There Goes My Hero

Dad was not warm and fuzzy. My mother sometimes referred to him as the “cold German” and yet she managed to convey love, admiration, and – naturally — some resignation in those words. There was a part of my beautiful yet deeply insecure mother that simply could not believe she was married to such a handsome and “good” man.

Dad had three equally attractive sisters – Gladys, Bernice, and Betty, aka “The Mandrick Girls.”  They were friendly and kind and sharp-witted. And, like Dad, not warm and fuzzy. I still laugh about the time my husband John became confused about how to greet my German/Dutch aunts – no kisses on the cheek and no hugs, as opposed to my mother’s Italian side where these were pretty much required. So there was poor John, rushing up to my Aunt Betty and smooching her on the cheek as I watched in horror. My aunt’s 5 foot 8 frame stiffened and John realized his mistake. He backed away slowly, mortified, as the color slowly returned to her slack-jawed face. Aunt Betty was graceful in her recovery but it took a minute or two as a recall.

My parents, aunts and uncles. Gladys and Bernice are in the front row, Betty is in the back.
My parents, aunts and uncles. Gladys and Bernice are in the front row, Betty is in the back.

“Your grandfather was very strict and not affectionate,” my mother told me in explanation of the Mandrick aversion to physical contact. In truth I have very warm memories of my grandfather. But these come courtesy of moments shared and activities enjoyed together. Trips with my dad and my cousin Tom to Keansburg, for example, where my Dad and Grandpa would enjoy beers together in the Heidelberg restaurant while Tom and I took endless turns at the wheels of chance and rides on the ferris wheel overlooking the bay.

Tom, Dad and me on an adventure -- this one at Snipe's in Secaucus.
Tom, Dad and me on an adventure — this one at Snipe’s in Secaucus.

When my in-laws Dolly and Otto passed away far too young, I was able to console myself by recalling long conversations with them at the kitchen table in their cozy home in Fair Haven. I had memories of the bear hugs Otto used to give to all of his “kids,” myself included.

But my Dad was not a hugger nor was he one to just “sit around and talk.” Unable to recall the same types of scenarios with my dad as I had with my in-laws, but looking to be consoled by memories after he passed away in April 2013, I decided to visit the places that reminded me of him.

I started with Atlantic City, naturally. When I was still in college back in the late 1970s, my father and mother joined his sisters in making bus trips to Atlantic City. Resorts was the only casino open at that time, but that was more than enough for them. Excited beyond reason about the fact that they could pay twenty dollars for the bus ride from Secaucus and get ten dollars back in quarters for slot machine gambling, they managed to always have a blast. My Aunt Gladys and my dad especially could be counted on to win a jackpot of a few hundred or sometimes over a thousand dollars, usually just before leaving to catch the bus. I would return home from college to be regaled with tales about the boardwalk, buffets, and beer.

Years later, after Bernice and then Gladys had passed away and my Aunt Betty could no longer make the trip, the highlight of Dad’s “golden years” became car trips to Atlantic City with my mother, John, and me. Robbed of most of his eyesight by macular degeneration, Dad could no longer read the newspaper or tinker with his model trains. Atlantic City became his only hobby, and he counted the weeks until I could arrange for a visit to his “favorite” slot machine. (Always one featuring the number seven, and always a quarter machine with three quarters as “max bet”). John drove back and forth from Long Branch to Atlantic City uncomplainingly, and Mom could be counted on to pile my father’s plate high with a smorgasbord of gastronomically incompatible foods at the Caesars Casino Buffet. All the poor man wanted was shrimp and beer, so John and I would make that happen. Mom would end up sampling the plate she had lovingly made up for Dad and then announce that it was a “terrible combination” — as if someone else had put that mess together.

My first trip to Atlantic City without Dad – and in search of memories — was during the summer of 2013 a few months after he had passed away. I was relieved to be supported by my husband and our dear friends Ann and Roger for what I called my “maiden voyage” to Caesars.

Surprisingly I was mostly fine. My eyes did well up with tears when I visited Dad’s “lucky spot” – on the main casino floor near the boardwalk in between both entrances, if you must know – but happy memories and the excitement of playing the slot machines and hoping for a jackpot overrode my feeling of loss.

There in Atlantic City, Dad was alive in my memory. I could stroll along a passageway or on the casino floor and think, “Dad walked here.” I could look at the ocean from the boardwalk and recall his sisters urging him to take a rare “breather” and enjoy the view from a bench with them. And when I looked in my wallet and saw my bankroll dwindling, I was reminded that whenever Dad hit a jackpot of over a hundred dollars he would send Mom – ever at his side, dutifully playing the machine next to him — to look for John and I and deliver a one-hundred dollar bill to keep us going.

