Dad’s not here.
My mother came up with that line as we arrived. Dad’s not here, she intoned as we walked into the duplex where she’d still lived with my father a week ago.
I saw him in his casket at the funeral, surrounded by the gilded icons of the Orthodox Saints, but as I approached the rigid body, I thought there’d been some cruel mistake. This was not the man I knew, just a wax likeness of him, and not a very good one. At any moment, I imagined him appearing from around a corner with his familiar, stooping walk. But my father was never one for jokes, and despite how it looked, I accepted he was gone.
Dad’s not here.
I sat beside my mother, throwing a comforting arm about her shoulders, but could feel nothing but the rough texture of her coat. She had never been a slight woman, but at that moment, she seemed to be shrinking, disappearing in her grief.
The rest of that afternoon was surreal. I felt outside myself, like I was watching a sad movie about a family that somewhat resembled our own. Acquaintances emerged from the past to offer their condolences — bit players in the story of Dad’s life that I had not seen in decades. When the priest finished chanting from the Bible, Mom broke over the coffin to caress his forehead and to ask him in our native tongue, “Why did you do this to me?” He was ninety years old. He’d lived a good life. What else did she expect him to do?
“I will be with you soon,” were my mother’s parting words, as the funeral attendants lowered the figure-who-was-not-my-father into the dirt. For nearly seventy years, they’d not been separated.
Arthur Alimonos touched more lives than I can count. To the world, he was the successful business man, and most who came to pay their respects remembered him from the restaurant he’d built and worked at for half a century. The old lady who stole his recipes to open her own pizzeria moved my sister to tears, telling her, “Your father gave me bread,” meaning, your father provided for me. Dad taught the woman to make pizza five decades ago, when YouTube was unimaginable and cookbooks were a rarity, and she hadn’t forgotten what she owed him.
I wish my father had taught me to make pizza. Not because I cared anything for cooking, but because he was always like a stranger to me. Since his passing, I have been wracking my brain, searching for the precious few moments we shared together.
People remember Arthur wearing a flour-caked apron and holding a pizza knife in front of the ovens (a local newspaper clipping from the seventies beautifully captures this scene), but I prefer thinking of him in those rare instances he spent away from the store. My favorite memory is of me sitting beside him with my kid’s harmonica, trying to follow along as he strummed his bouzouki and sang old Greek ballads into a tape recorder. I watched him bird hunting and wept with every quail he shot, and because of me, my mother told me, he’d given up the sport. We visited New York City, a place that meant a great deal to him, gazed over the top of the World Trade Center, and stopped at DC Comics HQ to solicit the superhero ideas I’d scratched onto pink order tickets. When news of 9/11 broke across our TV screens, that trip with Dad came immediately to mind. More than anything, he loved tending to his garden and the citrus grove he raised in our backyard. I remember the pride on his face whenever he squeezed oranges or grapefruits into a glass, and every Christmas, my brother and I helped him save his trees from the December chill. I tagged along when he drove to Clearwater beach, and afterward, he brought me to McDonald’s. We shared a passion for history and philosophy, and he often stood at the dinner table to recite from the Ancient Greeks. His favorite movie was The Sound of Music, and he lamented that they stopped making good movies after the sixties.
My deepest regret is never truly having known my father. Arthur Alimonos could be cold and distant and showed us little affection. Throughout her married life, Mom complained about how he preferred spending time alone, which became the cause of endless shouting in our house. I don’t know if they ever shared a tender moment together, but in the end, none of those fights changed her feelings for him. That old-fashioned devotion is a thing few people will understand nowadays.
A hard life turned my father into a hard man to know. He’d lost his father to alcoholism at a tender age and grew up knowing the true meaning of hunger. Born in 1933 in Magoula, Greece—walking distance from the fabled city of Sparta—he survived without phones, TVs, electricity, or running water. In the Second World War, at the age of seven, he watched the Nazis take his four brothers captive, but by some miracle, they each escaped to see old age. In 1952, he arrived in New York harbor, a nineteen-year-old immigrant with big dreams and not a red cent weighing his pockets. He worked his way quickly from dishwasher to chef, after days and nights and without ever taking a day off, eventually opening his first restaurant in Brooklyn, then in Hartford, Connecticut. During those hectic years, he returned to his homeland to meet and marry my mother, Angeliky, and fathered three children: Bessie, Helen, and Constantine. In 1975, he settled in Clearwater, Florida, where he opened four restaurants and fathered a fourth child. I was the accidental last of the bunch. Dad turned forty-two when I came into his story, which often makes me wonder what type of parent he might have been in his younger days. Perhaps he would have played with me more. Maybe we could have sat watching He-Man together. I grew up with cartoons; he grew up trading shoes for schoolbooks.
Dad embraced life. No matter the hardships he faced in his later years—constant back pain, diabetes, debilitating rheumatoid arthritis—he never surrendered to despair. He wanted to live to see what new technologies the world might bring about. Until his last few days, when he could scarcely walk, he refused to take the chair lift to his upstairs bedroom and never sought the aid of a cane. He considered himself young at ninety, raged against the dying of the light with his last breath, and even after he was diagnosed with late-stage leukemia, he believed he would be exiting the hospital to enjoy another five years.
What he feared most was obscurity and the specter of poverty that forever pursued him. He longed to make a name for himself (what so many of his Greek compatriots never knew), and I like to think that the homes he built in America and Greece stand as testaments to a worthy life, a life well-lived. My brother, sisters, and I owe everything to the risks and sacrifices he made.
One day, he asked me to write his story. I told him I was busy and that I had no experience writing biographies. Yet he insisted, hoping I might someday immortalize his experiences, so I spent the next few weeks recording his memoir as he told it. That was roughly ten years ago.
I learned of my father’s passing during a family trip to Japan. My brother sent me a text urging me to write his obituary, but I was unprepared for the task, mentally and physically. I sat on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto with only my cell phone. But the newspaper couldn’t wait, so I proceeded to hash out my feelings into Apple’s notepad, resulting in a hastily written, poorly edited, albeit heartfelt first draft of a goodbye letter to my late father, and it hurts knowing I’ve put greater effort into paragraphs of my books. I wish I had had more time, but in the end, I suppose, there’s really never enough time. Returning Stateside, my immediate concern was finding those recordings. I scoured my computer for those files, exhausted from my fourteen-hour flight, and the following day, I turned my desk inside out until it turned up. I’d stashed my primitive Sony recorder in a drawer a decade ago and forgotten it. Why had I been so careless with my father’s voice? … This was all I had left of him. He wasn’t in some box in the ground, I realized, but in the words he left me. The story he left for us to remember him.
I dread the relentless march of time more than anything. Today we shed tears, accept sympathy from friends and family we rarely, if ever, see, and tomorrow everything is forgotten. Time passes and we forget. Time passes and we think less and less about those we have loved until all that is left is a name on a stone in a field. Yet my father’s words remain and Arthur lives a little while longer.
Hey Nick, I’m really sorry to hear about your loss. This is such a beautiful tribute to your father, and the love and admiration you have for him. You and your family are in my thoughts.
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Thank you, David. I appreciate that.