By Rosalie Tirella
So, I was 19, back home from college for summer time and, for some strange reason, I wanted a father. My father. To finally get to know the hard, distant man who, for my whole young life, shrewdly skirted around our poor little family – avoiding my mother, my two sisters and me like the plague. All those years! “Daddy” absent without a note from home. AWOL in the war on poverty – our minimum-wage poverty in Green Island. Missing the fun, too. And the responsibilities. The great stuff and the mundane crap. Everything intimate and real that was happening in our Lafayette Street tenement. Everything that mattered, everything that was shaping my life and my sisters’ lives, our world views. … Like Daddy never bought my mom, his wife, a birthday present or a Christmas gift or took her out to dinner at a restaurant on a Saturday night – not once in all the years I knew him! My mother shouldered the burden – worked 60 hours a week at the dry cleaners to support us and pretty much raised me and my kid sisters singlehandedly. She would have loved to feel special – loved the night out! But Daddy never gave Ma a date night, never showed his appreciation for being tremendous in the face of adversity. He treated my mother, sweet, hardworking, smart, GOOD “Ma” like trash. My sisters and I ran under his radar – lucky for us because Daddy could be an emotionally abusive a-hole. His meanness was saved all for my mother.
So why, at 19, did I want to get to know the asshole? A man I actually called “asshole” to his face once or twice? … There are scientific studies that tell of the psychological need – the absolute longing of young women 19, 20, 21 – to bond with their fathers – no matter what kind of father the guy happens to be. It is true for all girls – even the ones who never liked their fathers. Daughters like me.
“Daddy” never took out the garbage, bought furniture for our Green Island flat, taught us girls – his three daughters – how to drive a car or care for dogs (he was expert at both) … and yet here I was, 19, and colt-like in my skinniness and sensitiveness and intuitiveness, wanting to do something cool with my mean ol’ Daddy. He never even sat down and read my college essays – the ones I got A’s for – the ones in which he was the main topic! Yet here I was standing in the middle of our huge three decker kitchen, fascinated by his handsome face, mesmerized by his gnarly junkman hands, taken with his Italian nose … and his truck. Here I was, back from UMass Amherst for the summer, begging my mom: Can I do something with Daddy, Ma? MAKE HIM DO SOMETHING WITH ME, Ma!
My mother, like most people who became parents in the 1950s and early 1960s, didn’t share her feelings with her kids. She was an old-school mom: strict, with high expectations for her offspring, loving but not a big kisser or hugger. We kids were not showered with compliments or given choices …we weren’t part of her adult world, a world which was serious and maybe even dangerous. Our mother had to be thinking all the time: paying the rent, electricity bill, gas bill, working at the dry cleaners, surviving a tough neighborhood, grocery shopping with that rickety wagon in winter time, walking home in the snow, in the dark with just the street lights to light her and her daughters’ way home. … We girls had to be focused, too: do our chores, homework, attend weekly catechism class at St. Mary’s school on Richland Street, go to confession and weekly mass at Our Lady of Czestochowa church on Ward with Ma. Plus Girls Club all week during summertime, sometimes the school year. Violin and accordion lessons for me. We had schedules. Big-time . That was our closeness. Ma’s close talk was reserved for her two sisters, one of whom she’d call up every night to confide about … everything. She’d never tell me, even when I was an older teen: I’m afraid, Rosalie. I’m worried, Rose. I’m tired. … Or, now: “Why do you want to get to know your father, Rosalie?”… “This is weird.”
Instead, one day, my mother said: Daddy will spend the day with you, Rose. What do you want to do with him?
I immediately blurted out: I WANNA TAKE THE BUS TO NEWBURY STREET! SEE BOSTON AGAIN!
So, that next week, my father, in his blue factory shirt and pants, and me, in my tight blue jeans and big man’s dress shirt – pretty much my college uniform for 4 years – walked to Kelley Square and up Madison Street to the then Greyhound Bus Station and took the bus to Boston. Daddy sat in the window seat and looked out the window and didn’t say much. I stared at him, fascinated! …We got off in Boston at the bus station there and, because I had friends at Northeastern whom I visited during the school year, I knew my way around the city a bit and walked us straight to the chi chi Newbury Street. Back then Newbury Street was tony and for rich people but also student friendly: there was a movie house, cool clothing boutiques, hair salons …and that famous toy store…with the fiberglass toy bear, a story high, that sat outside the building around Christmas time. Something told me my father would like all the cool mechanical toys inside, just like me.
Wow. So many rich kids and their rich parents in that toy store. (What was it called now? AO Schwarz, I think?) … Wow. So many stylish students and young people in the Schwarz toy building! I was right! My father made a bee line to all the beautiful, some very large, puppets with painted faces and intricate costumes and myriad strings and the tin soldiers in brightly painted uniforms who marched stiffly when you cranked them up. My father tilted his head, his pompodor still fabulous after all the years but now auburn colored, no longer bright red like when he was a young man. He saw the slim, Chinese-American sales clerk, a young guy, and smiled a goofy smile at me and said, nodding at the guy: “Rosalie, that Chink looks like a doll!” … My father meant that as a compliment. That the young guy was so perfectly coiffed and dressed and had such fine, chiseled features that he could be a doll in this beautiful gigantic toy store. That the sales clerk was as perfect as the puppets we were playing with.
I don’t think the sales clerk heard my father. But we looked so poor and rough compared to the other customers! He began following us as we made our way through the iconic toy store. Daddy and I walked to the stuffed animals, and there was the sales clerk staring at us, furtively, from behind the board game display. Daddy and I walked over to the plastic dinosaurs, and there was the same store clerk, peeking out at us from behind a life-sized polar bear. I got the hint: we weren’t good enough, we were potential thieves. I said to my father who was unaware we were being treated like criminals: Let’s go home, Daddy. And my father obediently followed me out the front door of this fancy Newbury Street shop where we were not wanted.
For the first time in my life I felt sorry for Daddy. Saw him as weak and puny in a world of money and educated folks. Maybe that’s why he was always pissed off. And maybe that’s why he said, proudly, whenever he saw me: She’s the smart one. She gets it from me!
So there I was on Newbury Street, right there with Daddy. My father’s daughter. Not having any fun. We hopped on the next bus and, during the ride back to Worcester, I said: “Now let’s do something you want to do, Daddy.”
And two hours later, we were back in Worcester County at my father’s friend’s farm. We were at the pig pen, and my father was cooing softly to a big ol’ black and white hog sleeping in the nice cool mud. With the tip of his workboots my father gave the pig a little nudge thru the fence’s white slats. The pig grunted drowsily but didn’t get up to greet us. My father smiled his toothless smile and went to chat with his pal, and then we took another bus home, to Lafayette Street, where I told my smiling mother all about our big adventure! The beautiful toys on Newbury Street! The beautiful black and white pig in West Boylston! She kept smiling as she listened …
Daddy had walked into the bedroom and, reclining on their old bed, called out to my mother for a tuna fish sandwich and two plums. He was in his 50s now and lately had been acting more subdued, spending these past few years living with us on Lafayette Street. Being with his family. I never saw my father eat a cupcake or slice of cake or even a bit of pie for dessert at the end of his meals during those years – just a few pieces of fruit, like a real Italian. My mother offered to heat up a can of Del Monte spinach for him – she said she’d mix in some olive oil and a few shakes of garlic salt.
My father said: Sure, hon.