I went to St. Thomas on October 16th to spend a week with my mother. Her birthday was October 18th, and although I knew it wasn’t going to be a happy birthday for her I still wanted to be there to honor her. The hardest part about Mother’s birthday was the fact that it was one month to the day that Nana died. My goodness, how time flies!
I started to think about all of the people in my family who’ve died and how many years have passed since then. Papa Joe, 41 years; Daddy, 21 years; Uncle Johnny, 11 years; Jeffrey will be 2 years this coming December 6th and now Nana.
You know how you can remember where you were when JFK, RFK and MLK were assassinated, or where you were on 911? Well, I clearly remember those events, and I also remember where I was and how it felt to hear the news when each of my beloved family members died. I was there when my dad died; holding his hand as he tookhis last breath. I remember it like it was yesterday. Each event plays in my memory like some kind of old movie. The missing them part hasn’t abated; in fact, I miss them more now than before.
The anniversary of my dad’s death is coming up on November 9th and memories of him are beginning to flood my memory banks. This happens to me every year. I remember how he read the New York Times every day and could do the NY Times puzzle in ink without making any mistakes. How he loved classical music and would move his hand back and forth to the music, almost like he was conducting the orchestra. I remember how he and I shared a love of reading and would share our books so we could discuss them with together. I especially remember how he absolutely hated chicken. Every time a whole roasted chicken was put on the table for him to carve he’d mutter under his breath, “disgusting dirty bird”.
I remember when we first moved to St. Thomas, Mother and Daddy worked at Sebastian’s restaurant on the waterfront, which they eventually owned. Every Saturday, Jeffrey and I carried this huge bag of laundry the seven city-long blocks to the Westinghouse Laundromat near Palm Passage to do the laundry. We didn’t have a washer and dryer at our apartment, and since my parents were working, that was one of our chores. We’d stuff as much laundry into the washing machines as we could fit so we wouldn’t have to use all the quarters Mother gave us.
While the laundry was being washed, Jeffrey and I would explore around town and use the extra quarters to get ice cream or some treat. We were only allowed to put the sheets and towels in the dryer; the rest had to be hung up to dry. So there we were; two Brooklyn kids, not much taller than the kitchen table carrying this heavy sack loaded with wet laundry back to our aparment. Jeffrey was in front and I brought up the rear. We looked like two of Santa’s misfit elves with this big sack. I’d bet dollars to donuts it weighed more than the two of us put together!
Everyone on the island knew us, and when they’d spot us walking with the sack they would point and laugh, and in their thick Calypso accent would say, “Eh, Eh! There go the Black children, carrying their sack. Me-son, that sack be bigger than dem”!
We’d get home and hang up the wet clothes, and put the dry sheets and towels away and straighten up the apartment. Daddy would sometimes get home before Mother and would talk to us.
I remember one particular Saturday, Daddy came home early. It was around carnival time and Jeffrey had a bamboo cane that he’d gotten from one of the carnival vendors. Daddy noticed the cane and proceeded to tell us about how he used to dance the “soft-shoe” with a straw hat and a cane when he was in college. He then proceeded to dance for us. He was a very good dancer, my mom would attest to that. My dad 34 years old at the time. He was six-feet tall, skinny, graceful and bore a resemblance to Henry Fonda. In movie “On Golden Pond” Henry Fonda wears this fishing hat with hooks on it. My dad had one like it without the hooks. Whenever Daddy wore that hat, I saw Henry Fonda and vice-versa.
That Saturday is burned into my memory banks and I remember it like it was yesterday. Forty-eight years later, and that image is a clear as if it happened yesterday! I really enjoyed his dancing and he danced some more. That was the first time my dad ever told us about his youth and his college days. It was just a small glimpse into who he really was. I wanted to know more about his youth and over time he did tell me a lot of things.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the beginning of my becoming not daddy’s little girl, but daddy’s little pal. He introduced me to Mozart, and I introduced him to Neil Diamond. He even liked the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar”! He fueled my passion for reading by introducing me to the works of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Shakespeare. I got him to re-read Poe and Capote. My favorite section of the Sunday New York Times was the Book Review, and I would tell him about new books that were just published. We’d both get excited when the reviewer liked it. I’d even go out to the backyard and toss the football or play catch with him. But it was our mutual love of reading helped me to forge a bond with him. It was the love of books and reading that helped me to understand why I felt so different from my other family members.
A couple of years after Daddy died, I was watching an old Fred Astaire movie entitled “Top Hat”. Fred was dancing the “soft-shoe” while wearing a tuxedo and top hat. I was completely engrossed in the movie. As I was watching, Fred suddenly disappeared and there in his place was my dad. He literally moved out of the TV screen and was dancing right in front of me. That image wasn’t of the 62 year old man who suffered and died from throat cancer; it was the image of a 34 years young man who was graceful, skinny and handsome! It was the man who danced the “soft-shoe” for us that Saturday afternoon in our apartment in St. Thomas.
This upcoming anniversary; like the others before it will not be a happy one because it reminds me of what my children and I lost 21 years ago; time with this wonderful man. I have missed him so much all of these years because I’ve had no one to discuss books with. This anniversary brings to the fore-front bitter-sweet memories of a laid-back, quiet, intelligent, gentle and complex man who loved his family, good music, good books, the New York Times newspaper and crossword puzzle, who looked like Henry Fonda and danced the “soft-shoe”.