Happy Birthday, Daddy


My dad died June 30, just 12 days before his birthday today. Please indulge me as I share what I wrote for his eulogy, my tribute to him:

To understand my dad, I have to talk a little bit about my mom.

They met when they were teenagers, had me at 20, and grew up together through 53 years of marriage. My dad became who he was because of who my mom was, and vice versa. They balanced each other.

Where my mom couldn’t tell a story without embellishment – she didn’t know how to make a long story short – my dad was a man of few words. Mom was War and Peace. Dad was, “he came, he saw, he conquered.”

My mom was the most charming, loving, effusive and warm person you’d want to meet. Only if you knew her really well did you know the flinty Sicilian core, the one who could cut you dead if you hurt someone she loved. Maybe that’s why my dad, so hard on the outside, was the one who was really the cockeyed romantic, the eternal optimist, the complete mush inside.

It was that soft inside that got so bruised and wounded when Mom died. And it was because of that, that he was so grateful to find Katie to end his loneliness, and to be his partner in the adventures of the new seize-the-day philosophy he adopted after Mom’s death.

Without Mom as a buffer, Dad and I clashed a lot. We fought because of how different we were, and we fought because we were so much the same. But still, dad remained the man against whom I measured all others.

He taught me to fish, to catch with a baseball glove, to change tires and to drive. And he taught me to dance, the great passion of his life. He shared his irreverent and often inappropriate humor. He taught me to do what’s right, even when it’s hard – maybe especially when it’s hard. By example, he taught me to be a leader. And he taught me to never settle for a man who doesn’t adore me.

As a father, he could be stern, but he could also be silly. When Mom decided he needed to curb his cursing because I was beginning to curse too, he came up with the memorable, “Fugaboo” and “Fingledash” that became family curses for years.

I remember one birthday when he and Mom took my best friend and me to a fancy restaurant. For dessert, we ordered the caramelized bananas. The waiters brought a couple of bowls of water.

“What’s that?” my friend asked.

“Those are finger bowls,” my dad said.

“But they have ice in them,” I protested.

“That’s how they do it here,” Dad said, quickly dipping the tips of his fingers in the bowl closest to him.

My dad could be very convincing. We were about to dip our own fingers into the cold water when the solemn waiters came with the platter of sizzling bananas, setting the caramel by dropping the bananas into the same bowls of ice water my dad had just had his fingers in.

My friend was equal parts horrified and amused, and she talks about it to this day.

And although he was the main disciplinarian in the family, I always knew about that soft heart.

My very first dog, Tramp, was a dog dad brought home after he saw some guys abusing the stray on the wharf, and Tramp was followed shortly by Scamp, another stray who won dad’s heart. He loved animals his whole life, and he told me that anyone who abused an animal deserved a painful death.

Nowhere was his soft heart more evident than in his love for his granddaughter. My dad was so young when he had me that he used to tell me he grew into being a father, and he grew slowly. But as a grandpa, he jumped right in to the mutual adoration that he and Emily shared to the end. There is nothing like seeing someone share perfect love with the child you love with all your heart.

When I was little, my dad and I had a game. I’d shout, “You killed my father!” and launch myself at him for a bout of wrestling. I’d watched some Western with him and got the idea that the thing that must be most avenged was the death of a father.

Now, my dad has taught me one more lesson. Now, I know that the death of a father is so much more. It’s the death of your hero and the death of your first-ever love.

I’ll miss you, Daddy, and I hope that wherever you are, you’re dancing and laughing.

Joe Mitternight


9 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Daddy

  1. Peggy Bordelon

    What beautiful words. Made me tear up as I also thought of my Dad. I know you will miss your first love as I do, My Dad died in 1995 and it’s still hard to this day, Thank you Helen and remember those good times.

  2. Wonderful memorial to your father Helen. And to mine. Anyone who has lost a father can’t help but be reminded by your lovely tribute. Though as I lost my dad just after turning seventeen, I still talk with him every day.

  3. Lisa wilson

    What a wonderful tribute to your dad-I love the honesty and the amusing memories give me a window into a whole new Helen!

  4. Lisa wilson

    What a wonderful tribute to your dad-I love the honesty and the amusing memories. I am sure he would love what you wrote. There are certain dates that crack our hearts open a little all over again. I think the best thing we can do is to talk about the person we miss. Thanks for giving us a peek into your life and a whole new window to see you through!

  5. Deborah H. Volpi

    Helen, my eyes are leaking…..I love all of your writings, especially the ones that reveal your heart. I lost my hero at 10…….no one has ever come close to that love we shared….no one ever will……..

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