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World on a String

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Sunday marks my third Father's Day without my father. I'm disappointed with myself because I think about him less and can't remember as clearly the sound of his voice, especially his singing voice, because more than 1,000 days have passed since he died.

But I can see some things, older interactions with my parents, that happened 50 or 60 years ago that seem like they were just yesterday.

Like the time when I was 5 or 6 years old and thought about whether or not my parents were happy. Stuck in Piaget's second stage at that age, you see the world the way you want to see it, the way YOU want it to be. And if there's anything bad out there that messes with your fantasy, you simply change it to suit yourself, all the while believing that everything and everyone functions according to your own particular point of view.

That's what it was like for me when I was 5 or 6 and the way I am now, in my 60s. I don't remember ever thinking we were poor, even though there was a gaping hole in the ceiling in the spare bedroom we never fixed, so that when it rained, well, we knew it, or that we lived in such cramped quarters, sharing a wall with row house neighbors where wife beating usually came between dinner and dessert. I didn't even really pay any attention to the demons my father wrestled with that displayed themselves when he took off his belt and disciplined me and my brother the same way his father had done to him.

That isn't there. Neither is any unhappy silence between my parents because they didn't have any money or because my mother's 10 brothers and sisters and their husbands and wives cluttered their lives. Or that my father left in the morning with one job and came home that evening with another.

Nope. That isn't there now and, for the 5/6 year-old me, it wasn't there then.

But what was there was music.

My father singing a Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller tune; my mother humming a ditty by Cole Porter. The two of them dancing in the dark in our tiny living room to "Music for Lovers" by the Jackie Gleason Orchestra.

Music, then and now, became a salve. It healed the pain, drove out the demons and cast my childhood in a glow of sunshine and hope and melody.

Even though they couldn't afford it, my parents bought this huge, obviously expensive, RCA Victor Hi Fi in 1953. It looked like a spaceship with a large cabinet and a wooden lid you lifted up like the back of a piano -- my parents used the word "con-sole" to describe it -- and a big turntable that could play 33, 45 and 78 RPM records. I couldn't tell where the sound came from, but I could swear the local disc jockeys were inside the Hi Fi because their voices were louder, stronger and better than on any radio anywhere in Philadelphia.

Of course, the Hi Fi was off-limits to our music and our hands, but not to our ears. And I remember a day in 1953, sitting in the living room, the Hi Fi lurching in the corner like one of my Italian uncles, dwarfing the TV and chair, and my father putting on his then favorite song, a 45-RPM rendition of "I've Got the World on String" by Frank Sinatra.

I just sat there, trying to visualize what I knew to be a skinny Frank Sinatra holding the world on a string, as I listened to the sunshine in his voice and watched my father mouth the words of the song.

I've got the world on a string, sittin' on a rainbow
Got the string around my finger
What a world, what a life, I'm in love!

At that moment, Frank Sinatra wasn't the lucky "so and so" in the song. I was. My father and I were. That little row house on South Ithan Street with the big Hi Fi was living proof that "life is a beautiful thing."

And then my father winked at me, walked over to the console and smilingly said that Frank Sinatra had come down with a terrible cold and was taking some strong cough medicine that made him talk funny, and my dad switched the record to 78 RPM speed and out came this fast, high-pitched voice that sounded more like a chipmunk, finishing the song in record time. We laughed, and I pleaded with my dad to play it like that again and again and again.

I've got a song that I sing,
I can make the rain go
Anytime I move my finger, lucky me
Can't you see, I'm in love?
Life is a beautiful thing

I couldn't wait to show off the way our Hi Fi made Frank Sinatra sound silly, so the next day I invited Frankie Lambert and Johnny Nagel over and played the song for them.

But when I tried to change the speed from 45 to 78, I scratched the record. And my father hit me that night, and the rain poured inside the hole in the ceiling in the empty bedroom and I grew up.