Opinion | Biff America: The balloons of regret
In an era when men were expected to work hard, be tough, support a family, Harold was a man of his times.
He had his faults. You don’t live 90 years without making mistakes, like taking for granted and even hurting those you love. There was the drinking, gambling and insensitivity directed to his wife and children. Some years were better than others, but all in all, if his life were judged in its entirety, Harold was a decent man.
He took a young girl out of an abusive home, waited until she was of age and married her. He gave her everything she needed to feel fulfilled — for a while. But when she faced mental health struggles Harold was fighting demons of his own.
But again, overall, he did the best he could under the circumstances of his abilities and of the times. He raised six children, ran a successful business and outlived his wife of over 50 years by a decade.
His three sons were athletes and Harold never missed a single game. He was both proud and critical. In appraising his kids’ performances, he forgave all sins except laziness and lack of courage.
I was witness to some of Harry’s shortcomings. I saw him mock his sons and criticize his daughters. He labeled his son a “light-weight” when, due to an undiagnosed learning disability, that son was a poor student. When his daughter wore a modest two-piece bathing suit to the town pool, he said she looked like a “two-bit whore.” But all that was during the times when Harry was drinking hard.
Though uneducated and perhaps suffering the same learning struggles as did his youngest, he sent his five older kids to college.
When Harold retired and quit drinking, he softened considerably. Though he never said this to me, it seemed he was trying to make up to his wife and family for past sins; some of his children forgave him more so than others; his wife did completely.
They had 15 good years when Harold was mostly sober and his wife was healthy.
When his wife died young, he was devastated but stoic.
While planning her funeral, he visited the mortuary with three of his kids. By committee, they chose and worded a gravestone and picked out a casket. Through it all Harry was strong. The funeral director handed his youngest son the estimate and they walked out as a family. It wasn’t until they reached the parking lot when Harold cried and clutched his daughter. He joked, “It figures I wouldn’t break down until I saw the bill.”
I think it is possible to both love and resent an elderly parent. Some of Harry’s kids simply loved him, some displayed both emotions. For me it was easy, he was an eccentric curmudgeon. Harold was good company.
When he was 88 and looking frail, he did manage to win two of three cribbage games — one I beat him handily.
After the cards were put away, he sent me to the refrigerator for two cans of beer. We cracked them and he said he regretted putting an ace and a four in the crib which allowed me to score 12 points and win by three.
I said, “If that is your biggest regret in life you are lucky.”
We drank in silence.
A half-can later, I — and I don’t know why I did this — asked, “What’s your biggest regret?”
As soon as I asked, I wished I hadn’t.
Without hesitation, Harold said, “I regret not buying my daughter another balloon.” He slowly got up and headed toward the kitchen and asked if I wanted another one. I didn’t answer and he came back with two.
“I took a few of our kids to the Brockton Fair. I bought each kid a helium balloon shaped like a shamrock and tied the string to each child’s wrist. Martha untied her string to take off her coat and lost the balloon; you should have heard her cry. She bawled all the way back to the car. We must have passed 10 guys selling balloons. For 25 cents I could have fixed everything; instead I decided to teach her a lesson.” He took a pull off his beer and said, “I still dream about that sometimes.”
From the confines of my glass house, I’d say a balloon wasn’t Harry’s biggest sin. But who am I to judge a man whose responsibilities I can only imagine and whose personal struggles I was spared?
He did royally screw up by putting that ace and four into the crib………
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores or Shop.holpublications.com/products/biff-america-mind-body-soul.
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