When the sky turned black, thunder rocked the front-porch steps and my frightened, chubby beagle managed to fit himself onto my lap earlier this week, I was reminded of my father.
“Don’t be scared, honey. It’s just the angels bowling,” he would say when I was a timid preschooler, running to him in a noisy thunderstorm or when a siren wailed.
He never failed to make me feel better.
In my early 20s, while I was still living at home, I dated the most selfish guy, who came to our house for dinner every night, never said “thank you,” paid little attention to what I had to say and let me pay for everything. My dad watched, often with a glare in my date’s direction, quietly observing, until I finally had enough of the moocher. Knowing I was hurt, my dad somehow got my mother to leave the room without me noticing and gently asked if I’d like to watch TV with him. He made small-talk for a few minutes, then told me that young man wasn’t nearly good enough for me and he was glad he was gone.
“You know, Little One, he could have brought you a gallon of ice cream once in a while,” he said. And just like that, the heaviness I had been carrying lifted. He smiled and winked at me.
My father, Philip Carmen Canfora, was 34 when I was born, and he and my mother only had one other child, my sister, who is almost 10 years older than I am. My mother had difficulty giving birth and was warned against a second baby, but year after year she told her doctor she wanted to be a mother again, until he finally relented.
The family joke is, my mother’s hair turned gray before I sprouted my first tooth and that during her pregnancy, she had morning, noon and night sickness. The only thing that settled her stomach was movie-theater popcorn, so my dad would drive to the theater, stand in line, buy a big bag of warm, buttered popcorn and head back home. Knowing his appetite, he had a few bites while he was driving.
When I was born, my dad promptly named me for my maternal grandmother. I was a petite baby, just about 5 pounds, and although he complained his fingers were too big to fasten the buttons on my tiny shirts, he held me every chance he got and played with me like a big brother.
While my mother was in the kitchen, mashing potatoes for dinner, he was sitting on the sofa beside me, a toy pistol in his hand, pretending to be a robber escaping from a hold-up, with me as his accomplice.
“The coppas, the coppas. They’re after us,” he’d say in his best Jimmy Cagney voice, aiming the pistol behind us at a pretend police car.
I was delighted.
He and my mother ran the family-owned fruit-and-vegetable business that my great-great grandfather started, and I went to work with them every day, sorting strawberries before I was 3 years old, rocking watermelons like they were baby dolls, taking naps on my grandfather’s wooden chair and following my father everywhere. When he picked me up, he smelled like celery leaves, and to this day that is my favorite aroma.
Starting school came as a shock to me — being away from them, in a classroom with rowdy boys and prissy girls. I cried every day for months. The teacher yelled at me, sighed dramatically, threw her arms in the air in exasperation and told my father I needed a paddling.
“Oh yeah? I hope you can teach with a broken arm,” he told her.
She became a little nicer then, and I eventually liked school so much that I finished college and went on to get a master’s degree in post-secondary education. At my graduation, everybody was smiling for the camera, but my father stepped away, and as always, I followed him. He was wiping tears from his greenish-brown eyes.
“Honey, I know how hard you worked for this, studying for seven years while you had two jobs. I’m so proud of you,” he said.
On the evening of Dec. 17, 2007, my mother called. Her voice was shaking.
“I think something is wrong with your father,” she said. He had been in his workshop in the back yard, making a bookcase, came in, had a pleasant dinner with her, then stood up from the kitchen table and fell forward onto the floor.
My heart stopped for a few seconds, and the room took a little spin.
“Mum, will you hand Daddy the phone, please?”
His words were garbled. He was trying to tell me something, but he couldn’t form the syllables.
“Daddy, I think you’ve had a stroke. I’m going to call an ambulance, and I’ll be right there,” I said.
He started to recover and even took a few steps again, but on May 7 the next year, he had another stroke, then a series of them within a few days. At 6:30 p.m. on May 19, 2008, he died, at age 83. Sixteen months later, on the same day of the month, my mother died.
There hasn’t been one minute of one day that I haven’t thought about them, that I haven’t been grateful for how much of my dad I see in myself. I have his smile, his sense of humor, his love of cars and practical jokes, bestowing nicknames, making tomato sauce on Sunday mornings, fiercely defending family and watching old movies.
I laugh at the time I slipped a Whoopee Cushion under the seat of his favorite chair and how quickly he jumped up, swearing in Italian; about the afternoon he took us to a crowded state fair and told the parking attendant he couldn’t park too far away and walk “because I have a bad thing”; how he kept us laughing at holiday dinners with stories about relatives who were “so ugly they looked like six miles of bad road”; and about his Italian father who, speaking in broken English, warned my dad when he was a misbehaving teen, “You wanna stay in this house, you gotta get out.”
Three days before he died, my sister and I were sitting in his hospital room. I was holding his hand, watching him sleep.
“Daddy thinks the sun rises and sets by you,” she remarked.
I tried to blink back tears. “I think the sun rises and sets by him, too,” I told her.
The lingering ache of losing my dad 14 years ago has been unyielding. But I lived in the resplendent glow of a father’s unabating love. And that’s a gift to cherish.