My father was a success at something all too rare.
The first image I have of him in my mind is from a spring evening at a Chicago park. I see three of us children in the baby swings, another two or three in big kids’ swings. Dad’s going all the way down the row, giving each one of us a push, and then starting all over again. I was too small to remember much more, except that it happened many evenings. And though the row of his kids grew even longer, he never tired of pushing us.
We couldn’t spend every evening at the park. Dad was a salesman for a tile company on Chicago’s South Side, and he had to call at customers’ homes some nights. Nonetheless, he’d pile all eight of us into the Pontiac station wagon with my mother in the front. We’d wait for what often seemed hours, crawling around the seats and the floor. Mom kept watching for him—and kept us busy playing with multicolored plastic wall tile samples. It would get dark, and Dad would be tired when he left the house. But he was so happy to see us, and we were happy to see him. Mom, especially! Then we’d drive home.
I don’t remember babysitters. He’d drag us to wakes and weddings and sales calls and to his softball games. Once he won $10 at a church carnival for having the most kids—there were other men there who claimed to have more, but we were the only ones all present and accounted for.
Years passed and some siblings started to leave. Dad dragged us across the breadth of Illinois and into Iowa to visit Charlie, my oldest brother, away at college. I don’t know how Charlie felt about it, but I remember a lot of the freshmen staring at our party of 10 parading through the dorm and the cafeteria.
Then, Jim got drafted. We took an auto safari all the way to the Army base in Texas.
Later, Pat was sent to Vietnam. For the first time, someone was messing with his family and Dad couldn’t do anything about it. It was the first time I saw him cry.
Pat returned. Our numbers increased as we married and started having our own children. Some of us moved to Wisconsin and Arizona, and the world became more difficult to control. There were accidents and crazy forces and fate. Although our lives assumed different colors and shapes, in ways that ordinarily cause incompatibility and distance, Dad persisted from home base in Chicago, regularly traveling or rounding everyone up for reunions at opportune times.
He’s been gone nearly a decade, but his legacy is our knowing the importance of keeping a family unified and close, so that no matter what, we’re never alone in this world.
The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. David McGrath is a reader from Hayward, Wis.
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