“Nowadays, when I look back on that day my dad died 50 years ago, what strikes me the most is not the memory of my own sadness, but the faces of the people who cared for me.”
My dad died 50 years ago today, January 15, 1971. I was nine years old. I remember walking home from Macarthur elementary school on that cold snowy afternoon in South Holland, Illinois. I was about half a block away from our house when my mom passed me in my dad’s red Chevy Malibu. She slowed the car and waved to me. I’ll never forget her face. She smiled but her eyes were sad.
As I came through the front door I could see my Nana in the family room, crying while she mopped the tiled floor. She paused when she saw me, still holding onto the mop, her cheeks stained with tears. My Papa milled about behind her, hands in his trouser pockets. He was crying too.
I made my way to the kitchen, where my mom and older sister had already gathered. My mom asked my sister and I to have a seat at the kitchen table. She sat across from us and said, “Your dad went to heaven today.” She’d obviously been crying but at this moment she was composed. She delivered the news gently but matter-of-factly. More than anything, she looked exhausted.
Learning of my dad’s death was not a surprise to me. He’d been in and out of hospitals for months, battling alcoholism the last several years of his life—a battle that had most likely begun before I was even born. In the years leading up to his death the battle that raged within our house and within his body was intense, violent, and bloody. Only after I became an adult did I understand my dad was just as much a victim of his addiction as my mom, sister, and I were.
Anyone who has lived with and loved an addict knows the particular, slow-motion horror of watching helplessly as the person you love is destroyed from within. It’s an epic battle that is sometimes won, and oftentimes lost. Thirty years after our dad’s death, as my sister and I took care of our mom while she was dying of cancer, I had the same feeling of watching someone being eaten alive from the inside. The difference between cancer and addiction is that most people find it easier to empathize with the person dying from cancer. It’s harder to empathize when the person suffering from addiction leaves behind a trail of arrest records, restraining orders, DUIs, totaled cars, gambling debts, barroom brawls, damaged careers, lost friendships, broken marriages, domestic violence, traumatized children.
It wasn’t until a therapist explained it to me in my early 30s that I came to realize I had grown up in a war zone. Looking at my childhood through that lens explained a lot of the things I experienced as a young adult—the sleepless nights, the nightmares, the anger that seemed to come out of nowhere, the feeling of not being able to trust my own happiness because I was in a perpetual state of high alert, bracing myself for the inevitable crisis that was most assuredly lurking around the next corner and would rear its ugly head the moment I allowed myself to relax.
The irony that I married a man who served 29 years in the Marine Corps, who deployed to geographic war zones while I continued to work to overcome the fallout of growing up in a familial war zone, has not escaped me. Of the two of us, I’m the one who startles easily, who needs to sit facing the exit in a restaurant, who remains vigilant when I have every reason to sit back and relax. On the upside, I tend to be extraordinarily calm in crisis situations. The ability to focus on practical matters during life’s various emergencies can be handy at times, yet that sense of calm in the eye of the storm also comes at a cost—unlike my husband, who’s very much in touch with his emotions in the moment, it often takes me days, weeks, months, or even years to come to terms with the normal range of emotions stemming from various life events.
Nowadays, when I look back on that day my dad died 50 years ago, what strikes me the most is not the memory of my own sadness, but the faces of the people who cared for me. In their eyes I saw concern, love, grief—not for themselves, but for the two little girls who just lost their dad. Remembering their faces is the thing that makes me cry. I imagine how difficult it must have been for them as parents and grandparents, the worry and responsibility they felt for the impact this day, and the years leading up to this day, would have on the lives of two little girls. Through them, I learned one of the most valuable emotions in life—after hope—is empathy. When bad things happen, it’s hope that propels us to keep getting out of bed every morning when our instinct is to stay burrowed underneath the covers, and empathy that allows us to close our eyes every night to slumber in peace, knowing we are not alone.
I’m 59 now, and still reminding myself to take that deep breath, live in the moment, embrace my own happiness. Because I have a lot to be happy for. Life continues to present us with challenges at every turn, as it does for all of us.And that’s another gift that cold snowy day in 1971 gave me—the knowledge in my bones that each of us is fighting an epic battle, that nothing is permanent, that hope and empathy sustain us.
