A tribute to my father, Dick Kenney, who passed away this week:
My father got high and I held the ladder. “All you have to do,” he’d tell me, “is to hold it steady and turn the radio dial when I tell you. Just don’t move the ladder.” With that, he scooted up to the second story dormer of our house on Hobart Street, fresh paint from his bucket splattering and sticking to Silver, his aluminum ladder.
He ascended rungs like a seasoned, water tower inspector. The higher he climbed, the brighter his mood. With a little jazz wafting from the plastic, black and yellow radio, he was back in the saddle again.
Meanwhile, I was holding the horse. For hours, I’d stand there, checking my watch, my hands frozen to white-hot aluminum. One thing saved me: afternoon ballgames.
A guy named Gowdy, the Red Sox radio voice, broke the clarinet and snare drum hypnosis, his warm twang welcoming us to Fenway. “It’s Red Sox baseball,” he’d say. “Brought to you by the brewers of Narragansett Beer. Hi neighbor, have a ‘Gansett.”
I imagined myself digging in at the plate taking practice swings and sizing up the southpaw on the mound. Daydreaming, though, sometimes meant kicking Silver. “What the hell are you doing down there?” my father snapped, his dripping paint brush blotching the rungs butterscotch. “For cripes sake, Richie, pay attention!”
We learned to pay attention early on. I practiced my clarinet every day after school. My brother, Steve, did the same with his trumpet. Debbie, our sister, played the piano. You see, Dad was a musician. He played in small jazz bands at weddings, proms and bowling banquets all over the South Shore. I can still see him with his shiny, gold saxophone, breaking in reeds, filling the living room with tunes like The Days of Wine and Roses or I Left My Heart in San Francisco, songs he suggested we learn.
Dad was a hard worker, a man of many projects. And he wanted us to be the same way. We’d try sneaking out of the house on Saturday mornings before we’d hear his ominous words: “Don’t make any plans. We have a lot of work to do.” That meant weeding or shoveling dirt over the small river in our backyard that flowed from the faulty septic tank.
Yes, he managed to keep himself busy selling sewing machines, building bedrooms and playing in the band. But his busyness came with a price. It especially took its toll on Ma who seemed sad to see him go off to “play” every weekend. I can’t remember a New Year’s Eve we spent with Dad because those were his biggest gigs. Instead, we celebrated with Ma and the little games she made up for us. We threw hand-made confetti and pitched pennies against the kitchen wall. But there was always that extra party hat; a marriage can last only so long…
I stayed in touch with my father after my parents split up. But it was never the same. While Dad remained on Cape Cod, I got the traveling bug and lived in places like Austin, Phoenix and Tulsa. During phone conversations or trips to the Cape, I’d tell him of my love for writing poetry or stories but I think he was quietly disappointed that I didn’t stick with the clarinet. We always talked about the Red Sox, though. It was the strongest bond we had or so I thought…
I used to send Dad my poems every so often. One of them, Hostage, was about how I got soaked in a late-season monsoon by the Hassayampa River in Wickenburg, Arizona. At the end of the poem, I mentioned the river’s legend: “Of the Hassayampa River, it is said, if you drink its water you may never leave Arizona.” He never said anything about it; I wondered if he had even read it.
A few years ago, he left me a message on my phone recorder. It was about paint stains on a ladder. It didn’t make sense. When we later spoke he asked me if I remembered the ladder, the one I held for five summers on Hobart Street. He told me how paint drops still clung to Silver and asked if I could name all the colors of our houses.
He wanted me to know they reminded him of me. He wondered if I had words for a poem, if I knew how much longer I’d be held hostage…
Rest in peace, Dad. I love you.