There were a lot of layers to my dad. He could be reserved and soft spoken. He could be loud and opinionated. He loved his spy novels, but he also loved vintage comedy, which seemed as funny to him in the moment as it did when he first saw it decades ago. Almost every situation was ripe for a wry comment or observation. I remember him telling me that on his final day of work, when he finally retired from United Mental Health, Inc., he marked the end of the day – and really, the end of an era – by marching a toy robot out of his office to indicate that he was about to leave.
If he really found something hilarious, he would let fly with a raspy laugh that sounded like metal rake being dragged across cement – a Shanley family trait which I heard coming from my aunt Mary Jeanne many times as well.
When I was in college I frequently came over for Sunday dinner and Pop often slipped me a couple dollars. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say. And he didn't say this because Mum would object to me getting the money. It might have been her idea, for all I know. “Don’t tell you mother,” was a line from a comedy routine by Shelley Berman, based on a conversation he had with his father.
I discovered this comedy bit through my folks. In it, Berman recounts how he wanted to join his friends at acting school and needed to ask his dad for the money to do it. Too afraid to ask him in person, he calls his day at work – at a delicatessen. On a Saturday, the busiest day of the week.
You hear the phone conversation only on the father’s side. He’s already mad that he’s being pulled away from work, and he gets even madder when he hears that his son wants money for acting school - something he consider frivolous.
But as the conversation goes on, he gets his son to commit to working in the shop and he’ll give him the money, including “a Christmas bonus,” which is why the Jewish father tells him, “don’t tell you mother.”
In the set-up of the routine, Berman jokes about his dad but also defends him, saying he’s a good person. And you hear that as the bit proceeds. The father’s anger turns to support – even if he thinks his son is crazy, he’ll be there for him, reminding him, “No matter what happens, here, you’ll always a home.” I love this comedy routine because in addition to being funny it’s also poignant – a homage to his dad.
I once had a phone call with Pop that I feel paralleled Berman’s. I was taking a class in college that I thought I was going to fail and I wanted to drop it. But I was worried about how that was going to affect my financial aid. So I figured I’d call the house and get some perspective – from my mother. If I talked to Pop, I figured I’d be in trouble.
I called my parents’ house – and Pop picked up. Here it comes, I thought. He’s going to give it to me.
I told him what was going on. I couldn’t hack the class. I was afraid I was going to fail. What do I do?
Much to my surprise – and relief – Pop was cool. And empathetic. Don’t give up. Talk to your professor. If you’re straight with her, she ought to understand.
He went on to explain that when he was going to Duquesne, he had a similar experience. He was working overnights at the J&L mill, going to school by day and needed to talk to a prof, and the two worked things out. In talking about his combination of school and work, he had to lighten the mood with a joke, “You get a difference perspective on things when you have three squealers at home,” which affectionately referred to my three older brothers.
I knew that he had worked overnights and had gone to school during the day. But it never occurred to me why up until that point. That was what you did to support your family. The weekend performances at Churchill Valley Country Club – it wasn’t just a music gig, even if the band really swung. It was to support the family.
The impact of what he said on the phone that day might not have been immediate but I did realize at some point that if he could do all that, one anthropology class is nothing for me. I could pull myself up by my bootstraps and work a little harder. And I did. And I got an A. When I told him that, he said, “See I told ya.” And it wasn't a patronizing thing. It was said with that mischievous look in his eye, that had wisdom with it.
Sometimes the things that you learn from your parents are not the things they say to you directly. They’re the things you discover after they’ve put you on the path of your life. The in-between things that you don’t even realize at the time.
There were a lot qualities that my dad possessed. One of the biggest ones was that he was deep.