I rubbed a soapy washcloth
along my father’s leg
after he fell (the first time),
lifting the leg, gnarled
like a bristlecone pine,
careful not to turn it,
preventing further damage
to the ruptured plantaris tendon,
the swollen, golf ball-sized knot
on his left calf.
I was not yet thirty
and he was eighty,
older than my wife’s grandfather.
Most kids threw balls with their dads,
camped in the woods,
or played video games.
My father watched the chipmunk
on the back porch,
about the 1920s,
the Great Depression,
Stories of my great grandfather’s journey
to Ellis Island with his three brothers.
one returned to Ireland,
one went west, lost to all,
two settled in Cleveland.
They catered to the Irish thirst,
running whisky even during prohibition,
wit and banter and poetry shaped the beloved pub.
The story of my grandparents,
my orphaned grandmother with a mysterious past
whose whispers of Native American heritage
were dangerous in a white world.
The untimely death of my grandfather,
a promising attorney whose political success
was tapped by my great grandfather’s trade.
The loss of the family house, their fortune.
of my grandmother surviving as a widow,
of one hockey stick and one candy cane
for Christmas on a good year.
Stories of his brothers,
my deceased uncles,
storming the beach of Normandy
and surviving the Battle of the Bulge.
Infantry and paratrooper.
Land and air.
Uncle Jack came back broken, shrapnel ridden.
doctors telling him, “You’ll never walk.”
Sixteen months later, he defied them,
not for spite, but for persistence of will.
His story was like a legend,
his legacy, the stuff of mythical heroes.
Uncle Jim came back untouched
obsessed with General Patton
whose push saved the thirteen left in his company.
the remainder laid to rest overseas,
but Jim’s eyes carried 237 memorials, always.
He drank for them.
Dad told stories of years after the Great Wars,
of working on the railroad
for his college tuition,
$146 for the academic year.
Hard and heavy memories.
Cold, raining battle stories
of Josh and Chuck,
with unpronounceable names,
from the Korean War.
Two boys, entrepreneurs,
who paid for Dad’s cigarette ration.
He gave them soap, food, all for free.
They insisted on paying for the cigarettes.
He asked, “Why pay? I don’t smoke.”
Through smiling eyes, they answered,
“We sell black market – triple.”
He never snubbed their kindness.
When they ran away, they told him,
“It’s coming. Be careful!”
before the push back
to the 38th parallel.
I asked Dad
If he killed anyone in war.
That was when he was quiet,
he whispered, “I hope not.”
On the back porch,
on his bed,
and at the kitchen table,
he told his beads,
with closed eyes and hard pressed lips,
what he would never breathe aloud.
Then there were tales of the changes
that time produced as it raged forward.
Of wallpaper they washed from coal furnace residue
which gave way to steam heat.
Tales of riding trolley cars
through the streets of Cleveland,
of pennies used to short out the fuse boxes of neighbors,
And the rise and fall of Euclid Beach park,
scrapped for war metal.
Stories of the first Xerox machine,
Uncle Bob held the prototype
over Dad’s desk,
revealing the miracle
that would replace ditto and mimeo.
Life and love,
sacrifice and uncertainty.
played more vividly
than historical documentaries in the classroom.
My father was the record
of significant stories, forgotten moments,
a time unknown
to the sons and fathers throwing balls,
or staring at screens.
Hardships forged a work ethic,
long suffering edified hope.
Raising me outside of my generation
to see and listen and tell.