The advent of Father’s Day got me thinking. In February 1941, on a Saturday morning, my father, Robert Pryor, woke up and found his father, Thomas Pryor, drinking coffee alone in the kitchen with only the winter light coming in through the backyard window. My grandmother and uncle had left for work. Dad, 11, talked baseball with his Dad for an hour while eating three bowls of cereal. My 40-year-old grandfather, ill with Pott’s Disease (a late stage Tuberculosis), told his son he needed to rest and suggested that Dad go out and play. Dad got dressed and then got a long hug and wet kiss from his father who said goodbye in his ear twice.
After my father left, my grandfather pushed himself up from the table, grabbed a bunch of towels, and stuck them under the front door and around the two windows. He closed the door between the rooms, pulled a chair over to the oven, stuck his head in it, and killed himself. My father found his father dead an hour later.
If my Dad was still here, he’d be 83, and he’d still expecting a call every day and a kiss on the lips—hello and goodbye. When I was young, I didn’t understand the strong grip he had on mine and Rory’s lives. He was a suffocating son of a bitch, but I guess he wanted to make sure we didn’t leave him.
Lucky for me, he was the most interesting pain in the ass I’ve ever known, and I miss him every day. His artistic and mechanical talents were boundless. Barely educated (his early schooling came from movies and music at the Paramount), he read everything and could talk about any subject intelligently. He knew every joke ever told, and he told them well. Most of all he was a sailor, in his heart and in his soul. No conversation was ever far away from a reference to the sea, the Navy, the Merchant Marine, or his three trips around the world.
Dad joined the Navy on his seventeenth birthday in 1946 after a failed attempt the previous year to get in before the war ended. They caught him lying about his age. After two years in the Navy, he spent three in the Merchant Marine.
If Dad didn’t meet Mom, he would have made a career at sea. He loved us dearly, but never lost his yearning for that other life. We often heard at home, “if it wasn’t for you I’d be on the ocean.” He told me his own father’s fondest wish was to be a sailor. Maybe in his heart that’s what my grandfather was. Being a sailor must have been a dreamy place to go to when he was a boy in the Staten Island orphanage and later when the disease sent him to Tuberculosis Sanatoriums for 7 of his last 10 years. Maybe my Dad wanted to finish his father’s dream. For five years, he got that chance.
That makes me the son of a son of a sailor.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
Thomas Pryor has been featured on A Prairie Home Companion and This American Life, and his work has appeared in the New York Times. He curates City Stories: Stoops to Nuts, a storytelling show at the Cornelia Street Café on the second Tuesday of the month (next one July 10th). Check out his blog Yorkville: Stoops to Nuts.