One of the more pitiful memories I have of my dad as a kid was seeing him try to fix the car. He’d be in his weekend clothes (dress shirt and slacks, he never wore jeans until he was in the nursing home), hunched over the car with its hood open, muttering to himself, cigarette in hand. It was a bad combination: Dad’s tendency to buy old, beat-up cars with his lack of mechanic skills.
Car troubles were one of the bigger stress factors we had as a family. We’d be ready to run a weekend errand, and boom, Dad couldn’t get the car to start. Up went the hood, and Dad would poke the parts a few times before lighting a cigarette, having exhausted his limited skills as a car mechanic. Mom would yell at him not to smoke around the car, Dad would yell back that it didn’t matter, the engine wasn’t running. He would walk around the carport of the apartment complex, with smoke trailing behind him, hoping to catch the eye of a neighbor. Sometimes we’d get lucky and he’d run into Joe, our next-door neighbor who knew a thing or two about cars. Like magic, the car would start, but there was a catch. We had to keep the engine running or it might stall out on us.
Buick Skylark. I'm sure these were fine cars when they were new, but the one we had was on its way to the junkyard. Photo: McLellan's Automotive History
So instead of a lazy Saturday or Sunday strolling the mall, running errands became a hurried, tense ordeal. Dad would wait in the car and keep the engine alive while we dashed in from store to store. On more than one occasion, the car died on us anyways. Then we would have to rely on the kindness of strangers to help push the heavy heap of junk to the side of the road, while my dad called the Automobile Club.
Dad also took a lot of car advice from the guys he worked with. I don’t doubt they knew more about cars than Dad did (that was kind of a given) but their remedies didn’t necessarily work all the time. Dad was out of his element, knew it and it frustrated him.
Yesterday, I wrote about how as a toddler, I thought my dad looked like Fonzie from “Happy Days.” Well, I now present photographic evidence that my adoration of Dad/Fonzie went beyond just that cardboard cutout in the store.
Yes, it’s the Fonzie bike. I’m sure I thought I was the coolest kid on the block riding this bright red contraption. And I’m sure for once, Dad didn’t mind shelling out the dough for a kid’s toy, since I had paid him such a nice compliment in the grocery store.
I love how my outfit matches the bike’s color scheme! The bike had decals on it with “Happy Days” catchphrases, including “Sit on it!” and Fonzie’s favorite expression, “Ayyy!”
Eventually I ended up with a Powder Puff big wheel cycle, decked out in pastels with floral decals and plastic streamers flowing from the handles. It was pretty and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t have the same cool factor as the Fonzie bike.
When I was about two or three, the TV show “Happy Days” was quite popular. I remember watching some of the later episodes as they aired and then caught up on the older episodes during reruns. The character that epitomized cool, Fonzie, became the focal point for commericals and related merchandise. His trademark expression, “Heyyyy …” became part of the American lexicon at the time.
Fonzie. ABC photo.
Dad, his "Hollywood" shot.
There were advertisements for the show all over the place, including at the grocery store, where there was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Henry Winkler as Fonzie, with leather jacket, slick-backed hair and upturned thumbs. My mom was wheeling me around the grocery store in the shopping cart when my eyes locked on to Fonzie.
“Dada, Dada, Dada,” I cried out excitedly. I guess I thought Dad was a pretty cool character when I was a toddler. He loved telling the story about how I thought he was Fonzie, as it gave him reason to puff up with pride and indulge in a bit of vanity, which he didn’t do very often.
I came across this photo recently while going through a box of family photographs. I was struck by how Dad is holding me so protectively, in a tender yet fierce grip. His eyes closed, it’s as if he’s trying to sear that moment into his memory and heart forever. I hope he was able to, and to recall it as the darkness of dementia swept over him in the last years of his life.
Another thing that struck me about this picture is … what the heck am I doing in that outfit? You would have thought there was a blizzard outside, but in fact it was Southern California, where it’s always 70 and sunny (give or take a few degrees.) I don’t look quite as content as Dad does in this photo, bundled up to the gills in heavy clothing. The outfit may have been a gift from my grandparents in Ireland on my father’s side, or from my mom’s family in Tennessee. Those respective climates would find a baby’s outfit like this more useful.
