Father’s Day: Memories of My Father

By Bernadette Bonanno
Bernadette Bonanno
Bernadette Bonanno
Bernadette Bonanno lives in Albany, N.Y.
June 20, 2021 Updated: June 20, 2021

There are two things I am absolutely sure of. I learned them from my dad. The first is this: Regardless of how things appear, life is hard for everybody.

Shortly before COVID hit, my dad passed away. He was married to my mom for 68 years and had 7 kids, 19 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren. The numbers are not what impress me. It’s how the impact of one perfectly imperfect life, permeates generations. I often wonder if fathers know the profound role they play and how very much we need them.

On my dad’s birthday, my siblings and I shared a group chat recalling memories of him. We laughed and cried in gratitude for a loving dad, warts and all, who gave life his best shot.

When Dad saw us struggling, he didn’t preach or give unsolicited advice. Instead, he’d lighten the mood and encourage us by saying, “Stay in the fight. The first hundred years are the hardest.”

Dad was a human “Eveready Battery.” At age 35 his body and mind were forever changed after being tragically hit by a van. At 52, he sustained radical neck surgery for lymphoma and emergency abdominal surgery at 80, along with numerous melanoma growth removals. Despite it all, his standard answer to, “How ya doin,’ Dad?” was always, “Very good. Very good.”

No wonder he perpetually prompted us to enjoy each moment, each cup of coffee, each scrambled egg and bacon breakfast!

With chronic pain, Dad plugged along, loving my mom, attempting to hold down a job, and address the ever-clogging toilet and endless home repairs. He made us feel safe. Even if he didn’t know how to fix something, we knew he’d figure it out somehow.

When I was young and starting to wimp out, he’d say, “Stiff upper lip, Berni.” (I still pull that out of my back pocket whenever I need it.)

By example, my dad demonstrated how to follow the rules, but know when to break them. He coached us to be safe but unafraid to take a calculated risk.

He loved a good joke, a cold beer, a few extra bucks and going to mass on Sunday. He enjoyed taking his time and doing things right the first time. (At 62, I’m finally getting the hang of that.)

Always a gentleman, he demanded respect but gave us the freedom to get our message across. Even our pets sensed their unassuming alpha and were often found at his feet getting stroked.

He nurtured curiosity and a love of hobbies even if we weren’t ideally gifted. His favorite pastimes were reading, collecting garage sale tools and gardening. While mentioning an article he read, his face would light up. What he created with his tools wasn’t always the smoothest. What he harvested grew among overgrown weeds. But he got a kick out of the whole thing.

On and off the field, Dad pulled for the underdog (unless of course, the Giants were playing). He had so many jobs, we couldn’t go anywhere without running into a past acquaintance.

During the last two years Dad was with us, he seemed to have transcended the noise and cares of this world. He knew there is much more going on than meets the eye. And that’s the other thing I’m sure of.

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From the get-go, my role as “Mom” was crystal clear: There is a human being growing inside your body for whom you are responsible. Everything you do will affect your little one. Got it?

As for the role of “Dad” I’ll never know. Yet, from years of observation, there seems to be quite a bit of navigating involved. I was blessed to have a dad who weathered life’s storms and did his best to steady the pace. Always a gentleman, and by nature a cheerleader for the underdog, he looked you in the eye and gave you the benefit of the doubt.

Dad was all about getting us seven kids “outside the box.” He was forever telling us, “Life is about now. Enjoy the moment.” After surviving a debilitating car accident at the age of 35, he seemed to approach life without fear.
Dad loved the ocean and taught us how to maneuver the waves. Petrified yet thrilled, the crashing breakers washed us up onto the sand. With outstretched arms, Dad coaxed us back, to try again.

Dad loved his tools. He drove Mom crazy collecting “great deals” he found at garage sales. My favorite was his wood lathe. Standing on a wooden stool, sporting goggles, and grasping the chisel with both hands, I watched the square block of wood spin into a blur. Dad coached, “Now, take your time. Just touch the wood with the chisel.” Too eager to listen, I extended the tool forward. The chisel hit the wooden block and went airborne across the room. Wide-eyed, I thought, “If Mom knew what we were doing, we’d be in big trouble!”

Dad never encouraged us to “fit in” and rejected the idea wholeheartedly. As an 8th grader, I was invited to boy/girl parties. My friend Diane and I asked our fathers for rides.

On occasion, my dad enjoyed cigars. When it was our turn to drive to the parties, I begged Dad not to smoke his cigar. Diane and I wanted to smell pretty for the boys! Dad growled, “Who cares?” So, Diane and I found a solution. Her dad would drive us to the parties, and my dad would drive us home.

I mention the cigars, because all my life, I’ve shunned popular trends and do not try to “fit in.” I still want to smell pretty, but my dad was right. Who cares?

At age 16, Dad let me drive from our home on Long Island to the Bronx to visit my grandparents. While crossing the Throggs Neck Bridge, Dad said, “You’re too close to the box truck in front of you. You can’t see what’s ahead of it.” Confidently keeping up with the heavy traffic, I rolled my eyes and ignored him.

Suddenly, the box truck hit his brakes in response to a broken-down vehicle. To avoid a collision, I yanked my wheel to the left which caused the car in the left lane to hit his brakes. With all the screeching and swerving, I started to cry. Dad murmured, “Not a good idea to drive behind a box truck.” He never mentioned this again. He didn’t need to.

So, to all you Navigators who do your best to steady the pace as you cheer, coax, coach, and chauffeur your kids, Happy Father’s Day!

Bernadette Bonanno
Bernadette Bonanno
Bernadette Bonanno lives in Albany, N.Y.