My Dad’s Chair
My parents bought this chair and a matching couch not long after they were married in 1951. This was my dad’s chair. If you were sitting in it when he walked into the room he gave you the friendly thumb twist, which simply meant: get up.
When dad retired to his chair, that was his time. It was his time to read the newspaper, to watch a ballgame or a movie, or to take a nap. Whether or not the world and his responsibilities were on his mind, it was his place to unwind and just exist.
I remember the sound of his laughter, when he sat in his chair watching Johnny Carson. Each night before going to sleep I kissed my parents goodnight — dad sitting in his chair, mom in hers. I can still see the smile on dad’s face when, surround by his family, he sat in his chair, looking over his legacy. Dad always seemed at peace when he sat in his chair.
After my parents passed, I inherited my dad’s chair, and I sit in it often. I think about my daily challenges. I worry about my next job and where it will come from. I think about mortality: high blood pressure runs in my family. Has my cholesterol increased since my last blood work? I think about myself as a person. Will I be a good enough husband for Liz?
Then I stop, and I wonder what my dad’s thoughts were when he was my age, sitting in this chair, the father of ten, with another one on the way soon (me).
My dad was the first-born child, and the only son, of Italian immigrant parents. He grew up during the depression, when “times were really tough.” He often joked about how things were when he was a kid growing up on Beardsley Street, where crumbs were never left on the dinner plate.
He started working young, selling groceries off the back of a huckster truck. Dad picked up the accordion at a young age and he made a nice living performing and teaching music lessons.
My parents met on January 28, 1951. Dad’s band was performing at The Carovillese Club in Akron, Ohio. He saw my mom on the dance floor and immediately put down his accordion, told the sax player to “take it”, and asked my mom to dance. Two weeks later they were engaged; four months later they were married.
Dad landed a job at DuPont and spent nearly forty years with the company. In that time, he never missed a day of work. I’m not exaggerating: he never missed a day. He knew he was fortunate to have a job, and he worked hard. Dad enjoyed the company of his co-workers, and his boss appreciated him. They played cards at lunch, held company picnics, and when he retired, he was sent off with a hard-earned and well-deserved pension.
Dad was funny, had a sharp wit, and was quick with a smile. One morning, when I was in high school, I got up early to catch a ride with him. It was a cold morning and as we were walking to the car a squirrel came right up to my feet. I said, “Look dad, this squirrel must like me!” He responded without missing a beat: “Yeah, he thinks you’re nuts!”
Pops was Al Gore before Al Gore existed. We had to bring our paper lunch bags home from school to reuse the next day. If you left a room, you turned off the light, because Dad “didn’t work for the electric company.” If your shower ran longer than a few minutes, it was, “what are you washing in there, a battleship?”
Growing up, I had more than I needed. I never wondered whether or not there would be food on the table, a roof over my head, or love and attention from my family. Back then I didn’t recognize or understand that this wasn’t how everyone grew up. I had no idea what a budget was, or what dad meant when he said “money doesn’t grow on trees.” I thought you wrote a check and walked out with the goods.
When I was in middle school, Air Jordan’s were introduced, and being a huge Michael Jordan fan, I relentlessly bugged my parents to buy me a pair. I had the youthful mindset that these shoes would improve my vertical leap and my jump shot, whereas my dad saw that they were three times the price of the knockoff brand at Payless Shoes, which is the pair I got.
My dad was in the stands for my first game of the season. I can’t imagine what he was thinking as I was sliding across the floor, unable to stop, like someone had secretly sprayed grease on the bottom of my shoes. I remember hearing the father of another kid on the team laughing at me; I can still see his face. I don’t know if my dad heard him or not, but we went to the shoe store after the game and he bought me a pair of Jordans.
I wonder what my dad was thinking, or how he felt. I didn’t understood how hard he worked and the sacrifices he made so I could have, among other things, a pair of overpriced shoes that I didn’t really need. I think about how often he had to accept me and my childish ways, even when he had his own time-tested values that he adhered to in order to provide for a family of eleven.
Dad retired in 1990, after working nearly all of his life. Now he could wake up without an alarm; he could enjoy his morning coffee on the porch, and he could spend time and travel with his wife. While dad wasn’t the type to sit idle, he had earned his retirement and it fit him well.
In 1993, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. The doctor told him to get his affairs in order. My sister Rose was at the appointment and she politely let the doctor know what he could do with that opinion.
