Most people who see the photograph for the first time assume that my father is a stern man, or not one prone to happiness. Those who know me well, or my sister Deidre, know better. My father was a very happy man, always quick with a joke, a prank, or a dance across the living room floor. He would sweep my mother into his arms, sending her into peals of delighted laughter. Always, there was music in our home when I was a young boy. Usually he liked to play records of classical music- Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart- his favorite. But when he was in an especially jovial mood, he played dance music- and dance he did!
“Peter! Please stand still, and let’s just let the nice lady take the photo.” Papa had rarely raised his voice at me, and I quickly became petulant. Deidre stood still, not wanting to get into any sort of trouble, but we were both uncomfortable and overly warm. It was Sunday, and Papa was taking us to church for mass. I can only imagine how hard it was for Papa to get us dressed that morning. I could tell that Papa took his duty to get us to church, just like Mama would, very seriously. He fussed for what seemed forever after breakfast with buttons, polishing shoes, and combing our hair. He stayed almost silent as he worked, his face twisted into a sad grimace most of the time. When we were finally ready, Deidre had to go to the potty one last time. Papa sighed, but then just began to laugh- low, and long. I thought it was strange, but I didn’t say a word.
“You children look very proper, and you shall behave very properly- is that understood?” Of course, it was. We knew exactly what was expected of us not only in the church, but on the two-block walk on the way to it. I walked along, in a sort of forced silence that I was having trouble maintaining. I wanted to ask Papa if Mama was in Heaven right now, watching us. I wanted to ask if he thought Mama would have worn her pink dress that matched Deidre’s. I wanted to just stop the tears that were always falling from my eyes whenever I thought of Mama.
As we neared the church, a lady that we didn’t know from our church seemed to appear from nowhere, with a large camera up to her face. She peeked from behind us to ask if we would please pose for a photo. I could tell by how my father seemed to stiffen all over that he was not happy about the idea.
We all seemed to be in a quiet fog during the service, but a great many well-wishers and sad-faced people came over afterward to shake my father’s hand, hug and kiss us, and talk with my father for a long time. Even the Father came over to speak with us, and it seemed very special. At some point, Deidre had heard her mother spoken of too many times. She didn’t really understand that Mama wasn’t coming back-ever- and I barely did. All she knew was that she missed her Mama, and a long, howling wail came from her little mouth that made everyone turn to stare. My Papa decided at that moment we had all had enough for one day. He gently scooped Deidre up into his arms. “Come on, son, let’s go home now”, he said quietly. I gratefully followed. Once Deidre was out in the sunshine, she began to calm down a little, still crying “Mama!”, with her head buried in our father’s shoulder.
It was then that I first learned a bit about how kind, gentle, and wonderful my father really was. As we walked, he began to sing to Deidre, in his rich, deep tone. He spun her gently around, and beamed a huge smile at her, all the while singing the song that Mama always sang to my sister at bedtime. He sang with a love and gentleness, his profound sadness barely contained. It seems to me now, that from that moment, Papa simply decided to put away that sadness. For us, he dealt with his own great grief privately.
When Deidre and I were grown, and only then, Papa remarried a beautiful and lovely lady from the church. It was the woman who had snapped our photo who ultimately won his heart. You see, the woman had distributed that photo to everyone she knew at the church and in our neighborhood. Shortly after the church service that Sunday, the phone began to ring all the time. The door was always full of people with hand-sewn clothes for me and for Deidre. Casseroles and dinner rolls came to our table – more than we could possibly eat- on a regular basis. Mothers with children about the same age as my sister and me began to call. All of this kindness kept us going through the dark days that were to come, and this kindness and love didn’t stop after a week, nor a month, or a year.
Over the years, Mrs. Schmidt, who had also lost her spouse the year before we lost our mother, became a dear friend of my papa’s. In time, that friendship blossomed into love. She has been a wonderful mother to us, as well. Her greatest gift to us was to help my father be strong, and to bring the sunshine back into his heart.
The last time I paid them a visit is was Thanksgiving, early in the afternoon. My wife and I and our three children were all excited to be at Grandpa and Grandma’s for dinner. As we neared the door, we heard the lovely strains of Perry Como’s voice coming from within. I peeked into the window and saw the two embraced, slowly swaying to the music. Then I saw Papa smile, and could see him quietly singing to his bride.
Now, the photograph of Papa, Deidre and I is nestled just between the photograph of my beautiful family before we lost Mama, and my beautiful family at Papa’s wedding almost ten years ago. They are the defining photographs in my album that is chock-full of all the memories, places, and milestones of our lives. There are only a few blank pages left, and I will need another album soon. One day my children will inherit the photos, and add their own memories to it. Until then, I will keep them safe.