Essays

Fathers of the Bride

My maid-of-honor, in layers of lavender, fluffed the train on my gown. I placed one silk mule slipper on the white runner, then the next. Rows of wooden pews creaked as guests rose to their feet and turned to get a better view. A collective sigh, then a string of whispers filled the arched chamber. I hadn’t expected this, but I knew why. I had a father on each arm.

The taller man, his quiet blue eyes returning to me again and again as we stepped slowly towards the altar, was my father, the man everyone expected to see. But there had been another man in my life since I was a small child. The other man, gray haired, shorter than me and smiling so hard I thought his face might crack, was Uncle Joe.

How could I ask my father to share this day he must have dreamed about since the day I was born, his only daughter after having three sons? How could I ask him to share this moment when he had already given up so much for me?

My father was a young man when his wife and my mother, Lilly, died. I was 5. My father couldn’t manage four children on his own. He worked nights, and there was no money for a sitter. Aunt Florie, my father’s older sister, and her husband, Uncle Joe, came to our cramped, two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment the day after the funeral to meet with family and friends to parcel out the children. It was late afternoon. We were still in pajamas. Beds were unmade; dishes piled high in the sink. Aunt Florie immediately set about getting us dressed and the apartment in order.

More people arrived – aunts, uncles and neighbors. “I can adopt Mary Ann,” one aunt said. Gary, who was 8, was selected by Winnie, his godmother who lived across the street. There was no decision yet for Michael, 13. Gerard, 18, would stay with our grandmother, where he had lived to make room for the new baby five years earlier – me.

Uncle Joe listened, his face growing red as he stood up. “They are not going to be separated,” he said. “Florie and I will take the whole family.” And that’s exactly what happened. My father gathered his family and moved us all, himself included, to Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe’s house on Long Island.

“Just until I get back on my feet,” he said. “A year at most.” But we never left.

We settled in. My father continued to work the night shift as an inspector at the American Can Company in Brooklyn. He worked while his family slept. He told us the nightshift paid more, but two men sharing a house on the same schedule may be why he continued to work at night. I started school and this meant I didn’t see him during the week. He was asleep when I left for school, and at work when I returned home.

When I learned to write, I left him notes before I went to bed. “Hi Daddy, I got an A on my arithmetic homework today.” The notes would come back with spelling and grammar corrected and signed “Love, Daddy.”

Uncle Joe filled in for my father’s absence. He walked me to the bus on the first day of school. He taught me to tie my shoelaces, letting me practice on his scuffed brown work shoes at night as we all gathered around our black and white television to watch Bonanza or the Ed Sullivan Show. After a long day as the head butcher at the A&P, Uncle Joe often returned home with chocolate cigarettes, which, after pretending to smoke, I ate as we watched his favorite wrestling shows together.

I came home from Kindergarten one day, sitting quietly at the kitchen table as Aunt Florie washed dishes. I had something important to ask her. “Can I call you Mommy? All the other kids at school have mommies.” She dropped her washcloth and wrapped her wet soapy hands around me. There had been no other children in her life to call her Mom.

“Sure. honey,” she said. “Just let me ask your father first.” She did and from that day on she was Mommy and with that I slipped a little further away from his fragile grasp.

Music could always be heard in my house. Aunt Florie loved The Sound of Music and Frank Sinatra. For Uncle Joe it was Dean Martin and comedy albums like Pat Cooper’s My Hero, featuring Pat on the cover lying on his side in an Italian hero sandwich. For my father, it was always sad love songs, songs he had shared with my mother—It Had to Be You, Have I Told You Lately That I Love You, I’ve Got You Under My Skin.

“Stop listening to that music, Frank!” Aunt Florie would yell.

By the time I was seven-years old, my father had begun to drink. Although I never saw him drunk, I noticed the light in his blue eyes had dimmed and they were now ringed with red.

“When did you get home, Frank? Florie asked. I tried to wait up for you.”

“Did you go out, Daddy?”

“I was at a Beer Garden.” I imagined green grass and a bed of orange marigolds, just like the ones I planted in the garden Uncle Joe made for me, a small fenced area with scalloped red brick trim holding my flowers and my young life together.

Pool parties ruled the summers at our house. Uncle Joe vacuumed the pool and pulled weeds from between the green and yellow brick pavers before friends and family arrived. While Uncle Joe barbequed, my father entertained. He would stand at the edge of the pool, smoking a cigarette, then flip the cigarette back in his mouth and dive to the bottom of the deep end. When he surfaced he flipped the still-lit cigarette back out of his mouth and continue smoking.

“Do it again, Daddy!”

At one party, one of his work friends, a dead ringer for Ernest Borgnine, asked, “When are you going to get married again, Frank?”

“Not until Mary Ann grows up. I can’t take her away from Florie. And I won’t leave her.” He kept his promise.

Then he said, “You know how I know Mary Ann loves me? Every morning she comes into my room and gives me a kiss.”

Uncle Joe called me Kid. “Hey Kid, want to go get some ice cream?” We’d jump in the car and take off for Howard Johnson’s where I always ordered an enormous chocolate Sundae.

As I got older Uncle Joe taught me to ride a bike, to drive a car. As a young teenager, he gave me a job in the deli he now owned. “Never be late. If there are no customers, find something to do. Don’t be idle.”

We reached the altar. My Father lifted my veil and kissed me in his quiet, gentle way, his eyes reaching inside me. Perhaps back to the days when his life had been contained. Back to the days when it had been Lilly and Frank and their four children. Uncle Joe, still smiling so hard I feared a disaster when he puckered up, planted a sloppy kiss on my cheek. “Go get him, Kid.