Storyworth: What are some of your childhood memories of your father?

| December 28, 2021 | 0 Comments

I was named after my father, but I’m not a junior. He was named William Henry Black. I’m just William Black. I’ve always puzzled over why my parents didn’t give me the middle name of Henry. I remember my mother saying they just didn’t like the name Henry. But there has to be more to it. I’ll never know.

My father died when I was 17 years old. I was in full adolescent rebellion and I still grieve over the fact that many of my last conversations with him were contentious. He didn’t deserve that. He was a good man.

My Father and Mother in the Early 50's

Bill Black was the guy everyone called to fix things. He was a machinist for B.F. Goodrich, so pretty mechanically inclined. I would often accompany him on his house calls and I hated it. My role was simply to hand him the tools and it bored me to tears. I also recall helping him help people whose car was stuck in snow. My father was a master at wrapping chains around slippery tires.

Before my rebellious years – and after he died – I greatly admired him. He was a handsome man. He had jet black hair and brown eyes. His hairstyle was a flat top. My mother never allowed me to grow enough hair to have a flat top. Her preferred style was the wiffle.

He exuded strength. He served in WWII and landed at Normandy on D-Day Plus One and slept in his truck on the beach for his first week in France. He was 26 years old at the time. His account of that experience is attached at the end of this post.

I felt like my blond wiffle-style hair and blue eyes were weak. I was more a Singleton (my mother’s family) than a Black. I wanted to be like him. I wanted black hair and brown eyes.

I can remember the smell of perspiration when I would hug him when he came home from work. When I learned to write my name, I tried to mimic his signature, which was something of a scrawl. Sister diPazzi, my fourth-grade penmanship teacher was not pleased.

My mother and father with my new baby sister Susan…and me.

My father came from a family of 8 boys and one girl. Most of his siblings went to college, presumably on the GI Bill. For whatever reason, my father did not. He was a working man, as the perspiration demonstrated. But, as a result, there seemed to be a bit of a divide within his family. Unlike cousins, aunts and uncles on my mother’s side of the family, I didn’t see much of his side. They all seemed to live in the suburbs in really nice ranch houses. We lived in a two-family house in a working class neighborhood of Boston. And, when we did see them, there was an awkwardness in the air. Unlike the raucousness that permeated my mother’s side, big parties, big fights, everything out in the open, my father’s side was staid, formal and, yes, awkward.

When I was around 10 or 12, my father got a second job working in a local variety store called “Henry’s.” As I write this, it is the first time I’ve noted the irony of the name. I believe the store still exists. It was about a half a mile from our house. I would go there probably once a day. Often my mother would send me down there to buy her cigarettes. I thought it was very cool to have my father working there. I suspect he didn’t think it was so cool. I didn’t know then, but I’m sure it reflected some strain on the family finances.

I think back to when he had to quit that job as the first sign that there were bigger problems ahead. He had to quit because of his heart condition. That started a long decline over a number of years. I learned later from my mother that his original diagnosis included the prognosis that he had a year to live. My mother lived with that knowledge in secret. As it turned out, he lived for I think five years after that, but they weren’t good years.

Eventually, he went on disability from his main job at B.F. Goodrich. I think that may have been a bit of a blessing in disguise because the plant closed not too long after. Had he been still working there, he probably would have been laid off and not eligible for disability when he got sick. But I don’t know for sure because I didn’t have a clue as to family finances in those days.

His last years were tumultuous. He spent a lot time in Kelleher’s Tavern on Centre Street in West Roxbury, much to my mother’s frustration. As noted above, I was too self-absorbed to pay much attention to his struggles. Then, one day, I showed up for work at the Stop & Shop and got a call from my next-door neighbor, Gene Corbett, telling me I need to get home quickly, that my father was pretty sick.

I didn’t have a car and ran outside the store trying to figure out how to get home, about a mile and a half away. Somebody I worked with had just arrived for his shift and I begged him to drive me home. As we approached the house, I saw the ambulance in front of the house. I jumped out of the car and ran up the front stairs. My uncle Paulie was standing there. He was my mother’s brother. He said, “It seems your father has died.” I remember fixating on the work “seems.” So, he only SEEMS dead. That doesn’t mean he IS dead.

But, of course, he was. And I had to accompany Uncle Paulie back to his house about a 1/4 mile away where my mother was waiting with my brother Jimmy. We had to tell her he was gone.

As I look back, I realize what a truly good man he was. He had some demons, very likely caused by his experiences during the war. But he was known as the go-to guy for anything that needed fixing. He was always available to help family and friends. It was a joke in the family. If anything went wrong, everyone’s first thought was “Call Bill Black.”

Oddly, I think I miss him more now than I did then right after he died. Which says as much about who I was then as who I am now.

The D-Day Letter


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