My father was a wonderful man, but a horrible father. Most of my childhood memories are negative. I know there are other memories besides the criticisms, the beatings, and the drunken rages, but I have a hard time accessing them. I’ll try to remember a nice family dinner—there had to be tons of them—but every time I do, I see the skillet flying across the room, intended for my mother, but hitting my brother instead. I’ll try to remember a time when we all laughed together—but then I’m reminded of his laughter as he kicked me while I was rolled up in a ball, protecting myself.
I don’t want these memories to have control over my life anymore. I know there was more to my father than what those memories tell me. Even though there are at least another dozen or so memories—some worse, some better—than the two I shared, I know my father loved me. I told myself for the longest time that he must not have loved me enough to stop himself from behaving brutally. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe he loved me as much as he possibly could. The problem was there was a disconnect in my father’s mind and heart; his own difficult life contributed to it.
My father was born in Macedonia, a former republic of Yugoslavia in 1934 or 35. I wish I could tell you the actual date of his birth, but records were not well-kept back then. He also lied about his age to enlist in the navy. I believe we celebrated his birthday in July for a number of years, then November later in his life. The funny thing is my father had forgotten the actual date of his birthday as well.
Other people have told me that as a child, my father was devastated at the death of his own father when he was a young boy. Dedo Vele (my older brother is named after him) was a well-loved and well-respected Macedonian patriot, probably one of the reasons my father enlisted in the navy when he was 15. Like all war veterans, my father must have been tainted by the cruelty of war, not to mention being exposed to them at such a young age. Later, my father illegally crossed the Greece border and was placed in a POW refugee camp for about three years. This is where he became a polyglot; he not only learned all the Slavic languages of Yugoslavia, but he also became fluent in Greek and Russian. (After moving to America, he became fluent in English as well.) When I became an adult, he told me how he became a boxer. When he was serving time, the guards took all his possessions and left him barefoot. The guards would have boxing matches with each other and prisoners for privileges and the stolen possessions. My father watched them fight for months before entering the ring, shoeless. The guards laughed at him, until he beat his first opponent. He won a pair of shoes as his first prize, but never wore them in the ring. He continued winning barefoot, but gave away his prizes to fellow prisoners. His philanthropic attitude made him a favorite with POWs, as well as the guards.
His philanthropy expanded beyond the prison walls. He always gave more than he had to family and friends. If someone came to the house and needed $100, my father would find a way to give it to him, even if it were in pennies. We seemed to have a slew of long-term visitors to our house as well. All they needed to be invited as a guest was to be Macedonian. I guess he gave what he didn’t have to his children, in a way, through the pipe dreams he filled our heads with. He really wanted to give us the pool and the vacations; I think he was more disappointed in himself that he never fulfilled those dreams than we ever were.
The one moment that convinced me of my father’s love was the day I told him I was pregnant and I wasn’t getting married. He didn’t yell at me or tell me he knew this would happen to me or tell me to get an abortion. He cried; he hugged me tightly; he said he was sorry for my pain through his own tears. He wanted to talk to the boy who did this, to make him marry me. I wouldn’t let him. It was that day that I found out about my half-sister. He had done the same thing to a young woman before coming to America. He had a picture of his other daughter and brought it out to show me. He cried some more. It was with this heart that he loved and adored his first grandchild, Nicole. He was a better grandfather than I could have imagined.
Twenty years later, I stood at his grave site. I was filled with pain and regret. I had stopped talking to Tato (Dad in Macedonian) for six years before he died. Ian was born about 4-5 years into that silent treatment. I never called my father to tell him that he had a new grandson. He found out about Ian through my older brother. My brother told me he cried. I remembered all those things as I stood at the fresh mound of dirt. I wasted all those years being angry. I could never hear his voice again or let Ian talk to his Dedo Johnny.
During this trip to Macedonia with my brothers, I found out a lot about my dad from my cousins. One story they told me was about his stubbornness. My father had a number of strokes later in his life that eventually led to his death. The second to last stroke left him paralyzed on his right side. Most people would have been confined to a wheel chair with this condition. Not my father. Tato sat, but behind the wheel of his car, and a standard car at that. After his funeral people told me about his treks around town using his left foot for gas, clutch, and break, and his left hand to shift gears and drive. I still chuckle whenever I think about it, and then wonder at how he didn’t kill himself or others while driving that way. He was so determined. People offered to drive him, but he wouldn’t accept their offers. He wanted to be his own man, on his own terms.
Another story was from a month before his death. My dad was at the casino, his home-away-from-home; a woman in the casino had walked by when my dad heard two men speaking Greek. They were being vulgar about the woman and my father told them to stop, in Greek. One of them asked, “Who’s going to make me? You old man?” My father must have looked old and frail with his paralyzed right side. Those men laughed at my father. Within seconds Tato had somehow gotten out of his chair, knocked the one man to the ground, and had the other by the throat. All my father could say between gasps of air is “Yes.” The security guys had to carry my father out of the casino because he could no longer walk, while the obnoxious Greek men stared in awe at the crippled man who just kicked their asses.
Jovan Galovski was a man who battled his demons publicly and privately. We had a difficult life with him as our father, but he infused us with qualities that made us who we are. I don’t regret my past, but I do regret my memories. I want to remember my father as the man he was–his spirit, his strength, his defense of the defenseless–not the father. I want my children to know these things about him because that’s what he would have shown them. He would have only shown them the best of himself. I’m sad that he couldn’t show me his best during my informative years, but it’s part of my life; it’s how I became me. I am choosing to take the best parts of who Tato was and prune the rest.
I am blessed by my father because I wouldn’t be here without him; I wouldn’t be me without him.