McGrath: A father steps up in tough times
By David McGrath June 15, 2012 10:00PM
David McGrath with his father in 1955. | Submitted photo
Updated: July 18, 2012 6:19AM
It was the second Friday in June and school was ending. A summer of beaches, boats, and freedom from grown-ups stretched before us, so we were practically airborne when the final school bell rang.
But my father’s green Pontiac Catalina station wagon sat in the driveway. Something was wrong, he was never home before 5:30, and I entered the house on high alert.
“You kids better start saving your money,” he said.
He was not exactly fired by the tile company, he explained. Rather, he had “accepted” a not-very-cordial invitation to quit. I vaguely recollect other factors — the tough economic times and even rougher company politics. Paychecks would stop.
I was not that devastated by the news. Graver concerns occupy the mind of a 15-year-old boy. Would the White Sox win the pennant that summer? Would the two new pimples on my chin disappear before Debbie Glick’s party?
But the faraway look in Dad’s eyes as he sat at the kitchen table with an open can of Hamm’s beer this early in the day caused some unease. And I wasn’t the only one. My five brothers and two sisters, who got the news one by one, showed similar apprehension.
Surprisingly, normalcy resumed in our household quickly. Yes, our family schedule got out of whack. Mom took a part-time job in children’s clothing at Montgomery Ward while my father handled the cooking when he wasn’t heading out for a job interview. But we kids didn’t miss a beat — sleeping late, watching TV, hanging at Beverly Park when we could wriggle out of chores.
Looking back, I guess the main reason we didn’t panic was that Dad stayed the same. He conducted his usual interrogations during dinner. “David, did you wash the basement steps before going out?” And “Jimmy, did I see you and Chubsy Michau smoking outside of the bowling alley?”
And though he would be out of work for several months, we got no respite from his corny jokes. The only difference now was that they dealt mostly with his culinary creativity.
“Mostaccioli Del Monte is now being served,” he announced as we sat down to plates of steaming macaroni noodles with ketchup. And I would eat enough of his “eggs Benedict,” made with crisply fried slices of Spam, to last a lifetime.
The only stark reminder of desperate straits was when the repo man, wearing a pin-striped suit and 10-gallon hat, rang our doorbell one afternoon. Because my father had the Pontiac out on a job interview, my mother invited him in, fixing coffee and a tray of graham crackers while he waited.
She introduced us kids, and we strained to be polite. After a while, he got up to go, saying he’d call another time. We never got to see the “cowboy” again, as somehow enough money was scraped up for the car payment.
Good thing, too, because we needed the wagon for our fishing trip. Whereas our usual annual summer vacation was a week-long trip to another state, this year’s was limited to a weekend closer to home. Mom would hold down the fort because she couldn’t miss work.
Despite the abbreviated time, it was a memorable trip. Part of the reason was Dad’s kid-friendly diet concept (“Cold pizza has all the same nutrients that oatmeal does for breakfast”). Another was his understanding of fish-catching tactics, letting us stay out in the boat past sunset (“Don’t tell your mother”).
But I think the main reason was that there was no TV in the cabin, so he let us have Coke and potato chips with him in the lodge tavern after supper. Even better were his campfire stories after dark and listening to the largemouth bass, belly flopping in the lily pads.
Back home, my father eventually secured a position as an industrial soap salesman with Calgon Corp., where he would toil until retirement some 17 years later.
When I look back on that time, especially in light of today’s recession, I realize that conditions were more ominous than my father ever let on. We nearly lost our car, and certainly could have lost our home as well.
Job loss can shatter a man’s confidence, rob the very sense of who he is. But Dad did not succumb. The steady, joking, reliable anchor we took for granted, day in and day out, resulted from a father’s effort to fight fear, uncertainty and even the threat to his identity — all for the welfare and happiness of his family.
It’s a good thing we have Father’s Day each June because my appreciation of my father has grown progressively, every year since he’s gone.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.