I never had a father. This is the way I always felt; even if it wasn’t literally true, it was figuratively so. I grew up without a father and never learned all the things a boy is supposed to learn from his father.
In 1962, when I was three years old, my father, a professor teaching Criminology at Loyola University in Chicago, died. He was thirty-seven.
After her husband’s early demise, my mother packed up her three kids and moved back to the Bronx to live with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment in a four-family house my grandfather had built in 1925. One year after we moved in, my grandmother died badly, but quickly, from cancer. The next year my mother’s best friend died as well -- some people just cannot catch a break. We moved upstairs to the apartment I grew up in, another 1-bedroom. It was smaller than her mother’s apartment, but we all squeezed in. I lived there until I graduated college at twenty-one years old.
It was the 60s and a single parent household was a rarity. On the yearly “Father and Son Day,” at St Francis Xavier, as the only fatherless child in the school, I was forced to sit with the nuns on stage with a great view of all the happy children and their fathers. For whatever reason, I don’t remember my brother and sister being there. I was the black sheep of my family and really do not remember either of my siblings as part of my fatherless angst. My journey was a personal odyssey.
We were poor, probably the poorest children attending St. Francis Xavier. I ate school lunch throughout grammar school and high school. I don’t know how my mother made do; she worked as a secretary, which couldn’t have paid much. Consequently, there wasn’t a lot of money for extras. Yet, I was always acceptably dressed, clean, and I never went hungry.
I had a key to our apartment when I was 5 years old and every day I walked the two blocks to and from school unattended (try that now). When we were little, my mother made all our clothes, and we did all our own chores such as laundry, washing dishes, vacuuming, etc., also from a very early age.
Almost all of the time when the ice cream man came we couldn’t have any. There just wasn’t any money. When I became an ice cream man in high school and throughout college, I gave away a lot of free ice cream to the little kids in the projects who I knew were growing up poor, just as I did. Occasionally, in my twenties, if I saw a bunch of kids by an ice cream truck, I would stop and buy them all ice cream.
Asking for something or some money was a terrifying ordeal. I learned early on that in our house “no” meant no. I also learned that “maybe,” “later,” “I’ll think about it,” and “we’ll see,” also meant no, and many times even “yes” meant no. As a child, I didn’t understand it, even though I was acutely aware we were poor, I could not fathom why others could always have ice cream and I could not, or why my weekly allowance was a quarter, while my two best friends each got five dollars.
Having no father marked me. Yet, on a better note, it also made me the man I am today. It’s not that my mother didn’t try. Raising three kids on your own in the 60s and 70s assuredly could not have been easy -- she gave up her entire life for us. Yet, there was a lot of “I love you” said in our house. We hugged and kissed often, and even ended each phone conversation with three kisses; something my sister does to this day.
Mom was a beautiful woman when we fled to the Bronx in 1962. Because she was attractive, none of the neighborhood wives would let their husbands have anything to do with us. The men stayed away, including my uncle, my mother’s brother, who lived downstairs. There was only one man who made an effort, Mr. P who lived across the street. He took my brother and me to a baseball game. We sat in Yankee Stadium, one row from the top, at the very end of the bleachers in left field. I brought my glove, just in case someone hit a 700-foot line drive. He also took us fishing a bunch of times and afterward bought us hamburgers at the Wesson’s Hamburgers on Castle Hill Avenue. He is a good man, and I have always been grateful for what he did. I had the opportunity to tell him so a couple of years ago. He was surprised that someone was thanking him for something he did almost half a century ago. That’s how good a man he is -- he doesn’t even know it.
As I said, my mother tried. Nevertheless, she was not a man, and her efforts to be a father were unsuccessful -- at least for me. It didn’t seem to be the same case with my siblings. However, despite the privation, my childhood was a happy one. Still, with the onset of puberty, once I grew that first hair, I very much needed a man in my life.
Growing up without a father, despite being keenly aware that something was missing, I was not aware of all that had been missed; that list is endless. For example, I didn’t learn how to shave until I was 26 years old. I didn’t know how to talk to girls (luckily I was able to teach myself) and I didn’t know how to be a father, or anything at all about fathering. I knew nothing of moderation in my pursuits, whether it was woman, alcohol, work, or money.
I got my first job when I was nine years old. If I wanted money, I would have to work. My mother and I went down to Third Avenue and we both lied and said I was twelve so I could get working papers. I delivered the New York Post for a number of years for three hours a day, six days a week.
I bought my first business when I was seventeen. I paid $8,000 for my 1955 Metro International ice cream truck and the route in the Throgs Neck Projects. I was about to begin Fordham University on a full scholarship (go figure -- they thought I was smart, but I showed those bastards). I took out a student loan to use as the deposit. I was Willy’s Merry Maid throughout college. I worked from April to the beginning of November, for 11 hours a day, 7 days a week and I went to school full-time during the day when school was in session. In the winter, I drove a cab for twelve hours a night, 6 days a week and went to school during the day. It’s not as hard as it sounds, if you cut out sleep.
In the early 80s, I opened up two delis and my opportunity to be a father came quickly thereafter. Two divorced women with two problem boys asked me to mentor their fatherless children. The way it worked was I would get them after school, and take them home at night, walking each to his front door. On the weekends and in the summer I would get them all day.
They were both fourteen when I got them and I raised Craig until he was twenty-one, and Paul his entire life.
I taught them how to work and I made them work hard. Of course, I paid them for their labor. I taught them how to handle money, manage people, and run a business. Most importantly, I taught them how to be men. I gave them everything I missed growing up. I treated those boys as if they were my own. Despite being only ten years older than they were, I introduced them always as my sons. I still introduce Paul as my son, more than thirty years later. I quickly grew to love them both, I still do. Even though I rarely see Craig, I see Paul all the time, and I still tell him I love him.
They turned into fine men, good husbands and good fathers and I am proud of both.
In 1987, the girl I was dating became pregnant. I was ecstatic. My best friend Johnny was married and had just had a child and at twenty-eight years of age, it was time for me to settle down.
I asked her to marry me and was devastated when she declined. It didn't matter, however, because we were still together and I would get the chance to be a father again -- this time with a beautiful baby, my own child.
My girlfriend was young and afraid of something so small and delicate. I did most of the feeding and diaper changing and all of the decision-making. I was lucky,
John slept all night, every night, straight from the hospital. He never cried and spent most of his time laughing. He was always a very happy child.
I was working 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week at my stores. My apartment was nearby and as owner, I had the ability to run back and forth all day to take care of him.
A child, even an easy child like John, turned out to be too much for my girlfriend and when the baby was a little over a year old, she decided she wanted to leave.
I sold my businesses and let her go, but I kept my beautiful baby boy and raised him on my own. I bought a house and we grew up together.
I learned how to be a mother from my mother and, ironically, I learned how to be a father from two women. The first was Valda, whom I have known for 42 years, and have been introducing as my sister for decades. She raised her daughter alone, in the projects with basically nothing. She is doing it again with her granddaughter, who was six months old when her mother unexpectedly died a few years ago.
The second was Cabrina, who raised her three sons practically by herself, protecting them from an abusive husband, just how abusive I didn’t know until she told me years later. They all grew up to be fine human beings.
Raising John alone was hard work, but I enjoyed every second of being his father. Although, I have to admit, nap time was my favorite time of the day.
I am extremely proud of the man my son has become.
John will always stand as the greatest accomplishment of my life.
I may have never had a father, but God blessed me with the opportunity to be one three times in my life and if I never get the chance to do anything else of note, I will still say that the Lord has given me more than enough.
I spent my entire life looking for my father, only to find him in the least likely of places, within myself.