My father in law was a sign painter all his life. He had dreams of being a doctor, but being the oldest of nine children in the midst of the Great Depression, that simply didn’t work out.
He was proud of his trade, though, for he was not an ordinary sign painter. He painted gold leaf on wood and glass. Back in the days when doctors, lawyers and businessmen would stay put for years, he would be called in to painstakingly brush their names and titles in 24 karat gold. He would carry his black, weathered suitcase full of brushes and colors across the city to make Chicago’s professionals feel a little bit more important. Even after he officially retired at age 65, the company would call him in need of his steady hand and skill.
But I do not remember my him as a sign painter. I remember him for the memories he gave to me.
For instance, I remember when I asked him to recite the Gettsyburg Address, something he was rumored to be able to do by heart. Sure enough, at age 86, like a soldier, he began, “Four score and seven years ago…” and ended with “…shall not perish from earth,” without hesitation.
I recall when Grandpa would come over for dinner nearly every Friday, it was like a scene out of a sitcom. He was fussy about what he ate, having been spoiled by the home cooking of his wife of 65 years. When it came time for dinner, my family would all sit poised over our food, silverware in hand, waiting for Grandpa to give his approval to the whole family. He would taste the soup that was always too cold or the mashed potatoes that inevitably had too little garlic. With his grump of approval and a glare around the table, we would proceed with the meal.
But beneath that blustery exterior, was a man who would literally never kill a flea. With a keen eye and lightning speed, he would catch them in the palm of his hand and let them go free outside. He would give back change to a cashier if she inadvertently erred in his favor. He would watch television every night until, with a loud snore, his head would fall back on the couch, and Grandma would help him to bed.
I always thought having a man like that as my dad would have made my life so different. My dad was a celebrity of sorts. In the heyday of radio, he had a talk show, interviewing famous entertainers who would come through Chicago. He would wiggle his way backstage at the Oscars every year. He claimed to know everyone from Wayne Newton to Bing Crosby, from Lucille Ball to John Wayne. But a bitter divorce broke up the family, and he remarried, escaping to Las Vegas, shutting out his four children. He continued his craft there – interviewing personalities “on the strip,” being a big shot in a relatively small town.
I tried contacting him again late in his life so that he could begin speaking to his children, children he really did not even know. He would ask their ages and if he had any grandchildren. His third wife had died and now he was all alone, thousands of miles away, yearning for attention from anyone at age 78.
The contrasts in these two men’s lives are as evident in their deaths as when they were alive. My father in law died at 93, peacefully in his sleep with his wife at his side. He had advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and did not recognize her, but she held his hand and spoke to him as if he were still complaining about her salty chicken soup. At the funeral, accompanying the tears was laughter as his three sons recalled moments of joy they had spent with their dad during his long life.
My dad, on the other hand, died at age 80. It was a slow, agonizing, lonely death. His third wife had died a few years earlier and he tried to maintain his status of a radio and television personality even when he could not afford dentures to fix his missing teeth. Over the years, he never earned much, but most of his income was spent on promoting himself. At age 78, he still thought he would “hit it big” with a syndicated show that millions would watch and know his name. Instead, he fell and broke his hip, landing in a nursing home, penniless and without family. When he died, his children had his body flown back to Chicago so he could be buried in his family’s plot, otherwise a pauper’s burial was awaiting him in Las Vegas. At the funeral, there were no tears, no memories.
On his deathbed he telephoned each of his children, one by one, weakly whispering in his final moments how sorry he was. Through his tears, he said how he should not have left all of their phone calls and pleas for attention go unanswered over the years. He said how he wished he would have spent more time with them, being satisfied with the pride of watching them grow and share their success instead of constantly hoping for his own. He prayed for God’s forgiveness for his being so selfish, for not realizing that his real treasures were right before him his whole life. He realized he had been reaching for the wrong stars.
In life, we make choices. After my divorce, I decided to visit my in-laws one last time in Florida to explain what had happened. It was shortly after that meeting over Chinese food at a local Del Ray Beach restaurant my father in law started suffering from his Alzheimer’s. The elderly couple seemed to understand what I was trying to say about my broken marriage, but I think it was hard for them to believe that they could have raised a son who was so unkind.
No, my father in law was not the one.