Today would’ve been my father’s 81st birthday. The following is for him, with love.
William Leonard Grogan
Sept. 17, 1934-July20,2015
I’m going to try to avoid getting too mushy with this; my Dad was never one for mushy-stuff, so I’ll try not to over do it—for his sake, cause I know he’s listening.
But it is me speaking here Dad, so you know there’s going to be some tears shed. I can’t help it, but bear with me.
My Dad was a smart guy, a fun guy, an honest, hard-working guy who liked the company of family and friends. He enjoyed a good meal and he liked to laugh. He was a small guy, who achieved big things. He was a warm guy, but he wasn’t demonstrative. He was a gentle man, he could be kind and generous, but he had no tolerance for BS and he could be impatient. He was a traditionalist but believed in progress.
Still, I wouldn’t say he was a complicated guy. (An example of this—once we were in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and looking at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. I asked him, “What d’you think of it, Dad?” “Too Swirly”, he said—which is Dad all over.) He liked the simple things.
And- -he was a lucky guy. He was certainly lucky to have the mother he did. My grandmother, my wonderful loving grandmother, Lena—whom we all called “NeNe”, would tell me lots of stories about how Dad got into all kinds of trouble as a kid—never anything serious, mind you—but he was a fun-loving kid—and somehow, Dad always ended up on top and unscathed. He was lucky that way.
My Dad was small in size, but he was a giant to me. It wasn’t that he was without flaws, or that he did world-changing things. He wasn’t infallible.
It was in his warmth, the way he’d laugh, take pleasure in the joys of his children (and then his grandchildren), the way he made poached eggs for us on a Saturday, the way he worked on the crossword or read a book, the way he could be so focused on what he was doing that he wouldn’t hear a word you were saying, the way he could be quiet, the way he called us all “Tiger”, the way he wanted to share his favorite things—like the Horse Races, or golf, the Giants and the Yanks… the small ways he showed his love. He wasn’t much for holding hands or big hugs, but little gestures, a word here and there, carried enormous impact. We believed in him, we depended on him, we asked his advice, we learned from him, we emulated him. He took care of us, guided us, watched us grow. He was my Dad.
There are too many memories—they all come flooding back. But here are a few stories my Dad might like to hear:
One of my first memories of Dad and me together is haircuts. On Saturday mornings, when I was young, his routine was to go the grocery store and the barber next door—and sometimes he’d bring me along. He was fanatical about haircuts. I never shared that passion—for what are now obvious reasons. He loved everything about the barber shop, the ritual, the smells, the talc on your neck –after the barber brushed you off. Perhaps because his grandfather had been a barber-or maybe he just liked looking clean. He was a clean-shaven guy—and I never knew him to have a 5 o’clock shadow. Never. Obviously he and I had different perspectives on facial hair. Dad belonged to that generation of men who believed a guy with facial hair had to be a communist. Or a college professor, which is just as bad.
Anyway– I sat in the chair looking at the magazines—I remember a lot of hunting magazines, but most importantly –for me–a stack of comics with the covers ripped off. I don’t know if that’s where I’d first encounter the art-form that would define my life, or if Dad knew what he’d begun, but after that I loved going to the Barber too—despite my disdain for haircuts. Dad must’ve thought his son was a chip off the old block—but clearly time has proven him wrong. Still, Dad never stopped liking a good haircut—even in his later years– —and I can say–from my particular perspective, in that regard, he was indeed lucky.
Dad was in the right place at the right time when he joined IBM in the early 60’s—and he made the most of it. He worked really, really hard—and he loved every minute of it—and as a result, he did very, very well. He had great experiences at IBM in those days. His plant worked with NASA on a variety of projects, including Apollo 11 and the first moon landing. I was really proud of him, although I never understood what it was he did, exactly. But I did understand his passion for his work and what it meant to work hard at it. Money was secondary, a reward for working hard at something you loved. And he was lucky- in that for him, the two went hand-in-hand.
