told Cathi and we both felt much happier now that this day was going to be about good memories.  In a moment, we remembered the way, drove over the hill hoping it was still there… and it was!  Like anything from childhood — even Cathi who was a teen then — things seem much smaller.  That was the high dive that I was terrifed to jump off of?  This was the big expanse of ground where we laid our towels?  And I told her how later, when she was off to college and then on her own, a friend’s mom would drop off all the kids in the morning and my mom would pick us up on the way home from work.  A few times, they’d treat us to a “picnic” where they’d bring lemonade and some sides, and we’d get burgers from the grill.  Only kids would be thrilled over forgoing a good, home cooked meal for a greasy pool grill!

Then we went to our old mobile home park.  Our trailer was there!  At the time, it had be so modern, larger than anything else with 3 bedrooms, large kitchen…. now it looked old, especially against the brand new double wide next to it.  Still, it looked pretty good.  They had changed the siding and skirt; the fence was down and instead, they had large trees like columns lining the front of the yard.   We joked about knocking on the door and asking to see the inside!  The old red and black shag carpeting… our room… the hallway that had the light switch only at the opposite end of the hall, and when I’d read or watch something scary, how I’d RUN down the hall to get to the light switch!  The best thing: my dad’s last Christmas — the one in the hospital — we got him his own tree and decorated it in his room.  We planted that small tree in the front of the trailer; it was still there….  I wish I had taken a picture.  I don’t know why I didn’t.

But again, the trailer park seemed tiny! The place is small enough to begin with, we only had about 8 mobile homes on our street. But now… The street signs that once rose above me were now shorter than me (I don’t know why they put those signs so low… so they were eye level with drivers?)  The BIG hill that we would sled down and ride our skateboards down, I could now walk up with a dozen steps.  And get this!  They took our bus shack down!  What is wrong with people!  That bus shack sheltered a lot of kids and we griped about it everywinter!  We would say how cold it was out there, and every parent said, “What are complaining about?  You have that bus shack to keep you warm.”  It was open in the front and certainly not insulated, and yet our parents acted like it was a ski resort – or so it seemed to us.  As an adult, I appreciate that it sheltered us from rain and wind (when it came from the three sides with walls).

A tree with a circular garden stood there now.  I told Cathi that it was the Bus Shack Memorial Park .

We drove the mile to my elementary school (glad to see the old farm where “Momma Cow” — one we’d stop to pet the years when we lived there – was there.)  and here things changed.  I was ready to see it look small.  Instead….

This building that looks like part of a college campus library is ONE building of my old elementary school!  It’s become HUGE!  With all the developments eating up the farm land, they needed a bigger school.  The open crosswalk from the old building (Still there) to the new building (now replaced by these new buildings) is now enclosed.  Unfair! I had to freeze, so do these kids!  A baseball field is behind it now, but so are our old monkeybars, swings, and the tiny little area where we’d play kickball just about every recess.

I made sure I looked for this:

Do you see the ditch to the right of the blacktop?  I’m not old enough to have the Civic Defense movies where they taught you to duck and cover under your desks in case the “Commies” dropped the bomb on us. (My sister Cathi said even worse, they made her class crouch next to the lockers.  Yeah, that’d save you.)  Instead, they terrified us with a movie on tornados, including images of it OBLITERATING “a town just like yours”.  Yeesh!  I was so terrified by this thing that, hearing that tornados are caused by the wind coming from 3 directions spiraling storm clouds into a funnel, I’d run out on every cloudy day, wet my finger with my mouth, and tried to feel if the wind was in 3 directions.  Since a wet finger feels like the wind is coming from everywhere, I’d run in a panic to tell my mom we were doomed.  (After all, we lived in a mobile home!)

After the movie, I asked the teacher where would we go since it said to go to a basement or storm shelter, and the school didn’t have one.  She said we — the entire school — would go into the ditch next to the school; the lower ground level would help the tornado pass us by.  The ditch in that picture above.  I’m serious.  That little hole that would be no lower than the height of my ankle was going to save us from a freaking tornado.

Let’s face it.  We’d be toast.

The last stop for the day was Hill Top Restaurant.  This place opened shortly after we moved into town and we went to it frequently.  In fact, in the last couple of years, Mom & I ate there once a week as our “night out”.   The place has been bought and the name changed to Blue Plate, but it was basically the same. Cathi and I each had our old standbys from those years — a Reuben for her, a grilled cheese for me and followed by mint chocolate chip ice cream.  We talked about more memories: how terrible it was for Mom if we didn’t tell her we were out of milk or something until she came home from work (since the closest store was a Cumberland Farms, 25 minutes away).  Or how Cathi painted all her bedroom furniture with black light paint one year.  And our dog, Rufus, and all the great times we had with him, including how he’d get the slightest wince and we’d build him a bed of pillows.  How our dad would yell at us for doing it, because Rufus would act like that knowing we’d baby him.  “The second you’re not around, he’s up and tearing around the place!”  HOw Cathi babysat for a Jewish family, and my Mom & Dad told her to take me with her, so I’d learn this season wasn’t just about us.  And how aggravated both sets of parents where when their kids and I just tried to figure out who got the most gifts: them because they had 8 days or me because I had a big pile.  (I do remember them showing me their ceremony for lighting the menorah and I was so impressed, I tried to get my family to do it too.)

We didn’t talk about the moments where I’d catch myself thinking, “I can’t wait to tell Mom the pool is here” or how we both must have thought she’d never be there for one of these days again.

But even with those moments, we had a fantastic day, filled with laughs and happy memories.  Cathi even thanked me for thinking of it, and I felt it’s the best she and I have been since Mom has been gone and the Ralph situation. It had started off as a sad thing and instead, I came away feeling wonderful.

I bet Mom & Dad loved it.

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