In memory of my dad Ben Johnson (1931-1971), who died 46 years ago this January 15th.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
I don’t have many memories of my dad (your Papa) since he died when I was a kid. So when it comes to the memories I do have, I tend to hold onto them. Unfortunately a lot of those memories aren’t too warm and fuzzy, seeing that Papa was severely alcoholic in the years leading up to his death a few months after my 9th birthday. But there were good memories. And even some of the not-so-good memories are kind of funny now that Aunt Gerarda and I can recall them from a safe distance.
Most of my good memories are fleeting—moments in time that skate across my mind without much context. Like when my dad let me stand on his feet while he walked around the room taking exaggerated steps, holding my hands as I giggled and tried to hang on. Papa was 6’ 4”—tall and lanky—and I was a runt (according to him). He seemed like a giant to me.
Then there were the times he’d lie on the floor on his stomach and let us kids walk up and down his back. I thought he was letting us do it solely for the fun of it, but I later learned Papa was plagued with back problems and letting us walk on his back helped him feel better.
Speaking of my dad’s back, Papa was a big nap-taker. (Nana was too, which might explain Coleman’s penchant for napping.) I remember the time my dad was asleep on the family room couch, face down, shirt off, and one of my friends and I decided to play connect-the-dots on his back, using a marker to draw lines from freckle to freckle. (I’m pretty sure we got the idea from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. One can’t help but wonder how many other kids across America got the same idea?) Papa had a lot of freckles, providing us plenty of entertainment. I don’t remember how long he slept or what happened after he woke up. Maybe I blocked it out, because Papa could get pretty mad about things. If he yelled at us about it, we certainly wouldn’t have given him any back talk. (Get it? Back talk?)
If we were being punished for something when we were little, Nana usually made us sit in a chair facing a corner in the dining room. But Papa used a belt or a rolled-up newspaper on our behinds. Seeing him take off his belt when he was angry was not a good sign. I preferred the belt to the newspaper though. The belt hurt like hell, but with the newspaper we’d have to drop our pants so he could swat our bare butts. It didn’t hurt much but it was humiliating.
My dad was an imposing figure and I admit to being afraid of him at times. He kept a 20-gauge shotgun along with a bullwhip in the family room closet. (Yeah, you heard that right. Bullwhip. In the family room closet.) I saw these items every time I needed to wear a coat or use the vacuum cleaner—in other words, at least once a week if not daily. (The family room closet is also where my mom stashed her well-worn copy of Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker. It was supposedly hidden on the back of the top shelf underneath a pile of telephone books. But I found it when I was 11 or 12. Back then I eagerly awaited the nights Nana was working the floor at the Jerry Pals Real Estate office so I could return to Xaviera’s scandalous stories of life as a madam.)
Papa said he had the shotgun for shooting rabbits but there were plenty of rabbits in our yard and none of them were dead. (Speaking of the yard ask Aunt Gerarda about the time Papa was halfway through mowing the front lawn when he decided he was feeling a bit sleepy. On this particular summer day in the late 1960s, Papa turned off the mower and laid himself down in the grass for a nice long a nap. See, I told you our family likes to take naps.)
When my dad died in January of 1971, my mom gave the shotgun to his best friend, Uncle Ed Morrissey. I never saw that gun again until about 30 years later. I had recently finished writing the book about my dad, Live ’Til I Die, when the four of us traveled to Indiana to visit Uncle Ed and his wife Rosemary.
I hadn’t seen Uncle Ed since Aunt Gerarda and Uncle Dave’s wedding in 1980. During the rather lively after-party at Nana’s house, Gerarda and I noticed at one point Uncle Ed had disappeared. We ran outside into the late summer night and caught up with Uncle Ed, who was walking quickly to his car in an attempt to make an Irish Exit. (Uncle Ed and my dad were masters of the Irish Exit, a means of departure I find highly preferable to the hours-long goodbyes Dad and his side of the family seem to enjoy.)
Back to our visit with Uncle Ed and Rosemary in 2001 or thereabouts. We were sitting in the front room when Uncle Ed went into a back bedroom and came out with the shotgun. “Do you remember this?” he asked. The gun was still in its red and black leather case, exactly as I remembered it. Without even unzipping it, I could clearly picture the red fleece lining patterned with rustic drawings of hunters and various game birds (no rabbits though). “Oh yes, I remember this,” I told him. He placed the gun in my hands. “Here. You take it. It’s yours.”