At the time, Rose was working at a medical malpractice firm and she was in regular contact with the head of oncology at Akron General Medical Center. She explained dad’s diagnosis to him and he felt he could help. Dad was put on a trial procedure to shrink the tumor, receiving a massive combination of both chemotherapy and radiation at the same time. Dad was larger than life with endless energy, and now he was hooked up to machines and fed through a tube in his nose.
I watched the treatment pummel and transform him into someone I barely recognized. I was 20 years old at the time and didn’t understand how this was happening to my dad. I was too immature to process my emotions in a constructive way, so instead, I acted out. I kept a distance between the two of us. My dad’s sole purpose was to survive and I did my best to cause him stress.
My mom spent nearly all of her time at the hospital, coming home from time to time for a short break before heading back to be with dad. Dad’s mom and sisters, his children (minus me), and his faith kept him going. Thankfully, the treatment worked. Dad worked hard his entire life. He raised his family and went to church every Sunday, and even more important than that, he lived his religion. Then he retired and was diagnosed with lung cancer and given a 5% survival rate.
It didn’t seem fair, and I was too young to understand what was happening, that sometimes this was how life worked and that nothing is guaranteed.
I decided that the future was too much of a gamble for me, so my money was all for the moment. If this could happen to someone like my dad, then I’d be damned if I would save all my money for retirement only to get lung cancer a few years later. I left home and moved to Nashville. I was young and naive and I thought I knew everything.
Like many others my age, I didn’t understand my parents, and I had no idea how to respect them as human beings. I remember thinking that my parents were simple; that they didn’t understand all the dreams I had and the big world I was going to explore. I rarely called home and I didn’t have any clue how my actions affected my parents. I was on a mission to find my calling, and it was somewhere else.
Since then, many moves and many lessons later, I’ve realized how much I didn’t know and how much there is to learn, about myself, about others, and about life. I’ve realized that my parents were more than just my mom and dad. They were their own people, a man and a woman who fell in love and built a life together. They had experiences and hopes, a life, and dreams.
As an adult, I often apologized to my parents for all the trouble and heartache I caused them. Their response was always the same: “we never doubted your love.”
A few months before he passed, I asked my dad how he managed to provide for eleven kids and his wife. How did he even budget? I have two cats and there are days when I feel like that’s too much responsibility. His answer wasn’t a surprise: dad wasn’t the kind of person who drew attention to his deeds. “Well Ange, those were different times. Things cost less,” he told me. I thought for a minute, and he had a point.
The Internet, cell phones, and a computer for each kid wasn’t on his mind, but, he still had the awesome responsibility of bringing home enough money to feed us and keep a roof over our heads. I wish I could tell him now that I get it, that money and possessions aren’t what’s important, and that being the best person I can be, working hard and helping others, being my own man — that is what’s important. I wish, more than anything else, that I could thank him again.
As I grow older I recognize more of my dad in myself. I know now that he wasn’t simple at all, and that he found his peace. I see the values in him in the people I surround myself with. Everyone in these photographs has made some kind of impact on my life, whether it’s their love, their belief in me, or the way they live their lives; and each photograph has been accompanied by conversation and visiting.
The more photographs I made, the less I wanted to just send a text or post to social media. I wanted to see the people I love. I wanted to hear their voices. I wanted to keep my parents legacy alive by sharing the values they instilled in me.
I hope to be a parent one day; I wonder what kind of dad I’ll be? Will I be patient and understanding? Will I lead by example like my dad did? Will I love my child no matter what he or she does? Not long before my dad died he told me how proud he was that in his life he provided for his family, and that if he passed before Mom that she would always be taken care of by his insurance and his pension.
So much of where my life is today stems from the sacrifices my parents made, and their ability to get up every day and do what they had to do, with such pride, resilience, and dedication. Sitting in his chair now, I find inspiration in the very thing I once ran from.
This chair has been witness to my mom, 11 children, 17 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren, spouses, and nearly 63 years of marriage. This chair has watched children grow up to have their own families; it has seen both love and loss. No doubt my dad sat in this chair and watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan; Walter Cronkite broadcasting Kennedy’s death; The Vietnam War; the falling of The Berlin Wall. This chair brought in a new millennium.
This chair bid farewell to my parents and was passed on to a new generation, to birth new memories.
About the author: Angelo Merendino is a photographer based in Cleveland, Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter here and find more of his work on his website and Instagram.