I remember being convinced that Dad was Mister Rogers, because at the moment Mister Rogers' Neighborhood finished, Dad would walk through the door. That kind of magic is possible when you're a kid. Off of the TV, into the living room. Especially when it's your all-powerful Dad.
I remember waiting on the doorstep for him to come home. And come home he did, at 6 on the dot, every night. He never worked late. He always came home for all of us to sit around the table for supper (eating dinner in front of the TV was strictly forbidden). First, though, he and Mom would go into their room, close the door for five minutes, and just catch up in what must have been the only quiet, private five minutes of their days.
Unusually for a man of his generation, he always helped Mom with the clearup and getting us all off to bed. I'm one of six children – this was no easy feat. If we were kicking up, he'd stand at the bottom of the stairs, threateningly snapping his belt. In all my life I don't think Dad laid a finger on any of us. I only found out as an adult that as we scattered in terror of The Belt, he and Mom were stifling their laughter downstairs.
On Saturdays, he piled us all into the Tardis-like station wagon to go to the supermarket and the library, giving my poor frazzled mother a break from looking after six children who were all close in age. Those library trips were pretty special to me, as I've already said.
He had two brothers. One of them, Robbie, was severely mentally disabled. I was slightly frightened of Robbie as a kid, because of his slurred speech, and his shaking hands (the medication they gave him for his mental illness caused Parkinson's), and just that he was different. He lived in a home but he came to visit sometimes and Dad treated him with infinite kindness, tolerance and love until Robbie passed away.
Most men of his generation just saw it as their job to bring home the bacon, but Dad's always been more than a provider for us. He and my mother set a standard of parenthood that I've seldom seen replicated. Truth be told, he's set a standard for fatherhood that I've never seen in the boyfriends and husband I had, which is one reason why I'm not a mother.
So he was more than a provider, but boy, did he provide. He somehow put six children through university and for most of us, post-grad study. With a B.A., I'm the least educated of any of my siblings. In America, with its tuition fees, that's pretty incredible. With the self-centredness of youth I just accepted this in my late teens; now I know what it must have taken.
Dad gave me a work ethic. I started babysitting at the age of 13 and immediately began putting money aside to save up for a bike – I was only earning a dollar an hour, so it took a while, and eventually Dad rewarded me for understanding the principle of working and saving by paying off the balance for my beautiful shiny blue bicycle. I hadn't asked for it or expected it, and I understood why it was a reward. It was one of the proudest moments of my young life.
As soon as I was 16, I was frogmarched down to the local shopping mall to get a part-time job. And I've held jobs ever since, throughout school and university as well as in adult life – except, of course, when I'm “between jobs” as I am now, due to either redundancy or fixed-term contracts. I know how much it distresses him when I'm not working, and the work ethic he's given me drives me to jobhunt with pigheaded determination and a reluctance to give up.
Of course as I grew up I began to see his annoying habits, his flaws, his human frailties and his vulnerabilities. He's set in his ways. He's conservative. He still treats me like I'm a 13 year old kid and this triggers a strange reaction where, um, I act like a 13 year old kid.
And he's already survived cancer twice – the latest, quite recently. Because I only go home every few years, each time I see him he looks more like the old man that my head knows he is but my heart won't accept. When he asks me to go to Mass, or say a prayer, I say I will. I don't believe in God or religion or the power of prayer, but I say it as a comfort to him. It's the least I can do for him.
I can be pretty rubbish sometimes about phoning my parents, or remembering important dates. I'm not a very demonstrative person so I don't gush with love on the phone; a quick and slightly embarrassed “Love ya” to Dad before he hands me back to Mom is as far as it goes. I won't send Dad a link to this because I have other blogposts on here with rude words in them that he wouldn't approve of. I'm sure, though, that he still remembers the girl in pigtails waiting eagerly on the doorstep for his return.