it’s 27 may today, the day on which we are, in 2013, observing memorial day.
my father served in the army in WWII and the navy in Korea. two wars, and came back alive from each one. and marched in memorial day parades from the days before I was born, until he was too ill in his late sixties to keep it going.
my nephew, on the other hand, served in only one war (iraq), and came back dead at nineteen years old after only seven months.
these are the soldiers I remember on this day. so far as I know, they are two of only three men in my family for at least three generations who actually went overseas to war zones. my mother’s father was a career serviceman and is buried (because he was rich) in arlington national. it seems he couldn’t have avoided the same wars my father sailed away into, but no one ever told me that he did. since he had very little to do with us or our lives, it’s hard for me to think of him as one of the family war-attenders, but I suppose he was, and that I should remember him too. he was such a snob. he cared so little about us… on to other things.
decoration day is what memorial day used to be called, and I prefer the old name. that’s all I want to do on this day, which has extended from decorating the graves of soldiers to dressing the graves of all our dead. I want to eat a hotdog, since hotdogs on this day and on the fourth go way back to before my first memories at the age of three, my father having been a connoisseur of excellent dogs, both in the brand of dog and the cooking method. his favorite was well-steamed (removed before splitting), and a good natural casing brand. so I want to eat a hot dog, of whatever inferior brand and preparation, and to decorate the graves of my dead, both animals and people. the hot dog I can get, but not the graves. no car. my father is dead fourteen years, and I haven’t even seen his grave, much less put flowers on it. poverty deprives a person of thousands of daily things that people who are not poor never think about or realize. nor do they care. who gives a rat’s hiney about me or any other poor person who can’t afford a car to visit graves or do anything else with? no one, that’s who.
I do another thing with flowers on this day that is a poor substitute for being able to decorate the actual graves of my actual dead, and today I have already done it. that leaves the hotdog.
it’s sunday… the 17th of march, 2013. st patrick’s. had he lived, bill nakis would have been eighty-seven today.
once, maybe I was thirty, I had a T-shirt made for him for his birthday. white with green trim, and a couple of shamrocks on the front. on the back, in heavy black letters: o’nakis. all of his life, since long before I was born, there had been jokes about a greek being born on st. patrick’s day. my father was only half greek, but because it was the male half, it came out in the very obviously greek last name. anyway, he loved the shirt, and wore it often for a number of years, showing it off to anyone he ran into.
years later, when he was in one of his periods of not speaking to me, my daughter and I came back to turners trolls after a visit out to my parents, and I found that T-shirt on the floor of my car. grampa gave it to me, my daughter says. I don’t really want it, but I didn’t want to say no. so I myself got the T-shirt back. it meant something to me, that shirt, even if it no longer meant much to him. I saved it, as I save many things. it’s gone for good now, though. because of my brother.
today, on this birthday, I know things that I didn’t know when I started this book and decided to call it lucked out (and in light of this new knowledge, I’m seriously considering a different title). it was an expression he used a lot, this lucked out, and it was as well a desperate hope he always had: to luck out. but, he was not irish, only born on the big day. and he did not luck out. not in the end. not in the most important things. I sit here now, knowing the things that I learned three weeks ago, and see him as a very unlucky man. unlucky in his wife, unlucky in his sons, in his grandchildren, and, if he were here to say it, he would say that he was extremely unlucky in me, his only daughter. financial failure that I am. stubborn witch that I am, insisting on saying true things in the family that no one in the family wants said. and all that expensive illness when I was a child? if he were sitting here, bill nakis might well say that I am the biggest piece of bad luck he ever had.
I disagree with him there. I did when he lived, and still do so now, fourteen years after his death. two years after his blessed baby son, now also dead, lost bill nakis’ house to gambling, drinking, and shyster mortgage companies. I disagree with you, o’nakis, that you were unlucky in me. I would not have lost the house, poor as I am. I have no gambling or drinking problems, however disabled I might be. I have a love for that little house — for every ounce of work you put into it — that no one besides you had. I remember the day we moved into that house: memorial day weekend, 1958. I remember your labor there, well into your sixties. decades of labor. decades of pride that you had a house for the kids, a house to pass to the grandkids, when your own parents had given you nothing. I remember today that it’s your eighty-seventh birthday. does anyone else? I very much doubt it.
I now have to see that all his labor taking care of a house he saw staying in our family for at least a generation or two more as for nothing. I look back on the way his sons always treated him, the way his grandchildren treated him, the way his wife treated him, and say that his efforts were for nothing. it’s so strange to me always that he could never see that I was, in a way, his only chance. I am more like him, the best things in him, than anyone else. I wanted some of the same things he wanted as badly as he did. I was his best chance for a real friend among his relatives. I was his best candidate for caregiver when he got older and more ill. I was his best chance to save the house. and yet I was the one to whom he dished out his worst nastiness, the one he rejected over and over. the one he belittled the most. I don’t mean to say that there were no better times between me and o’nakis; there were. but they never lasted long enough, and there weren’t enough of them.
