Growing up I knew exactly how many channels I could scan on the radio before he stuffed the nob with blunt force, yelling a string of Greek expletives. Country, soft rock, fine. But scan a rap song? Scan a boisterous pop anthem one too many times and now it’s time for mandolins. Or the ultimate punishment: country, his favorite because he grew up as a boy in rural Greece watching John Wayne. After a period of my prolonged sulking he’d ask from the driver’s seat, “Ah you there?”
He was here for five days and as I cared for my girls alongside him I kept thinking: he did a good job. He doesn’t know how I vote. The only time he affirmed me verbally was when I was chopping parsley really fast and I was so shocked that I cut my finger. I have no memories of him being interested in my interests other than teasing in the way men of that time and generation related to their daughters. In staccato accusations but with warm eyes. “Clicking, clicking, clicking!” he says of my picture taking.
I had two goals for my Dad’s visit this year: ask him if he has a will and tell him he was a good father.
When we moved to Arizona from New York when I was 12 he visited faithfully every year. He flew me to his one bedroom brick apartment in Hackensack and I’d spend half the time in the city and the other half in diners with him. When we are together we eat, punctuated by coffee. He gives me cash in handfuls and mutters not to spend it. He asks me seriously. “so how you makin’ up” with his brow furrowed. This is his one serious question and I give one serious answer; after that it will be business. Observing how I parked. Talking about the price of gas and how much I make an hour. Telling me of my sisters boyfriend, “he’s asshole. I no think so.”
I’d describe him as remote but kind. The kind of kind people not from New York don’t get (he screams most things and talks on the offense 100% of the time ie. “Dad, look at the sunset!” “Sunset? What sunset? Sunset here there everywhere same.”) He would absolutely die for us but isn’t capable of saying, “I’m proud of you.” Not because he doesn’t feel it but because it isn’t his first or second or third language and he doesn’t know the grammar of it. He sent all necessary parenting messages through these actions: bringing us to the arcade and disappearing behind a Greek newspaper. Standing at my soccer games with his hands behind his back. Setting down a plate of lemon rice and chicken still steaming and sprinkling parsley on top. I never feel more loved than when my husband cooks for me. I ask him to set down the plate just so.
Seeing Dad with my girls is a revelation that continues to surprise. His drunken smile as he watches them jump off the couch. How he handles them like glass sculptures. How he played Winnie the Pooh figurines and massively accommodates the slightest whimper. Actually I know about that last part; his going to comical lengths to lessen their discomfort like asking me to pull over on the side of the highway because Eleanor is crying. How did this person who brought no discipline and rarely said I love you develop a completely secure and happy attachment with his children?
In the back of my mind I wanted to create great portraits of him while he was here. But I lacked the initiative. To enter his space. And I was on a point and shoot kick. And my girls, my girls. I have the hardest time focusing on photographing when they’re around and my whole being is tracking their needs. But I shot a few rolls, and of course feel deeply grateful for what turned out. Dad at a restaurant, which is his most familiar if not happy place.
He stayed in my office. I bought a new air mattress even though a friend offered to lend me one. I spent the week stocking the bathroom with things he might need like 99 cent shaving cream. And also trying to anticipate any shit he might give me and head it off. I thought about the food he likes. What activities would please him, which are none. I worried about our lack of TV, which has always been the great buffer and soother of social awkwardness, but we have phones for that now.
He got in and settled into a routine: coffee and breakfast alone in the mornings, a walk to Dunkin Donuts because “Starbucks takes like a shit.” He joined us for a few kid-friendly outings (the Children’s Museum and the splash pad) but promptly headed to the car for a nap because “this is a woman’s and a children’s.” He napped when the girls did in the afternoon because he still works night shift as a truck driver at 75 years old. Then we met my sister for dinner, a relief because she babies us both and we let her.
Should I include this next part? The racism he keeps tight-lipped about around my Mexican husband and his mixed granddaughters who he loves. How we pulled up to the river and upon seeing mostly Mexican families he said, “I no think I like it,” and my sister and I knew exactly what was meant. How when we were at the food court of the mall and the girls were riding quarter-rides he showed me a picture of his girlfriend and said, “She can be a rill bitch.”
He hand-washed his clothes all week because he actually considers it less of a hassle. Eleanor watched as he hung them to dry on the patio. He told my girls deeply and openly, “I lav youuuu. I’m going to miss you!” and I stood aghast in the hallway. Maybe he said those things to me at that age! Probably. Until I became old enough to judge him. To see his eighth grade education and simplicity and hate it, which I did. To think that his accent made him less intelligent; in contrast to what waitresses and customer service representatives tend to think, he understands eons more than what he can express in English.
We ate our last meal together at True Food Kitchen, the girls becoming impatient despite lemonade refills and hanging from the table like drunk sloths. The restaurant was too loud. Too trendy. Too packed. We had the same exact thought at the same moment. He said it first: “There no diners here?” Not diners like we know. Denny’s has puffy linoleum booths but no “fat Alex”. He used to whisper to us that (fat) Alex had a toupee.
On the way to the airport I realized I hadn’t checked off my line items. So I asked him about a will point blank and he answered point blank, and that was that. And then I said, “before you go I wanted to tell you Daddy what a good father you have been to us.” And he said, “Your Uncle Jack alcoholic and his wife still stay with. Me I’m a good father, okay. But this the lucky ones.“ Which means his life did not turn out as planned. I never really knew this about him; how he views his situation with us as a Plan B that he still begrudges. Nevertheless, he picked us up at two and four years old and took us to diners by himself (an exceedingly modern thing to do!) He parked the car in front of Teterboro Airport in New Jersey so we could watch planes through smog. God how I loved those planes. Of course the planes meant nothing. We are the lucky ones.