“If Bullshit Was Snow…” And other memories of my Father

I guess it is only fair that, if I wrote about my mother last week, that this week’s question is about my memories of my father. In some ways it’s a tougher question to address.

It’s not that my Dad wasn’t memorable. It’s just that dads in the 50’s and 60’s were very different than dads of today. Moms were the nurturers. The caregivers. Dads were supposed to be the providers, the disciplinarians and the remote, but powerful force behind all that unfolded.

But Dads were also being redefined by new models of fatherhood being served up by television which was starting to expand its influence.

We had Robert Young playing Jim Anderson in “Father Knows Best.” Hugh Beaumont as Ward Cleaver on “Leave it to Beaver;” Danny Thomas on “

Make Room for Daddy” and later Fred MacMurray as Steven Douglas raising his boys on “My Three Sons.” These TV dads were founts of wisdom, counsel, and, as needed, fair-minded but firm discipline offered with love. Yep…the networks served up some great role models.

The problem is that most of the dads of that era were watching other channels. At least I don’t remember any Jim Andersons or Ward Cleavers among the fathers I knew — and that includes my Dad. That’s not a bad thing. But it does meant that in talking about about my memories of my father, Joseph Salvador DeLisi, I can’t rely on the stereotypes to convey who he was.

My Dad was thirty years old when I came along and he was already “broken in” as a Dad by my older siblings, Debbie, Dan, and Christine. I am sure he had to work to figure us out — we were all very different — but we had to work to figure him out too. He wasn’t always an open book and the challenge was compounded by the fact that Dad was busy as a fruit and vegetable wholesaler building a new business, and a new future, for his growing family.

He’d be up at 4 or 5 AM and some days even earlier. I don’t recall him ever being home when we left for school because he’d already be at the warehouse where semis with loads of lettuce or cantaloupes or boxcars filled with tomatoes or oranges waited to be unloaded and where trucks needed to be dispatched to retailers across the Twin Cities or further afield to Duluth, or Mankato, or Red Wing or into neighboring Wisconsin.

To his credit he’d be home in time for dinner, almost without fail, but he would already have worked a 12 -13 hour day. Once dinner was over and he’d settled into his chair in front of the TV, sleep would inevitably claim him before long. I remember we used to giggle over his snoring. Imitating him from time to time. My mother would nudge him and say “Joe, why don’t you just go to bed” He’d startle, and then insist he was awake…watching the show.

We knew better. But maybe he wanted to feel like part of the family. Maybe he wanted to have that time with us even if he struggled to stay awake. I’m not sure. But there was a comfort in his presence whether he was awake or not.

As a little boy, I thought of my dad as kind and big and strong. I loved it when he’d “make a muscle” for me, flexing his bicep that showed the results of years of hard work as a produce man. I can remember the thrill as he’d throw us over his shoulder calling out “who wants a sack of flour” as he carried me around the house until he bounced me down on the couch. Some years later he’d still make that muscle for my little brother and sister and I can still hear him singing the Popeye the Sailor Man.

I remember him giving us whisker rubs (even five minutes after shaving his stubble was already coming back). I remember him challenging us not to laugh, then making us giggle uncontrollably just be looking at us and starting to laugh himself. And I recall how sitting on his lap he’d smell of a combination of the filterless Lucky Strikes he smoked for years and Old Spice after shave. It was a smell that was Dad. A smell that meant comfort.

I’d love to go with him to the warehouse on Sundays when he’d stop to check the banana rooms or to maybe help a customer who needed to pick up a few items. There might be a wild rides through the semi-darkened warehouse on a “two-wheeler.” I’d hold on tight ad Dad tipped me back, and off we’d race. Then I could usually cajole a dime for the old Coke machine (or better yet sometimes he’d produce the key and open it up exposing the bottles of coke and orange and grape crush….maybe bubble-up too.

The fact that Dad was the family chauffeur (Mom never learned to drive until much later in life) also gave us time together. t was Dad who’d also do the grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon and I’d often join him. We’d go to Foodland and he’d visit with the owner (Louis Lipschultz, who was also a customer of Dad’s) while I waited patiently to see if I couldn’t get a treat or two added to the cart as we patrolled the aisles, Mom’s list in hand.

We’d stop at the butcher shop owned by George Gaudet who, with his son, had a store at the corner of Grand and Fairview in St. Paul. We’d park in the lot behind the store and enter through the back door emerging by the cold case full of cold cuts, beef, pork, chicken and lamb. My Dad would tell George what he needed and I’d watch as the packages wrapped in butcher paper and sealed with what seemed like masking tape piled up on the counter. (We ate a lot of meat in those days

And it was Dad who took me to the library and waited. never complaining, as I browsed the books to find my latest haul of great reads and on all those rides he patiently listened to me talk…and I talked a lot.

There are so many little things that come to mind as I write this. I remember our summer trips to Gull Lake. Not every year but when I was small we did go pretty routinely. I remember him and my mother singing their silly old songs on the road trip up to Brainerd. (I sing them still). And then, as we got closer, we beg Dad to “go fast” on the “roller coaster road” that led to the Breezy Point resort and we’d squeal with delight as we parted company with our stomachs on the dips and rises.

