“It doesn’t matter who my father was; It matters who I remember he was.”

Anne Sexton

Tomorrow is Father’s Day. It’s important, but it’s not a soft day like Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is floral, scented with sentimentality, with flowers and luncheons. Father’s Day of course is masculine with serious side effects: Barbecue maybe, certainly a beer or two.

So I sat down to write a funny column based on the ridiculous cards fathers get every year; on the gifts, the ties, pipes, slippers, to give you a few laughs. But then he, who still haunts me, intruded from the other side, and pushed his way into the narrative. Like all of you, when I say the word father, there he is in the mirror looking back at me.

I have only faint memories of my father, a career Navy officer who loved the sea.

Because he died when I was nine, most of my memories of him are secondhand from brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins. The Irish, of course, are born storytellers and given to great exaggeration. It was my father’s brother Jack who came to all occasions with razor nicks on his neck and booze on his breath, who told us that Pop was with Teddy Roosevelt in the famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, and saved Roosevelt’s life. Pop was in the Spanish-American War, but he was fighting in the Philippines, getting malaria and learning to drink. I like Uncle Jack’s story better.

During the Great Depression, with a big family to support, he retired from active duty and became chief engineer of the main post office in St. Louis and commanding officer of the 7th Naval Reserve District at the foot of Ferry Street on the river downtown.

This I know about him: Mathias John Devine was born of Irish immigrants in 1876, the year General Custer died at Little Big Horn. He served his country in two wars, and when he died the saloons of South St. Louis emptied out: Former Marines, sailors, firemen and cops formed a line down the street in front of the funeral parlor.

I know that he cultivated a grape arbor and long rows of tomato plants in the back yard, and in the summer, he went into the yard with a salt cellar, hosed off a couple of tomatoes, sat on a bench under the arbor and ate them while watching the sun go down.

I wanted to go sit with him, but my mother said not to bother him there because he was “having the blues.” That’s something I inherited from him, along with bad feet.

I know that he loved German food, especially sauerkraut and pig’s feet and beer. He had terrible blood pressure, and my mother said all that salt probably killed him. His sister Kate said no, it was the drink.

My brothers said it was retirement. He loved the sea, hated the beach. The drink, which he was fond of, might have contributed. But a man who fought in two wars, lived through the Great Depression, fathered 10 kids and lived with my mother deserved his spot at the bar.

My mother was fond of saying “No one ever saw Matt Devine stagger.” He never drank on duty, and no one ever saw him take a drink in the house, except at Christmas and baptisms. In old Irish families, baptisms alone can make a drunk of you.

To Irishmen of his generation, taking a drink of the hard stuff was a private thing, between a man and his God. But we knew he did. There was the beer before supper at his corner saloon and Christmas Eve with his brothers.

Late at night in the winter before bed he went down to the basement to perform a ritual of the day — stoking the furnace. The basement was where he kept his Navy memorabilia, where he went for a bit of quiet. No one else went there.

After the funeral, I helped my brothers go down and clear it all out. There was this trunk that held two flags, one of which covered his coffin, a razor strap and folded blade, two ceremonial swords, an eyeglass case, a rosary, his ribbons, a box of metal arch supports and an envelope containing hair from my first haircut. They gave that to me. I still have it. We brought the stuff up to Mom, but didn’t tell her about the two empty pint bottles stuffed in the two old mattresses in the coal room. Stoking a furnace, I’m told, can be hard work.

I never got to send my father a Father’s Day card, so this is it. I won’t write another, because I’m getting too close to a reunion.

Happy Father’s Day, my captain. See you on the other side.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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