My Dad, the Renaissance Man

Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well. – Voltaire

This past Thursday, the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany held a Bloomsday celebration of James Joyce’s modernist novel, Ulysses. My wife’s cousin Meg organized the event, and asked Nell and me to be two of the twelve readers that night. I wish I had planned ahead and invited my dad to Albany to be in the audience. He would have loved the humor and wordplay in the selections that were read. Hearing Joyce’s words read aloud this week gave me a chance to realize just how funny Ulysses is.

I’m not sure if my father knows it, but one of the many things he’s taught me is that the more you know and learn, the more humor and enjoyment you can find in life. Dad introduced me to the humor of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the early 1970s. I’d laugh at the obvious slapstick humor in their TV show, but I’d need my father’s help to understand and appreciate the historical and political humor on the show.

Until a week ago, I had never read any Joyce. Practicing my lines for the performance was my introduction to his work.  I clearly remember copies of Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegan’s Wake on my father’s bookshelves when I was a child. My dad loves classic literature and is a devoted history buff. I remember browsing his shelves, marveling at the dense, lengthy tomes and wondering how he could actually enjoy reading them. But I’ve come a long way, thanks to my dad. I just requested Ulysses from the library and I can’t wait to talk to him about it the next time we’re together.

A love of reading and an appreciation for the humor that surrounds us are but two of the many gifts my father has given me over the years. Father’s Day seems like an appropriate time to share a few more of my dad’s lessons and gifts.

Dad taught me that your job title doesn’t define you.

Dad decided to go to work for his own father in the family heating oil and coal business in the 1950s. He ran the business for years after my grandfather died. But that’s not all that he did. It’s what my dad chose to do beyond his workday that defines him, in my opinion.

I always had the feeling that there probably weren’t many men that sold and delivered heating oil during the day and then came home and chose to relax by reading the plays of William Shakespeare and the novels of Charles Dickens. And he doesn’t just read for his own enjoyment, he lives to perform the written word, too.

In his forties and fifties, Dad acted in community theater in my hometown of Caledonia and in nearby Rochester, NY. He would often gain the role of the villain – he was Jud Fry in Oklahoma and Bill Sykes in Oliver – and I would marvel at how he could memorize lines and play these roles to the hilt. He would star in musicals and yet he was not a strong singer. He had a way of menacingly talking his way through the lyrics of the songs his evil characters sang.

He was a lector at Sunday mass at St. Columba’s Church for decades. He was a devoted volunteer reader at Reach Out Radio, a radio station for the blind in Rochester.

Even as a little league umpire for all the years that my brother John and I played, Dad was a performer. He could turn a “SAFE!” call for a close play at home plate into interpretive dance and make a third strike call last several seconds and stretch an octave. And he is a storyteller. One of the best. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being in a bar or at a party with my father as he holds court, you know what I mean.

Dad taught me to be an artist, and he taught me to love and appreciate the artistic talents of others.

As a child I remember my dad creating wall art in the form of a gigantic tic-tac-toe board. It hung above our mantel for years. It was right out of a Warhol exhibit. He and Mom made vases that were on display in our living room.

Dad is a gifted and funny writer. I still have letters he typed on his old Smith-Corona in his basement office and mailed to me in college. They are filled with whimsical and witty observations of the small town life I was missing out on when I was away. As the record keeper for their monthly couples bridge group, Dad was not content to simply compile the stats. He created monthly reports adorned with cover art that spoofed the films and TV shows of the day and wrote hilarious narratives of the evenings’ card playing and socializing.

My father loves British history. When I think of my dad, I am reminded of a quote that is often attributed to Winston Churchill. As the story goes, when Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in Great Britain in favor of the war effort, he simply replied, “Then what are we fighting for?”

That’s my dad. He stands in awe of the artistic talent of others. He is a film buff, a theater fan, and the most voracious reader I know. I think what he is most moved by is the individual performances of others…actors, singers, musicians. He’ll be moved to tears while watching YouTube videos of opera singers on Ukraine’s Got Talent and gets choked up watching his friends’ grandchildren in the local high school’s plays.

Dad taught me the DIY ethic.

Thinking back on my dad’s artistic talents and endeavors, I see that he didn’t let not knowing how to do something stop him. He just figured out what needed to be done and created his own art. He learned from the performers he admired, took risks, stepped out on stage and just did it. Better to stand under the lights and go for it, rather than to never even try. Enthusiasm and energy and devotion to your art can carry you far.

I know I’ve got a lot of my dad in me. I became a teacher at the age of thirty-two after failing to find meaningful work for ten years. I didn’t know what kind of a teacher I’d be, but I knew that taking the risk to find out was better than a lifetime of not knowing. I teach English and struggle with creating my own writing.

And at the age of 49, I became a drummer at the urging of one of my friends, an amazing guitarist. Andy had been pushing me for years to buy a drum set so we could start a neighborhood band with two other friends. Three years ago, we did it. One of my proudest moments was playing a local show with my mom and dad in attendance. It was outdoors in May, but the temperature was in the forties. Dad commented to one of my friends, “It’s freezing outside, but I’m warm inside watching these guys play.”

Dad taught me that the arts bring us together.

This spring, I was part of a group of teachers that participated in a challenge to post their own writing online every day in the month of March. It was an amazingly difficult, but ultimately rewarding and enjoyable experience. The group is structured so that all of the writers also provide feedback and support for each other throughout the month-long challenge. I loved and needed their feedback and encouragement, and I also appreciated the support I got from my parents. They’ve always been my biggest fans.

My mom and dad faithfully read my daily posts and supported my writing efforts. At one point, Dad told me that my daily blog posts certainly gave him and my mom a reason to wake up every morning. I didn’t realize that’s how Dad was starting each of his mornings in March.

But with the demands of my teaching job and the business of daily life, I found that I couldn’t continue writing at that pace. I stopped completely. For a few weeks, my dad would ask if I was working on anything, but after hearing “no” each time, he eventually stopped asking.

As of today, though, there are only four more days left in the school year and my mind is freeing up. Today’s tribute is the first thing I’ve written in weeks.

So…good morning, Dad! I’m back.

Happy Father’s Day.

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5 thoughts on “My Dad, the Renaissance Man

  1. Oh, Matt, what a multi-faceted fascinating man your dad is and what a loving son you are in recognizing his many talents. I’d say you are both very mindful of the blessings that are yours and appreciate them every day. You and Nell turned reading Ulysses aloud into performances.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Matt,
    I have such a clear image of your dad…I love how you use Ulysses as a way in to your dad’s story. You and I both know the sharp yearning a father has for his child’s happiness. Your piece is such an expression of the bounty that your dad’s example and love have provided you. Can’t help wishing I could give half as much to my own son, and can’t help imagining the rush of pride and gratitude if he were to speak words like these.

    Liked by 1 person

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