McGrath: My dad, a politically incorrect father figure

David McGrath

June 13, 2014 6:06PM

Updated: June 13, 2014 6:06PM

In Psychology Today magazine, Dr. Ditta Oliker wrote that a child’s emotional and social development depends on a positive paternal role model. And that if the father is absent, the child’s reasoning and communicating abilities lag behind.

It’s unlikely that my father had any of that in mind while raising a family in the 1960s in a three-bedroom brick house in Evergreen Park. With eight children and a fixed income of $125 per week, he was doing well just to keep us fed, clothed and out of the principal’s office or the police station.

Scouring my memory, I retrieve a picture of a cool dark place on a summer day, where Dad is smiling at me across a tabletop painted with a checkerboard. Earlier, I had been crying after bloodying my knee, so he had taken me to Derkin’s Tavern next to the tile company where he worked for Pepsi, Jays potato chips and consolation.

Later that evening, Mother is shouting, while Dad cradles elder sister Rosie in his arms, pacing across the living room floor. And I am rocking on my hobby horse, being quiet. Being good. Which meant waiting your turn, I learned, because there always seemed to be one of us whining or hurt.

Dad was home most nights, yet I’m skeptical of all the cognitive gain that the psychologist wrote about. I don’t remember conversations; never learned his history.

Who was his best friend growing up? Did he misbehave in school?

Did he make his World War II Army buddies laugh, the way he did us, with his impression of Ralph Kramden, Jackie Gleason’s character on the TV show “The Honeymooners?”

I should have asked such questions on one of those carefree Saturday nights, when he’d take off his shoes and shirt, pour a glass of Pabst beer and stretch out on the La-Z-Boy recliner.

Instead, all eight of us kids clamored for the floor — either to crow about outwrestling one of the Michau boys from the next block or to argue over who had the smartest teacher at St. Bernadette School.

Mother made everyone “black cows” (ice cream floats), and we’d finally settle down to watch TV. At the end of “Gunsmoke,” we’d each kiss Dad on the cheek before going to bed — his sandpaper stubble and the smell of a menthol cigarettes on his clothes.

On weeknights, I’d watch out the window so I could say, “Hi, Dad,” before Kenneth or Pat did. As though each of us needed to certify that the world was right, the family complete, when Dad filled the house at the end of the day.

Then we’d line up by the bathroom door to wash our hands before racing to our places at the supper table.

For that was our chance to hear his grownup talk with Mom — how he reassured Cliff at the tile company about a Catholic running for president; Uncle Bill’s latest tall tale and having to give him cab fare to get downtown; a new record album by Sarah Vaughan that he’d play for her after dinner; or the news that the vacation to Lauderdale by the Sea was still in play but probably not this year.

I confess to being embarrassed that he did not look like the parent of David and Ann in my grade school reading book. How they called him “father,” and he did not have a round belly and he would greet his children by their whole names, asking polite questions about their roller skates or their dog named Zip.

Whereas, our Dad would sneak behind and tickle us, calling me Buster or Nancy Nanny-Poo and lift and thrust us nearly to the ceiling.

Or sometimes reach around from the steering wheel at a stoplight to give me a backhand slap on the arm if I were teasing Kevin.

The father in the textbook was always shown in a blue suit and tie, while Dad liked to sit at the breakfast table in his boxer shorts, shoes and socks.

And on no page was there a picture of David and Ann hanging on to all the different parts of their father as we did with ours, when he floated on his back at the beach in Whiting, Ind., his toes wiggling above the surface. Like an enormous benevolent raft.

He died too soon, before my questions, and before that psychologist wrote her essay for the journal.

Still, as another Father’s Day arrives, I imagine with pride what she might have written about my dad.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.

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