I was his best chance. he either didn’t see that, or I suppose, out of some sort of self-loathing, treated me the way he did because I am the most like him, the most like his better side. whatever the reasons, reasons I’ll never know for certain, he threw his best chance away. and now his house, his little half-acre of cherished land, belong to shysters. the baby son to whom o’nakis entrusted these things is in the cemetery plot beside him, and ashes are all that’s left of his decades of work for the family and for its future after he was gone.
william constantine o’nakis, born on st. patrick’s day in 1926 to a mafia man and a flaming sociopath of a woman, was a very unlucky man. which fact, naturally, breaks my heart into tiny irish smithereens, yet again. how many times can a heart be torn to shreds, I wonder, before there’s no heart left at all.
In 1969 (I’m pretty sure), when I was sixteen, my father’s dog died. A black lab mix called Sarge, he was my contemporary, being fifteen or sixteen when he died. Sarge was a fantastic family dog, as many labs are, with his breed’s loyalty and gentleness. I think it’s quite possible that he was my father’s best friend on the planet every minute that he lived.
Naturally there was a great hole in Dad’s world in the space where Sarge had been. And to fill that hole, my father did something he had never done before and would never do again: he paid a ridiculous amount of money to get himself from a pet shop a purebred puppy. This was a complete aberration in my father’s life, in my father’s self. He had grown up in the depression. You did not pay for family animals. There were unwanted puppies and kittens everywhere, and the way you got yourself an animal was to grab one of the many that someone else had thrown out, or was about to throw out. And you did not get purebreds. The results of this snotty breeding stuff were temperament problems and even worse, many physical problems that you just didn’t get with mutts. Yes, we called them mutts, mongrels, Heinz 57′s. In both cats and dogs, you got a much safer deal with a mutt. I still hold to this precept.
My parents were doing some business in Haverhill, as I recall the story. They happened to walk by a pet shop and decided to look around, because my father needed an heir to Sarge. He went in there expecting to just think about his next dog. When the time came to actually do it, he would get himself a mutt somewhere.
Falling in love, as we all know, can be so damnably sudden, and damnably unexpected. So it was that day with Dad and a very tiny black Scottish terrier puppy. Almost all of my father’s personal animals, all his life, were black: many dogs, one cat and one guinea pig. He had this penchant for black animals. So here was this tiny thing, black, and love ensued. This pet store sold its puppies by weight, each breed having its own per-pound price. The pup weighed three pounds, cost $33 a pound, plus tax. My father paid over $100 that day for this purebred dog who would no doubt turn out to be riddled with defects. A hundred dollars was a huge amount of money for our family in 1969, and if such a sum was spent, it was spent on a bill or a doctor visit. Not even for a new TV had my father ever paid $100 at that time. He splurged on himself for one of the few times I ever saw him do so, and none of us begrudged it to him or grumbled, thank goodness. My father got enough grumbling and begrudging from us. I’m glad we didn’t do it over the dog. In fact, it became a great joke in the family for the next two years that this little gremlin had cost $33 a pound.
The name on the kennel club papers was Scot Rob Roy the 34th, or some such nonsense. But once out the door of the pet shop, he was just plain Scotty.
Dad had never had such a small and portable dog. Like all his other dogs, Scotty could ride in the car. But there was much more fun in the offing, because Scotty could go just about anywhere. For several years Dad had a little wooden boat that he would take to the clam flats. He called it Skoshy, which I think is the Japanese word for small. Skoshy, Scotty and Dad would head out to the bay every fair-weather weekend, supposedly to dig clams. Yes, clams were often brought home, but they were really just an excuse to go out on the water. If there was red tide and the flats were closed, if my father was sick of eating clams, still they would go off in the boat. Dad would come home many times from these trips and regale us with stories of how Scotty had jumped into the brine and needed to be rescued. Or how a thunderstorm had come up and Dad had had to hold tight to Scotty so not to lose him in the boat’s picthing. Or how the motor had died halfway to or from the flats, and they’d had to sit in the hot sun while Dad worked on the motor, and he’d wet Scotty down with the seawater to keep him cool. Or how Dad would toss Scotty a clam while he dug, and the dog would proceed to shake the bejeezus out of the poor clam.
Now we arrive at the part where I will cry as I write — because it’s father’s day, and because the man and the dog and the boat are all gone, and because the magic that I shared with them out there on the water happened only the once.
My father had been bugging us all for a couple of months, my brothers, my mother and I, to go out in the boat with him. He had suddenly decided, after about a year, that he wanted to share this with one of his family (though he didn’t use those words). We were all teenagers, and we didn’t like to hang out with our parents anymore than we absolutely had to. I regret this now, but can’t go back and change it. Finally I caved. I waited for one of his sons to go and do this man-thing with him, but they wouldn’t. I waited for my mother to do this thing with her husband, but she wouldn’t either. It hurt me, all of it. And even though I didn’t particularly want to be stuck out in Rowley bay with my father and risk him yelling at me about something, or asking me to dig the clams out of their homes, I agreed one Saturday to go.
