Tag Archives: father’s day

Love smells

14 Jun


I’m like most humans. Certain smells get to me.

Drop a nice hunk of butter onto a red-hot skillet and before it has melted I am transported to my brother Joe’s apartment in Queens, watching as he carefully prepares the special pancakes that he knows I love so much. Pour out a glass of sweet red vermouth and at the first whiff my dear Uncle Dominic and I are sitting under his grapevine, telling stories and watching the bottle slowly drain as the summer sun sets.

Recently I awoke in the middle of the night to the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete. I love having the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete inside of me—because when it is inside of me so too is Uncle Joe
From the time I was old enough to carry a handful of bricks or move a filled wheelbarrow without assistance my mother’s eldest brother made certain to put me to work. He did not need a little kid working on his crew, but the man took his job as uncle (and godfather to me) very seriously.
After my father died Uncle Joe became even more committed to watching out for me, and by the time he himself passed I had become a pretty decent laborer. I remember the last summer that I worked with my uncle, the one where I had finally gotten the hang of not just mixing but properly laying down fresh concrete. It was a fairly large bit of sidewalk on a job in downtown Brooklyn and Neil, my uncle’s best concrete man, hadn’t made it in to work.
“This one’s all yours, chief,” I heard that ever benevolent voice say from alongside me. “Time you took charge, don’t you think?”
I was by no means in charge, of course, but did manage to lay down a respectable bit of sidewalk, with the patient guidance of a man that I loved as deeply as any other. 

I’m proud to have the smell of his sand and gravel and mortar living in my brain forever.

My strongest scent memory by far involves my father. And a jar of Noxzema skin cream.

Every night, right around my bedtime, dad would be in the bathroom shaving. He always kept the door wide open and often could be heard saying this or that to my mother or to one of us boys. Before heading off to bed I would come up behind my father and tap on his leg or on the small of his back. He’d turn and bend down so that I could reach up and kiss him goodnight. His skin was smooth and moist and warm—and strongly smelling of Noxzema skin cream, his prefered beard-softening elixir.

It was my favorite daily ritual; I looked forward to it each and every evening.

On the early morning that my father died, the firemen and EMTs carried his body from our kitchen floor and into his and my mother’s bedroom, where it would lay, covered in a clean bedsheet, until the undertaker came to collect it. As the rescue team carrying dad brushed past me, unsuccessfully attempting to shield a young boy’s view, I could swear that I smelled the Noxzema that dad had shaved with only hours before.
It’s been 50 years since I last kissed my father goodnight, and I can still smell the Noxzema today.

I mean right now, at this minute, right here.

I can summon the aroma at will. Anytime. Anywhere. Just try me.

There it goes now.

The godfather

16 Jun

When you are thirteen and wake before dawn to the sound of a parent dying, odds are short that things are gonna suck pretty bad for a while.

And they did.

But I was luckier than most. I didn’t grow up in a family, I grew up in a clan.

Big difference.

Imagine this: Six families, all blood related through siblings, living upstairs, downstairs, and next door to each other in side-by-side apartment houses, three apartments per. My twelve cousins and I didn’t have only two parents apiece; aunts and uncles counted too, because they watched over all of us just like we were their own.

I know. Hard to imagine. Different times.

The head of our clan was Uncle Joe. That’s him at his house on Berriman Street in Brooklyn. When he bought his own home, late in life actually, he made sure that it had four things: close proximity to the rest of us (only a block and a half away from his brothers’ and sisters’ families); ample yard space for his dump truck and assorted building materials (he was a general contractor); a generous outdoor area where the whole family could gather for barbecues and parties; and last, but by no means least, a garden.

Uncle Joe had no children of his own, but he was godfather to the majority of his nieces and nephews, me included. The man wasn’t merely loved by those of us who knew him. He was adored, idolized even.

My godfather didn’t live a lot longer than my father, but I was fortunate to have him around for what the shrinks might call a young man’s formative years. He taught me how to use hand tools and mix concrete, how to level a piece of wood before driving a nail into it, how to lay brick, and the proper way to let out a clutch.

More important, and strictly by observing the man, I learned how to be fair and kind to people while at the same time being firm in what I believe.

At least I hope that I did.

It would break my heart to think that I let him down.

Happy Father’s Day everybody!

The way you wear your hat

18 Jun

My father was not big on wearing hats, at least not after I came along. This may have had something to do with president Kennedy. In 1961, just four years after my birth, JFK broke tradition by not wearing a hat to his inauguration, the first U.S. president to do so. This bold choice freed American males like my father to henceforth go topless anywhere and anytime they wished, and so many of them did.

Dad was the kind of man who might have benefitted from hat wearing. He had the looks for it, certainly. But he also had no hair. This photograph of him with his dark (and yet thinning) hair is rare. Soon after most of the man’s top went completely uncovered.

I only became a hat wearer a few years ago. This was not born of necessity. Unlike dad I still have a full head of hair, actually a very full head of hair, like my mother. I’m lucky that way.

Yet, on days like today, I find myself wishing that I wasn’t so lucky. It’d be swell, I often imagine, to look in the mirror and see a bit more of my father looking back.

This still could happen one day, I suppose. But at this age, which is more advanced than his when he died, I’m not optimistic that it ever will.

Too bad. A father’s reflection belongs in a son’s life.

Happy Father’s Day everybody.