Fathers Day

davidandbarbara1950sWhen I was nine years old, my parents told me it would be fun if I made them breakfast in bed every Sunday. I was such a geek, I didn't know they were pulling a Tom Sawyer on me.

At first I practiced with something easy--scrambled eggs. I worked up to over-easy eggs and was very proud when I could plate the eggs without breaking or overcooking the yolk. My sister, Barbara, didn't like to cook. She could be coaxed into helping me with some of the prep, but she wasn't happy about it.

In time my mother felt I was ready to take on the El Dorado of breakfasts: an omelet. The first time I had one, I thought it was so great. The outer crispness contrasted with the custard-softness on the inside.

My mom taught me to use a big pat of butter to prevent the omelet from sticking to the pan. She made savory fillings, using a tasty piece of sausage, some mushrooms, spinach, and a bit of cheese. At times she'd switch gears and put something sweet inside, like fresh strawberries she'd cooked down into a compote.

For Father's Day one year she showed me how to make my dad's favorite filling: crisp bacon, sauteed potatoes, and cheddar cheese. Because he had an Eastern European sweet tooth, he liked his bacon dusted with sugar.

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Three-DukesPeople would stare as we walked down the street. Not because he was famous but because he was different. He walked with a cane and a brace, tilting from side to side with each stride. Somehow he stayed upright. If someone stared too long, he might yell, “Whad’ya lookin’ at? It’s nothin’, it’s polio, I got it when it first came out!” Anyone else yelling at a stranger might come off as aggressive — he had a REALLY loud mouth — but Duke said it with a twinkle in his eye that set the person instantly at ease. It might even turn into a too-long stop-and-chat, but I was used to those.

I’d look up at him with pride and ownership. He was my daddy. Mine being the operative word. My mother told me the story many times. As a tiny preverbal baby, I had my arms thrown around my father’s neck, holding him as tight as I could, looking back at her with eyes that said, “He’s MINE.” As in, not hers. Her interpretation. Well, it was true.

Sometimes in late August or early September we’d go shopping for back-to-school clothes at Hank DeGoniff’s house. Hank’s “house” was a warehouse in seedy Hollywood. And unbeknownst to me at the time, DeGoniff wasn’t his family name. I wasn’t sure why Hank had clothes and winter coats for me along with lots of electronic equipment. But cash was handed over and I’d walk away with some new clothes. There wasn’t even a lot to choose from, but I wasn’t an overindulged child, so I was happy with what I got. I was in my twenties (maybe thirties) before I learned that Hank’s merchandise “fell of the back of a truck,” and goniff was Yiddish for thief.

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freddeanddukeWhen I think of my dad -- and if you know me, you know I always do think of him – it’s often Saturday morning and Duke is surrounded by his “crew” in his regular booth at Nate n’ Al’s. But next Sunday, Father’s Day, I’ll think of Duke as he was most Sundays – in his other regular booth at Matteo’s. What can I say, he liked to eat and he loved to schmooze.

I realize I write WAY too much about my dad. But, here is a story you haven’t heard. One night at Matty’s, as we called this trapped-in-a-time-warp, Rat Pack era, Italian bistro on Westwood Boulevard, my dad was eating in his regular red leather booth; first to the right as you walked into the “correct” (celebrity-filled) room.

I should mention that Sunday nights at Matteo’s was tradition among a certain show business crowd. It wasn’t unusual to see Sinatra dining with Steve & Eydie, or the Reagans, or even Clint Eastwood… but to me, Sunday at Matteo’s was mostly about the comedians.

On this night, Red Buttons walked in. My dad was always the first person anyone greeted. He was hard to miss. Short of stature, but big of mouth, and loudly holding court at a spot you had to pass to enter. Except for Shecky, my father called all comics he knew by their last name. It was just Dangerfield. Or Youngman. You get it.

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cartoon-of-dad-and-babyI have never purchased a Father’s Day card...never had to! Once, I jokingly told my mother I was going to give her a Father’s Day card, as she served as both my mom and dad, but she asked me to buy her a Manhattan instead. She was a great ol’ broad! Jim Beam 1, Hallmark 0.

My father left the family before I could remember him ever being a part of it, so two capable women – my mother and grandmother raised me. There were only a few times while growing up that I felt an uncomfortable absence of a father in my daily life, yet I harbored no ill feelings toward that “missing person.”

That can of worms was opened on June 5th, 1987, the day I became the father of a beautiful baby boy, named Matthew, and when resentment and deep disappointment toward my father bubbled to the surface. How could anyone not want to be a part of something as special and important as caring for his child?

Feeling unprepared for fatherhood and seeking the wisdom I was certain I’d missed without a “man around the house,” I joined a men’s group called “Sons Without Fathers.” After my very first session the moderator took me aside and told me how lucky I was that my dad wasn’t around. The rest of the “father-less bunch” had had their sperm donors living in their homes with them, but were emotionally absent. They were there and yet not there, which I can imagine is even more hurtful. I left the group a couple sessions later feeling sympathy for the men, but not enough in common to stay. Plus, I came to realize it’s not about the proximity, but rather input.

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to-dad-on-fathers-day-with-dog-in-convertible-print-c10327714.jpg My late grandfather, Daddy Bill, was tall and skinny and uniquely dedicated to his habits and interests. He was a very snappy dresser – I vividly remember a purple wool sport coat that he once wore to Grandparents’ Day at my school, impressing my female teachers enormously – and he loved cars and taking painting classes and going swimming at the beach, even (or especially) when the water was way too cold, even for polar bears. But what he really loved was food.

Daddy Bill’s birthday was March 25th, and he liked to celebrate at breakfast. My brother and I were frequently on spring vacation during the latter half of March, and we usually spent the break in Florida with our grandparents. Therefore, we often had the privilege of celebrating Daddy Bill’s birthday with him, which is how I acquired some rather expensive tastes at a very tender age.

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