On Saturday afternoons when we were little, Dad would invariably take a catnap on the sofa. He could sleep like nobody’s business. He’d lay on his side with his legs bent at the knee., making a little space, bordered by his butt , legs and the sofa—just right for two little kids to crawl into. One of our favorite things to do while he was sleeping was climb over him and into the crook of his legs, and play fort. We’d hide back there –play cowboys or something. All the while we were playing, climbing on him, pushing him around, Dad never budged. Not once. He was fast asleep. And nothing-barring an earthquake –could wake him. And even then—-
Dad introduced me to sports, passed on his love of the Yankees and the NY football Giants—and unfortunately his loyalty to them as well. I’ve lost many a fine Sunday to Giants games. I remember my brother David and I getting so upset at a Giants loss, back in the day—my Dad would reprimand us for being upset…”It’s only a game! You can’t take it so personally! “ Which is like the pot calling the kettle black if you know what I mean.
Dad did all of the usual things that Dad’s will do—taught me to ride a bike and drive a car. And he did a good job of it. One of my favorite memories is buying a bike together on my 13th birthday. It was a bike called an “Apollo Racer”—and he and I picked it out together and he did some assembly on it. I was so proud of that bike. My friends made fun of me mercilessly—so the kickstand was on backwards. So what? –I still think it was a cool bike—and so did my Dad.
Dad drove a car with a confidence that baffled me. Just an example—for a time, he commuted a good deal between IBM offices in Westchester, NY and Endicott., NY, where I grew up—about 3 ½ hours drive along route 17.
Years ago, the January just after we were married, my wife Deb and I were driving the same route to visit friends in Endicott, NY—in the middle of one of the worst snowstorms I can remember. We were crawling along at about 5 miles an hour—blinded by the blizzard—when all of a sudden this car comes zooming up behind us at about 80. “Who is this idiot?” I said—and as the car zoomed up behind our car and then overtook us—the driver was revealed to me as—none-other than my Dad—who never looked back and passed us as though we were at a standstill. Snowstorm, blizzard, slippery roads—didn’t faze him. I asked him later if he saw us—he didn’t know what I was talking about.
He told jokes. Well—he told one or two jokes –over and over again—for years.
“I’ll see you down at the clothes line…where the gang hangs out.” Or this one:
“For seven years I followed in your footsteps—until you changed your socks and I lost the scent.” “See you around if you’re not square” or it’s variation “See you around if you’re a doughnut”. You can see where I get my sense of humor.
I remember –preparing for college, it was too late to get into the dorms—so Dad and I went to Philadelphia to find me an apartment. We didn’t have much time. Not knowing much, we started looking through newspapers—and we found an ad for a place that had rooms for something like $10. a day. Dad thought that sounded like a good temporary solution to the problem. We searched the place out—and I remember walking into the lobby…..It looked like something out of “the Wire” or “Homicide” one of those gritty cop shows and smelled worse. I took a deep breath as I watched my Dad following the somewhat dubious clerk up the stairs to look at one of the rooms—(“you stay here” he ordered) –only to run back down the same stairs faster than a roadrunner. He wasn’t a runner. Anybody here ever see my Dad run? I don’t think so. Not in his skill set.
I looked at him and asked hopefully—“well?”
“Shut up and move fast” He said as he pushed me out into the street. I think he thought whatever he saw in that room was contagious.
Those are some of the things—but there are a few moments that had a more lasting impact, and formed the person I am. Moments wherein my Dad both taught me—and showed me a bit of who he was.
He’d say this to me over and over growing up… a lesson he learned from his own Dad…”You have to love what you do. There’s nothing worse than going to work each day hating your job…”—he drummed that idea into me. And pretty early on, I knew what I wanted to do—and it wasn’t going to be what Dad did. If he was disappointed in that, he never showed me. From day one, he offered his unconditional support—and showed it in so many ways—too many to mention.
I think he knew the road would be difficult for me—because I didn’t really have the personality for it—but he always told me he admired the fact that I never gave up. Me and the NY Giants. One day. Maybe this is the year. Could be worse. Could be the Bills.
