It simply doesn’t have the same sizzle as Mother’s Day. Or Valentine’s Day. Or even Halloween, which is more like a night than a day.
And that’s a shame.
I don’t say that out of jealousy as a father, but because of the vivid memories that take me, and countless other sons and daughters, on a journey to the yesterdays we shared with our fathers.
The comedian Billy Crystal traveled that journey in a wonderfully nostalgic and moving and, yes, funny “700 Sundays,” his recollections of the weeks and years spent with his dad. My wife and I watched it again just recently on HBO.
I had 864 Sundays with my dad, hundreds more with my mom, and thousands of memories.
It was the day before Thanksgiving 1951. The extended family was going to be there, and when you are one of 10 children, it is indeed extended. There would be the usual chaos of overlapping conversations, which really did sound like a symphony orchestra warming up.
There would be Mom’s incredible Creole cooking and a table filled with her cakes. And there would be prayers and thanks.
Everyone would be there, but me.
There was a high school football game a hundred-plus miles away scheduled on that Thursday and I was a not-very-talented tight end, a 16-year-old senior nearing the end of an easily forgotten athletic career. Dad said we could play football as long as we also studied music.
On Wednesday morning, it was time for Dad to go to work. For years he had held political office, starting in his early 20s, and he also owned and edited a weekly newspaper.
He traveled some, but mostly he was at home. And there wasn’t a day he was there that I didn’t kiss him good morning and good night, as I did my mom. So I rushed out of the house that day to catch him as he left, kissed him and wished him an early Happy Thanksgiving.
That was the last time I saw my father alive, 864 Sundays and three days.
The family had gathered in a dining room filled with love on Thanksgiving, and shortly afterward Dad and four brothers went to the location where a new family home was being built. He sat in a lawn chair as my brothers were clearing some branches from trees. He died there of a heart attack at 51.
It happened as our game was being played, but the brothers at my Catholic school were correct in deciding not to tell me until the team returned home.
We lost badly, and I dropped a touchdown pass from our skilled quarterback who would later play for Tulane University. About halfway home on the bus I looked at my seatmate, and out of nowhere I said, “I have this feeling something is wrong with my dad.”
Decades in the news business have made me a hardline skeptic, and I have always been wary of folks with a sixth sense, so, why that feeling then?
A half-hour or so later our bus broke down, about 14 miles from home. I soon saw Brother Linus, our principal, drive up in his car. I knew he had come for me. And he had.
It was a big funeral in the small town of Bay St. Louis, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Dad, an every-day Mass Catholic, had two requests: He was to be waked in his home, and his six oldest sons would be pallbearers. I was the youngest of the six.
For our father, it was family first and always, from the beginning to the end.
The next few weeks remain a blur, but the heartache can still be felt when those dark days are revisited, especially when the echoes of Dad’s voice and pictures of those years can be heard and seen in my imagination.
We walked home from school every day at noon for formal family dinners; supper was in the evening. We sat at our father’s right hand to learn our table manners. He set the marks we were expected to achieve on each six-week report card, and if we slipped below, we were grounded.
We all pitched in at the newspaper, especially on those long Wednesday nights when we went to press. I was 7 or 8 when I started folding papers by hand. The work ethic was drilled into us early on, and summer work in the grocery stores or the sundry shop was expected, even if it wasn’t financially necessary.
Then there were those days when Dad would take me politicking and we would sit in someone’s country kitchen, galette and coffee on the table, and the adults would be talking in Cajun French. I didn’t understand a word, but it was a fun learning experience.
One of the clearest memories was the September hurricane of 1947. No names in those days, just a hurricane. We lived on a farm then in what used to be the country, 4 miles from downtown. A casino now stands on what used to be pastureland.
The hurricane hit unexpectedly hard and swift. By 8 o’clock that morning, an hour or so after my parents had returned from church, the first family in a neighboring community arrived at our house seeking a place of shelter. All day my dad and brothers and friends were rescuing people in rowboats. By the time the wind and rain subsided there were about 100 people in and out of our home.
Mom fed them all and loaned many our dry clothes. And Dad never stopped taking care of his neighbors.
He understood and practiced the joy of having a generous spirit, and preached the beliefs that if you persevere you can succeed, and that our differences are our strength.
That’s who he was.
Happy Father’s Day to all.
And, Dad, here’s a kiss for you.