Old Man, look at my life. I'm a lot like you were.
My parents taught us many things and among them I remember most vividly the lesson my father gave Rudy, Jerry, and me on our porch one summer evening, while my mother spent the night in the hospital with newly-born Ray. Mario, now the second youngest, slept soundly in the back room, far away from the noisy street we lived on. I was the only girl in the house that night, and I am my parents’ oldest child, and with such responsibility I felt on me, I listened to my father intently that evening.
As a kid I believed everything my parents told us and I took their advice seriously, but I was just a kid. When I started to formulate my opinions more constructively as I entered my adolescence, I learned when to believe them and when not to. I also learned when to call them out on it, when to argue, and when to let them win the argument. And when I think back on it now, that might have been the real lesson they taught me. Don’t believe everything, even if it’s a cop or a priest or your teacher or your parents giving you some advice. Don’t be a dumbass and do what’s right.
I was no dumbass and I've tried to do the right thing all my life. And despite my ability to pick and choose between everything my parents taught us, even the insignificant and senseless lessons they passed along in their drunken states have been imprinted upon my mind for a lifetime.
“Another baby,” my father said as he smoked his cigarette so smoothly. He was a chain smoker, but he lived surprisingly longer than most chain smokers. “Did you want another baby brother?”
We all nodded our heads.
“Babies are good. That’s good, you’ll love your baby brother.” He coughed, and he coughed all night. His gruff voice didn’t make better the unpleasant sound each time he cleared his throat. He took a swig of beer to cool off his pipes. I sat on the chair beside my father. Rudy and Jerry shared a porch step.
“I know you see your papa smoking and drinking, but you’re not going to do it, right?” he asked and he looked at me, his oldest child. I would still be a child for another few years, still eligible for kid’s meals at our favorite restaurants. “And you’re not going to let your brothers do it, right? You’re going to take care of them.”
“Yeah, Papa,” I responded.
“You promise?” he said, raising his eyebrows and looking down at me, the cigarette in his mouth, the beer can in his right hand, and his left hand patting my back.
“I promise,” I said, and but I only kept half of that promise. I became fond of liqueur amaretto in the early years of parenthood, as my mother had been. In college, it was inevitable that I would take up beer and cigarettes. But my attempt to ditch these bad habits was challenging when my father only encouraged it after my mother’s passing and in the years after my divorce. “Beer makes the day go by a little nicer,” he said when I tried to get him off that stuff for his health’s sake, but I didn’t argue. He was right.
“I’ll know you guys will never live the life I want you to live. No one ever lives up to their parents’ expectations. I didn’t. My dad wanted me to be a barber. Can you imagine me cutting hair?”
He opened another beer.
“I wanted to be a boxer and that turned out to be good for only one thing. It got me your mom.”
He laughed. My brothers and I chuckled at his loud guffaw.
“So don’t be disappointed when your kids come home one day with some ridiculous ideas like wanting to be a boxer. I’m ready to take that from you guys.”
“We won’t have stupid ideas, Pop,” Rudy interrupted.
“Yes you will,” he said with a smirk. “Everyone does. Everyone disappoints their parents at least once.”
“I won’t to do that you,” Rudy continued.
“Well thank you, mi’jo.” My father smiled at him. His cheeks turned rosy and his eyes grew smaller the more beer he drank.
“But you know what? I’m still gonna fight with guys. I’m still gonna try to make you do what I want you to do, whether I’m right or not. I’m gonna try to control your lives. All of you, even the baby’s. And your mom’s gonna try to too. And it’s gonna be even worse with her, because she’s gonna make you feel guilty. She’s gonna make you regret things.”
I remembered every word the old man spoke that evening, and I remembered the way he wiped the beer off his lips and moustache with his right hand, the cigarette between his middle and ring fingers. I remember the smell of beer and tobacco and his cologne, and the smell of fried tacos coming from the neighbor’s house. My father stroked his dark hair back every little while as he continued his drunken rant. I noticed in high school that I stroked my hair the same way. When I had children of my own, I found it difficult to keep my parents’ habits from oozing out of me. And when I could not prevent it, realizing that it was impossible because they were in fact my own habits, I felt sorry my children, but I knew that this succession would continue with them.