Note: I’ve told the story below a few times but it’s the one I go back to whenever I’m going through a tough time. Today I’m having some trouble but it’s nothing that won’t pass. For some reason, this story brings always makes me feel better so I’m sharing it with you. I was reminded of this story after reading this post by Rob Delaney.
Good Enough For Goodbye
When I went to sleep on Thursday the last place I expected to be three days later was back home on Long Island to mourn my father. The phone call that woke me at 3AM on Friday changed my plans.
“Sam, it’s your sister.”
I paused for a second to process what I had just heard.
“I’ll be on the next flight.”
On Sunday morning I had three hours of time to fill before my father’s wake. I was filling the hole that shock and grief had left in me with food and trying to think of what he wanted to tell me the last time we had spoken.
I last talked to my father two weeks before he died. I called him after the Jets had pulled off an upset against the Patriots. We spoke briefly before he told me he had some things to do but he would call me back soon because he wanted to talk to me about something. When the next few days passed with no phone call I left him a message, but I didn’t worry about it. I assumed that he would have called me back right away if it were a matter of life and death.
On the morning of my father’s wake I sat in an all-you-can-eat restaurant that had been decorated to look like a military base wondering what he wanted to tell me. Perhaps he knew he was sick and was trying to find a way to tell me, but it was just as likely he wanted to give me a sure thing to bet. I imagined him saying “don’t be fooled by The Jets offense, take the under next week or you’re wasting your money.” On the other hand he could have just wanted to share some kind of general advice, just like he did before I moved to Los Angeles. The night before I left town he gave me a New York Mets jersey and this advice: “Wherever you go, don’t let anybody fuck with you.”
I went through the fake checkpoint inside of the restaurant on my way to the buffet line for some more breakfast then headed back to the table. Between bites of scrambled eggs I talked about my father beating up the ice cream man a few years earlier. I explained to the family members who had joined my wife and I for brunch that in the years after the incident, my father insisted that his actions were justified.
“It’s the principle of the goddamned thing,” he once told me in a voice I would never hear again. “We’ve been getting them since before that joker was born. That guy has no business being in the ice cream business.”
The day it happened was unseasonably hot for early May. The sound of the ice cream truck making its first run of the season was enough to make my father stop what he was doing and walk outside.
My dad liked to stop the ice cream man once in a while to get Marino’s Italian Ice, which was a staple of summers at his house because they were tasty and cheap. All twelve Marino’s flavors came in the same color cup and were accompanied by a little wooden spoon. Dad always ordered cherry and never forgot to check the label to make sure there was no mistake. Then he’d pay double the price printed on the side of the truck with instructions to put the extra buck toward the next kid who came up a few cents short. This wasn’t the same guy who responded to our requests, two decades earlier, for ice cream money by asking if he thought he was made of it. This was a new man who was happy to enjoy an Italian Ice while a kid in the neighborhood got a Bomb-Pop even though they were a quarter short.
There was a new ice cream man in town that year and he eased to a stop in front of my father’s house. Dad checked to see that a Marino’s Italian Ice was still a buck and then laid two dollars down before ordering a cherry ice and explaining what the extra money was for. The new guy thanked him and turned to leave when my father asked:
“Hey where’s my spoon?”
For the last 50 years he had always gotten a wooden spoon with his Italian ice. When informed by the new ice cream man that he had no spoons my father did what any reasonable man would do and said:
“Well I don’t this then, give me back my dollar.”
The ice cream man was unaware that selling a Marino’s to my father without a wooden spoon was a violation of the unwritten laws of the ice cream business. He made things worse when he asked my father:
“You got spoons in your house don’t you?”
“Of course I have spoons, I have a whole drawer full of them. But when I buy an Italian ice I want a goddamned wooden spoon.”
The ice cream man’s next mistake was saying:
“Look, here are both your dollars back you don’t have to be an asshole about it”
The police officers that were called to the scene made it clear that punching the ice cream man was unacceptable even if he was breaking the rules of the ice cream business. The ice cream man, realizing there were plenty of streets he could drive down without dealing with violent Italian ice purists, never came down our street again.
Before the incident my father was a popular guy in the neighborhood but afterward he was no longer the good neighbor with a cold beer and a hand to lend. He was the guy who made the ice cream man go away. The neighbors didn’t understand that a man has to believe in something or he’s got no reason to go on living.
The next time I visited my father I noticed there was something unusual on his bulletin board. Among the photos and phone numbers there was a wooded spoon wrapped in wax paper, the kind that should come with a Marino’s Italian ice.
“Your sister gave that to me”; he explained. “She thinks I should apologize but I’m not doing it, that guy deserved it.”
I didn’t argue with him.
When I was finished telling the story I went back to the buffet for desert. My wife took my hand and joined me as I scanned the cookies and cake looking for the something my father would have liked. I walked all the way to the end of the room before stopping in front of a small freezer. Through the clear glass on top I could see that it was filled with ice cream cups.
I didn’t notice what was on the small table beside the freezer, but my wife did. As I turned to go back toward the cake she took my hand and placed something in it.
It was a small wooden spoon wrapped in wax paper.
“I don’t want you punching any ice cream men on the way to the funeral home,” she said.
The next few hours were a whirlwind of hugs and handshakes as one by one friends and relatives paid their respects to my father while I kept busy by directing traffic in the room. When the wake was over and I was alone with my father I realized I would have to just guess at what we would have talked about in that phone call that never happened.
I leaned over the casket and told my father, “wherever you are, don’t let anybody fuck with you.” Then I placed the wooden spoon in his pocket.