Columns

Oliver: If my father had lived to 100, what would he have to say about today?

On Monday, my father would have turned 100 years old. This fact has me thinking about what things would have been like had he not died of cancer in 1987, at the age of 65.

At the time, I was 19 years old and just about to begin my second year studying journalism at Northwestern University.

My father had just retired from his job as a custodian at McHenry High School East Campus. For some people, that would have made him “old.” After all, isn’t retirement for old people?

Those ideas of “old” never occurred to me then, and I still have trouble wrapping my head around them now. To me, he was just Daddy.

After all, some would have said he was too “old” to become a father in the first place.

He probably didn’t think he’d ever become a father until I came onto the scene. He was 46 years old when I was born. For some people, that might mean that he was old enough to be my grandfather.

My mother was 36 when I was born, and I was part of a “second” family for her. She had been married previously and had my sister and two older brothers with her first husband.

Like a lot of children, I never paid much attention to the ages of my parents. Well, I didn’t until I was in junior high, when that was among the many things for which I was bullied.

My parents were “old,” they both drove buses for my school district and my mother dressed me funny. That no doubt was because she paid no attention at all to what everyone else was wearing. That was, you know, because she was old.

My father lived during the 1920s. That alone is mind-blowing to me now. He was a teenager during the Great Depression. He served in the military during World War II.

The birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s held absolutely no interest for him. No, he was a fan of the Big Band era. Many of his stories were about playing clarinet with one of the more famous bandleaders at the time.

On most Sundays, he would sit beside a little transistor radio near his bedside and listen to polka music through the static. At one point, he even bought a little concertina so that he could try to play like he once did in his youth.

Oh, and the stories he would tell. I still kick myself about not writing anything down. Then again, I never thought I’d see the day when my Dad wouldn’t be around to tell those stories himself.

He would tell wonderful stories about what it was like to grow up around Austin Avenue in Chicago during the 1930s. One particularly colorful one involved one of the well-known gangsters at the time giving kids like him candy when they’d see him on the street. That my father might have actually seen Al Capone and his “associates” when he was alive also is astounding.

His stories about his parents – my grandparents – are the only memories I have of them. Both died right before I was born. I still regret that I never had the chance to be spoiled rotten by my Italian grandparents, who came to the U.S. right after World War I.

I remember sitting at rapt attention when he would launch into one of his stories. I loved to hear him spin his tales of the past. That’s probably why I enjoy sharing stories now.

I wonder what my father would have had to say about so many things that I’ve lived through in the years since his death.

What would he have said about the Iraq War back in the 1990s? What would he have said about the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001? What would he have said about this global pandemic we’re living through now?

All I know is that his observations about so many things would have been priceless. He would have brought a lifetime of experience to those conversations.

If he had lived to be 100, I think maybe I’d begin to think of him as “old.”

Then again, maybe not. To me, he’d still be just Daddy.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at jolivercolumn@gmail.com.

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.