City Father: In Memoriam

I come from a newspaper family. Well, technically, newspaper readers. My father subscribed to three periodicals: The Lorain Journal, The Elyria Chronicle, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He did so, as a matter of business, checking ads that had been placed for Januzzi’s Shoes. But he also immersed himself in the community where he had been raised and was now rearing his children. My mother followed suit skimming the paper, late night, while overseeing homework or just ignoring her five kids.

The tradition later continued in my home, as Davis first read box scores on the Sports pages, and Kaitlyn and Shannon became more adept at solving crosswords than I would ever be.

My parents moved to Cincinnati while in their eighties. I decided to register my father for an Enquirer subscription to keep my parents looped in to what was happening in a city they had visited so often, they could have been snowbirds here, since it was always ten degrees warmer south of the Mansfield line.

photo copy 11Dad found the stories about the city of Cincinnati intriguing, amusing. Politics were the same, no matter where. Poverty was ubiquitous. Crime was always on the rise. Downtown Cincinnati was desperately trying to break out of its wowzy, wowzy woo woo, Bad Luck Schleprock disposition.

He pursued each news headline with the same energy and skepticism he had in his hometown. One morning, when I showed up to visit, he handed over the newspaper, with a photo of my husband and me on the second page. We were spotlighted as homeowners projected to move into 140-year-old, vacant for decades, newly renovated property in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.

“Ugh. Not really what we wanted.” I tossed the paper aside. We hadn’t wanted to be pioneers or poster children. There were already plenty. We just wanted to be part of a new core that could support both new enterprises and existing ones.

He got a kick following the leads about Over-the-Rhine. For each edition, he could read the same general storylines: gentrification south of Liberty, revitalization of Washington Park, perpetration of a crime.

“Is this really where you want to live?” Then he smiled his Cheshire cat smile and I instantly remembered where the Januzzi smile had originated.

My father was no stranger to areas that required a heightened sense of awareness. He had spent some thirty years with the Lorain County Metropolitan Housing Authority. His business’s third shoe store was located in south Lorain, which at the time had its own share of offenses.

“Yes, Dad. It’s a done deal.” Not if, but when.

He chuckled to himself. “In this box,” he asked once more, and pointed to the grainy newspaper photo of an empty shell that appeared to belong in a war zone, or in the aftermath of a tornado.

My father had graduated from the comfortable confines of homes on Chris Avenue in Lorain, and Ridgeland Drive in Amherst, where the two houses together totaled the square footage of a two-story he would proudly build on a three-quarters-acre lot on Lincoln Street. He planted cherry, apple and pears trees, and a garden larger than most community gardens nowadays. It was a farm-like setting even if located three blocks north of the schools.

He was challenged in seeing the upside to relocating our family home to Over-The-Rhine, where, as my son once put years ago, “You’ll get shot if you go down there.”

But gradually, the narrative of OTR was being altered. A new restaurant – tacos from Bakersfield – was in the works. A new pizza place would soon open, with its authentic oven from Italy, where we heard tales of moving the oven into the cramped space where its sits, now prominent like a shrine.

A renovated Washington Park would resemble the one of old which had been constructed as part of Cincinnati’s Industrial Expositions, beginning around 1870. Along with the paper, I bought my father materials on those expositions and their famed backdrop of Music Hall. My father loved history enough to begin asking more about the Germans who settled here. I gave a book about the Italians of Cincinnati. And told him, when I moved, we would go find a few more.

Once the dangerous debris had been cleared from the OTR home, and prior to reconstruction, we brought my parents to view the inside of the home. My father had already scrutinized the architectural renderings, but it wasn’t until he was inside the space when he sensed how magnificent the old buildings once were, plaster moldings, infinite staircases. Of course, he still saw the primordial rafters and splintered floorboards and shook his head. He stood at the base of the steps with a mixture of curiosity and despair.

“How you gonna get and up down, when you’re like your old man,” he asked. He was always calling himself, your old man when speaking to his children, as in, “you’re gonna give your old man a heart attack.”

“Well, we know that there is space for an elevator, if we need one…”

His mouth twitched. My mother was already in her downward dementia spiral. With dementia, there were no timetables, but it was unspoken that she would be living somewhere that would provide 24-hour care. But my father was still moving about easily, though he would soon experience a few tragic falls, a result of Parkinson’s peaking.

The wheels were spinning in his mind. His two worries had always been, “What will happen to Mom, if something happens to me?” and “What will happen to me, if something happens to Mom?” He never spoke of the “something,” it was implied instead.

In the space of him asking those questions to himself, and me knowing them though he hadn’t articulated them aloud, my mother’s need for the bathroom outweighed his future worries. Since we were still in a home with no plumbing or electric, we moved on to a café down the street, the only entity open at the time, Enzo’s.

My father died six months following that visit to our new, old home. On the day our home was finally completed, Mark and I walked in and stood and stared. There were no words coming from my mouth. Only tears. The work done by Hueber Homes was nothing short of extraordinary. The wall colors we selected were resplendent in the afternoon’s rays.

It was a beautiful as I had imagined. Perhaps as beautiful as my father had as well. Mark looked over at me, thinking I was overcome by the sheer effort of it all.

“No. I just wish Dad could have seen this. He would have loved it.”

He would have given everyone the tours, and shared the history of the house and neighborhood. He had been learning that much about his new environs.

Other than a projected elevator, I never had an answer for my father that day. But weeks later, I would write a poem in reply.

An excerpt:

Dad stares at blueprints for our new, old home.
He asks, “Where is the elevator?”
But he is thinking,
“Where is my place in your family?
Will you leave me, after moving me?
If I am gone, will you leave Mom?”

Without speaking of frailty,
I utter, “We’ll just swoop you up
to the top of the stairs
so you can see the Rose Window
of Music Hall…”

We will hear hints of Verdi’s Il Trovatore
or watch the ghost glide past
in formal dress,
and know we are not alone.

The stories continue in the newspapers. He would have been amused by the streetcar controversy, and equally looked with anticipation upon the day in which he could ride it. Crime still happens here, every day. But Loveland was not without its blemishes either. There are new restaurants and, every few weeks, a film crew pops up in the neighborhood that my father mockingly reminded was the most dangerous neighborhood in all of the U.S.

There will always be deliberations about the direction of the city, and thus more headlines. But my father loved a good controversy anyhow. And he loved a good story line. I suspect Dad still devours the paper each day. He probably goes out outside the gates and reviews the news with St. Peter.

Nighttime, as I navigate up the steps and peer out my balcony, I catch a glimpse of the rose window of Music Hall and think of my father, he the one now haunting that opening. I always said I would move him with me – if he wanted – I just never knew how.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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