Tribute to My Father

Father’s Day—June 16, 2016

This will be my first Father’s Day without my father. He passed away on April 2. I think about him every day, but the memories of him are especially strong on this day, Father’s Day. If your father is gone, you should think about him today. If he’s still here, you should call him. Here are some thoughts I had following my father’s funeral mass.

It’s almost expected that somebody will talk about how the deceased would have loved to see everybody here today.

But I’m here to tell you that my dad would have hated this!

If ever there was a guy who never wanted a fuss made over him, it was my dad.

And why would anyone make a fuss over him? He wasn’t one of Washington’s elite. Not famous or wealthy.

Yet to those of us who grew up in a yellow house with a green roof on a street called Bulls Run, there was nobody more important. And, because we stood on his shoulders, we could see the whole world.

Tom McNamara

That’s because he gave the best gift of all – he wanted our worlds to be big. He wanted us to have choices. So he pushed us to be curious, to pursue our interests, to experience the wide variety that life had to offer.

So to help us, he indulged our interests, taking me to ballgames, going on Charlie’s Cub Scout hikes, accompanying Jane on her high school ski trip. He had things he’d probably rather be doing, like reading, or tending to the garden, or reading.

But he sought to expand our horizons, always volunteering to take us out to lunch if we’d come down to the Air & Space Museum, which was right across from his office in H.E.W.

He sought to make his own world bigger. He grew up in Brooklyn, of course, surrounded by men who thought nothing of stopping by the local pub on the way home from work, and who arrived home with sore backs and calloused hands. These were men who made their living with their bodies, rather than their minds. Men whose world was contained by the Brooklyn Bridge at one end and the Verrazano at the other.

I didn’t find out until just recently that these men in his life didn’t think much of his academic pursuits; they thought his hunger to go out into the world and find out what was there was silly.

But, as he always did, he went about his business in his own quiet way, never minding what the rest of the world was doing.

Tom McNamara Graduating Class Niagara 1952
Tom McNamara Graduating class Niagara 1952

I remember one summer when I was 11 or 12, he grew concerned that we were all watching too much television, that our brains were turning to mush during those 10 weeks of blissful, idle summer. So, he made us sit at the table after dinner and listen as he read aloud a chapter of Tom Sawyer every night.

How staid! How quaint! How old-fashioned!

But the gesture and what is said about the man stays with me to this day. Even now, as I was past a freshly painted fence, I think – not of Tom Sawyer – but of Tom McNamara.

He was always looking out for us, one way or the other. He tried to stoke our interests, he ate the leftovers, he watched his shows on black and white TV so the kids could watch their shows in color, and he kept everything on course with his strong, steady hand.

He had a house, a mortgage, a wife and a government salary. He also had seven children, four bedrooms, 1 1/2 half baths and one telephone. I don’t know how he managed.

And if, to those outside the family – and occasionally inside it – he appeared a bit too staid, a bit too cautious, I could see why. If he let his guard down for a moment, if he turned his back, the inmates would have been running the asylum. And the reason I know that, ladies and gentlemen, is because I would have been the ringleader!

I don’t know where he found the unending reserve of selflessness that he possessed. As long as I knew him, he never asked, “When do I get what want?” It simply wasn’t in him.

At some level, I think – I hope – he understood the good work that he was doing, and seeing us succeed made him happy. I remember one schoolnight in high school, I was up late doing my homework at the kitchen table. It was nearly 11 pm and dad was sweeping the floor, while mom was cleaning up in the kitchen. Suddenly, the phone rang – odd, because it was so late. Mom grabbed it, and got an ashen look on her face.

She held the phone away from her, toward my father and said: “It’s a long-distance call for you from Stockholm!”

Dad paused for a minute, gently put the broom down, hitched up his pants and announced happily:

“I must have won the Nobel Prize!”

He didn’t, but he should have. Several times.

I just always remember him doing for us. There was one New Year’s Eve when I was in college; I’d moved out of the house by then, but came home to borrow the car. I was headed out to a highbrow Potomac party – jackets, ties, roving bartenders, fresh shrimp, the whole works. It was probably the kind of party my father never attended in his life. Needless to say, I thought I was pretty hot stuff, getting to go to a soiree like this.

Even though I was 21 or 22 by then, he made me promise I’d call him when I got back to my apartment. “I’ll be up,” he said. Remembering my promise, I called him when I got home, to let him know I was OK.

What are you doing, I asked him. “Oh, just going over the budget. I’m drinking the last of the champagne so it doesn’t go to waste.”

It took me a while to realize it, but – like so many of the lessons he gave us – I got it eventually. At some point, I came to realize that being someone special wasn’t about parties or invitations on New Year’s Eve. It’s about sitting up, long after everyone else had gone to bed, with one lone light on in the house, and making sure all the columns add up in the little gray notebook for another year of shoes and tuition and a week down at Bethany Beach.

Now that I’m in my 50s, a lot of my friends hear themselves say things, or do things, and they say “Oh My God,” I’ve become my father!”

And I just smile politely and nod. Because I’ve got a different problem. 

I’m afraid that I won’t.

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