John Ficarra is the former editor of Mad magazine, 1985-2018.
My father quit school in the ninth grade. The son of first-generation Italian immigrants, and whose mother died when he was a young boy, he decided that school took a back seat to getting a job and helping his father put food on the family table. His schoolbooks were replaced with mops and pails used to swab the hallways of Bronx apartment buildings, and brushes and ladders when those apartments needed painting.
He never said so, but I don’t think my father was terribly upset about trading school for work. I never saw him with a book. He read the Daily News every day, but I think he was mostly interested in the box scores for his beloved New York Yankees.
When World War II began, he was drafted into the Army. He was stationed on Governors Island in New York Harbor guarding Italian prisoners. Though to hear my father tell it, he could leave the cell doors open. The prisoners weren’t interested in going anywhere.
It was during this time that he met my mother, a singer who performed in USO shows on his military base. They married in 1950 and were together for the next 60 years.
Despite having no vocational skills or high school diploma, my father managed to find work as a security officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It was a tough, boring job, requiring him to stand on his feet eight hours a day, but it was steady work and the benefits were good. On weekends, he took a second job in a locksmith shop.
When I was 8, the Fed offered a 15 percent raise to anyone willing to work the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift. My father jumped on it. More money, more opportunity for his family. After that, my sister and I saw little of him — if he wasn’t working, he was sleeping. My mother was always shushing us so we wouldn’t wake him.
Unlike my father, my mother was cerebral. Musical, creative, funny, and she loved to write. There was never any doubt that I was her son. She helped me with my piano lessons, critiqued my writing, laughed at my jokes. Back then, it seemed to me that all my father ever did was work.
My father wanted me to be a lawyer. I think he held that up as the ultimate proof of a generational jump in class and status. He also liked the TV show “Perry Mason.” Two years into pre-law, I told him I was changing colleges. I wanted to be a writer — a comedy writer, no less. Nothing in his background prepared him for news that the first member of his family ever to go to college wanted to make a living writing jokes. Jokes! He clearly had his doubts, but his love and support didn’t waver.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my father, and not just because of Father’s Day . It was just around this time 30 years ago that I bought a house — a big old money pit in need of work. My father knew he couldn’t help with the electricity or plumbing, but he could paint. While I was at work all day, he painted all 15 rooms, three coats per. It took him five weeks. He was the age I am now, but with arthritis and spinal stenosis. I don’t know how he managed it, but I know he loved doing it.
When my daughter was born, I got to see the side of my father I rarely saw: He read books to her, took her to the park, attended her school plays. No longer needing to scrimp, he was always ready to spend some of his Fed pension on a Happy Meal, a new toy, an ice cream cone. On Sundays after church, he came over with a fresh bagel and a pink balloon for his “Princess.”
There’s a saying: The older I get, the smarter my father gets. I’m appalled and embarrassed by how long it took me to recognize the life lessons my father imparted by example: love of family, the dignity in hard work, the sacrificing of self for the greater good.
The last time we spoke, I was visiting my father in a nursing home. He was failing, and on this day the pain was particularly bad. He was in and out of lucidness. I went downstairs and bought him a can of Coke and a cup of coffee. As I was giving it to him, I teased him, asking how every time I came to the nursing home it cost me money. He looked up, and for a moment the pain in his face gave way to a smile. “Put it on my bill,” he said.
Put it on his bill. My father owed me nothing; I owe him everything.