When I think of my Dad, I think of competence. He was only 29 when I made my appearance in his life, but still, my every memory of him was of calm, assured competence.
I remember Dad in my earliest memories working in our yard. I have a clear image of him telling all of us, all of the neighborhood kids, to stand back. He was going to kill a nest of ground wasps that had taken up painful residence in our yard. We waited inside the house, where it was safe, while Dad took on the dangerous task of dealing with the enemy, so frightening to a five year old and her friends.
I remember Dad taking apart car engines, fixing lawn mowers, building shelves, turning our unfinished basement into three finished rooms, complete with carpeting, lights and panelled walls.
Dad was never awkward, never at a loss in a social setting. He was never loud, never boastful, but he was always at ease. I remember him at weddings, parties, neighborhood cookouts. Always charming, always kind.
When I got married and had children and a home of my own, it was Dad who was always called upon to come to the rescue. How to finance a new septic system? Ask Dad. How to build a shed for all of our gardening supplies? Dad again.
He was our compass point, our true North. His was the voice that we heard in our hearts as we contemplated each youthful mistake.
Mom was home and hearth; Dad was the roadmap to adult life.
In his last years and months, my Dad faced a range of ailments that left him physically weakened and largely dependent on others for his daily care. But he never lost his competence, his assurance, his dignity or his role as the family leader. In a wheelchair, one side of his body made nearly useless by a stroke, Dad was still the one we went to for advice and guidance.
I have never thought of my father as anything but mature, able, confident and supremely in control. Dad has been gone for almost five years now, and I still ask him for advice.
Last Thursday I was visiting my Mom, as I do most weeks. She was busy at the stove, making a delicious dinner for the two of us, and I was seated in my usual place at the kitchen table. I picked up my wine glass, and wandered into the dining room. On the table I found a large, faded manilla envelope with old fashioned type-writer lettering on the front. It was addressed to my Dad.
As I opened the flap, my Mother came to my side. “I was cleaning out a drawer, looking through some of these old things.”, she said. “They were Dad’s. From the war.”
We stood together, my Mother and I, looking down at the yellowed envelopes that lay on the tablecloth before us. With a surprisingly unsteady hand, I slid each piece of paper out and read the words so carefully typed on each one. An acceptance letter into the US Army, dated in 1944. A request for uniform and clothing supplies before reporting: pants, jackets, a “watch cap”, even socks. A roster of names and addresses for the soldiers who had served in Dad’s Third Army unit. A letter of thanks signed by Harry S. Truman. A typed, faded reminder to sign up for health and life insurance from the Army before time ran out.
Mom and I smiled and talked about each document, touching them with reverence and love, commenting on the quaintly ancient look of each typed letter.
Then I reached for the last envelop. I felt something solid inside, something that was clearly not made of paper. I lifted the flap. Something slipped into my hand, and I gasped. I held two small tin dogtags, tied together with string. There was my father’s name, Edward A. Merullo, and a number. My fingers closed over them, holding them tight. My heart sped up, and I felt tears fill my eyes.
I had never seen these dogtags before, not ever. I knew that my father had served in WWII, but that fact seemed like history, not reality. It didn’t really register with me that Dad had been a soldier, for real. Not until last Thursday.
There I stood, a mother of three children who are all older than Dad was when he wore those tags. I stood perfectly still. I stood in tears.
I stood there, holding those little bits of metal, so much lighter and less substantial than I have always imagined them to be. And I pictured them lying against a boy’s chest, moving with each beat of his heart. Growing warm from his skin as he stood sentry duty in Germany in 1945.
And for the very first time, I thought of my father as an unsure, unformed boy of 19. Going to war. Wearing his army issue jacket, pants and “watch cap”, his dog tags clinking as he marched. I thought of him in danger, afraid. Missing his own parents. Missing home.
And it made me love him and miss him even more. I wish that I had seen those dogtags when he was still with us, when I could have asked him what he was feeling as he slipped them over his head for the first time.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. We miss you.