Despite my apparent discomfort, I still love this photo, a fleeting moment of sweetness and innocence caught on camera.
While I would like to believe one of Dad’s proudest moments was when I came into the world and he became a father, the proud moment he talked about most frequently was meeting Robert Kennedy. As I’ve written about before, Dad was a Kennedy family fanatic, and loyally supported all of their political campaigns.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Dad was a bellhop in a New York City hotel at the time of the fateful encounter, having immigrated to the U.S. a few years prior. The staff had all been placed on high alert, and Dad positioned himself so he would be face-to-face with one of his idols. “How do you do, Mr. Kennedy,” Dad stuttered out nervously as he extended his hand. Kennedy, already a pro at working the public though still quite young, returned with a firm handshake and a smile. There may have been a bit of casual chit-chat between the two, but I don’t remember the specifics.
Anyways, Dad’s face would light up every time he told that story, and he would reenact the handshake for Mom and I. Of course, Dad was devastated when both John and Robert were assassinated. He followed the mystery behind those political murders very closely as well, reading countless books on the subject and watching many documentaries.
I always found it interesting that Dad treated the Kennedy family like they were royalty, while thumbing his nose at the British monarchy. Of course, being from Northern Ireland, the relations between the two were guarded at best. The success of the Kennedy family in America made Dad even prouder to be part of this country.
I never had the pleasure of knowing Grandma Kyker, my mom’s mother. She sadly died exactly two months before I was born. She’s been described to me as an amazing, sweet, hard-working farm woman with a good sense of humor. She was a nurse, a caregiver and raised a large family of eight kids by working in the fields and creating homemade meals from scratch. My mother was very close to her, and she still talks about her with this awe and adoration that is touching.
Mom waited until later in life to get married. 34 wouldn’t seem that old now, but even though the times were changing in 1971, it still was outside of the norm. It probably was even more peculiar to the traditional farm family that Mom was raised in, where most of her siblings married shortly after high school. Mom had a career, then a short stint in the Navy before she got married.
I believe my dad only met his mother-in-law in person once, as depicted in this 1973 visit to the farm in Tennessee. When Dad talked about that visit, he described how beautiful the land was. Perhaps it reminded him a bit of his grandmother’s place in Northern Ireland. My mom said Dad and Grandma got along famously, bonding over the family’s extensive coin collection. Dad was very close to his own mother so it was no doubt easy for him to like Grandma Kyker. Mom says Grandma took her aside and said, “Be good to that man or he’ll leave you!”
Guess Mom heeded Grandma’s advice as Dad stuck around for 40 years.
I don’t think Dad ever met a cat he liked until he fell in love with Bonita.
To be fair, until that point, the only cats that our family had any contact with were the strays that would drape themselves across our fence and yowl at the top of their lungs in the middle of the night. My dad wrote a famous (in our family) letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times about the stray cat scourge in our neighborhood, creating a firestorm of controversy and making my dad Public Enemy #1 in the eyes of local crazy cat ladies. (And I use that term in a most loving way, as I’m now one of their most fervent members.)
Bonita the cat with one of her kittens.
When my dad became a security guard, there were lots of lonely nights patrolling the trucking company he worked at. One of his fellow co-workers introduced him to Bonita. She was a scruffy, suspicious feline, a street-smart cat that was weary of the streets. She may also have been weary because she was pregnant.
Dad fell for Bonita pretty hard. He started bringing her cans of food nightly. He would provide us with regular updates. He would mimic how he called her name and how she would come running up to him. (I’m guessing the sound of the can opening was the real reason, but if Dad thought he was the reason, so be it.) Bonita had her kittens and then there was a family of felines to feed. Perhaps some of the kittens were trapped and adopted, I’m not sure. But Bonita remained. She had probably never known the inside of a loving home and probably never did in her entire life.
But there was Dad and the other workers, who at least provided her with the basic necessities. Months after my dad stopped working there he would return, to feed a stray cat named Bonita that was anything but pretty but to my dad, was a friend in need.