One Saturday when I was about 12, a bunch of my friends were going bowling—I was invited. But my best friend, who was a friend of all these other guys too—wasn’t invited. I didn’t feel too good about that. I asked Dad what I should do. He said, “why don’t you ask if your buddy can come too?” So I did. And these guys said they didn’t want to hang out with my buddy—cause he wasn’t very cool. I knew if I went with these guys, I’d be one of the cool kids—but I was upset that my friend wasn’t invited and that they’d said mean things about him. I knew I had to make a choice. I asked Dad what I should do. “He looked at me and said…”who is your real friend here? Who do you care about? Follow your heart, Geoffy—and you’ll do what’s right.”
I wasn’t one of the cool kids, but my buddy has been my friend for life.
Dad shared other words of wisdom he promised would guarantee a boy’s safe passage to manhood.
“You’re becoming a man now” he’d say. “These are the things you need to know: I’d be waiting with baited breath.
“You’ve got to…. mow the lawn….take out the trash… and change the oil every 3 months.”
He also gained important knowledge from his military experience: “Carry a hammer, keep your head down and everyone will think you’re busy.”
When I was in my early 20’s, there was a time when I was broken-hearted—the way only a 20-something can be broken-hearted, nearly catatonic, moping around the house like a zombie.
Dad felt he had to address the issue with me. He took by the arm and said: “Snap out of it! The world isn’t coming to an end!”
Just like in that Four Seasons song. Thankfully he didn’t break into song—but thinking about Dad doing Frankie Vallie did a lot to get me through a bad time.
I don’t think he ever dreamed as a boy that he’d travel the world and see the places he’d seen. Europe,Russia Asia, Japan. He had a wonderful life, filled with experiences and joys—and good golf games—that the little kid from Great Bend, Pa. never imagined, I’m sure.
But remember, I said he was a simple guy. And while he treasured all of those wonderful globe-trekking experiences, my Dad was just as happy on a Sunday morning, walking to the store in Ocean Grove, picking up the newspaper and coming back home to sit on the porch and do the Jumble. That simplicity is one of the things I loved most about him, one of the things I’ll miss the most. Whether it was going for ice cream at Days, or dunking a doughnut in your coffee when we were kids—picking up corn from a roadside farm stand—he taught me to love those simple things too-because that’s what life is made up of…those simple moments that pass us by when we’re not paying attention. When you’d go to visit Dad, or he’d visit us—he was just as likely to find a comfy chair and read a good book as have a deep conversation. He took pleasure in the simple experience of our company. Just to have us nearby was enough, just to be able to see us sitting near…was enough. It would be enough now.
So I’m going to miss the simple things about him…the infectious nature of his happiness. The way he could make a Christmas joyful just by saying “this will be the best Christmas ever”. His reassuring voice on the phone, the way he called me “Geoffy” (never Geoff—it was either Geoffrey (when he was serious) or Geoffy) or “Tiger”—he called all of us “Tiger”, nobody else ever did—nobody ever will again. I’ll miss the sense when I spoke to him that everything was alright, everything is okay. Your Dad is here.
But like all grown up children, I hear my father’s voice in my head everyday—whether I want to or not—in my inflections, my choice of words, the way I take a breath. So many—involuntary responses that are part of my DNA—a reflection of him. He lives deeper in me than I ever knew.
I cherish my Dad, and I’m thankful to know he knew that. I’m thankful for the life we lived together. I’m thankful that he found happiness. I’m thankful– that he never knew what hit him—and that he was here, in Ocean Grove, with his friends and the wife he loved (and who loves him dearly) when he left us. He was a lucky guy, after all….
**One final thought: —When I was a kid he served weekends at Fort Drum in NY with the National Guard. I would watch him –sitting at the top of the stairs in his Uniform– lacing up his boots. I wanted to be just like him. Like any child watching his Dad getting ready to go away, I’d get upset—and start to make a fuss.
“Stop it now” he’d say. “I’ll be home before you know it.” And I’d watch him leave from the top of the stairs, thinking it was forever until Sunday night.
Some scientists say … Time is relative…. —and it’s possible our perception of time is limited by our senses—and the present, the past and the future all co-exist—all have equal reality simultaneously. All are equally “real”—If that’s true, then all of our memories of Dad, at all different moments of his life– have reality…and somewhere— out there— in the Milky Way… sits a young boy…waiting at the top of the stairs. And his Dad will be home soon.
Geoff Grogan; with love
William Leonard Grogan