Robert Gillis, Jr.
Robert Gillis, Sr.

by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter, 6/1998

Father’s Day is coming; it’s a holiday I haven’t really celebrated in a long time. After all, I lost Dad when I was 19, and while I’ve always been thankful that I had him in my life for as long as I did (and didn’t lose him when I was a child) I’m approaching an age where I’ll have lived as many years without him and I had with him.

After so many years, I’ve stopped dwelling on those terrible final years as cancer took him, and reflect more now — especially as I grow older — on the man Dad was before he was sick.

Dad wasn’t perfect; you recognize as you grow older that parents aren’t perfect but just people trying to do their best. As a parent, Dad succeeded — not perfectly, but a very good job overall. I know he made my mother happy and he took good care of us for as long as was able. My Mom, sister and I — and Nana, his mother — were his entire life.

Dad worried about all of us. Mom later told me that Dad never fell asleep until I got home from a date or late night out with friends. That concern had a long history; when we were kids, any screech of a car’s brakes sent him racing to the window.

Every son and father went through the same phases that Dad and I did — and I realized only after Dad died that we were far too much alike — stubborn, lacking patience, and bull-headed. As I got older, we had differences of opinion and got on each other’s nerves on more than one occasion.

While he didn’t graduate from college, Dad was one of the wisest people I have ever met. A voracious reader, I often found him up late at night pouring over newspapers, books, encyclopedias, and anything else he could find. He often read the newspaper from front to back page, and never debated a subject he was unfamiliar with. He discussed history, current events, sports and other subjects with great interest and knowledge. He was truly a brilliant man.

Growing up in the old Dorchester neighborhood, he was a tough kid and no one messed with him. Despite that, he was extremely well liked and respected, and had literally over one hundred friends. He couldn’t walk anywhere without people stopping him to say hello and catch up with him. (At Dad’s wake, I was amazed by the crowds and crowds of people — some we hadn’t seen in years — who came to pay their respects.)

And those stories! My father raised me on his stories, and I miss them. Fortunately, I still remember a few of them. For example, one of Dad’s friends had an interesting custom. Every time he saw Dad at Freeman’s soda counter, he’d ask, “So Bobby, did you get married yet?” (Mind you, he probably started this tradition when Dad was about 14.)

Dad would tell him no, and he’d call out to the owner, “Al, give my friend here a Coke on me!”

This friend of Dad’s explained that he would buy Dad a Coke every time he saw him, until Dad married. Then it was Dad’s turn to buy the friend a Coke from that point forward. The friend moved away a few years after Dad and Mom married, so it sounds like Dad got the better deal on the free Cokes!

Another time, Dad was standing in front of Freeman’s, and a friend of his drove by and said he was going to get coffee.

“Where?” Dad asked.

“Brooklyn,” the friend replied.

That seemed like a good idea to Dad, so they drove three hundred miles to Brooklyn for coffee. I loved that story and often told Dad I would find a way to out-do that someday.

Another story Dad told me was funny, but also creepy. He and his friends were hanging around the corner one day, when a mortician in a hearse drove by. Dad described the driver as the epitome of an undertaker, right out of “A Christmas Carol:” Thin, bony face, top hat and long coat, and spooky expressions. Dad and his friends saw the hearse and laughed, but the undertaker just pointed a scrawny finger at the casket in back and said, “Someday, boys. Someday.” Dad said the hush that fell over the crowd as the undertaker drove away was quiet as, well, death.

There were hundreds of other stories. The eccentricities of the patients at Nana’s rest home, Dad’s amazing friends and their incredible (and sometimes unbelievable) exploits, stories of scares during wartime, the rich family history he was so well versed in, and so much more. They were his history, his life… They defined who he was.

Many of those stories were peppered with what I called “Dadspeak:” “Ice box” for refrigerator, “Gin Mill” for bar, “Spuckie” for submarine sandwich, “tonic” for Coca-Cola, and so on. Words and phrases from a different generation that Dad still used.

My father, the storyteller.

Dad had other qualities I admired. For example, he was very generous. On a bitterly cold wintry day, he once raced back to his car after spotting a shivering homeless man. He retrieved his other coat and gave it to the man, saying to my mother, “I had two coats, he had none. Now we’re both warm.”

Dad could also fix anything. He took care of Nana’s house and our apartment for decades, did all the repairs, and kept things running. Nothing seemed beyond his understanding, and he always did exceptional work. It was Dad who first taught me basic skills like wallpapering, painting, repairs, and creative use of profanity when the repairs didn’t go the way he wanted.

My father was also a sports fanatic. Although I only attended one Red Sox game with him (his biggest disappointment in me was that I didn’t turn into a professional baseball player), he followed all the local teams. I vividly remember him shouting “SCORE!” as the Bruins scored a goal, or jumping up as the Sox scored a homer. He LOVED his sports, and for me it wasn’t officially summer until I saw Dad in the living room on a warm summer night, watching his beloved Red Sox.

He was not a complicated man; his dreams all revolved around making his family as comfortable and happy as possible. He would often create little hand-written signs when we had birthdays or graduations. I still have one of the signs he made for me: “You have given such pride to us all.” Sure, it’s a dad talking, but many fathers don’t vocalize their feelings for their children. I’m lucky mine did.

When I wonder what would have happened if Dad had lived, I think about how much he’d enjoy working on Mom’s new house (or mine). How quickly he’d fall in love with his first grandchild, Colin. How proud he’d be of my mother for all she’s accomplished. How amazed he’d be at how his kids have grown.

But every now and then, part of me really wishes I could take him to a Sox game, buy him a beer and a hot dog, and listen to his wisdom. Even in his thirties, a guy still needs his father.

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