Daddy and me

By Rosalie Tirella

Spencer Tracy played the wise and firm but gentle husband and dad in many movies of the 1940s and ’50s.

Yesterday: Father’s Day. I sat still with myself, my dogs … and felt neither love nor hatred for my long dead Daddy-o. I didn’t feel like writing about him either. Why try to understand someone so inscrutable? Why plumb the depths of a non-relationship? Yesterday my father, my “Daddy,” was far away, just another Worcester blue-collar guy who couldn’t make it in his city – and skirted around the edges of community. Then he died. Worcester lost nothing, and the stunted Tirella family tree shook down another wormy crab apple from its gnarly bows.

Some things about my father still stick in my craw: He loved a beautiful Romanian hairdresser while he was married to my mom – and had a baby with her, my half-sister. No desire to track down this sis! Daddy was a life-long cheater who bought little trinkets for this girlfriends but never gave my mom so much as drugstore perfume. (Heaven Scent was her fave!)

He got my late mom pregnant (with me) in his pick-up truck. A good Catholic girl like my mom who went to mass every day with the nuns at St. Mary’s School once upon a time must have really been sexually turned on by Daddy-o. She was young and pretty and ripe for the picking! Swept off her feet by my handsome father, this bad boy Italian doo-wop. She had always loved Dean Martin … My Polish granny, Bapy, hated the man – forever. Throwing pieces of her egg sandwich at him on numerous occasions, screaming: RED DEVIL!! DOG’S BLOOD!! DEVIL!! in Polish whenever my father crossed our Lafayette Street tenement threshold, Bapy knew Daddy had ruined her youngest, gentlest daughter’s life. But with his muscle shirts and handsome high forehead and red hair that he gelled and combed high and light hazel eyes, my father owned Ma. They both knew it.

Daddy also owned a tough German Shepherd dog and worked on fast cars (he was a mechanic of sorts).

So it was the renegade and the saint. Opposites do indeed attract!

Rose’s late mom was a devout Catholic. photo: R.T.

So they got married, and so my father proceeded to fight the marriage/his deprived little family for the next 25 years. Being tethered to me, my mom and little sisters dragged him down, even though I was all A’s at Lamartine Street School, my sisters were cute and sweet and my mom worked 60 hours a week at the Millbury Street drycleaners as a counter girl to support the family … plus she kept a nice house and cared for us kids and Bapy, her mother, who lived with us.

My mother should have let Daddy go, but she only fell out of love with my father in her late 50s. After menopause.

Like I was saying, my father was far away from me yesterday, so I tried to think of the dad I would have liked to have had as a kid. Couldn’t think of one in real life, but I found myself admiring the film actor Spencer Tracy … and the television dad that I loved all through my childhood: Ward Cleaver of the 1950s TV show LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. From age 6 to 12 I watched LEAVE IT TO BEAVER every morning before walking to school, while eating my breakfast. It put me in a good mood for my school day. My sisters watched, too.

Ward Cleaver was everything my real father wasn’t and could never be: a white collar professional (I think we found out he was an engineer in one episode), a cool, calming presence (my father was red hot! – strode through our Lafayette Street tenement red-faced, yelling in Italian, taking a swipe at my mom’s pretty cheek with the back of his rugged hand). Ward was never too interested in his two sons, Wally and the Beaver … my dad was more than disinterested, he was dismissive…but at least the workaholic Ward gave his family a beautiful house in a beautiful suburban neighborhood filled with nice normal people, mostly white. (I lived on Lafayette Street in the 1960s and 1970s – when the old Polish ghetto was black, brown, white, violent and poor. No Lafayette Street kid lived in a house like the Beaver’s! I think I felt this way as a kid: even if my dad was preoccupied with his job, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have a fun big brother, terrific food to eat, a wonderful house to live in and a big beautiful backyard to play in. The one big difference? No terrific real life CECELIA, my mom – Ma was serious but spent time sketching with me, picking autumn leaves beneath Green Island trees and then pressing them with me – in her special big dictionary with its hundreds of pages. Ma took us downtown to shop at the Mart and she took us swimming at the Crompton Park mud hole and we went to church every Sunday morning looking pretty and feeling positive. There should have been a TV show about my mom – she was that wonderful.

The young CECELIA

And … my real life mom let me have dogs, kittens, pet mice, hamsters, turtles, salamanders, guinea pigs, gold fish. All those warm and or cute pets made such a big difference in my childhood! The Cleaver home, even on our old Philco parked in the corner of our kitchen where we kids could watch TV as we ate our bowls of Frosted Flakes or Sugar Snacks and Bapy snacked on a Widoffs bakery bulky and butter always seemed a bit too perfect, empty in a way. Once Beaver sneaked in a baby alligator, but by the end of the episode Ward had made him realize the cute tiny fella would soon outgrow their bathtub. And then what? I felt for the Beave! No pets!

So besides having no pets and no mom CECELIA, life with Ward, the father, would have been pleasant enough. I would have been very ordinary and – like my mom – dreamed of the perfect Eisenhower teen years and young womanhood…the prom/big dance with a handsome boy who had pinned a corsage on my taffeta evening dress …pale pink satin gloves …a demure one-piece bathing suit for when my beau and I drove to the beach in his convertible…college, Bryn Mawr maybe…then marriage to a college-educated young man with a promising$$$ future. …

Most Eisenhower wives and moms were expected to master the art of hostessing and cooking/baking. photo: J.C.

… Shrimp cocktails before dinner. Steak dinner for father. Orange and lime Jello for the kids…two or three kids. Cute and happy and well loved.

I know that was my late mother’s dream. While a live in housekeeper/maid for the Bishop of Springfield she had bought and collected things for her perfect life, her perfect marriage, her perfect family once she was back in Worcester:

– soft pink gloves…for church. Up to the wrist.
– pretty costume jewelry – matching necklaces and earrings (I used to play dress up with them on Lafayette Street!)
– stamps from envelopes mailed to the Bishop – letters from priests and missionaries stationed all over the world: Africa, Italy, Baltimore … Ma kept them in a maroon velvet box. (On Lafayette Street, I used to open and close that velvet box just to hear the soft “fffttt!”sound it made when it was shut …I loved the exotic stamps, too. They cost a penny or two or three …

And then there was her GOOD HOUSEKEEPING COOK BOOK – a yellow cover tome from 1960 covered with 1950s women – clip art June Cleavers – baking cookies, frying eggs, serving dinner … being the role models for every striving Eisenhower mom and wife. Mom’s second Bible. Handed down to me when I was 17! Chapters on in-laws! Chapters on camping with grace and style! Paragraphs on buffets for family reunions and church supper spreads. Each chapter had its introduction…followed by the recipes, from appetizers to desserts. And drinks. All sprinkled with that Mad Men clip art – angular, lots of contrast and geometric shapes. Lots of canned and frozen and boxed food went into these Good Housekeeping Kitchen-tested and seal of approval-awarded recipes. Back then frozen and canned was all the rage. Fresh fruits and vegetables for peasants. Immigrant families like ours … Ma read this cook book /guide cover to cover so that she could be the perfect wife for Daddy. The perfect mom for us kids. The perfect church lady! The perfect school mom who made cupcakes for the class field trip! The perfect hostess for all our kiddie birthday parties on Lafayette Street, complete with balloons, party hats and twirlers and pin the tail on the donkey game pinned to our beige kitchen wall. … But to Daddy, Ma (and by extension, we kids) had failed.

And so began our long goodbye …