My dad also owned a couple of handguns which he stored on the top shelf of my parents’ bedroom closet. (One can’t help but wonder why the shotgun and the bullwhip and The Happy Hooker weren’t also stored in the bedroom closet?) Unlike the shotgun, however, after my dad’s death my mom hung onto the handguns. That is until they were stolen in 1978, when I was a teenager. The robbery occurred two days after (and was no doubt related to) an epic party that had taken place at our house in South Holland. This unauthorized event (Nana and my step-father were on vacation at the time) involved approximately 200 or so of my closest high school friends along with a biker gang I hadn’t invited but who showed up anyway after they saw the cars up and down the block and people streaming in and out of the house. (Think Risky Business, except it’s the South Side of Chicago not the North Side, the Tom Cruise character is a girl, and instead of button-downs and Ray Bans the partygoers are wearing bell bottoms and puka shells.)
I have no idea whatever happened to my dad’s bullwhip. What a strange item to have in one’s family room closet growing up. I wish Nana was still here so she could tell us more about that. My guess (and Aunt Gerarda concurs) is that he most likely got it from someone he knew at the stockyards or while working one of the livestock exhibitions at the Amphitheater, which was next door to the stockyards.
As I’ve mentioned innumerable times, my dad had a very successful career—first as the assistant manager of the Amphitheater on Halsted Street and later as the director of special events at McCormick Place on Lake Shore Drive. In fact some of my best memories of my dad are of going to the various trade shows he ran at McCormick Place like the auto show, the boat show, the sportsman’s show, the housewares show, and the electronics show. I also have fond memories of going to his events at the Amphitheater like the flower show and the dog show.
Best of all were the times he took us to the rodeo and the circus at the Amphitheater. These memories are special because he would sit with us at the rodeo and the circus (if not for the entire show, at least part of it). Normally, at his other shows, we’d be with Nana while he ran around behind the scenes doing work stuff.
Speaking of shows at the Amphitheater, I am interminably jealous of Aunt Gerarda who was “there” when Nana saw Elvis Presley in concert. It was March of 1957—the first concert where Elvis wore the legendary gold lamé suit—and Nana was seated near the front with her parents (my Nana and Papa) while my dad worked backstage. In spite of the fact that she was six months pregnant with Gerarda, Nana stood on her chair the entire concert, along with 12,000 other screaming fans. Seeing as I am Elvis’s Number One Fan, it would have made a much better story if it was me inside my mom’s tummy that night instead of my sister, who I am sure doesn’t even like Elvis all that much.
Getting back to my dad’s career, he worked long hours, late nights, and since most of the shows went on weekends, he often worked Saturdays and Sundays too. Plus he traveled extensively on business. After his alcoholism started to get the better of him, he was in the hospital for long stretches of time the year or two before he died. Which is to say he wasn’t around very much in the nine short years I had with him.
One of the more indelible memories I have of my dad is the time he made creamed chipped beef on toast, aka Shit On a Shingle, for Aunt Gerarda and me. Nana was out somewhere and Papa was in charge of us that night—a highly unusual occurrence. That he cooked dinner for us made it even more memorable.
Shit On a Shingle, Papa-style
Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a saucepan over low heat. Oh hell, just turn up the heat to medium because Papa was impatient like that. While butter is melting pour yourself a cup of coffee leftover from this morning. It’s going to be a long night taking care of the girls; caffeine will help. On second thought make that half a cup of coffee and fill the rest of the cup with whiskey. Eleven-year old Gerarda has the chicken pox and she is not a happy camper.
When the butter is melted (whoopsie daisy, it’s a little on the burnt side), whisk in 2 Tbsp. flour to form a roux. As you’re standing at the stove making the roux (or trying to at least), the youngest curtain-climber (age 7, aka Nancy) is tugging at your pant leg asking if she can stand on your feet. That was all fun and games a few weeks ago but you have serious business to take care of. You tell the runt to go get herself a bottle of Coke from the garage even though Dorothy said the kids have already had their ration of one teeny-tiny glass of Coke per day. I can drink the entire bottle myself? she asks. Hell yeah. Get your sister a bottle too. She’s getting a little whiny about those damn chicken pox.
Whisk in 1½ cups warm milk. Forgot to warm the milk? It’s okay, dump it in there anyway. Oh, you’re supposed to add the milk gradually, a little at a time? No problem! Everybody loves lumpy Shit On a Shingle, right? Maybe a little whiskey will help smooth it out. If not, a little more whiskey in the coffee couldn’t hurt either.
