Every Autumn, I have recurrent thoughts about a person who was of great importance in my life. Though his memory is forever bound within my heart, it is during that change of season each year that the memories seem more alive to me, more vibrant than at other times...
I remember some of my friends idolizing certain music stars like Ted Nugent or Aerosmith when I was growing up. They vowed to pluck away at those skinny little guitar strings until their fingers bled, in their quest to achieve the ultimate ‘Rock Star’ status. In my mind’s eye, I still vividly see them strumming away at this melody or that, amplifiers screaming, their sound resonating off the concrete basement walls during some of the jam sessions I attended.
There were furthermore those friends who aspired to one day become the next best
female figure skater the world would ever know, surpassing the US Olympic Champion at the time, Dorothy Hamill. Ice skates would be donned and laced to the hilt for hour after hour of grueling practice week after week. Gliding across the ice they’d go, poised, hurdling through the air, and dancing on skates until their little legs could barely support their frames any longer.
Personally though, I never had an idol that I looked up to. I never aspired to be “like” anyone. Although I received much pleasure from music, sports, and the Arts every bit as much as the next child, the only person I ever really remember observing and being somewhat awestruck by was my own father.
I’m not certain as to why my dad stands out in my mind as my “hero” of sorts. For sure, he never came to my rescue by slaying a 50-foot fire-breathing dragon that was on my tail and endeavoring to massacre me. Nevertheless, he was my knight in shining armor in the battlefield of life on numerous occasions while I matured. Looking back, I recognize now how his being the warm, devoted, upright person that he was on a daily basis had an enduring affect on me becoming the good person that I would become as an adult, more so than observing any famous person from afar ever could have. Largely because of him, I am who I am.
My father, Richard, was born into a large family in Hamtramck, Michigan in 1936. He was the
youngest of six children, five vivacious boys and one eccentric girl. His family dwelled in a yellowish two-story brick home on Wyandotte street, just off of Joseph Campau. The houses in that neighborhood stood shoulder to shoulder. It was quite the hefty-sized home and occupied much of the city lot wherein it was situated. There was a narrow dirt alleyway running behind the backyard, where the aluminum garbage cans were stored in metal racks. Trash was collected by city workers there. The backyard was like a matchbox, half-filled with an assortment of vibrant flowers that Babu, my grandmother, lovingly nurtured. The other half was overflowing with a large vegetable garden containing beans and cucumbers, lettuce and potatoes, carrots and celery, and every imaginable item grown that would be eaten fresh, as well as canned during the harvest. It was their custom and the way they always did it back in the old country. At that period in time, Hamtramck was a predominantly Polish community culturally. Its residents were largely bilingual, many of them having just emigrated from Europe. My grandparents were amongst them and began their family when settling there.
Being the youngest, and my dad always said the cutest of the children, he got away with a lot more than his siblings did in life. When chore time came ‘round, the natural order of things guaranteed he’d be left with the most minuscule of tasks for completion, as my grandmother always assigned responsibilities beginning with the oldest child first, on down to the youngest. “Richie, go sweep the dirt off the back porch”, my grandmother would say when the bulkier tasks requiring completion had already been doled out. “Yes, mama”, my dark-haired, blue-eyed father would reply. He was an obedient child, compliant, and one who matured into a fine young gentleman. He entered the US Army immediately after high school graduation. There he became an amphibious truck driver, which is a military vehicle that is capable of operating on land or in water.
Thanks to his older siblings, my dad had an enormous amount of extra time on his hands while
growing up in the city. As a result, his interest in music raged. He never played a musical instrument, himself, but oh, how he adored the sounds of music and listened to it any time or place and in any form that he could. If there was a concert in the park or a live band performing at a tavern down the street from his house, the sweet melody reaching his ears, that’s where he could be found. The radio, record player, or television set were always alive with the hum of a skippy beat when he was near. It never took him very long to begin snapping his fingers with the rhythm or tapping his toe on the floor, as my dad and whoever the artist-of-the-moment happened to be, dramatically belted out the lyrics together in their deeply masculine voices. Half the time, I don’t believe he was even conscious of his singing, but others noticed, particularly if we were in public. They would merely grin at him, in the same manner in which my dad’s own lips were constantly turned up in delight at the corners. He was always a joyful guy. If we were at home in our living room, up he’d bounce off that hideous gold velvet couch to the middle of the red shag carpet where he’d dance, dance, dance ‘til his heart content. My younger sister and I would glance at each other humorously, raise our hands in front of our mouths with embarrassment, then giggle at him as we watched, the way little girls do when they think their father’s acting like a silly goose.
One time in particular on a dreary, drizzly Saturday afternoon, when my dad was at home babysitting my sister and me, a song was playing on the radio. The drum and guitar sounds exploded in full force, and the song began. It was music by Elvis Presley, his favorite singer, entitled “Blue Suede Shoes. “ His face lit up as he recognized the tune instantly. He cranked up that old radio dial and said, “Kimmy, come stand on daddy’s feet and we’ll boogie to the music!” He held my petite hands within his own while I perched atop his shoes, balancing myself in place, as he danced me around the room like a princess on her throne, spinning and twirling me, hopping, sliding, and bopping across the floor. I never laughed so hard in my life, as did my sister when it was her turn next. I must’ve been about six or seven years of age. Over the years, we shared many dances similar that one until finally, I was deftly capable of dancing on my own two feet to the beat. It’s an understatement to say that I attribute a great deal of my love for music to my father, crediting him for having fostered his own affection for it in my home environment when I was young.
As time drifted on I grew, as children do. My father’s love for song became my own while I sang everywhere in life, church and school choirs, special events, eventually a band, and learned to play the clarinet, as well. I gained a great appreciation and admiration for classical as well as modern music through the head start my dad imparted in my life. As for the dancing, that tradition continued to take place over the years, as well. Music always abounded. Eventually, it was passed on down to my own children through me. My kids enjoyed it every bit as much as I did when I was small, their lithe bodies attempting to balance atop my feet as I’d swing them around the room in sync with the beat. Music makes for happy times.
There is one dramatic thing that changed in my life as a child though. My father became ill shortly after this recollection began. He suffered his first heart attack at the age of 45 and was diagnosed with a congenital heart abnormality. He underwent cardiac bypass surgery and remained somewhat healthy for quite awhile. His name was added to the countless names on the donor list for those in need of a heart transplant. Unfortunately, he didn’t survive until that perfectly matched heart would arrive. His own had simply given out. My mom found him deceased, sitting peacefully in his Lazy Boy chair when she came home from an impromptu shopping excursion one evening 17 years ago. He would’ve been 72 years old this month, had he lived. I miss him dearly every year as the autumn season rolls around and the leaves begin to change their color. It saddens me that my children never had the opportunity of knowing the magnificent man that he was, their grandfather.
Sometimes, while I sit very still beneath the ancient oak tree in my yard, I’d swear I hear his singing still, those melodies carried upon the billowing breeze. “Don’t worry, dad. The music carries on”.