When I hear Frank Sinatra in an elevator or on the car radio, it takes me back to our brick home where I grew up.
A Friday evening long ago, and I hear my father somewhere in the house alternately singing and humming, “Fly Me to the Moon.”
I walk down the hall and peek through the open door where he is tying a Windsor knot with a red necktie. Standing before the dresser, he gets ready for a night out with my mother and some close friends.
He had been working 10-hour days, selling wall tile and floor tile. But today was payday, and tonight he would be the life of a party, finally getting to use his salesmanship not for business but for pleasure, telling jokes over highballs and then sweeping onto the dance floor with his wife.
In the mirror, he catches me watching. He winks. He swivels his shoulders and sings louder. My father is Frank Sinatra.
Some of my happiest days were when he enlisted me and my brothers for an important job. Not the usual chores like weeding or scrubbing, but one for which he had to drive somewhere and he needed Charlie, Jimmy, Kenneth, and me to help with “men’s” work. Kevin and Pat, yet too young, stayed home.
Once, when Dad was president of our neighborhood association, we got to ride in the back of the tile company van filled with cases of ice cream and Mr. Newport root beer for the Southeast Improvement Association picnic.
It was a long road trip to the forest preserve, and he let us each sample a Dixie cup of vanilla ice cream that was packed in one of the cartons along with flat wooden spoons sealed in wax paper. Later, I would eat six more Dixie cups at the picnic — replenishment for all the work of carrying the soda and ice cream to the pavilion.
I do not understand why my father looms so large in my childhood recollections. He was not exceptionally tall and had a build that was similar to Jackie Gleason’s. And he couldn’t fix things like Mr. DiBennardi or shoot a basketball like Mr. Booth.
Maybe it was because there were so many kids in the 1960s, and adults were in the minority. There were eight of us kids in my family while on the next block, both the Michaus and Booths had seven children, and the Brackens, a few doors down, had 11.
Our cousins, the Vojtechs, had 10, mostly boys, so at birthdays and holidays we’d raise a clamor playing hockey with brooms and a ball in their basement while Uncle John Vojtech and my father drank shots of Guggenheim’s whiskey in the corner by the water heater, their eyes seeming to gaze past us as they doubtlessly pondered grown-up concerns, raising their eyebrows but also slipping easily into laughter.
So many children may also be why my favorite memories are the times I had Dad to myself. He got two weeks of summer vacation, and we were staying at Silver Lake. I was 10 and fascinated with lakes and rivers and fishing and had caught my first largemouth bass with an artificial lure.
That seemed to surprise him, and at sunup the next morning, he came along, I guess so I could teach him. I explained to him how I row and let the line out far behind the boat, with a green, balsa wood popping bug tied to the end. So he took the oars and rowed while I held the rod.
He asked me why I liked fishing, and he told me of his dream to someday purchase the cabin we were staying in that week. He had this peculiar way of rowing, first the left oar, then the right, instead of both at once. The rhythm of his rowing syncopated with the squeak of the oarlocks I can still hear today, like a movie soundtrack that stays in your head.
I knew we were floating too slowly to make the green bug pop and gurgle in order to attract fish, but I did not say so, hoping he would keep rowing that way, and rowing and rowing and never stop.
After he died, my prayer was that each person’s life was like a book with 100 chapters. And that in the next chapter my father would buy that summer cabin. And in the one after that he would dance with my mother at my daughter’s wedding. And in the next chapter of mine the two of us would go fishing in a faraway place like Alaska. And at night we would have a shot of Guggenheim whiskey and talk about how everything turned out.
And my heart would be full again.
Former Moose Lake resident David McGrath is author of THE TERRITORY. firstname.lastname@example.org