I continued to make infrequent but regular trips to Atlantic City, enlisting not only John but willing family members and friends. Each time it was fun and exciting and filled with memories of my Dad and his family. A couple of times I would even encounter older ladies and gentlemen who sat on nearby machines and wished me good luck – just as Dad and his sisters used to do for strangers sitting nearby whenever they arrived or left a slot machine. I saw my beloved “Mandricks” in each of their faces.

And then, on a visit for my birthday in December 2016, something changed. I no longer felt the memories or the warmth or the excitement. It was as if, like Elvis, Dad had “left the building.” I felt lost.

A few weeks later I had a conversation with my Aunt Gladys’s son Tom that proved illuminating.

We were reminiscing about the good old days, naturally, and Tom brought up something that I had forgotten. “You know, your mom and Aunt Betty were the homebodies, always ready with a clean house and good food,” he said. “But my mom and Aunt Bernice and your Dad were always herding us into a car, ready for adventure – I remember Aunt Bernice’s red Fiat and your Dad’s blue one like it was yesterday.”

It was then that it dawned on me. I was no longer satisfied with “Atlantic City” Dad. I needed more. I needed the Dad of my “car” dream.

I almost always remember details of my dreams. In a recurring dream that I have had since childhood – but one that went away after Dad’s passing — Dad and I were driving over a bridge in his blue Fiat. Of course Dad was always behind the wheel in this dream, driving in his careful and skillful way. Almost one hundred percent of the time, this dream preceded a major event in my life. And the dream was reassuring, because if there was anyone I trusted to steer with absolute certainty it was my dad.

My conversation with Tom about the Fiat reminded me that I hadn’t had my usual dream – or any dream — about my father since he had passed away. Even in the dream I had a few days before died – in which my Aunt Bernice pulled up in her trusty but long-gone red Fiat and urged my father to get in, just like in the good old days – Dad walked right past me as if I wasn’t there and never turned my way.

Being who I am, I saw this lack of appearance by Dad in my dreams as an indictment of my current care for my mom. I don’t feel the need or the desire to provide a “laundry list” of missteps on my part. Rest assured, I am no saint and I mess up. Not in big ways, but in what seems like a million small ones.

Shortly after my visit with Cousin Tom, I added another request to my usual bedtime repertoire.

“Please God, I just need to see my father’s face again,” I said. “Maybe in that dream about the bridge?” I added hopefully.

A few nights later, I had a vivid dream about my dad.

In the dream, I was very agitated and was standing in the street facing my parent’s former home at 68 Overlook Avenue in Ridgefield Park. In the driveway facing me was Dad’s white Ford Maverick. We owned that car for a good ten years beginning in the 1970s, and Dad had taken great pride in keeping it clean and waxed.

In the dream I saw my Dad – my Dad — remove something from the trunk of the Maverick. In a second he was standing next to the front driver’s door of the car and facing me.  I saw a snow scraper in his hand, and realized that this was my dad of the “Maverick” days – still over six feet tall and regal looking, with his almost-black hair just starting to grey at the temples. I took a breath, reminded of what a striking and even formidable-looking figure he made at that age. Like his father before him, he was nonviolent but somehow you knew not to mess with either Joe Sr. or Jr.

“I have to pick Mom up and get her to the train station by three,” I yelled, pleading. I was willing him to hop into the car and offer to drive me to wherever Mom was. In other words, take matters into his own hands as he often did for me. Take the wheel. In the street, snow had fallen and was sparkling as though bits of diamond had fallen from the sky. Dad was nonplussed, as he always was in real life. Maybe even a little irritated. He disliked what he called scenes, and he despised yelling. He did not take a single step toward me, and I was dismayed.

“I know,” he said, as he began to wipe the snow ever so carefully off the car’s front windshield. “I’m helping you”, he continued in the same even voice, as though I really should have known this.

I woke up with a start. “I’m helping you.” I rolled those cherished words over and over in my head, reveling in the sound of them. I had forgotten what a “doer” my Dad had been, always working to pave the way for me and keep me safe.

I have to say that it is sort of strange to mourn someone who passes away at the age of 95. Part of me realized that I was lucky to have him for that long of a time. But a bigger part of me thought that he would live forever.

Even though he reached a ripe old age, I still miss my dad every day. I miss him awful. I miss working to earn his tacit approval, and I miss knowing that he considered me capable of just about anything. I thought that by allowing him to live to the age of 95, God had given me enough of him to last my lifetime. I was wrong.

But my dream made it clear. It’s time for me to grow up and stop looking for Dad’s approval, or for him to keep me safe and reassure me that I am capable of better things; or even to keep me happy. It’s time for me to take the wheel.  As Dad would say almost jokingly in stressful situations when he could see me struggling with what to do, “Hop right in, the water’s fine.”

I feel like I no longer have any excuses for not doing just that. After all, Dad was thoughtful enough to clear the windshield for me.

Dad and our 1974 Ford Maverick, with 68 Overlook in the distance.
Dad and our 1974 Ford Maverick, with 68 Overlook in the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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