Saturday, February 18, 2012
Memories of My Dad
A friend of mine sent me a documentary about a couple of women who have bought some racehorses. They run the horses at Arlington Park outside of Chicago. It brought back a swell of memories about my father. Let’s start by explaining that my dad was afraid of horses. I started riding as soon as I could walk, and he only came to watch me at a few horse shows. All the pictures he took of me on a horse only show me, not the head or tail of the horse. They look like I’m sitting on a log. Yet, at the same time, he always took me to the races at Arlington Park, and he loved to watch the horses run there.
It was one of my favorite activities. He would give me four dollars, and we would pour over the race sheets figuring out our bets. My mother always put her money on the Polish jockeys. I insisted that I had to see the horses as they were saddled in the paddock before I made my choice. This involved a lot of running back and forth between our seats in the stands and the lovely green park behind the track and the betting windows. I would fall in love with one of the thoroughbreds and dream of magically finding it in my backyard when I got home.
There were distinct smells that I associate with the races. One was the intoxicating scent of horse. The other was the odor of spilled beer. And inside, near the betting windows, there were these carts that sold hot roast beef, ham or turkey sandwiches. They tasted as good as they smelled and were piled so high on fresh rye bread that my mom and I always shared one. My dad would stand with me at the rail during the race so we could cheer on our favorite horses. When I was really little, he’d hoist me up on his shoulders so I could see better. If one of us won, we’d rush inside to the windows to cash in and get a few dollars back so we could bet again. At the end of the day, if my dad won enough, he’d take us out to dinner. Miraculously, he always lucky enough that we could afford it. It was a ritual that continued every summer until I moved to New York City after college.
We also always watched the Kentucky Derby together on TV like it was the Super Bowl. My mom prepared special hors d’oeuvres and drinks. We placed bets, each putting a quarter into the pool. Even when I was living in a different city, I’d call him and stay on the phone through the whole race so we could cheer and comment on it together. It never occurred to me until I was watching the documentary about the racehorses yesterday that maybe my father wasn’t simply crazy about horseracing. He was probably doing this to make a closer connection with me. We really didn’t do much else together, since he was working most of the time. He was a country lawyer and a judge. He loved his work very much, and when poor health forced him to retire at age 79, he passed away the next year.
When I moved to San Diego, my brother-in-law gave us a present one Christmas of a day at the races at Del Mar. He knew some owners who had a box, and we took my mom and my daughter, who was about four years old and horse-crazy like I had been. We walked in, and I felt like I had fallen into a time warp. It looked and smelled exactly like I remembered Arlington Park all those decades ago. I gave my daughter four dollars, and we looked at the race sheets, ran out to see the horses in the paddock, and my husband put her up on his shoulders so she could watch the races. And I know that my dad was up there somewhere looking down on us with a big smile on his face.