Turn up heat on stove to medium. Oh yeah, it already is on medium. Crank that sucker up to high then. The runt is back by your side, holding a bottle of Coke in one hand and tugging at your pant leg with the other. Daddy, she says, Gerarda isn’t feeling so good. You glance behind you to see Gerarda sitting at the kitchen table, looking a little green, her bottle of Coke half-empty. You drank your damn Coke too fast! you tell her. No I didn’t, she says. I don’t feel good because I have the chicken pox!
You turn back to the stove. Were you supposed to be stirring the roux this whole time? Nevermind. Just scrape those brown bits from the bottom of the pan and mix them in with the roux, which is more like a glob at this point.
Runt is tugging at your pant leg again. Daddy, she says, Gerarda’s crying. What? You turn around to look at your oldest, who is in fact crying. Jesus H. Christ Gerarda! you say. How many times have I told you… Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.
This overly familiar pep talk only causes Gerarda to cry harder. Daddy, I don’t feel good! Here, you say, grabbing her half-empty Coke bottle and filling it with whiskey. Drink this. It’ll make you feel better. All of it? she asks. Yes. All of it.
While Gerarda attempts to chug her very first Whiskey and Coke at age 11—making retching noises behind you as she does so—try to focus on chopping 8 oz. dried beef (made right down the street at the Carl Buddig factory) and add it to the roux.
Daddy! This drink tastes terrible! Gerarda cries. Just finish it, you say without turning around. At this point take another swig of your “coffee” and proceed to add a shit ton—and I mean a SHIT TON—of pepper to the saucepan, until the entire mixture has become grayish in color. (In other words, until it looks completely unappetizing.)
Meanwhile, ignoring the runt tugging at your pant leg and the gagging noises Gerarda is making at the table, pop a couple pieces of bread in the toaster and when it comes up tell the runt to butter it while you put in two more pieces of bread. Now you hear whimpering and sniffling behind you but you refuse to turn around because there’s two more pieces of toast to be buttered and you’ve got shit to do.
Place a piece of toast on each of two plates for the girls, then place two pieces of toast on your own plate. Grab the saucepan and evenly distribute the lumpy, grayish gobs onto each piece of toast. Voila! You have now made Shit On a Shingle. Tell the runt to grab a plate and sit down. Holding your plate in one hand and Gerarda’s in the other, you finally turn around, only to find Gerarda, head resting on the kitchen table, completely passed out.
It’s hard to lose a parent at any age. No matter how old we are, a parent’s death affects us deeply and profoundly. Yet there’s something singular about losing a parent in the formative years, when our brains are at their most malleable. From that point forward, every moment in one’s life is experienced through the lens of loss. It shapes who we become, the career paths we take, the partners we choose, how we raise our children, our willingness to take risks and live life to the fullest. Because we know at any moment it can all be taken away from us. For better or worse, the parent we lost at an early age remains a compelling presence throughout the rest of our lives, reminding us that life is hard, life is unfair, life is transient.
The Saturday my dad took Aunt Gerarda and me on a spur-of-the-moment excursion to the Shedd Aquarium stands out in my mind as one of the more carefree memories I have of him. I don’t remember many of the specifics of that day. (Other than the fact that Nana was still asleep when we left the house and Papa didn’t leave her a note. And yeah, she was pretty pissed with him by the time we strolled through the door that night.) But I do remember the giddy excitement of being on an adventure with my dad.
In the many times I’ve returned to the Shedd since then—on school field trips, with friends, and later with all four of us when you kids were little—my feelings from that day have stayed with me. When I walk through the galleries of the original wings of the Shedd, marveling at the beautiful sea creatures from all over the world, what I remember most about that day with my father is the feeling of being loved. I didn’t really know that’s what it was at the time, but now that I’m a parent I understand. When a parent takes a child on an excursion to the zoo or the park or a ballgame or a museum, it’s not really about the destination. It’s what the parent is telling you by taking you on that adventure: “I love you. I care about you. And I want there to be more happy times in your life than sad times.”
I can’t say for sure if that’s what my dad had in his heart that day. If all he wanted was to go see the fish at the aquarium, he certainly could have gone without us, seeing as he left us in the dust more often than not. But something made him choose to take us with him that day. Somewhere deep inside him, he wanted to be a good parent.