My father aspired to be a doctor. I still have in my possession a letter from St. Francis College outlining the requirements for a pre-med course of study, sent in response to his hopeful inquiry. The 1920s were drawing to a close, the stock market was about to crash, and our nation would soon plunge into the Great Depression that was so formative in the lives of our parents’ generation. But my father’s family was already poor. His immigrant father struggled to make a living, his mother was ill and frail, and life did not allow for luxuries like college.
The eldest of four brothers, one of whom died at the age of four, my father was brilliant and motivated and knew the value of higher learning, but many dreams dissolved in the rooms of their railroad flat in a gritty neighborhood of Brooklyn. He managed to take a few classes, read voraciously on his own, and wrote and spoke with unusual eloquence, but he finally picked up the buckets and brushes of his father’s humble trade. He still yearned for a respected profession, and he certainly had the heart and ability to be a wonderful physician, but he took the jobs that came his way, added murals and decorative effects to the drudgery of basic wall painting, and never had a break. He labored until the day he died at the age of sixty-seven.
I remember him coming home at night in paint-splattered overalls and paint-splattered shoes, washing and grooming and emerging as the handsome and dignified gentleman he was. In those early years when we still lived in the city, he would leave the house to attend night classes at the Atlantic States Chiropractic Institute, and even though I was only a little girl, I sensed his noble determination and felt proud of him. He completed the program with distinction and was forever after Dr. Carbone, a legitimate, hard-earned title, even if he painted houses by day.
It was difficult to start a viable practice as a chiropractor in an era when the profession was often dismissed as quackery, and especially for a man who was working long hours to support a family weighed down by more than its fair share of adversity. He grew tired. Now he came home exhausted, lay down in bed, and often fell asleep with his eyeglasses on and an open book that had slipped from his hands to his chest. I tiptoed in once and gently removed his glasses, and my heart swelled with a huge, protective, overwhelming love.
But I was useless. Being young is an all-consuming career, and I had not inherited his vision or his drive. He warned me that the clock was ticking and that I needed to advance myself, get a degree, become someone in the world. Become a doctor, in fact…by which he meant M.D., for he still saw that as the pinnacle profession, and he knew that I could do it. Unfortunately, I had zero interest in becoming a doctor, nor did I seek to define and pursue whatever it was that interested me. I thought I had plenty of time to figure things out.
And in the meantime, I can see how he shielded me, doing things for all of us that we should have been learning to do for ourselves. Somehow he would manage to find an old car for me, and somehow he arranged to keep it maintained, and somehow there would be cash in an envelope to pay for my gas. It shames me now to think of it. He was trained in the crucible of hard work and taking care of others. It was all he knew. And he was a force of nature, a one-man industry for betterment, constantly repairing things, solving problems, even cooking and cleaning the house.
In fact, it’s his housecleaning proclivity that prompted me to write about him today. I had a phone conversation yesterday with my childhood friend Carol. It was the first time I had heard her voice in fifty years, but that’s a story for another post. What surprised me was what she remembered about my father from our Coney Island Avenue days. “I have an image of him sweeping and mopping the stairs and the lobby,” she said. “I remember it in such detail. He used one of those mops made of string, but what I especially remember is the pail. It was one of those tin pails with a wringer inside, a very nice pail, and he worked with care, like it mattered. Your father really tried to take care of things.”
He sure did. And when Carol described it, I could almost smell the pine-scent of disinfectant, an odd aroma to associate with love, but I do. I could see the tile floor of the little vestibule where Carol and I sometimes sat and played with our dolls until the landlady hollered at us to get out of people’s way, not that there were any people. And I could see the steep wooden stairs that led to our apartment on the first floor, and the narrow dim hallway. My father kept it clean for us.
And it occurred to me that there were probably a hundred more impressive things for which my father might have preferred to be remembered, even by his daughter’s childhood friend. She might have seen how imposing and handsome he looked when he stepped out in his suit, how smart and well spoken he was, how generous. And there was the respectful way people asked him for advice and referred to him as Doc, and the fact that he passed even his x-ray licensing exam, and how he moved listeners to tears when he drove up to Albany and addressed the Assembly of the State of New York about an issue that mattered to him deeply. And he really was a chiropractor, and yes, that is a doctor.
Carol didn’t know, either, how he painted the walls of our rooms with flowers and birds, making everything more beautiful, and cooked us tomato sauce and lentil soup, and washed our hair and tucked us in, and shelved his own dreams to give us all the chances he hadn’t had, and fortified us with love and courage that we draw upon to this day.
I came across these lines from a poem called Physics by Sharon Olds that my own daughter had written out and given to me once…yet another story for a different post…and it occurs to me that this is how I view my father too:
Now she tells me
that if I were sitting in a twenty-foot barn,
with the doors open at either end,
and a fifty-foot ladder hurtled through the barn
at the speed of light, there would be a moment
-after the last rung was inside the barn
and before the first rung came out the other end–
when the whole fifty-foot ladder would be
inside the twenty-foot barn, and I believe her,
I have thought her life was inside my life
I don’t know how he fits, but yes, he is inside my life like that forever.
My father wanted most of all to be a physician, but in the end, he was so much more than that. And the poignant image of him humbly mopping the stairs takes on new meaning to me on this Labor Day. I am proud to be the daughter of this worker.