Over the years of writing this and other columns, I’ve often quoted my father, as in “My father always said.” Some of the quotes were brilliant, some humorous, some bitter and sad. I actually made them up, because sadly, I have no memory of my father actually saying anything to me. As he left us unexpectedly at age 67 when I was 9, I have no real memory of his voice.

Some of those words were true, but they came to me from his friends, from my brothers and my mother, who remembered every word he uttered, as in “Your father always said.”

They say he talked about President Franklin Roosevelt often, because FDR was once secretary of the Navy and came from a seafaring family. But then he admired Republican Wendell Wilkie because he was an engineer. So be it.

My brothers, sailors all, remembered their father as a Navy officer when most of them were growing up. They spoke of him in “Navy speech.” In the house he was “Pop,” but when they spoke of him to others, he was “the old man,” or the officer of their day, of the deck. So it went like this.

“The old man said …”

“The old man isn’t going to like that …”

“Wait until the old man hears about that …”

When they were talking to me, it was “your father.”

“Your father always thought you were the smartest one.” I liked hearing that, but it wasn’t true. My oldest brother, Matt Jr, known to the family as “Bud,”  was truly the smartest. He followed the “old man” into the Navy right out of high school and into naval engineering.

In my radical teens, I was sent to live with Bud for three years in Bellevue, Washington. I helped him as he built his house, laid the foundation, plumbed it and wired it, and I can tell you that sailor was one smart man.

I watched him make mathematical notes in tiny precise numbers on the raw wood of the interior. I had seen my father’s old notebooks, and Bud’s numbers and cursive were exactly the same.

So Bud then had to be, for my sake, the old man’s avatar; and in those few years, he took my father’s place in my life.

Everyone said Bud was just exactly like him in speech, manner and posture. My father was ramrod straight, even when he was asleep. Bud was like that in his dealing with me.

“Stand up straight; you’ll get a hump back.”

“Boy, if the old man saw you slumping around like that ….”

I remember this: Bud was the only boy who always stood up when Pop came to the table at supper.

I remember how I would sit on Pop’s lap and read headlines and some paragraphs from the three daily newspapers. My mother said when I read them clearly, even though at first I didn’t understand them, he would beam with pride.

I’m not sure, had he lived to see me in my twenties, that he would have sustained that same pride. About the D average I held in math most of my life? Hardly.

Acting on the New York stage? Maybe. My television pieces? He would have snorted.

Movies? He would let my mother drag him six blocks to the Michigan Avenue movie theater only if the films were about the Navy. Mid-story he would grumble about the mistakes for a while before falling asleep and snoring so loudly my mother had to move to another part of the theater.

Jim, known to all as “Jug,” began studying opera early on. I don’t know how Pop felt about that, even though I’m told that Jug’s “Danny Boy” brought tears to at least one eye.

Eileen and Bud were the first two born of Veronica, and I think they were his favorites. They were champion high school swimmers, good students, and always stood erect when he was around.

Father’s Day wasn’t celebrated while he was alive, but then every day was Father’s Day in our house. He was the officer of the day every day, always on the bridge, watching over us. I still keep three pictures of him on my desk and dresser, watching over me.

At his funeral, his best friend, Capt. Schwartz, began with “Commander Mathias J. Devine, the son of Irish immigrants, born in 1875, lies here.”

Then he read from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem”:

“This be the verse you grave for me: ‘Here he lies where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill.’”

See you on the other side, old man.

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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