After kindly stepping aside last Saturday so I could honor my friend Kier, EGD Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey returns with this tribute to her father.
Anthony Charles Jeskey is a good guy. He grew up under the shadow of the skyway on 95th and Commercial on Chicago’s southeast side where acrid poofs of smoke from nearby steel mills hung heavily and permeated the air. Loose dogs ran wild and terrified him and his brothers when they were kids running around in the tall prairie grasses of abandoned lots. His mother, my Grandma Marie, was a devout Catholic. Attendance at St. Patrick’s Church was mandatory for my father not just on Sundays, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays too. He became a good little alter boy, yet somehow I imagine him sneaking cigarettes and sips of sacramental wine when no one was looking. He had slicked back hair, a wiry frame, a handsome chiseled face and a glint in his eye. Today he calls himself a recovered Catholic.
My dad is the eldest of three sons and became the man of the house when he was in his early 20s and his father died. When he learned of his father’s untimely death, leaving behind a wife, two teen sons and my father, he became distraught. The story goes like this: my father took a drive, lost control of his car and hit a tree head-on. He would not still be with us but an off-duty fireman — or maybe it was a policeman — was fortuitously behind him on the road that dark night and witnessed the crash. This stranger saved my father’s life and got him to the hospital for the 99 stitches that have left a scar from one end of his forehead to the other.
No wonder this good-hearted, former filterless Camel smoking, ruggedly good looking greaser type won my mother’s heart, and I am so glad he did. They met soon after his father’s death at what was then Sully’s (now called the Hangge-Uppe), which was once a classy bar on Elm Street where folks generally went before and after the theater. My then single folks were probably there just to hang out with friends, no theater involved. Once he got my mother’s attention he worked hard to keep it. He’d spend all his money to rent fancy cars to pick her on the north side and take her on dates, fully ready in his early 20s to do all he could to woo a single mother and her young son (my half-brother) into his life. He succeeded. He asked her parents for permission and proposed after 8 months of dating with a ring he bought at Chicago’s Last Department Store. She said yes and they got married. She’d been married before so was not allowed to wear a white dress to St. Patrick’s on their wedding day due to an antiquated Catholic rule, but she sure looked stunning in a classy pale blue number.
My mother and father put each other through school working long hours in difficult working-class jobs. My father earned degrees at the Illinois Institute of Technology and then the University of Chicago Business School and my mother graduated with honors from Mundelein (all women’s) College and then the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (also my alma mater).
Tony filled the lives of my sister, brother and me with a sense of endless possibility and adventure. When I think back to how he swam around in pools with us on his back I marvel at the strength he must have had. My folks made sure to outfit us with skateboards, bicycles, S’mores, stilts, Weebles, Easy Bake ovens, Jiffy Pop, Big Wheels, summer camp, and hilarious vacations on a shoe-string budget. My father was always up to tossing a ball around, playing any game we wanted, putting our new toys together and fixing them when they broke. He happily poked holes into the tops of jars for us to keep the fireflies we captured before letting them go into the night. He’s the type of man who can fix or build anything.
We were no stranger to summer vacations no matter how tight money got. There was the time we rented a huge unwieldy RV and a giant flying shrimp bug flew in the window of the driver’s cab. My siblings and I giggled in glee while my parents swatted at this strange and unusual creature as we careened down a highway somewhere between Chicago and an ocean somewhere. In our travels around the country we saw both oceans and countless national parks. We took a sleeper car on the Amtrak from Chicago to California. We met kids from all over the country at the myriad Yogi Bear campgrounds where we spent summer vacations when the sun never went down and mosquito bites kept us up all night. My parents gave us so much fun even though they must have been under a great deal of pressure trying to keep our struggling middle-class household going.
My father always managed to make us feel that life was magical. The red light on the top of the Sears Tower was Rudolph's nose each Christmas Eve as we headed down Lake Shore Drive back to our north side home from Grandma Marie’s house on the south side. Our home was wildly decorated for every single holiday — Christmas, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, birthdays, even Bastille Day (“what’s that?” we’d ask year after year) and Easter. We were positive that the Easter Bunny existed just to bring us baskets of Whoppers and Peeps and giant chocolate bunnies from Gayety’s Chocolate and Ice Cream Shop (now located in Lansing IL, owned by a distant relative and as good as ever).
I know Tony’s a good guy because I doubt almost anybody has a bad word to say about him. He provided for my mother and her son to the best of his ability, and then for us when we came along. He is the epitome of loyal, a solid and responsible man. He has always been quick to place a large bill into the palm of anyone in need, regardless of where his own finances happened to be in that moment. He shows up in every way imaginable. He tells his family “I love you” every chance he gets. He showed us the importance of family by loading us into the car time and time again for long trips to the far southern reaches of the city to pick up great uncles and grandmas and schlep them to the north side for graduations and every other excuse for a party imaginable. He is quick to smile and laugh and give out an encouraging word. He is well read and cultured and loves to succinctly share his thoughts and observations with his loved ones. He is a man of few words other than on topics that he is truly passionate about, such as social justice and ethical humanism. He was recently named the volunteer of the year for his work as a mentor and buddy to a young man in need of guidance, and now this young man is excelling. If we were Jewish I’d say my dad’s a mensch.
Sure, he’s not perfect and we have had our differences. I am grateful to have had some very good psychoanalysis as well as garden-variety therapies and mentorship that have helped me individuate and see him as a person other than simply selfishly only as my father. The stories of our ups and downs are best reserved for more private settings. Now that this beast of a virus is among us it is imminently clear that my only jobs in relation to this man are to let him know how much I love him (I love you Dad), how grateful I am that he has taught me so well, and to enjoy his company on Zoom (since we live several states apart) and then again in person the first chance I can get.
I’d like to write a poem about him but the essence of the father daughter dyad has been captured so often and well that a new poem seems redundant. “On the beach at night stands a child with her father, watching the east, the autumn sky,” says Walt Whitman in On The Beach At Night. We don’t need to know more as this image lets us know that the child feels safe with her little hand in her dad’s hand, and nothing more needs to be done than to simply stand there together.