“It’s only when you grow up, and step back from him, or leave him for your own career and your own home — it’s only then that you can measure his greatness and fully appreciate it. Pride reinforces love.”
~ Margaret Truman
It has been twenty years since my Dad left us, and with each passing year, whether it is the anniversary of his death, his birthday, or Father’s Day, the pain of losing him may have somewhat lessened but as the years pass, and as I get older, I find I miss his presence more, and more. I miss his voice, his gentle hand, and his kisses, his huge hugs, his smile, and his special laugh but what I miss the most is talking with him.
I did not always feel this way about my Dad. Growing up, there were many times I did not like him, but I knew I always loved him. He was a man of few words, but his presence was always known. He was an extremely strict father, who disciplined, and ruled with an iron hand, and I was the “rebel with a cause”, who was going to break his strict discipline beliefs, and during my teenage years, it was my mission in life. He most certainly knew I was going to be his challenge, and I most certainly gave him a run for his money.
I often think of the man he was, and I have come to terms with many things in my life, and I now have a much better understanding of his way of thinking, and disciplining. I wish I would have understood him sooner, as I believe we could have had a much closer relationship during the important years of our lives. If we did, we could have talked through many of our disagreements rather than battling it out.
Today, I understand that he did not know how to be any other way because it was what he had learned, and what we learn is what we pass on from generation to generation, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Until one day, someone steps up to the plate, and changes the cycle, and I think that was my mission. While his discipline tactics were not always the best, in his mind, he was protecting his daughters in the only way he knew how and saw fit. He did not want his daughters to make the same mistakes he did but by sheltering us, he did not realize he was not allowing his daughters to grow and learn from our own mistakes.
I can sit here, and dwell on all of the bad, the harsh discipline but what would any of that change. Really, nothing. Today, I remember the great things about a man I called Dad until he became a grandfather, and from then on, he was only referred to as Poppy. The key thing to remember is how much he loved his daughters, his wife, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and the things he taught all of us, and more importantly, me.
He was a thin, good looking young man, with a dream, when he left San German, Puerto Rico, to come to New York. I am not sure what he did between the years that he arrived in New York, and when he met my mother at the age of 27 but my good guess, he more than likely was a lady’s man, an impeccable dresser, and he probably had an air about himself that appeared intimidating, and somewhat standoffish. That is my take, and when he met, and married my mother, he took charge to provide for her, and even more so when their daughters came along.
He was a spray painter for many years, and worked for a marketing exhibit company, painting promotional exhibits for name brand products, and services, which were displayed at conventions, but his dream was bigger. It was always to own a restaurant, and my mother, who was one of the most conservative people I knew when it came to money, along with being a realist, and nowhere near a risk taker stood by her husband and supported his dream.
They opened a small luncheonette in Mount Vernon, right on the borderline to the Bronx, and he was in his glory, and stood proud the day the sign went up, and there it was, Dave’s Luncheonette. This happened so much later in their life together but to him it was the beginning of what was yet to come. Remember, he was a dreamer. They both worked extremely hard, and long hours. They were up at 5am, and at the luncheonette by 5:30am, and ready for their first customer strolling in for coffee, and breakfast at 6am. There were many times during my father’s bouts with his heart issues, and when he was hospitalized that my sister’s, and I had to step in, and open the store with our mother. Oh, those 5am mornings were killers for me. Opening those gates, bringing in the fresh bread, and newspapers that were waiting at the door. Putting on the pots of coffee, heating up the grills, and greeting customers with a smile at 6am. Really, it is much too early for smiles. The days seemed endless, along with the end of day routine of cleaning the place and preparing it for the next day. My parents did this for close to 20 years in Mount Vernon, and again, remember my father was the dreamer, and bigger was still his goal.
Over the years, the neighborhood started changing, and after the luncheonette was broken into several times, they moved onto my Dad’s next dream, Dobbs Ferry, and opened Dave’s Charcoal Corner. A bigger place with more counter seats, and probably five times more tables than the Mt Vernon place. Bigger but still only breakfast, and lunch. By now, I had a career in banking, children, and I stood back, at a distance, and watched how hard they worked in the later years of their life, and I only helped out when absolutely necessary. My Dad was the cook, and my mother was the brains behind the pricing, and how to make a profit. No one handled the cash register nor the checkbook but her. She served the food at the counter seats, while a waitress handled the tables, which more often than not were my sisters on the weekends, along with my daughter during her college years. Me, oh, I was known as the black sheep of their daughters. Very rarely to be seen at the restaurant but when I did not have a choice, I groaned, and moaned all the way through it, and went home smelling like a greasy hamburger.
My Dad became known for making the best home fries, omelets, burgers, pancakes, soups, and more. This was the happiest time of his life, and his personality could easily get him sidetracked from the grill to have a conversation with any regular customer, which is when my mother would take over the grill with a huff. It was kind of comical, at times but as the years went by, the aging process, and my Dad’s health were catching up. He was slowing down, and while it was hard for him to accept, after a small grease fire, he knew it was time for them to sell the business and retire. I honestly believe he wished he had pursued his dream much earlier in life, but he had a good run for 30 plus years.
How ironic it is that history repeated itself. Who knew my passion in life would turn to cooking, and also, begin so much later in my life? During a visit with our family accountant, he said to me, “You should have taken over your parents’ restaurant.” I did not have a vision back then of cooking, I was working towards a career in banking, which turned out to be a successful one. I fought my father tooth, and nail to not have any part of the business. I had such a dislike for it, and maybe part of it was how hard they worked, the long hours, and while it was his dream, it was not mine, and it certainly was not my mother’s, but she was committed to him, and doing whatever made him happy. I have no right to judge that kind of sacrifice, and my point to this story is about all of the valuable lessons I learned from a man, who I battled with for many years.
My regret is that he is not here today for me to tell him, face to face, how grateful I am for all of the life lessons he taught me. Beginning with your values, the meaning of unconditional love, and the importance of believing, and following your dreams are all things I learned from him. He taught me hard work is a given. He taught me how to love my children unconditional, and the importance of being there for them through the good, and the bad. He taught me that you never give up on your children. He taught me the importance of family. He taught me to be courteous. He taught me respect. He taught me the importance of being a lady. He taught me the importance of presenting, and representing yourself well, and with class. He taught me that sometimes silence is golden.
It took me many years to realize and learn the most valuable lesson of all from my father, to grasp every moment in life because you never know when it can be taken away from you. In a moment, and without any notice. I am grateful that I got to dance a last dance with my father on my 45th birthday. It was in his hospital room, just a few weeks before he passed, and I still wish every day that I could dance with my him again, and to hear him whisper in my ear, “I love you, Debbie Ann.”
While the day of his passing will always be a blur, it is the priceless memory of our life together that will remain a vivid one for eternity. It is an example of a great love, commitment, sacrifice, and no matter how many years that have passed, it does not change the fact that even though my Poppy is not in front of my eyes any longer, his picture is in my heart, and my mind, and it will remain unspoiled forever.
“It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.”
~ Anne Sexton