Happy Father’s Day: Remembering James P. McDermott, The Man Himself
With Father’s Day 2011 landing deep into the month of June this year, I’ve had many reminders of it in the form of advertisements, family conversations and themed stories in magazines. At our house, the day will start with breakfast in bed for my husband, presents (watching for that UPS truck today to deliver a brand new…oh, no, wait, my husband may read my blog!) and then instead of easy at-home day and celebration dinner, we’ll be driving our daughter up to music camp in the North Carolina mountains. All day long, I’ll be thinking of my father, James Patrick McDermott, born in 1920 in New York City, and the long, happy 89 years he lived on this earth. He passed away peacefully in October of 2009, with our family all around him, while living with my sister and looking back on his life with gratitude and delight. I feel lucky to have had such a father, and to have had him in mine and my family’s life for such a long time.
I love this photograph, taken on a New York City rooftop in 1941. Possibly he was at his family’s apartment on East 53rd Street, having just feasted on Mama’s wonderful cooking, most likely roast leg of lamb enjoyed after mass. Possibly he was at his friend Vinnie’s family’s apartment in Brooklyn, having recently feasted on Vinnie’s mama’s Sunday dinner. From the grin on his face, I am certain that a glorious meal was either in the offing or a very recent memory. Daddy loved to eat; he loved to celebrate and spend time at the table; he loved spending time with friends and family, and he loved enjoying New York City’s pleasures. He felt so proud throughout his life of being a Marine, of having served his country in World War II. He loved to read, he loved to travel, he loved to have company at home and to host as many friends as I could gather together for a big dinner out. He loved classical music and opera, reading nonfiction and history, and going to the movies, particularly Clint Eastwood’s entire body of work, from “Rawhide” to “Gran Torino”. He loved his daughters and his grandchildren with all his heart; he loved to work and he loved to learn new things; he loved teaching Sunday School and ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at Christmastime, and delivering Meals on Wheels with my stepmother well into his 80’s (‘helping the old people’ as he would say). Politically, he made a right turn somewhere in his 70’s, and we chuckled over the fact that in election years, his and my votes cancelled each other out.
Daddy didn’t worry much — he didn’t exercise, didn’t hold a grudge, didn’t look back except to recall good times gone by. “You can’t live in fear…” he would advise me when I was much younger and fretting about whether I ‘should’ go here or there, do x or y, choose a or b. I found on my own, that he was wrong on that — one can indeed live in fear; and in fact many of us do. Living in fear is easy to do; in fact it is actually encouraged in many circles. But what Daddy meant is that living in fear has a great cost, and a terrible one. He chose not to live in fear, and he was right. Nowadays, when I get stuck, I think about Daddy’s wisdom on that, and about many other lessons from him that serve me still. I wish I could go by for a Father’s Day visit, and ask him the story of this picture. Where in New York City was he, and who took it? Was it on Vinnie’s rooftop, and even if it wasn’t, what did Vinnie’s mother serve that time he and his buddies went by for a meal? Though in the last few years he didn’t remember day-to-day issues such as whether he had taken his medicines or paid a bill, he could have told me every detail around such a picture: location, occasion, what he ate, and who was along for the fun. In his last few years, he couldn’t have named my cookbooks, but he knew that I wrote them, and he was deeply proud of me, just as he was back when I got my Baptist Junior Memory Work Tournament award, my driver’s license, my first teaching job, and my first newspaper byline.
I love this photograph below, taken in my house in the spring of 2009. In it I see his walker, his hat, a newspaper, and his breathing machine, since he would be spending the night on that sofa. In front are my husband and daughter, and beside him is his nephew Tony Smith, visiting from Ireland and just about to play some tunes on his fiddle for The Man Himself. We’ve got him surrounded, with people who love him and the prospects of music, food and a good night’s rest in the offing. A good day. As he wrote on the postcards he faithfully sent out to a host of friends from my kitchen table during Southern California visits, we are clearly “Having a grand time!” Here’s to Father’s Day, and to remembering those people in our lives who have taught us, encouraged us, fed us, inspired us, and loved us. Here’s to passing that along, while having a grand time!