“Being Henry”

 

He rarely lost his temper, at least as far as I can remember. Once, twice if you count the pool house project, perhaps.  It was summer, the kind when I was young, you know, hot and sticky as summer should be. Saturday meant chores. Our father would dole out jobs to my brother and me. “Let’s divide this up and it’ll get done faster– Keith you vacuum the pool and Randy, you cut the lawn.”  Dennis, much older, was saved from conscription. As head foreman of an architectural woodwork company, delegating came naturally to dad. “And pay attention. NO accidents.” Randy was always in a hurry to do something more fun, or more reckless. The neighborhood teens wanted him to join in on an escapade, no doubt heading off to the woods to smoke or make out with some girls. I always did as my parents asked and was dubbed “the easy one”. Conversely  I was “the little dick weed” to my brother.  What was a “dick weed” anyway? It had to be  insulting.

My father, our tutor, would lecture us extensively on the art of mowing the lawn. “Slow and steady, even swipes across is the right way. You cut each blade thoroughly and evenly.” He’d brush his thick hand across the turf. “It’ll  come out like velvet.” Dad knew everything about everything and perfection followed. His handwriting was painstaking, except for a slight tilt back, the result of being left handed. His printing replicated the strikes of a Corona typewriter-exact. A skilled and masterful carpenter, he was solely responsible for the construction of our family home. Each rafter, stud, shingle and nail were carefully and methodically put in place by his hands or overseen by him. The house, a single story ranch with peaks and gables, required  mathematical prowess. Each corner was exact, the fit tight and with perfect geometry. His eyes were his level and T-square. I wasn’t the son who inherited that side of his brain.  Genetics gave me his body and fabulous head of hair. Shouldn’t that count for something?  My mother, lips pursed, head shaking would say, “Chip, when it comes to math, well, let’s face it…you’re just not that smart.”  I once attempted nominating her for “Mother of the Year”. In recounting the math comment, thinking this made her sound real, the panel stamped her application, “Rejected”. Hmm, go figure.

Slow and steady never worked for Randy. He threw the blades “on”  and engaged the transmission. Like an Arabian leaving the gates at Churchill Downs, the mower leapt forward. “Slow it down,” my dad yelled, waving his hands in an up and down motion. He muttered, “That kid,” half-smiling acknowledging Randy being a rebel.  Three minutes later the lawnmower, racing through the yard struck a rock. Rotating at full capacity the blades sheared a piece of stone, discharging it from under the deck as if a bullet and our dad was in the line of fire. The fragment struck my father point blank just above his right thigh and across his ass. Had he not had a decent amount of padding “back there” it could have been far worse. The shrapnel tore through his lightweight khaki pants leaving a gash in his buttock. Though not life threatening to him it was excruciating and potentially life threatening to Randy. With a contorted, deep crimson face he cursed. “Goddamn it!” This was one of the three times I’d ever heard him curse, the first being a slip up when he meant to say someone was a “smart fella” but called him a “fart smella”. It was a simple case of a reverse curse. Watching the veins on his forehead expand as blood pulsed through was mesmerizing. Limping, he approached Randy. “Didn’t I tell you not to rush? Goddammit you never listen!” My father was on fire! Three sentences, two curse words, one temper. This was shocking. My mother could reel them off like a truck driver but my dad? Never.  Randy ran. He ran like the wind, maybe faster. He ran, of all places, to our mother for protection. It was curious. We usually ran from her to our dad for the very same reason. It was, for a multitude of reasons, a moment in time, for all of us.

Every Sunday morning began with my father singing. From my bed I could hear it distantly as I slept. The mellifluous tenor voice, like so many of his other qualities, was taken for granted. Methodically he’d floss then brush his teeth. The Schick straight edged razor would grace his face as he’d inspect his work in the mirror through his ice blue eyes. If I happened to wake up and pass by he’d look at me, his face covered in lather, wink and carry on. Again singing, he’d run his light brown, square, wooden hair brush under warm water. Sweeping forward then backward and off to the right, his thick, straight, salt and pepper hair would fall into place. With a little nod of approval my dad would begin the day. There was order in all that was Henry. “Hey Ede, what do you need?” He’d stir exactly  one tablespoon of Maxwell House freeze dried coffee into a cup of boiling water, butter his toasted raisin bread and wait for his orders. Periodically he’d go out on a limb and have a bowl of Raisin Bran, but that was a special event. “I think we need Italian bread…how about bagels for a change? And stop by Lucibello’s for pastries, get sfogliatelle (his favorite), some bocconotti (chocolate and vanilla pies) and maybe a cannoli or two…no…just one.” He’d make the rounds with the addition of freshly baked rolls from Wolfe’s Bakery and the oversized chocolate chip cookies the bakery was famous for, one for each of us. Amazingly this was all done, start to finish, by 9 a.m. when the rest of us would usually wake up. It seemed miraculous to me as a little boy, and now as an adult, that my parents existed separately from us for only for three hours on a Sunday morning. More so, they never complained about needing any more time away from us than that.

