Happy belated birthday Johnny

Yesterday would have been my father’s 80th birthday. He died 9 years ago one morning in his apartment of an apparent massive heart attack. He was found in his bathroom, three days after he’d died, days before his annual bus trip to spend the Christmas holidays with me and my family.

He worked all his life as a cook, for years in the restaurants of Greek relatives, for a while on a boat on the Great Lakes and later, in his own restaurants in two Ontario towns. Although he spent his days preparing and serving up deep fried diner fare, he was a creative and gifted cook who loved to experiment on his days off,  relieved of the unrelenting stress of quickly serving customers. Like most gifted chefs, he took praise or criticism of his dishes personally, beaming when we raved about a dish and sulking when a negative comment (usually from my mother) would be offered.

People loved my father. They called him Johnny, a more affectionate name for a man who exuded warmth and generosity but most of all, humour. He loved to make others laugh and taught us, his kids, to also laugh, as we watched TV comedies and stand-up comedians, and learned the meaning of irony. He loved Johnny Carson, one of the funniest and best. He introduced us to the Marx Brothers films which we excitedly would gather to watch when they aired from time to time. He was a TV addict, it was his only pastime at home. It became the organizer of our family life away from the restaurant. We watched it and reacted to what we saw and that was how we connected to one another.

Johnny was also an incredibly sensitive and vulnerable man. He hated to talk about anything serious. He had had a deprived upbringing, his mother having died when he was two of TB. His father remarried and he was raised by a stepmother of questionable mental health during the wartime years in Greece. He came to Canada at 13 and by most accounts, was on his own from then on, moving around for work, ‘carousing’ with women, drinking and the rest. He was stunningly handsome. When an aunt gave us a photo of him at 18, my mother shook her head with resignation and said, “You see, I didn’t stand a chance.”

By the time Johnny was in his thirties, with three kids, his own restaurant and a seven-day-a-week schedule, he’d become an alcoholic. It ravaged our family and became the thing that defined our daily lives. We, his family, were bruised forever by the drinking and its reverberations. Johnny withdrew from us, in guilt, I’m sure,  isolated in his inability to be different.

When our mother died in 1993, the prognosis for Johnny seemed grim. She had been everything, had taken care of him and everything that made their lives run. He didn’t even know how to write a check. But in a final act of contrition, I believe, Johnny refused to impose on his children, and rose up to create his own modest life. A nice little apartment. Work. A routine. The drinking was managed somehow, structured in a way that allowed him to go on. He ensured that he walked every day, an activity I’m convinced kept him alive despite decades of smoking and drinking. He paid his rent, kept his place clean, watched his TV and visited us every Christmas with his specially chosen cards and occasional gifts. He continued to take pride in doing the whole Christmas dinner. He was the only one in the world allowed to smoke in our house, while he visited.

He had a gift. An uncle with whom he worked for the last years of his life, in broken English proclaimed to me as he wept at Johnny’s funeral, “He was a baby!” I knew what he meant and I have never forgotten it.  Johnny was a vulnerable child in a man’s body, a soul so naive, generous to a fault, kind and deferrential beyond reason, that no one could stay angry at him for long. His eyes begged for love and maybe forgiveness.  He was a heartbreaker. A baby.

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