This will be my first holiday season without my father; he died in May from complications related to Alzheimer's Disease. Six months have passed since then, and my friends will tell you that I'm pretty okay on most days now, although there are a few odd moments that still catch me by surprise. I expect to run into more of those moments as the season progresses, not only because of Thanksgiving and Christmas, but because Christmas Eve would have been Dad's 77th birthday.
Memories of times past flood my consciousness at times, but that doesn't mean I'm awash in Currier & amp; Ives nostalgia. Anyone who knew my dad in the days before Alzheimer's remembers him as a man of relatively few words, no discernible sentimentality and firm, often vehement, opinions. He was not given to effusive flattery; the highest compliment he gave was declaring something to be "not bad." But he had no trouble at all telling you when he didn't like something, as anyone who ever accidentally served him mayonnaise will attest. Once, after sampling a drink, he screwed up his face into an expression of complete revulsion and announced that the drink tasted like porcupine urine. I never had the guts to ask him how he knew.
Dad came from a strict Catholic family from Nova Scotia and Boston who would have been very comfortable with the theological precepts laid out by that famous New England preacher, Jonathan Edwards, in his cheerful sermon, Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God. Love and affection were demonstrated not with hugs or encouraging words, but with a paycheck, a home and meals on the table. Holidays were no exception. Oh, sure, we had a Christmas tree, along with stockings and wrapped presents and all that, but our Christmas activities were not so very different than a typical Sunday. We'd go to church in the morning, have a roast-something for a midday dinner, and then Dad would settle down on the sofa with his Schlitz beer to watch whatever sports were on television -- his favorite pastime.
When I was a kid, he figured out a way to share this pastime with me. First, he'd pour a little bit of beer in a shot glass for me, making sure to create lots of foam, because that was my favorite part. Then I'd sit next to him on the sofa and we'd watch the game together. Which game was the game would vary according to season, but you can bet we always rooted for Boston.
Because of all this exposure to sports, I knew the rules of
baseball by the time I entered first grade, and I picked up
the basics of the other major sports soon after. And the
lessons didn't end in the living room. Often Dad would take me out into the backyard for a game of catch or maybe some light batting practice. He had been a pitcher back in high school, so he taught me how to throw a fastball and a curve ball. He even showed me the secrets of the knuckleball, although my hands were too small to get the job done. Still, thanks to Dad, I was able to make points with the neighborhood boys -- not for my clothes or my ladylike demeanor, but because I didn't throw like a girl.
My musical education was equally skewed towards Dad's taste. While my peers chose their favorite Beatle, I sang boogie-woogie along with Freddie Slack on "Cow Cow Boogie" and "Down The Road A Piece." I knew more about Benny Goodman than about Mick Jagger, and my knowledge of Oscar Peterson's repertoire was darned near encyclopedic. I hummed the tunes of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France a good 35 years before Ira Glass considered using them in his radio show. By the time I reached high school, I needed remedial rock 'n' roll just to be able to talk to people my own age. At the time, I didn't appreciate the gift of musical experience that I was getting from Dad, but I certainly appreciate it now.
It was not easy growing up with a parent whose world was defined in black and white ...win or lose ...good and bad ...us and them ...Red Sox and Yankees. My own world evolved into infinite shades of gray, and we went through years of strained communications. But we made it through and eventually found a way to connect. As he struggled with Alzheimer's in recent years and his world became a far more unpredictable and uncertain place, he came to trust my familiarity with the shades of gray, and our relationship changed yet again. But even as he became more trusting and more dependent on me, I found myself missing the curmudgeon I used to have for a dad. That guy with the definite opinions hasn't been around here for a while now, even though physically he left us just a few months ago. But I'd be willing to bet that in his new life, he's already starting to make his opinions known.