Out there on the water I saw a father I’d never seen very much of at all in seventeen years. Little glimpses now and then, but nothing like these few hours in the boat. He did not take me to the flats and ask me to dig. He didn’t yell at me about anything. He smiled and laughed and spoke in a fairly quiet voice. He pointed out everything to me: Straight ahead the ocean; left Newburyport, right Ipswich. There’s Plum Island, and that little island over there is such-and-such. And, as if conditioned by Pavlov himself, when Dad cut the engine, Scotty thought we were at the flats and immediately jumped out of the boat — into the water. And Dad went in after him. I was the only dry one left. My father was, for Bill Nakis, ecstatically happy, and clearly tickled pink that I had agreed to come. He told me, again, the stories of the adventures he and Scotty had had out there.
I was seventeen. I both loved my father and loathed him. I both needed him and pushed him away. I had Asperger’s. I did not smile and laugh there on the boat. I was emotionally very, very closed in until I was twenty-three. I did not say to him what I was thinking there in the boat, and I so fiercely wish that I had: Dad, you’re so happy here. I’ve never seen you this happy. I didn’t know you could be this happy. Bring me out here again.
But he didn’t. As far as I can remember, that was the one and only time he ever took one of us out in the boat. I wish he’d asked me again, but he didn’t. I wish I’d been able to ask him, but I was too reserved to invite myself, and too scared to risk the rejection if he should say no.
Scotty lived ten or eleven years, until summer of 1980, I think. His adventures with my father, their bond and their antics, are still treasured family legend to me. On the day Scotty died, and at my father’s request, I stood guard against the visits of neighborhood children so that he could be alone to bury his dog. We already had another black dog, Groucho, so there was no new one acquired after Scotty’s death. Skoshy only lasted another year or two past the day of the outing. It was fall ’71 or ’72 when she was tied up at the beach, but my father hadn’t yet brought her home. There was a violent thunder storm, and the little boat was pretty much torn to bits on the rocks. Dad brought home the stern board with the name Skoshy on it and hung it in the enclosed patio. He never had a boat again. And the man himself only lasted until 1999.
Nineteen June 2011, today. My thirteenth father’s day now with no father. In the first few days after his death, I wrote a poem about that day on the water, but with all the destruction in my own life since then, I have no idea where that poem is now. It may or may not turn up again. I have some jewels to look back on in the years that I had a father, and that day in little Skoshy with little Scotty riding on the bow beside the wheel, with a father so happy I almost couldn’t believe he was the same man I’d always known, is the brightest, most costly of them all. One of those rare days in a person’s life that is always wished back again down the years, always longed for again: Give me that day just one more time. Please. Just one more time.
And that, of course, can never be.
The shells upon the warm sands have taken from their own lands the echo of their story but all I hear are low sounds as pillow words are weaving and willow waves are leaving ~~~~ roma ryan
I’ve chosen an ocean theme for this book (though wordpress had no theme with a nice shot of the atlantic) because one of the things my father was was a sea-boy. a large chunk of his childhood was spent in gloucester, MA, and as a kid he worked on the fish piers (it put him off eating fin fish for decades). in the army and then the navy he served aboard ships in the pacific as a gunner’s mate and petty officer. years after these wars he joined the coast guard reserve, where he was a chief petty officer at the time that he retired. he took us to the ocean all the time he was raising us, as well to ships and even a submarine, so that we could board and tour these big boats he loved.
he believed unquestioningly in the healing powers of the sea, both for body and soul, and I have inherited, or learned, or both, that same belief. anytime anything was ailing one of us, he took us to the beach. get in that salt water for a while, he’d say. and he was right. Many an infected cut, or infected rash, or stuffed up head, and other things, were healed by some time with the ocean. so was the spirit. those of you who’ve been able to spend much time by a sea in your lives will know that no wonderful nature space is quite like the realm of sun, sand, salt water, salt air. no motion and no sound are quite like the motion and sound of the sea. I have a great many accounts of physical healing that I’ve experienced at or near the ocean, and because of this first-hand proof, I’ve accepted, valued, and adopted in childhood both my father’s love of the ocean, and his belief in it.
read… Scealta liatha… Kaikenlainen (a brother)…
all photos, graphics, poems and text copyright 2011-2013 by anne nakis, unless otherwise stated. all rights reserved.
So there are these denial tactics among humans regarding their dead: they either coat them with a rosy glow of wonderfulness, or they blacken them into full-time ogres. I seldom get a balanced account from anyone of a loved one now gone. Maybe I myself won’t be able to achieve a balanced portrayal of my father, but it’s my intention to try. It’s true of all of us that no one on the outside can ever know us in the same way that we know ourselves from the inside. Some of what I “know” about Dad from the outside would most likely shock him if he heard it, just as things people have said they know about me from the outside have been both shocking and totally untrue… from my inside knowledge of myself. We can’t, apparently, totally see ourselves as others see us, and vice versa.
My father was a sea of what most people would call contradictions (as I am myself), and most people would say that in a patronizing and also disparaging way. And it’s true: certain contradictions are difficult to grasp in a person, and difficult to operate with. But certain others are not, I will argue. Certain other contradictions show a person’s passion, and complexity, and zeal for living.
Gentle and mean; hyper and calm; brave and scared; highly intelligent and hopelessly naïve. A few of the contradictions in my father’s selfhood, the selfhood I could know only from the outside.