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Remembering My Funny, Not-So-Funny Father

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AMY BARR
Amy Barr

Scene I, as told to me by my late Aunt Sandra: My father is standing outside an Italian restaurant in Clifton, New Jersey, circa 1955. He glances through a high window. "Wow," he says to Sandra, his sister-in-law who's beside him. "You can see the chef making the pasta right here. Want to see?" She agrees and he lifts her up to look; lo and behold, it's the men's room and there's a patron relieving himself in the urinal. "Put me down, Donald!" she screams but he won't, holding her there until they both fall over laughing.

Scene II: Scordato's, a different N.J. Italian restaurant, circa 1984. Seated at the table are my father and his girlfriend, my brother and his girlfriend, my boyfriend and I. The waitress (who has served my family for years) is busy handing out menus and filling water glasses, all the while humming a tune under her breath. My father recognizes the song as a profane little ditty, and in the time it takes for the waitress to put our order in the kitchen, he teaches us the dirty words. Minutes pass and we chatter away until the waitress returns and begins distributing our salads. On my father's cue, all six of us break into song. It takes a moment for the waitress to put together what's happening but once she does, she blushes deeply and starts to giggle, playfully whacking my dad on the head. "Oh, Mr. Biber!" she admonished. "You are so bad!" He must've laughed for 10 minutes straight.

My dad lived for moments like these. He loved to make people laugh and to laugh himself. He told a great story and a perfect joke -- especially if the subject was blue or scatological. My father had a huge number of friends, many of whom he had known since high school. He served as the best man in no less than nine weddings.

Yet like many comedians, my father's humor hid an inner sadness, part of which I now understand, part of which is still a mystery. Beyond the jokes, he found it difficult to take pleasure from life. He had no hobbies and no interest in theater or travel or books, reading only U.S. News & World Report. He could spend entire weekends sitting numbly in his green velvet recliner (world's ugliest yet most comfortable chair) watching sports (any sport) on TV. Nature bored him. And regardless of his big belly, his only interest in food seemed to be the size of his portions.

I'd seen pictures of him thin as a rail in his twenties, but in all the time I knew him, he was overweight except for a few months after my mother died when he mourned himself into temporary thinness. That was one of the few times the source of his pain was obvious. Then there was his work: He built his accounting practice into a fairly robust enterprise, but I suspect the work was not fulfilling. Despite his facility with numbers and his pragmatism, my dad was actually a bit of a dreamer. He fancied himself an entrepreneur and invested in many businesses, some sketchy, others merely hair-brained, none the success he hoped they would be. For such an intelligent man he often trusted people he shouldn't have, a blind spot that would come to hurt him deeply.

For me, the realization during my teens that my father was not the jolly, mistake-proof genius I'd thought him to be was both upsetting and freeing. On the one hand, he became more real to me, which allowed me to judge myself less harshly when I compared myself to him. But seeing his faults and weaknesses also knocked my world off its axis. Maybe this happens to all girls once the magical, protective aura of childhood dissipates. Our first hero, Daddy, is revealed as fallible as the world outside the aura inevitably pushes in. Perhaps this is a necessary step toward building a mature relationship between father and daughter. After all, loving an image of someone is ultimately unsatisfying -- you've got to find a way to know and love (or at least make peace with) who your father really is.

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It's taken me a long time to make sense of my father's contradictions. In fact, I'm still working on it and he's been dead for 14 years. When I think of him today, I mostly remember his generosity, always offering an ear to anyone who needed one and often loaning money he could ill afford to be without. I remember him standing up to a neighbor who was riding his own young son too hard. I remember him taking his second wife dancing, despite his loathing of disco. And I remember him firmly grasping my shaking elbow as he guided me down the aisle at my wedding, as if to say, "I've got you."

Despite the disappointment only he really knew, I think he did the best he could to find happiness, grabbing bits of pleasure where and when he could. He adored bantering with his mother (pictured above with my dad and my mom), to whom he teasingly referred as the encyclopedia of misinformation. He was crazy for my mother through 27 years of marriage including four long years of her cancer. He enjoyed a hot dog with sauerkraut, a hand of gin rummy, a cold beer once in a while and the New York Giants. He loved my brother and me. And, as much as anything, he loved a good laugh.