O Mein Papa

If it’s true that 90 percent of life is just showing up, my dad put in 110 percent.

At every wedding reception, family birthday, anniversary party, or a wake for a co-worker’s parent, my Dad was there, fully present, dressed up and raring to go.

“Dad, we don’t have to be the first ones there,” Mom would say time after time. You knew he was ready to go, cooling his heels, sounding on the tile, car keys in hand. “Come on, come on, come on,” he liked to roust us kids to pile into the car.

I think my Dad may have missed his calling, like most of his siblings there was an entertainer just below the surface, a comedian or song-and-dance man in his case. He certainly was a magician at fixing things.

His mother and father produced nine extraordinary children, each a colorful character in their own right, a boisterous, larger than life crew, all up for a good laugh and hard day’s work. That family – there were really two families, the older ones said – settled in their first house in Bedford Park.

My Dad was the eldest son, third of the nine. He told us of the Paul Bunyan-style family meals Mom Murray made with so many mouths to feed. For breakfast, she cracked dozens of eggs, two or three pounds of bacon. Four or five chickens, she fried up for Sunday dinner.

The work ethic of my Dad’s generation began in that house. When I was a little kid, he made it clear that his childhood was very different than my happy-go-lucky, carefree existence.

Schooldays he was up early to shovel coal into the furnace before breakfast, then went to work with his dad loading his meat truck for his delivery route. Later, he worked after school at a bag factory in the Clearing district. His mother did his homework for him; he helped her make ends meet. And his father NEVER had to wash his own car, he would tell me.

He made it to Argo High School in that 1950s Happy Days era. His first car was a brand new, fire engine red 1956 Ford with loud exhaust and a stick shift. Everyone in Bedford Park, Summit and Argo knew Jack’s Ford, and all considered it the coolest car in town. The police knew that car as well. He used to drive 90 mph down Harlem Avenue back in the day.

He drove that ’56 Ford when he courted my mom. Jack and Diane got married young, she was 19 he was 22. The newlyweds soon faced separation with his induction into the Army. So, they moved in with my mom’s parents until he had to report for duty. But then my mom became pregnant with me, so I ruined his military career.

With a baby me on the way, my Dad had to work two or three jobs, part-time as a mechanic at a service station, to afford their own apartment in Bedford Park. For extra money, he worked as a fireman, paid on call. He worked day and night until one day he heard a neighbor lost his job at a petro-chemical plant called UOP in nearby McCook. He went in, told the hiring agent he heard there was an opening for a machinist, applied for it and was hired on the spot.

He worked whatever overtime he could get just to scrape together a down payment for their first home, that little house on Preller Avenue in Worth. Nine miles each way every morning and night, he drove from Worth to UOP.

It was the start of JFK’s New Frontier and the prosperity of the 1960s were all before our little family, offering boundless opportunity to those willing and able. And our dad was eager to work overtime to earn, save and build for the future.

Three years after me, little Michael Patrick Murray was born. He was a pin-sized piston of energy. Dad would call him Do, because he was always doing something. And what a happy childhood my dad and mom gave us in that little ranch house. Michael and I climbed and sat upon that tall redwood stockade fence to survey our domain. We thought we were rich.

Dad made the time to stop at the drugstore and bring home to me four or five comic books at a time. He took us to the auto show, the boat show, the stockyard show. Often treated us to Playland and got us a color TV to watch Disney and all our cartoons in living color. Took us to Sheridan drive-in for James Bond movies, John Wayne and “The Planet of the Apes.” Later at Ford City, we saw “The Sting” and “Patton.”

Christmas was magic, all those great toys of the ‘60s piled under the tree. They would be worth a fortune if left in the box as antiques today. One was a little red Mustang pedal car to match his red 1965 Mustang parked outside the front of the house.

And the music. A pop song “Jennifer” by Donovan was very popular around 1968. It got a lot of radio play. So, it was on Preller Avenue when our baby sister, Jennifer, was born. Mom reared us while dad kept never passing up overtime, an overnight shift, an extra day, Saturdays.

“I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go,” he would sing most mornings. Other times he would lampoon the WMAQ radio promo: “UOP is gonna make me rich.”

He worked hard and played hard, and danced hard, with the love of his life. “Look at that woman,” he said of my mom up until the very end.

At work, he climbed the ladder. He enjoyed being on the golf league, the bowling league, liquid lunches with vendors. He would come home after bowling and wake us up to eat White Castles he brought home or Nick burgers from the tavern in Lemont.

Fast forward to Nordica Avenue in Worth, four doors down from the Mortensons. Those yard parties, catered food from the Argo VFW, Christmas parties with both sides of the family, mom’s turkey and dressing, high spirits and good cheer.

He believed in big family road trips we took every summer. He let me use the roadmap as copilot. He drove us to Disney World, and the East Coast, stopping in Niagara Falls, where he and my Mom had honeymooned, along the way.

He also loved fishing trips, with our family or just the guys, his brothers, filled with cards, stories, cocktails and maybe even some fishing.

It was a wonderful life until the waking nightmare.  1987 is the year he had to tell his 22-year-old son that he had a very rare cancer. After treatment and remission, Michael bought his own fishing boat. But it all ended in the living Hell no parent should have to endure.

Despite the horror, we had to go on. At 55, dad retired, somewhat forced. Enter Joe Reda, my brother-in-law, who with Jennifer would create the greatest joys to come for our dad, stricken by a heart attack and later a diagnosis of prostate cancer at 58. They said it was aggressive, they said the average man would live six years, he lived 20.

Because he had a new birth of reasons to live, three births in all, Michael, Kayla and Jeremy. Each one a new delight of his life. They called him Papa. He gave new meaning to the word grandfather. He was their babysitter, their playmate, their confidante. He changed their diapers on the rec room floor. It is because of him that they are who they are today. He bathed them, he fed them and fixed their plate – and they eventually his. He took them to McDonald’s, the UOP picnic, mini golf, Florida, breakfast. He taught them how to eat crab legs, the power of a nap, how to fish, to enjoy chocolate, to carve a pumpkin, to be patient and eventually how to drive a manual transmission. He was the greatest gift to their chilhood – as they were to his longevity.

Way back, little 6-year-old son Jack heard a song that stuck in his head all these years in my subconscious memory. “O Mein Papa, to me he was so wonderful. O my Papa, to me he was so good. No one could be so gentle and so lovable. O my Papa, so funny and adorable. O my Papa, so funny in his way. I still miss him so much today.”


Photo taken by a visitor at Lake Katherine Nature Preserves.



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