When I was about seven, I announced,”I want to be a doctor, just like daddy!” Yeah, I was a daddy’s girl, but I wasn’t just currying favor with the old man. I really, genuinely wanted to be just like my dad. He was my personal god, and I believed he was capable of anything. The man saved lives.One of my brothers piped up with, “You can’t be a doctor, you’re a girl. You can only be a nurse.” There are more than a couple of things wrong with that sentence, but the relevant part to my story was the girl thing. My dad was so incensed by this statement that he made it his personal goal to make sure he taught me everything he was teaching the boys and more. By the time I was thirteen I could rebuild a carburetor, use a lathe, band saw, table saw and develop photos in a darkroom. Never mind that I didn’t learn how to vacuum or do laundry until my husband showed me how, but I had some definite ‘traditionally male’ skills well in hand. He taught me to drive, take an EKG and blood pressure…how to paint, how to draw blood, and how to throw a temper tantrum. The Mammen temper is something I inherited from my dad, and I can only guess how things would have progressed had I continued drinking.
He went to almost all my piano and clarinet recitals, and he helped me with science and art projects all the way through school. Neither of my parents made it to watch the marching band or swim meets in high school. He offered to help me with birth control as soon as he thought I was getting serious in a relationship. He pulled me aside when one sketchy older guy came to collect me for a date offering to come get me anywhere, anytime for any reason with no questions asked. I didn’t realize at the time just what a scary situation it is for a parent to watch their sixteen year old walk out of the house with a twenty-one year old man driving a VW bug. (Hey, it was Reno in 1982!)
In spite of all this praise, I recognize Dad wasn’t perfect. He was prone to temper tantrums, always got his way in everything, and he was sort of gullible. In the 1970’s he wore a metal pyramid on his head in the evenings and didn’t miss an episode of “In Search Of.” He stormed out of a restaurant when one of my brothers acted out, leaving my mom alone with three boys to apologize to the waitress and pay the bill. He thought the best way to keep my two oldest brothers from smoking was to take them outside and make them smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. With a 50-50 ratio on that little endeavor, he didn’t try to repeat the lesson with me and my other brother. He used a leather belt to punish them, but never spanked me. He loved doing what he did–to the exclusion of family time. When I was in college, he was in private practice and had an annoying habit of giving his home phone number out to patients. This is in the 80’s before cell phones, so this was my number, too. One patient, in particular, would call in the evenings and I got to the point where I would tell him that I was talking to my friend and if he was dying he should call an ambulance, and if he wasn’t he could wait until office hours–and I got in trouble. There was nothing worse than having my dad look at me, drop his chin so he could look over those dark rimmed glasses and say, “I’m disappointed in you, young lady.”After he died, it took me more than a year to get used to the idea that I couldn’t just pick up the phone and ask him a quick question. Even now, thirteen years after he died, I still think, “Hey DAD, you have got to see this!” I have a small jar of my parents combined ashes on a shelf in my kitchen. It’s a discreet little Chinese porcelain vase that sort of disappears into the wood work, but I know it’s there. Every once in a while, I’ll look up at it and ask him what he thinks about something. (I talk to my mom like that too, sometimes.) I know the answer that comes to me is from my own head, but I hear it in his voice.
The last time I heard him speak was just before his lungs died and he went on a ventilator. We were talking on the phone, and he ended the conversation like we ended every phone conversation with, “I love you.” After that, my mom would hold the phone up so I could yammer away, and he would tap at the speaker with his fingernail. He ended all our conversations with three taps, one for each word. Tap. Tap. Tap. I always knew what it meant.