Going down fighting

When I was a young man I greatly admired my father.

His nickname in the neighborhood bars was "Frog," not because he looked like an amphibian; he was, in fact, a much better-looking man than his oldest son Dennis turned out to be. No, my old man was known as Frog because of the depth of his voice, a deep natural baritone emanating from a broad, deep chest.

I picked up my mother's Irish tenor instead of Pop's Dutch baritone, more's the pity. Black friends back in the day always teased me, because whenever I got excited, my voice went up another two or three octaves. "Sound just like a brother, gettin' all crazy," somebody would say, and the laughs would roll on out.

I was more flattered than insulted, but I still would have rather sounded like Barry White instead of Barry Manilow.

My father and I were at odds when he died; he was only 57. I was a great disappointment to him. As the eldest son of an immigrant, he was forced, by my paternal grandfather, to leave high school at 16 to help support his mother and his four younger siblings. Because of his aborted schooling, my father valued higher education immensely.

Me, I didn't want to go to college when I turned 18. I wanted a job, a car and an apartment to take my girlfriend to, where there was no adult supervision.

Because I was a willful youth, I did what I wished to, and instead of a degree at 21, I got a draft notice from Uncle Sam. Just after I finished my active tour of duty, but before I made it home, my father died.

He never saw me graduate from the University of Cincinnati with honors and two degrees. He never saw my two beautiful daughters. He never lived to see that I became a newspaper editor and was able to travel all over the United States through journalism.

When he died, I was a callow, frightened youth, as out of place in my uniform as a fat man in a Speedo is at a teenage beach party.

My mother was almost incidental to me as a youth. I mean, she was my mother, I loved her - but she was old-school, a housewife who spent a lot of her free time in the kitchen, or at the neighborhood Catholic Church. It was the old man who watched sports with me, drank at the corner tav, set the rules I refused to follow, and lived a life that I, as a youth, secretly wished to emulate.

But I've come around to my mother in the last decade or so.

My dad looked strong and tough, but he died young.

My mother, 85 now, keeps on amazing me.

Two weeks ago she flew, with one of my nieces, to the wedding of one of my stepsister's kids. The wedding was in London, England. The combined 10 or 11 hours in the air - there was some problem going over - was my mother's first trip to Europe.

I called back there to Cincinnati a week or so ago, surprised Mom hadn't returned my call to check in with me. Turns out, since they were already in London, my Mom decided she and my niece might as well go to Paris. What the hell!

Mom averaged four hours of sleep a night during her trip - too excited to sleep too much. She talked about the food in both places and rambled on about her visit to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa.

My mother's politics have changed. Progressed, I would say. From a Reaganite during his first term, she's become almost radical. Kerry will have to do, she says, but she would prefer someone less tied to corporate interests and the ruling class than John, or of course Li'l Georgie.

She's now reading the short stories of Flannery O'Connor for the first time.

She walks a mile first thing every morning at the local mall.

And volunteers at the local Catholic hospital one day a week.

My mother just seems to keep finding new ways to fill her life instead of merely passing time waiting for the inevitable.

It galls me that I overlooked her strength for so long.

All I know now is, although I miss my dad, and am sorry he didn't see me climb out of the hole I dug for myself as a young man, it's my mother I admire almost to bursting. I hope to God, that in addition to her semi-high voice and her smallish Irish frame, I've inherited her passion to keep expanding her knowledge and interests, and her longevity (knock on wood).

Like the kind of boxers I've always liked - Rocky Marciano and Joe Frazier, guys who waded in, kept firing and never gave up - my mother is a person who is going down, if she goes, swinging.

As Goethe said long ago, the face we have at 20 is God's face; the face we have at 50 is our own. As is the life we live after 50. And my mother's done a great job with hers. I hope I do half as well.

Freelance writer Dennis Wilken can be reached c/o editor@capitolhill times.com.[[In-content Ad]]