When I was very young, I remember that I had lost some special toy. Today, I can’t tell you anything about it. But back then, whatever it was, that toy was the center of my universe.
My dad, of course, was helping me look. Yet, the more we opened cupboard doors and peered past piles of folded clothes, the more frustrated I became.
“Don’t worry,” my father assured me. “It’ll turn up eventually. It’ll just be in the last place you look.”
I remember stopping to look at my dad. I felt he was many things to that point in my life, but a soothsayer he was not. Obviously proud of his “dad joke,” my father just smiled at me: “Because once you find it, you don’t need to look any more.”
Sharing even that story here feels strange. Some of the best feedback I get from these columns is where I share something personal. One of my first interactions with former Councilwoman June Eisland, for example, is when she sought me out at some event to tell me how much she enjoyed the column I wrote for my dad on his 85th birthday.
But for me, I feel like people don’t want to read about my family, or even about me. I am coming up on four years working here in the Bronx, but I’m not from here. I didn’t grow up here. I can’t even say I spent most of my adult life here. I can count on one hand the number of times members of my immediate family have even been to New York City — combined.
Still, if you ever want to get a sense of who I am, there is only one place you can start: my family. And it’s a big one.
I have six brothers and sisters, and I’m the second-youngest. Most of my siblings are far older than me — some of them even having children of their own by the time I was born. So while it might seem like I grew up in a full household, for the most part, it was just my parents, my little sister Renee, and me.
My dad spent nearly 40 years welding railroad tracks together, while my mom worked multiple jobs so that Renee and I could at least feel like our family was almost middle class. Our house in a small paper mill town in Pennsylvania was a century old, and you were reminded of it every time the floor creaked under your feet.
On summer weekends, we would escape to a campground about 20 miles away where my parents had scraped together enough income for us to have an RV. Whenever my friends heard my family was going camping, they imagined us staying in tents and keeping warm by a campfire. But camping to us growing up was central air-conditioning and a nice soft bed, with a fire ring outside mostly for show.
Moving to New York a few years back brought me about 500 miles closer to my mom and my little sister, along with her husband and two kids (who are now both teenagers). That made me very happy because I love all of them. But it also took me away from my dad, who still lived in Florida, and was the only reason why I stayed in that state as long as I did.
The coronavirus pandemic has been especially tough on my dad. His wife of 20 years has been in hospice, suffering dementia. The only way my dad can see my stepmother is occasional visits where he can talk to her through a fence. He rented a small trailer near the hospice facility with plans to ride a trike — an adult version of a tricycle — over to see her. But the Florida sun became too much for my dad — who is pushing 90 himself — so now he drives.
I won’t spend Thanksgiving with any of them this week, but don’t feel bad about that. I actually spent last week with all of them. In Pennsylvania. My mom. My dad. My sister. Even the kids.
Despite working on the railroad for so many years, before a couple weeks ago, my dad had never before rode a passenger train. And thanks to a four-hour delay outside of Jacksonville, my dad missed his Penn Station connection we were going to take together to Buffalo (and then ultimately to where I grew up in Pennsylvania), forcing him to spend a night in the city.
Some might see a missed connection as bad. But for me, it was a chance to show my father my adopted home, and why I love it so much. Where I work. Where I hang out. Even where I live.
As both my mom and dad grow older, I face the reality more and more there will come a point in my life when I don’t have them. I hope that is still many years away, but it makes me thankful to have them here now.
The coronavirus has been a reality check for many of us, forcing us to take stock, and to appreciate what we have — and what we could lose. I know the luxury of having my mom, my dad, my sister Renee, and my other siblings and extended family in my life is one that not everyone has. And it’s a luxury I intend to never take for granted.
I hope you feel the same way. Whether you get together with your family in person, or find ways to connect through the power of technology, don’t focus on what divides us, but what brings us together. It’s something we’ll also need to extend as we enter a new year, and new possibilities — including one, hopefully, without this albatross of a pandemic.
My dad may have had his tried and true words of wisdom, but he has no monopoly on them. My mom has her words, too, especially when I needed it the most. Like when I blew up my entire career path of becoming a lawyer all because I insisted upon answering this calling to journalism.
“Don’t ever regret doing what you love,” my mom told me. “Life is too short to never be happy.”
The author is the editor of The Riverdale Press.