Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day

I miss my Dad.

He died five years ago on St. Patrick's Day, less than two weeks before his 84th birthday, after a lengthy illness. Every father-son relationship is special, but I had a particularly great dad. He was a brilliant man who loved sports, music and movies and had a great sense of humor. You can read his complete obituary here.

Dad was the high school football coach and athletic director in the town where I grew up. He was not like most football coaches. Dad had a doctorate in education, and in another life he would have been a great lawyer. But he was one of those lucky people who managed to have a career in something he really loved. He was the head coach in Swampscott, Massachusetts, for almost 30 years and his coaching career lasted over 40 years. During that time, he had one of the best records in New England high school sports history. He lost less than 1/3 of his games, had 8 consecutive undefeated seasons, and won the first High School Superbowl in the state. All of this at one of the smallest schools in the state. As a result, he was somewhat of a local celebrity.

Dad's parents moved to this country from Poland shortly before he was born. They were dirt poor, and after living in a tenement in Boston for a few years, they managed to buy a small farm in western Massachusetts. When my dad finished high school, he was offered a scholarship to St. Anselm's College in Manchester, New Hampshire. It's hard to imagine this type of thinking now, but his father (my grandfather) was very upset at the thought that his son would go to college instead of staying at home and working on the farm, which he considered a "good, honest living."

I never met either of my grandfathers. They both died before I was born. I'm the youngest in my family (my mother was 40 when I was born), and both my parents were the youngest in their families, so there was a huge generational difference between me and my grandparents, who were all born in the 1880s. Both of my parents were first-generation Americans. My father's mother was illiterate (and his father probably was as well). My father taught her how to sign her name on legal documents. Neither of them ever learned to speak English. And here I am, only two generations later, a professor at one of the best schools on the west coast.

I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for my grandparents to give up everything they had to come to this country. And it must have been equally difficult for my father to decide to go to college against his father's wishes. But it worked out well for my father. He became a star on the college football team, and when he finally talked his father into going to a game, he saw the crowd reaction to Dad's playing and finally realized his son had amounted to something after all.

My father graduated from college during WWII, so he went directly into the Army Air Corps. However, he never saw action because he was badly injured in a plane crash during a training mission. When he left the armed services, he got a job playing for a semi-pro football team (the Providence Steamrollers) long before the NFL existed.

Growing up, it was clear that I was very different from my father. Although I love watching sports, I was always terrible at playing them. It must have been difficult for him to deal with that. I know it was difficult for me. Not only Dad, but the entire town expected me to be a sports star of some kind. The worst of this was from about age 10 until freshman year in high school. Fortunately, I had great grades and excelled in the high school band, which of course played at the football games, and that took a lot of pressure off of me playing sports.

Dad valued education very highly, and I am forever indebted to him for helping to put me through three different schools. After I got my master's from USC, he would often joke that I had 3 degrees but no job. Like many film school alums, my first 3-4 years out of school were pretty terrible for me, but not long after that, my career really started up picking up steam, and it was clear that he was very proud of me.

Unfortunately, by the time I won my Emmy, Dad's health was declining, and he was was not really aware enough to understand what an honor it was.

We had a particularly special bond because when I was 10 years old, my mother developed colon cancer and spent most of the next two years in and out of the hospital before she finally passed away. This happened at almost the exact same time that my sisters both left home to go to college, so the house went from 5 people (with 3 women) to just me & my Dad. So in addition to working a full time job and coaching the football team in the afternoons, he also had to come home and do the cooking and cleaning.

My dad was an outstanding cook. His love for cooking and baking was outdone only by his love for gardening, which resulted in a lot of fresh vegetables for him to cook. He would make his own spaghetti sauce from tomatoes grown in our garden. He grew just about everything at some point, including asparagus and strawberries, both of which are very difficult to grow in New England's climate. He made strawberry shortcake from scratch that was just amazing.

When I think back about why I love my dad, probably the strongest memories are of watching sports with him. I remember watching college football bowl games on New Year's Eve with him when I was too young to go out that night. He always preferred college ball to the NFL, as the players were clearly playing for the love of the game, and not for money.

But my most pleasant memories are of watching Red Sox games with him. He was a huge baseball fan. He was good friends with Johnny Pesky, who lived down the road from us. Johnny spoiled me forever by routinely getting us the best seats at Fenway, right behind home plate. Dad also knew the Conigliaro family very well, as they all went though the town's school system. "Tony C" was a very well-loved Red Sox player who had a terrible series of personal tragedies. Dad loved Carl Yastrzemski and would proudly remind us that "He's a Polack, you know!"

So every year when baseball season starts up, I get a little misty, missing my dad.

Probably the single biggest disappointment in my adult life was that my father was too sick to attend my own wedding. I had hoped that he would be my best man. But for me, he'll always be the best man, period.

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