From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

He Taught Me to Fly

Everyone should carefully observe which way his heart draws him, and then choose that way with all his strength.

Hasidic Saying

My dad grew up not far from the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. The projects were built long after Dad moved out, but the tough, teeming neighborhood of his youth is not so very different from the neighborhood of today. It’s still a place for people trying to find a way out of poverty and danger. To finally see that apartment house was to finally know the deepest part of my father. It was to finally understand why we spent so much time at odds.

Dad and I were always passionate about our feelings— we’re Italian, after all—and when I reached my teen years, our arguments really heated up. I can’t remember a meal from those years that we didn’t argue through. Politics, feminism, the war in Vietnam. Our biggest fight, however, was an ongoing one. It was about my chosen profession.

“People like us aren’t writers!” Dad would shout.

“Maybe people like you aren’t writers,” I would shoot back, “but people like me are!”

What I said was truer than I knew.

I grew up in a nice house with a lawn, a dog and lots of room to stretch out in. My only responsibilities were to get good grades and stay out of major trouble. Dad spent his youth squeezed into a tenement, taking care of a widowed mother who spoke no English, helping to parent two younger siblings—and earning enough money in whatever way he could to keep the family going.

Dad’s dream was to move up and out of the old neighborhood, and after he married, he did. He drew a curtain over his past, never speaking of his growing-up days. Not to anyone. Ever. It was a point of pride with him that he allowed no one to know what he had suffered through. But by not knowing Dad’s past, I could never really know him, or what drove him to want so much security for me.

As I persisted in my career, despite all the rejections, Mom told me Dad read and re-read everything I got published, although he never mentioned my work to me. Instead, he continually tried to steer me into a career he considered far safer—nursing or teaching or secretarial.

But in the last week of his life, as I sat by his bed, Dad opened up. It was as if he suddenly realized that soon it would be too late to let anyone know the truth. That’s when he had me dig out a box of pictures he’d buried deep in the garage; that’s when I finally saw what he and his brother and sister had looked like as children, and where they had lived. It was when I came face to face not only with Dad’s old home, but with my father himself.

In those last days, Dad talked about everything. How it felt to carry buckets of coal up four flights of stairs and share one bathroom with five other families. He told me that he was always worried that his brother and sister wouldn’t have enough to eat or that they wouldn’t have enough warm clothes for winter, or that someone in the family would get sick and there wouldn’t be enough money for medicine or doctors. He told me about the Saturdays he spent on a country club golf course, how wonderful the grass looked to him, and how he tried to get the men to use him as a caddie. After eighteen holes, if he was lucky, they’d toss him a quarter.

Dad told me how he’d wanted to protect me from poverty and want, so I’d never have to go through what he had. He told me how important it was to him that I have something to fall back on. And I told Dad that what I’d fallen back on all these years was him. I told him my hopes and dreams had been built on his strong shoulders. I told him the roots he’d given me ran deep, and when he apologized for trying to clip my wings, I told him that he was the one who’d given me the chance to fly. Dad smiled at that and tried to nod, but I wasn’t sure if he’d really understood what I’d meant.

But on the afternoon of the last day of his life, as Mom and I sat holding his hands, he beckoned the two hospice volunteers close. “You know my daughter,” he whispered with great effort. “Well, I just want you to know—she’s a writer.”

It was the proudest moment of my life.

Cynthia Mercati

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