I sit here in San Diego International Airport’s baggage claim area anxiously awaiting my father’s arrival from New Jersey for my birthday celebration. He plans to stay in Ocean Beach (OB) with me only three days because in his words, he’s “gotta keep movin’.”
I am neurotic about being late, so I’m an hour and a half early – and I am nervous.
The last time I saw my father was at my mother’s funeral almost two years ago. He had taken care of her for seven years, refusing to accept any help from the family. The ordeal had taken its toll, and his appearance was shockingly frail. I am wondering what he will look like now. Will he be as gaunt? Or, will he be worse?
The wait is tedious.
My father is 91. The time we have left together is growing short. I’m hoping to convince him to come and live with me in OB, but have no illusions that his stubborn, old Italian ways will allow him to even listen to my proposal.
I see a crowd descending the escalator. His plane must have landed. My heart is beating so fast, I can feel it in my head – and my feet.
I look up and catch sight of him gliding down on the escalator like some exotic bird searching for a perch. Chin raised and standing tall, his eyes scan the area for me.
He looks good, I think to myself. He put on weight. The frailness is gone and his body more closely resembles the one I remember from my youth – strong, straight and muscular. He’s dressed impeccably and wears a newsboy cap, which makes him look like the character, Uncle Junior, from the HBO series, The Sopranos. I cry and laugh at the same time.
I leap from my chair and dart in his direction. Waving my arms wildly, I jump up and down to get his attention. As if in some slow-motion movie, we run towards each other. He hugs me so hard, I feel my ribs bend.
“Where we gonna go first?” he asks. “You know, I gotta keep movin’.”
“We’ll drive to my apartment. Then we’ll take a walk. I want to show you Ocean Beach,” I answer.
After a short time in my cramped studio, we leave the apartment and head toward Collier Park, wending our way to Voltaire Street. I’m holding his hand, much like I did as a child. We look at each other while the surreal landscape opens before us. There is so much to say and so much not to say. We talk about my mother. He cries. Sixty-four years is a long time to live with someone and then lose her.
We talk about food and argue about whether the East or West Coast makes better spaghetti sauce. We talk about why I gave up on becoming a ballerina, lawyer, artist and psychologist. Periods of silence and an occasional hand squeeze punctuate the conversation.
We walk towards the beach. The discussion has now shifted to politics. He is as much to the right as I am to the left. We debate. I get upset. He laughs and gives me one of his I’m-just-jerking-your-chain looks. Easily we slip back in time. He is my hero. I am his spoiled principessa.
I want to impress him with my town and my life. On Voltaire, I point a finger in a southerly direction and say, “Over there is OB People’s Co-op where I shop.” I’m feeling extremely self-righteous as I preach about the merits of organic food cooperatives. “I refuse to give my money to the major grocery store chains and greedy corporations.” I boast.
“What’s wrong with corporations?” he asks.
I launch into my corporations-are-killing-America speech, and my military-industrial-complex-must-be-stopped lecture.
He listens intently.
“Why don’t you run for president?” he responds. “You would make a good president.”
My father has no limits when it comes to what he thinks I could do.
We turn left on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. and walk past all the churches.
“Is there a Catholic church here?” he wants to know.
“Yes,” I answer, “but we’re going to Little Italy on Sunday so you can hear the Mass in Italian.”
“Italian!” he stops walking and glares at me. His hands are slicing at the air. “I’m an American! I don’t want to speak Italian!”
“But Italian is your native tongue and our heritage…”
He cuts me off. “I’m an American! I fought for this country. THIS is my country.”
Here we go, I thought – first blunder. “We’re Italian-Americans.” I rebut.
“No!” Now his face is red. “Only Americans!”
We reach Newport Avenue and I let the Italian Mass discussion drop and start a new topic about education.
“I was a wise guy,” he says while peering in the window at a restaurant. “The Army – the Army straightened me out and gave me an education.” He goes on, “Had to drop out in seventh grade to go pick beans in Jersey to feed the family.” He stops walking and lowers his head. “I have regrets,” he whispers in a raspy voice.
I think about his life and how he lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Korea and Vietnam – serving his country and struggling with the world, his family…himself.
We stop at a small business where I introduce him to the owner, Willie, an African-American man who dedicated his whole life to the Marines. Decorated with American and POW flags and Marine memorabilia, the stand is a tribute to Willie’s unwavering patriotism. Willie is holding poppies to sell for the veterans in one hand while reaching out to my father for a handshake with the other.
“Marines,” Willie says grabbing my father’s hand.
“Army” my father responds.
We chat until hunger beckons us to find a place for lunch. We backtrack to Sunset Cliffs and decide to eat at Pepe’s. Before we turn the corner, my father pauses and gestures towards Willie.“He wears the emblem,” he comments. “It’s on his hat,” he adds. “The Marines…you know they’re the really tough guys,” he says softly.
From Sunset Cliffs, we make a jog to the right, then to the left. We walk through a parking lot and enter Pepe’s through the back entrance, slamming the screen door to the kitchen. Mouth-watering aromas, gastronomic delights and the owners greet us as we make our way to the seating area. I love this place. It’s like home – like family. It’s real Italians cooking real Italian food.
I introduce my father. We eat. We argue again about which coast makes the best spaghetti sauce. We eat so much we can’t breathe.
“I gotta get movin’. The panzo is full,” he says, meaning to say pancio (the Italian word for stomach).
Back on Newport, we stop in Dreamgirls where I introduce him to Bridget. Standing a little straighter, he throws back his shoulders, sticking out his chest. I can tell he likes Bridget. After we leave, he mentions at least three times in about as many minutes how Bridget is a good-looking woman.
It’s exhausting trying to keep up with him as we head back to the apartment. Two of my steps equal one of his. We turn on to Santa Monica Avenue. I continue pointing out places of interest where I spend my time: the post office; the library; McAllaster’s CPA where I get my taxes done; and the little restaurant where Brazilian musicians used to play on sleepy Sunday afternoons.
Approaching Ebers Street, we begin talking about sports. I let him know that I’m now a big Chargers fan. He says the Phillies are going to win the pennant. He becomes animated as he talks about the players. Then we discuss the Philadelphia Eagles and the time, during the holiday season, disappointed Eagles fans threw things from the stands and booed Santa Claus. Santa had to make a mad dash for the exit, leaving his sack of goodies behind and barely escaping with his life. I comment that Santa must not have been from Philly but from some place where the jolly one isn’t a target for attack by angry football fans. We laugh so hard we have to stop and wipe the tears from our eyes.
We trudge up the hill passing more stores before making it home. I can’t wait to sit down. My legs ache. We have coffee and I begin presenting my case about how his life could be so much easier if he were closer to me in distance. I propose my plan for him to stay with me. He puts his hand up in a motion to stop. I’m defeated before I even begin to get to the main argument.
I try the next best thing – to get him to extend his time and to stay with me longer.
“Why?” I ask. “Why not stay at least a week?”
“’Cause,” he answers. “I gotta keep movin’.”