February 7th would have been my father's 88th birthday. I've never visited his grave. Though, of the two of us, I'm probably the more sentimental, I think his belief in the afterlife was stronger than mine. He always "bet that way," as he said, which meant that was pretty much how he lived -- with glaring mortal lapses like everybody else. I'm looking at his picture taken in Las Vegas during WWII. He is seated at his desk at a typewriter -- pretty much how I remember him -- and in uniform wearing corporal's stripes. Ostensibly, he is working on his column for The Horned Toad, the base paper; but in fact, he is simply posing for one of a series of publicity shots for the U.S. Army taken for recruitment purposes. In his early 20s, he is a manly and wholesome boy next door, the kind of matinee idol patriot we wanted up against the Japs, even in the rear echelons.
A dozen years after his death in 1968, when I read John Gardner's book On Moral Fiction, I thought my father could have written it. A writer from an early age, his published attempts at fiction in the Catholic press were unconvincingly sentimental, full of statues that came to life and always skirting the subject of sex, even when that was what his stories were clearly building toward. His nonfiction garnered letters from J. Edgar Hoover and the Vatican.
My ideas and issues with the concept of responsibility and the power of well-crafted prose all come from him, as do my abhorrence of didacticism and mediocrity. I like to think he would be proud of my moderate success at writing fiction and would approve of my autodidactic approach to journalism: self-taught except for his lessons. He was my only teacher.
The Monday after his death, my mother went to his office and met with his co-workers at Allstate Insurance, where he had been head of advertising materials. Years later, she wrote about that day.
"It was a strange, otherworldly kind of morning. The group took over the cafeteria and in turns the conversation was very difficult then effusive until it reached its own level. The stories came out slowly, and then gained momentum until it seemed like a line, queuing up for the next turn to tell their own favorite 'Brizz-Bang,' which is what they called the witticisms and punch lines for which he was famous. 'For cry-sake, Schwartz, whatever became of personal responsibility?' elicited, perhaps the loudest response. They'd each heard it at sometime, directed at them as they explained why something difficult seemed out of their control.... [E]veryone took turns to quote 'the master' as he was now being referred to...."
That "personal responsibility" thing was certainly familiar to his eight children. The younger half of those eight had limited exposure. The middle daughter, Amy, was 11 when her father's heart gave out on a fishing trip in Wisconsin. The youngest, Veronica, would have been four. Her memories, understandably, are largely second hand and confabulation.
It is getting close to 40 years since his death at 49 years of age. I was 17 at the time, and today, at 56, I am very much aware of his presence. When I look in the mirror, for example, and see the lines, the sagging skin beneath the jaw, the thin lips and furrowed brow, I see how he would have aged had he been given the chance. As morbid as I know this sounds, my last look at him was in the coffin; and I remember thinking, "Lord, death takes it out of you," which I eventually amended to life taking it out of you; but what I see in the mirror today is a far more thorough resemblance to my father than I ever possessed as a younger man. His corpse and the face in the mirror look to be men who have eaten something bitter and disagreeable.
When I say I sense him around me, I mean this in no supernatural sense; I mean, of course, genetics and memory and patterns of thought learned from him. Robert John Brizzolara is most evident when I, like him, rail inwardly (mostly inwardly) at someone or other -- even myself -- writhing out of responsibility.
At the moment I am evaluating much of my performance in the areas of personal responsibility in terms of what Bob would say (I never called him that but I always wanted to), and I don't think I'm doing badly. I don't think he'd give me full marks on handling money, and I'm probably not covering my bets sufficiently in terms of heaven. By the same token, I wonder if Dad ever spent the same kind of time I have in hell -- on Earth. I can't say. No one knows about another person's hell -- ever.