I don’t even know how my father would fit his 250-pound body into our standard sized tub. Yet every Sunday he’d take an extra long and super hot bubble bath. He’d emerge, almost like an apparition, with steam pouring out from behind him.
He’d emerge smelling like his favorite Dial soap. I’d love those Sundays, sitting on the arm of his Naugahyde recliner – touching his super soft hair – as during the week he had it coated with hair gel that was common back then.
After a career of owning his own liquor store, being a sheriff and selling furniture, he ended up working for the county of Alameda in Oakland, California. One of his first jobs was to collect bail bonds on the infamous Eldridge Cleaver – and after his name was published in the Oakland Tribune – Cleaver’s Black Panther minions harassed him by calling and making a hissing sound like a snake on our home phone. Our number was then forever unlisted.
He continued working for the county, his last job as an officer of the court – determining financial responsibility of folks who entered the court system. This brought him face to face with some very ugly people and situations – the most unfortunate being the lost kids entering juvie, most starting a lifelong career of crime. I never noticed it myself, but my mom told me later that seeing such neglect day in and day out, thoroughly depressed him.
But boy, it didn’t stop his sense of humor or desire to pull your leg.
He often enjoyed telling folks that he was the “Mayor of Milpitas.” Those of you who are from the San Francisco Bay Area would probably wonder why he would choose a city named after “little cornfields” – once a mere suburban stop between San Jose and Oakland – as his great kingdom.
He would also check-in at restaurants and hotels in Tahoe or Reno as “Doctor Motta” – doctors were afforded special perks back then. My mom still cringes when recalling going to the store with him one day – she in her nurse’s uniform and my father in his suit. The clerk said, “Oh, Doctor Motta, I have the worst rash on my hands, what should I do?” My father, without hesitation – a true man of medicine – told her to change her dishwashing soap. And sure enough the next week, she told my mom to tell “the good doctor thanks” as her rash went quickly away.
He loved calling my cousin, Father Luke, at the seminary, pretending he was the host of “Dialing for Dollars,” asking for the “count and the amount.” He also regularly picked up our yellow wall phone and called our friends to confirm their order of 25 buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Dad was born in 1925 above his parent’s store. I don’t think being a child of Portuguese immigrants was why he thrived at getting things for trade or below market price … it was all part of the game. From boxes of linguica sausage to avocado colored appliances – we were never surprised what he’d bring home from an afternoon of hard bargaining and deal making.
He told me in WWII, stationed in the Aleutian Islands, that the Japanese were so close, he could hit them with a coke bottle. He also told me that dogs were really bad poker players as anytime they got a good hand their tails would wag. I believed it ALL as a child – even that he graduated from the “School of Hard Knocks.”
He was a man of the time and although my mom worked full time nights, he still expected dinner to be made, the kids to keep noise to a minimum, a single Canadian Mist over ice and a shot of Mylanta when he got home promptly every night at 5:30 pm. Any taxi driving of my brother and me to our respective games, most always on separate ends of town, was my mother’s job.
Weekends he worked hard keeping our yard immaculate and he would wear his old dress pants which I remember mostly as brown polyester along with a short sleeved dress shirt thin and soft from hundreds of washings. I never knew why jeans were not part of his wardrobe. And if my brother and I ever got in trouble, he would make the motions of taking off his belt, but never laid a hand or a strap on either of us – even when I thought it was hilarious when I filled his wingtips with his hair gel or when my brother took the shoe polish to the side of our yellow house.
I’d like to think, if he were still alive, next month on Father’s Day that we’d still dance around the rumpus room (although I’d be too heavy to put my feet on top of his) or spend the evening laughing at a favorite show like Hee Haw or Flip Wilson. Even better, he’d still have his boat and we’d spend the weekend fishing for bass, sitting on the sparkly gold upholstered seats that would burn your bare skin on hot summer days.
I’d like to think that I’d still look at him through the eyes of a thirteen year old, the age I said goodbye to him, as my “more handsome than Rock Hudson daddy” that I adored. And not judge him from a grown woman’s point of view and see his faults as a husband or as a man born in a very different and less accepting era.
I grew up thinking that all men had large noses, could fix or build anything, their favorite place to shop was Sears Roebuck, had quick tempers, owned really cool tackle boxes with beautiful fish lures and would never order the cheapest thing on a menu.
And most importantly, after he was done with the yard work, we’d sit at our kitchen table, he’d light-up a Winston cigarette and we’d have these terribly important-to-me conversations. He would listen to me in a way that I believed he would listen to another adult. He made me feel like I was the smartest little girl in the world.
It is certainly not surprising then, that I married a man, after nearly 25 years of companionship, makes me feel like the smartest little gal in the world.