When my father turned 13 years old he was woken early by his mother. She silently led him downstairs to the dark kitchen where she lit a light and started making him a big breakfast. His father was sitting at the table silently. My dad was confused at the situation and even more so when his mother put a big plate of bacon and eggs on the table in front of him – and not his father. His father reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Camel cigarettes and a box of wooden matches and pushed them across the table to the boy.
“I have tuberculosis,” he said to the boy, “You’re the man of the family now.”
It was 1930 and he had 12 younger brothers and sisters plus his parents to feed.
My father was forced to grow up fast and hard
He knew he couldn’t quit school but he was now the main breadwinner for the family. He got a job as a milk delivery boy. Every night at three AM he got up and went to the livery to get the horse and cart, then to the ice house where he shoveled ice into the wagon. Finally he had to ride the cart to the train yard where the cart was loaded with milk from the Milk Train. Then, until six AM he made the route with another man and delivered milk all through South Boston. After putting the horses away he took the streetcar back home, got cleaned up and went to school.
The first week he went home his brothers and sisters were running roughshod over the family. His father was sick in bed. Because he was training to be a carpenter, he silently went into cellar and formed a 2 x 4 into a bat. Then he went upstairs and beat his brothers and sisters into line. It didn’t take them long to figure out who was boss.
When I was growing up I noticed that my aunts and uncles treated my father differently. When he showed up, the head of the table was prepared for him. Everything he wanted was provided for him without him having to speak, and he rarely spoke. A bottle of Seagrams 7 and an ashtray appeared and he sat silently smoking his Camels and sipping his whiskey while family life went around him. I noticed that his brothers often kissed his ring. They absolutely adored and respected him. “You don’t understand what a great man your father is,” my Aunt said once,
“He was thirteen years old and he put food on our table every day. He made sure we had clothes. He kept his brothers out of jail. And he never lost his faith in God or his fundamental honesty.”
My father died of emphysema in 1992 at aged 74, the result of smoking two – three packs of unfiltered Camel cigarettes every day. To this day, if I want to conjure up my father, I light up a cigar and fill my workshop with smoke and he is there — because that was how I knew him and I refuse to smoke cigarettes.
When I look at what my father had to do to be a man I realize that any complaints I had growing up were incredibly pitiful in comparison.
Moral of the story: Your complaints growing up pale in comparison to many others out there.
Oh and if you have a friend that is always complaining about how much life sucks (which you probably do), send ’em this story.