At the lake the days were full but relaxed. We’d fish together, along with my Mom, for sunfish. We’d go out in the boat. Sit on the sand. Play games. Go to the marina to get gas and candy. My mom would make fudge. Those days at the lake were special and all the more so because we had Dad all day long for days on end — and he was awake!

One summer though, my father went above and beyond normal Dad duty and I realize in retrospect that he had far, far more patience than I ever appreciated. The summer of ’61 he actually drove us four kids (this was before my younger brother Andy was born or baby sister Martha) to California and back try himself if the summer of ’61. (Mom was pregnant and had to fly but the rest of us made the trip overland). He never once threatened to turn back or to abandon us in the Rockies or on a lonely desert trail. The trip was actually…fun.

 I remember stopping at the Rushmore Caves and Wall Drug and at other tourist attractions that caught the attention of a carful of kids ranging from 8 to 17. There was fast food…diners…. hotels. Disneyland. Adventures. We drove across the nation in our wood paneled Chevy (I think) station wagon, Dad’s arm out the window, the smoke from his cigarette streaming out and him enjoying, I think, the drive with his family around him. Pretty impressive for a Dad in those days. Pretty impressive for a Dad these days, too, I think.

With each passing year, I think he became more sure of himself as a Dad, but there were some things that he never quite mastered. He was a sucker for Christmas and followed my mother’s lead jin making Christmas special for us all but the tree decorating was not something he ever truly loved and there may have been more than a few muttered curses in trying to make those freshly cut scotch pines or whatever tree was their choice that year fit into an uncooperative tree stand. But that’s another set of stories for another time.

I do recall, however, that one year, when my sister Debbie wasn’t going to be home for Christmas for the first time that tears that would fill his eyes as “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” played. I was 12 or so at the time and I realized — perhaps for the first time, that there were more emotions at play than I had ever realized.

When you’re a kid it’s hard to see our parents as people rather than just your parents. And I realized not long ago that there’s so much that I really don’t know about him…even though as the years went on I got more glimpses of him as a person than just as my Dad.

It was a challenge because Dad wasn’t always a great communicator. It’s not that he was taciturn. He just didn’t share a lot and, if he did, it wasn’t always very personal.

And, as I thought about this, I realized I don’t recall Dad telling us stories of his youth or offering us glimpses of who he might have been as a boy or young man. I don’t remember him ever driving us by his childhood home on Mt. Airy St. in St. Paul down by the Cathedral. Talking about his home life, sharing stories of his siblings, his parents, or his friends was not really in his wheelhouse. I wish they had been.

He was the child of an immigrant family who grew up in a tightly knit immigrant community. As the second born son, I think he always felt he had to prove himself. And my grandparents were not, I think, overly indulgent about “feelings.” Children did as they were told. There was a family hierarchy. Respect, discipline, deference, indeed were expected. Taking care of your own was a given. But…warm and fuzzy? Probably not at the top of the list of styles of family interaction.

But he was a good son and I remember him calling his mother almost every day when he got home from work. He’d speak to her in the Sicilian dialect that he grew up with. I can still hear him say “Hey Ma, Chefai” (Hey Ma, what are you doing?) as he called her on the wall phone in the kitchen.

He and I struggled at times to find our connection when I was small. He had been an athlete. So was my older brother. Me…not so much. He had been class president in high school and football team captain. He payed hockey and baseball. He was a big deal.

I was shy. Sensitive — to a fault. I’d rather be reading than be part of a group. I played sports more for him than for me. We were not, I feared, a match made in heaven.

Our relationship was never bad. And though it did take us time to find our sweet spot, we did. And I’ll always be grateful for that.

Together we went to ballgames at the old Met Stadium. We’d see the Twins play and have lunch at the Parker House — a favorite of his in Mendota — before the game. And we’d sit through icy cold Viking games in December in Minnesota and, even if I was chilled to the bone, I didn’t complain — I was there with my Dad!

And at one point, when I was in my 20s and had gone back to school and on to law school — my Dad told me that he had wanted, before WWII and then the responsibilities of a family intervened, to get his college degree and to be a lawyer. That didn’t happen for him. But it did for his son. And I think he was proud. And that, felt good.

When he would come to visit us at some of our foreign postings — and for a guy who feared flying more than I could fathom that was really something for him to do — I saw in him a spirit of adventure and intellectual curiosity that I had not appreciated before. And I saw him charm Sri Lankans and Tswanas and others as readily as he did his customers in St. Paul. I was proud he was my Dad. I was proud to be his son.

He may not have said it much…expressing feelings was never his strong suit…but he showed his love in countess ways. And when he told a friend one day that “if bullshit was snow, Scottie would be a blizzard” the love and pride that I know lay behind those words filled my heart.

I wrote the other day about the importance of living up to my mother’s example and expectations in shaping how I conducted myself as a diplomat. But my father’s example — his kindness, decency, and civility — the respect that he showed all he engaged, no matter their station in life — is equally a part of who I am today.

And, as I write about these memories, I can’t help but wonder what words my own kids might put to paper some day. But that’s for the future. For today, I’ll linger a bit longer in the past, revisiting the memories of my Dad. They’re warm and inviting and call me to stay for a bit…and so I will.

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