Real life. My father was a young man who’d seen some of the worst parts of life. When two years old his mother died from complications of a medical procedure.  Left behind were six young boys with a father who struggled raising his children. My grandfather remarried, a choice less than perfect, which did not bode well for Henry, the youngest. His stepmother resented the little boy who needed mothering. Punitively, she would feed him spaghetti, morning, noon and night. Spaghetti. Life with his stepmother, “the queen” as the boys called her, was grim if not abusive. Amazingly, my father never spoke of his childhood strife and in later years recalled only the best moments of his youth. “We never had much but boy, did we have fun.” When World War II broke out so did my father. In the military he served with the Fourth Armored Division touring Europe. Like so many others, he was young, from a small city and far away from all he knew. His tour of duty allowed him to see a new world, not necessarily pretty but then again life in New Haven had not been so pretty either.  My father’s battalion liberated concentration camps, a horror  he’d never seen nor heard of and could have never imagined.

“When we were in the army…” or “You kids don’t know…” were the keywords beginning the stories my father would tell.  Breakfast, lunch, dinner and anytime in between, we would hear about his army pals, his Jeep, the tanks and so on. I became immune to them. Immune that is to all but one; probably the most impactful. In his wallet my father carried two pictures. One was of my mother, young and pretty with her done in the latest fashion. The other painted a different picture and within that picture was a lesson of cruel inhumanity. The photo was of  skeletal bodies, men, and women too, dressed in striped clothing wearing what appeared to be caps. There was no expression on their faces,  wait, yes, there was, hollowness and hopelessness. He’d point to the picture, his finger lingering as if to caress and comfort the people within it. “This is what we found. This is what man is capable of and I need you to understand.” I’d simply stare at the picture and wonder where the people were today. I wondered where they went, how they got there and who they found on the other side of the barbed wire. I wondered why my father kept it close by all these years later. Randy asked, “But dad, why do you carry it around? It’s so sad.” He would just stare at us through those blue eyes, now sad. “Because, if I don’t people can say it never happened and I need you to tell them it did. Tell them your father was there and never, ever, be silent.” Pointing To the people he’d say, “This, should never happen again” My father was wise, sensitive and caring. Once, as my parents watched the movie “Schindler’s List” my mother phoned.  “Chip, come over, quickly.” There sat my father, on the floor, legs pulled in tightly to his chest, hugging a pillow and inconsolably crying. His mind was reliving what he’d seen. I reached around,  hugged him and let him cry it out. Our life was blessed. He kept his own childhood experience and the Holocaust far from our existence. Henry was a hero, if not to the world, at least to us. As I sit listening to the news being reporting each day I wonder,  “What  would dad would make of all this?”

Yes, my father was proficient at many things but had two Achilles heels: cooking and fashion. Every weekend my parents would host dinner. The sweltering summer heat set us all by the pool on the afternoon of ‘the accident’. My mother, having made a ham for dinner the night before, decided on a pea soup for lunch. Why she thought soup on a hot summer day was enticing I’ll never know.  As queen of the pressure cooker, she loaded the ingredients into the pot, secured the lid and gauge then set it on the stove. Ten minutes later she called to my father, still in the house, “Hey Henry, when the steam starts to come out of the pressure cooker take the ‘top thing’ off.” Moments later screams erupted. My father knew nothing about cooking except how to put a tablespoon of freeze dried coffee in a cup and toast his raisin bread. We ran to the house as our jaws dropped. The creamy white counter tops along with the stove and cabinets were now awash in a sea of green peas. Pea soup was everywhere. Green and pink liquid, suspended from the ceiling, dropped one bit at a time, coating everything.  My father, shirtless and covered in soup, clutched his chest. Having suffered one heart attack my mother went to him. “My God Hen, is it your heart? What happened?” He was holding back tears shaking his head ‘no’. She asked with disdain, “Why in the hell did you do this?” Did she actually think he had nothing better to do so he invented the pressure cooker bomb? Slowly he removed his hand from his chest. There, short, white and searing hot, was the ham bone fused to his skin. “You told me to take the top off.” He could barely speak through the pain. “You told me…” Though horrified she felt the need to reprimand. “I told you to take the top ‘thing’ off…you know…the gauge.” Apparently he didn’t know and why would he? At the hospital the ham bone was removed leaving his burn welted and raw. Until the day he died his once perfect, hairless chest,  bore a small, two inch scar shaped like a canoe. Here was a man who’d lived through the “Battle of the Bulge”, returned home physically unscathed and  was now a casualty of the “Battle of the Bone”. It was a shame.

