Saturday, June 20, 2009

Father's Day Essay, by Erika Holzer

AN OLD-FASHIONED PATRIOT—That Was My Dad!

By Erika Holzer

As I read the papers and listen to the news on this approaching Father’s Day 2009, I’ve found myself thinking about how my late father would have felt at what appears to be happening to the country he loved so dearly.

Terrorists mass murdering Americans on our own soil. An American president bowing to a medieval monarch, apologizing for our nation’s greatness, selling out a loyal ally. All this, and more, would have been seen through the eyes of my father.

He would have cried.

You see, my dad was a patriot.

Not the kind who would ever have seen Memorial Day as just another day for picnics and barbecues. But the kind who knew his origins, worked hard to achieve the American dream, and loved this country.

As was typical of many immigrants of his day, my father, whose family had known real poverty, believed fiercely in that dream and the patriotism necessary to sustain it.

So fiercely, I might add, that he went to considerable lengths to disguise the fact that he was an immigrant. We kids grew up thinking he’d been born in our small town in upstate New York.

But as we got older and picked up on hints from our mother, he countered our skepticism with the romantic notion that he’d been born on a ship en route from Italy to Manhattan’s Ellis Island! It wasn’t until we reached young adulthood that he sheepishly confessed he’d been born in a small village slightly south of Naples—but was quick to add, jokingly, that he’d set sail at the impressionable age of two and as they’d reached their destination he had felt distinctly American-born in spirit, if not in technical fact.

I was still in high school when my dad told me how deeply troubled he’d been when, upon the death of his widowed father, his older brother Fred, self-appointed patriarch of the family, had changed the surname of his younger siblings from Tata to Tate. My dad had been raised as an Italian-American, and despite considerable prejudice in certain circles, he’d taken great pride in his family name. My canny Uncle Fred, who regarded his ethnicity as a stumbling block to his ambitions, had won my father over by arguing that Frank “Tate” as opposed to Frank “Tata” would make him more assimilated. More American! A winning argument.

Which is not to say that my father was any the less ambitious than his older brother. An ardent devotee of upbeat aphorisms and self-improvement advice, he believed wholeheartedly that we are what we make of ourselves despite the humblest of beginnings.

And my dad’s beginnings were humble indeed. To this day I can close my eyes and see the main room of the house where my dad grew up: a basement dining room- kitchen with a dirt floor, presided over by his stepmother—a smiling toothless old woman who spoke softly in Italian as she slipped a shiny new dime or a piece of candy into my hand. And while I have no first-hand knowledge of my dad’s actual beginnings, my brothers once made a pilgrimage to the village where he was born, managed to locate some blood relatives . . . and were treated with warm hospitality by people who lived in the same dirt-poor poverty from which my father had come.

The possibilities that this free country offered were something my father saw as available to all. He struggled to put himself (and later, two younger brothers) through law school, then sent his kid sister through nursing school. You can imagine how proud he was on the day he opened his law firm on Main Street and hung out his “shingle”:

FRANK A. TATE
ATTORNEY-AT-LAW

He could have added, “American.”

How proud he was that, though a single practitioner, he was soon earning enough to raise a family in a comfortable suburban home on a dead-end street that bordered the Hudson River, with lawn enough for gardens and bocce ball. How proud he was that he could afford to educate his children, all four of whom went on to earn, not just college diplomas, but advanced degrees—three of us in law.

And how grateful that America had given him the opportunity to achieve all this.

The only part of my father’s love of America that proved frustrating was his strict rule that Italian was not to be spoken in our home. It’s the kind of rule that leaves a child, a teenager, perhaps even a carefree college student, indifferent. But once I pursued a career—as a lawyer first, then as a novelist—I had serious misgivings about having missed out on an unrepeatable opportunity to be bilingual. I thought my father’s reasoning had been singularly obtuse—until I realized that my patriotic dad believed it was un-American not to speak English.

My father was a vibrant 96 years old when he died.

Fourteen years earlier, I wrote a nationally syndicated column about Frank A. Tate entitled “82 Going on 22.” In it, I paid tribute not just to his ongoing can-do, earn-your-own-way approach to life, but also to his unabashed love for his country. To him, America was the personification of opportunity and, more important, of freedom.

Now, even though he has been gone more than a decade, I think of him often, especially on Father’s day.

Were he still with me, I know what he’d say when confronted with today’s worsening headlines: “This is America, anything is possible—so long as we don’t let the torch go out.”

Happy Father’s Day, dad.
___________________
Lawyer-turned-novelist Erika Holzer's novel Double Crossing is a human rights espionage drama. Her psychological thriller Eye for an Eye is a Paramount feature starring Kiefer Sutherland and Sally Field, To learn more about Holzer's latest book, the memoir "Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher," see www.erikaholzer.com, Erika Holzer blogs at www.erikaholzer.blogspot.com