My father and the facts of life

Born and bred on a farm in West Virginia until he was 26 years of age, my father came to Cleveland to take a job on the railroad in Collinwood. He worked for the New York Central, first in the steam engine roundhouse, and later in the diesel shops.

His work was dirty, grimy and physically hard on him. But because of his hard work, he was able to raise two of us children to be mature adults.

Tall and slim, he was a simple man of few words. Yet, he wore a suit well and could converse with anyone. Even though he washed up after work each day, for me the smell of the shops became associated with him. Years after his death, I could even smell him on the work clothes still hanging in the basement.

My father was a very religious man, attending Mass every morning before work. His modesty would never let him swear, or utter a dirty joke. Because neither he nor I were interested in sports, our time together became very special in the walks we took together.

Living close to Lake Erie as a young boy, I have many fond memories of walks to the lake with my father. They usually happened on Sunday afternoons, after dinner. Mornings would involve going to church, then my mother preparing dinner. I can still smell the aromas coming from the kitchen. I would sit in the kitchen and either talk with her or read the Sunday comics in the newspaper.

After dinner, my dad would always ask me to go for a constitutional to "walk off the meal." A walk down to the lake was a special treat for me-to have time with him alone.

We would walk to Wildwood Park, where there was a breakwall and a place to launch boats. Going out on the breakwall, built of massive stone blocks stacked on top of each other like giant ice cubes, was the most fun for me. I remember that I would have to hop over the gaps between the blocks as we walked out into the water.

There were always anglers on the breakwall, with their buckets of worms and fish. We would halt our progress, as they held their lines back to pitch them forward into the water.

When we got out to the farthest point one could walk, we could see the vast lake before us. Besides the small craft, sometimes, there would be lake steamers carrying ore to Cleveland. We could also see ships from many countries heading to and from Cleveland and other Great Lakes ports to the west.

The most memorable part of these walks would be the conversations my father and I had. They were about many things, like school, life, or the sights we had seen. It was on one of these walks that I learned "the facts of life."

On the walk we took that Sunday, I ended up more confused than enlightened by our conversation. In his modesty, I am sure he struggled with the best way to tell me. He, therefore, fell back on his own background and points of reference. My father related the "facts" in the following manner: "Now son, the cow goes into heat. The bull services the cow. Then the cow calves."

He also said, there are such places as "sporting houses" (bordellos), and that I should stay away from them. Cows? Bulls? I knew nothing about them. That is, other than pictures I had seen in books. I certainly would not be going to a "sporting house," because, as he knew, I was not into sports. I came away from that walk totally flummoxed as to what he was telling me.

Fortunately, I had a childhood friend whose mother had tossed him a book with all the graphic information, which I read.

Through my youth, our walks together were many and I have visceral memories of the sights, smells, and closeness that I felt with my dad. The "Facts of Life Walk," however, will always stand out in my memory as special. It was so much about who he was as a man and father to me.

John O'Connor is a semi-retired artist and psychotherapist, living in the Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights. He lives with his best friend, Margo, the dog.

Read More on Other
Volume 3, Issue 9, Posted 12:36 PM, 08.22.2010