My father died in 1955, when I was a year old. I have no memory of him, and there are no home movies. I know him through a few black and white photographs, and the recollection of some anecdotes I heard as a child during our annual visit to Plymouth, where he grew up and died. And I’ve absorbed what I could from my mother’s faded memories of him (tucked deeply away when, three years later, she married my stepfather—the man who raised me).
I have dreamed about him. In one, we are traveling together in a gypsy caravan, and he is a strong and youthful version of that man in those black and white photos. In the dream, I am grown, and I cry when he tells me that he is sorry he had to miss my entire life, but that the wandering ways of the gypsies had lured him away from his wife and children.
Of course, I know this isn’t true. My father died at the age of 43 after an operation in which doctors tried to remove multiple cancers from his stomach and lung, in the slice-and-dice way doctors did back in the mid-1950s. I’ve long-envisioned a dream my mother had about him: Shortly after his death, she dreamed he returned in the middle of the night to take my 3-year-old brother to the bathroom. Standing in the soft-lit hallway, holding my brother’s tiny hand, he had lamented to her, “They really made a mess of me, didn’t they, Joan?”
For all the years of my life, these fantasy scenes have shaped my vision of my father. But during the pandemic, I cleaned out a box of papers from my mother’s estate. There, among wilting folders of old medical bills and insurance claims, I discovered a treasure—my father’s high school English notebook, carefully preserved in a plastic bag.
By Albert Sassi
Bright lights and crashing music
Are tonic to some people.
But give me a lonely spot
Where I can dream in peace.
To me, solitude is a tonic.
It strengthens and upbraces me.
It leaves my soul so peaceful
And calms my worried mind.
The English teacher gave my father a C+ on that. A refined poet, my teen-aged father was not. And yet the 90-pages of assignments—many handwritten poems and short stories conceived from his 16-year-old heart and mind—have become my precious window into his thoughts for the very first time. The memories that most children have of a dad’s smell, the sound of his voice, the warmth from his smiles, the touch of his hand—these to me are a blank. But his written words, so simple and honest, have gifted to me a new knowledge of his humility, his pride of Italian heritage, his love of a faithful dog, his empathy for a lonely soldier, his awe for a mist-covered mountain, and his budding bravado.
In 1927, my father and many other teenage boys were on their way to becoming young men who would one day go into battle. Already, one world war was a reality. To this generation of boys, being a gentleman, brave and honorable, was a real thing. You loved your country. You saw its majesty and the freedom of its shores. These romantic notions would soon enough become serious values for which my father and others were willing to sacrifice their lives.
I feel those ideals in his writing, which at times seems both deep and fanciful. An assignment to describe something from nature brought swirls and curls of words.
A Summer’s Afternoon: “It was a hot, white sun that shone directly above in the heavens, making shimmering heat waves in the distance. The air had a deathlike stillness barely broken by a dry current which, like smoke, went into one’s throat and lungs, seeming to dry up all the moisture and leaving one gasping for breath. The water was as still as a graveyard without even a trace of life. Even those plants at the water’s edge were drooping and withering, for all the moisture in the sand had evaporated, leaving hard, crusty soil.”
In his short stories, my father was moved by the sacrifices and virtues of the common man. I had no idea my father possessed tender feelings for the little guy. But I shouldn’t be surprised. He was the first-born son of working-class Italian immigrants who arrived in America in 1907 and toiled their whole lives as gardeners and cooks. In ‘Exchanged Horses’, a rich man claims a poor man’s horse as his own when it wins a race, but is shamed into admitting his vile act. In ‘The Return’, a popular small-town boy goes off to war, only to return as a shell-shocked man in rags, unrecognizable as the boy his neighbors once knew. He dies at the doorstep of his former home, and is buried in an unnamed pauper’s grave. “None knew him, and none wept for him; such was the return of James Hemingway.”
My father’s imagination also had a taste for adventure. In “A True Companion,” a dog rescues his sleeping cowboy from a rattlesnake. In “The Dragon’s Temple,” two explorers steal precious gems from a sacred Chinese site. When discovered by the site’s ghostly priest, one man must choose either himself or his friend to die for the crime. Did my father, 17 years old in 1928, see John Barrymore in The Beloved Rogue at the picture show? Read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild at night in his room? Did he ever dream of visiting the places he wrote about, of living a life beyond his own small town? Or were his poems and stories mere exercises to him?
Throughout the notebook, my father remains a ‘B’ or ‘C’ student. For the most part, the work is done in neat, slanting cursive that tells me he was a righty.
He did get one A-, though. Not for his writing, but for his ‘Themefolds’, a series of grammatical exercises in which he defined parts of speech in great detail. For pronouns he had to write examples of 10 different kinds – possessive, personal, interrogative, demonstrative, conjunctive, indifferent, numerical, reflexive, intensive, and distributive. And then there were tenses: I am/I am being/I was/I was being/I shall be/I have been/I had been/I shall have been.
How my father aced this assignment is a puzzle to me. Neither of my grandparents ever learned English. In their tight-knit community, those from the mother country kept to themselves. Was he motivated by that cultural barrier to learn proper English? Was doing well in grammar a way to prove he was a good American?
When I was 11, the last surviving member of his nuclear family—my Italian grandfather—died, along with all of his memories of a son. After he died, we stopped visiting Plymouth. With a stepfather that I knew and loved, and a life a thousand miles away, I didn’t ask about my father much, and we as a family didn’t talk about him. With the discovery of the notebook, there are now a hundred questions I wish I had answers for. Did my mom and dad read the notebook together? Why had my mom saved it but not shared it? Had my dad wanted to be a writer, and were his ambitions upended by World War II, an English War Bride, and the birth of two children? Unfortunately, I’ll always live with that nagging vacuum of memory.
But I’m grateful for this notebook. For most of my life, my father was as one-dimensional to me as a black-and-white photograph. In his poems and stories, I have more of him than I ever dreamed possible.
By Albert Sassi
I walked slowly along, wasting my time.
My train was due to leave in five minutes
But I showed no care.
I arrived at the station just as it pulled out.
‘Oh, I’ll take the next train’ was my thought.
How was I to know that I’d lost the only train
That would take me to my Destination.