“Come on, Henry, we have to get to dinner. We’re meeting Marge and Bob and Marion and Mickey.” It was common for my parents to go to dinner on Friday nights. “Alright, alright, I’m getting in the shower.” My father was a news junkie and once situated in front of the T.V. became a fixture. “Hurry up, I’ve laid your clothes out.” One thing can be said about my dad, he was competent when he was “doing it yourself”  but could not dress himself to save his life. Dressing for work was easy. There were three outfits, two khaki and one blue. His white shirts, embroidered with the name ‘Hank’ on the pocket, were easily noted. From underwear to top coat my mother would lay out the clothing she purchased like a Hollywood stylist. Was it that she didn’t trust his taste or was he just a little boy in certain respects? Being on time was always a contest he was determined to win.  It seemed my mother, dictatorial, could,  at times, be emasculating. In an effort to rebel, my father would always rush, dress and seat himself in front of the television as though he’d been there for hours. When she was finally dressed and ready to go he’d say,  “Well, I guess you took your time.” His ability to do so showed a certain muscle in their relationship. But this time something was a little off. Was it me or were his pants not quite right?

“Hey,” she called from their bedroom, “Where in the hell did my pants go?” Clearly in haste she’d forgotten to lay out her own clothes. “What?” I wasn’t sure what she was asking.  Baffled, she said, “I put my pants on the bed but they aren’t here.” I glanced at my dad, proudly sitting, fully dressed, watching the events of the world. Realizing what had happened I laid my hand across my mouth. “This is definitely not going to end well,” I thought, “Maybe I should call The New Haven Register.”  The newspaper headline would read “Suburban Wife Murders Husband Over Pant-Napping”. “Um, dad, I think you’d better change…fast.” He looked puzzled and annoyed. I was interrupting the sports news. “You’re wearing mommy’s pants.” He looked down at the black socks showing just a little too much. “Aw, gosh darn it…” This was his version of cursing and meant he knew he’d, well, fucked up. As he stood I could no longer contain myself from bursting into hysterics. “Shh!! Be quiet….be quiet!” The pant legs were up to his calves exposing his socks and his ass was perfectly outlined. He couldn’t have done a better job with his pencil, instruments and drafting table. In her pants he cut quite a figure. We won’t even discuss what was going on with his crotch. I could barely catch my breath.  My stomach began to hurt from laughter.  My mother, now dressed, entered the living room. “You know Chip, I have no idea…” Looking at me having hysterics, unable to breathe, she turned to my father who looked like any other Italian man who regularly wore Capri pants.  She broke up laughing, so hard she began to wheeze. “Are you kidding me? What..in the hell…are you doing?” And then, sharply, “Are you an idiot?”  Correctness was not my mother’s strong suit but really she meant no harm. Still, her derision of my father sent him retreating to their bedroom. Like little Henry, from a sad childhood place, he spoke, “You told me you laid out my clothes. I saw the pants but no shirt so I got one myself.” It broke my heart.  I think he truly believed the real problem was the plaid shirt he chose and to his point it did not match her pants.

“Who in the hell is he?” my mother asked, “Have you ever?” I shrugged my shoulders. “You created him.” I pondered the look on his face and knew he needed a champion. “Go apologize.” My mother was taken aback. “Apologize? Why?” She always acted the mother but in this instance had acted the stepmother. “Because you hurt him and we’re lucky to have him and I can’t imagine why but he loves you.” It took exactly six seconds and she followed him. You know, in thinking back over that moment, it  wasn’t a stretch to envision my father, as dressed, to have taken the stage on “drag night”. Given a few decades and some practice, in those tight little Capri pants he could have been our very own “Henriette”. Watch out Caitlin, Henriette was fierce!

I love my dad and miss him every day. And so,with Father’s Day having just passed, I think of Henry. In my eyes he was the best of what a man should be. In my mother’s pants he was the best of what a man should be. In life he was simply the best of what a human should be. Of course he had flaws and shortcomings, we all do, but this is not about that. It’s about a little boy, a young man and an adult, all the same person, remembering his dad fondly. I wish everyone could have known him for there was nothing to do but love him. He never said no to a friend or family member and especially not to his boys. “Doing” was his expression of love. He renovated an entire house for Dennis and built a bar rivaling the ‘King Cole’ at the St. Regis for Randy. And for me, his epic achievement was obvious–being Henry. With a less than a perfect start my father made good, both in family and in life. He broke the cycle of his childhood and loved us without condition or retribution. He was simple and easy with no demands…oh yes, there was one…no spaghetti allowed.

As the years went on, and time streamed by, a rare, neurological disease took over my father’s mind. We first noticed something amiss when he was unable to hook together a combined dustpan and brush. The man who’d been fastidious and mathematical was failing. Still, he continued to sing brightly and loudly. Looking back over so many wonderful aspects of my father, the thing most pronounced for me was that he never questioned my life or my love. He never judged me for being gay and he never turned away. I was just his son. I was Keith. Even as his mind diminished, everyday when we would visit with one another he’d simply raise his eyebrows, smile a little mischievously and tap my nose with his…it was our special way of kissing…and that was all I ever needed….he was, after all,  just “being Henry”.

 

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