Dad I saved the funny lines for you

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My teenage sons often point out to me how little I know about their world. Sometimes that makes me smile to myself.

Most of the time, I just laugh in their face.

But I get it. When I was a teenager, I was pretty sure my dad knew NOTHING about my life. And I sure didn’t have any aspirations to grow up to be anything like him.

I remember thinking how different he and I were.

I wanted to be a writer, an artist, a creator — he was a former writer for the military press, and now an advertising salesman — what could he possibly know?

I wanted to be a long-haired music critic, listening to Bruce and Elton John, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer — he was a Juilliard-trained pianist, band leader and part-time composer. He doesn’t understand music!

I was becoming a little popular with the ladies — he was the father of six kids. How could he possibly understand what was going on in the front seat of his Chevy Bel Air station wagon when I borrowed it?

Clearly, we had nothing in common.

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One of my very first memories of my Dad was of him playing the piano, something he seemed to always be doing — at lease when he wasn’t in “the city” at work, making a meatloaf sandwich while watching his beloved New York Mets, or tossing a Fig Newton across the room to me.

He was funny, really funny, even if it was in a slightly corny way. But he had a flair and a gift for timing.

One time, when I was eight or so, playing my first season of Little League (for the Haworth Pharmacy team), I remember being in the field and seeing him walk into the dugout to help coach. He had clearly stopped home just long enough to get the car and take off his coat and tie, because he was still in his suit pants and white shirt.

As the Coach encouraged his players — “Move in Gregg. Back up a little Breeze,” my dad repeated each phrase in support. When we had gotten the third out and run into the dugout, I ran up to Dad and gave him a quick hug. “Who’s Breeze,” he asked me quietly. “That’s me,” I laughed.

“I knew that,” he deadpanned.

By the way, I’d like to tell you it was a nickname given because of my blazing speed. While I was quick, the nickname was because of my resemblance to a cap-wearing cartoon Polar Bear, Breezly Bruin. Back then, my hair was so blond it was practically white, cut then in a crew-cut much like my Dad’s.

I’m not so sure that was by choice. I’m not so sure I had many choices back then.

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Dad-MarineMy Dad was a Marine based in Alabama when he met my beautiful mother. He soon married her and whisked her Southern drawl back to his home in New York City, where soon after, I was born — the first of six children.

He didn’t have many choices then either.

My Dad had been a writer and a musician, but around the time my Mom was pregnant with me, he realized he’d need a more traditional and reliable job. He soon was selling advertising for Reuben H. Donnelly Corporation, a major publisher of several slick magazines, as well as the Phone Book.

Back when there was just one phone book. The one people used.

He never lost his love of music. While, regrettably he was unable to pass along his love for playing music, I do share his appreciation for a variety of musical styles. When I listen to jazz, or classical, or swing, or crooners, I’m proud to say I’m listening to my Dad’s music.

Dad continued to be a bandleader, always picking up weekend gigs for weddings, church social events, private parties and bar gigs. Looking back, I’m sure the additional revenue helped, but I know he also loved doing it. I recall his excitement at going out to every gig — often, though not always, accompanied by my Mother. He was doing what he loved to do.

Watching him prepare for weddings was surreal.

The young couple would usually request he play “their song” at the reception, something that was probably current, and that he was more than likely unfamiliar with. So, usually on the day of the reception, he’d go out and buy a 45 RPM record — after first checking to see if me or my younger sister had it. He’d plop it on the record player that sat on the bookshelf above the upright piano in the living room, and give it a listen.

He’d make a couple of notes on some music paper, then listen to it again. Then make a couple of more notes.

Then play the damn song on the piano as if he had written it himself two years ago, and had played it every day since.

It was amazing. And impressive. And terrifying.

And probably why I quit piano lessons after one summer. I knew I could never be that guy. Even though I wanted to be.

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My dad taught me to respect women, starting with my mother. Treat all women like you would treat your mother and you’ll be okay. I have tried to emulate that, and pass it on. My sons open doors, they say please and thank you, and at least one of them lets a woman go first if they both approach a door at the same time.

My dad also taught me to be a writer — or rather, he passed that along. He loved the craft, he was good at it, and he was glad to see me be interested in it and ultimately decide to make a living at it. When I decided I was going to journalism school, he was supportive and eager to know what courses I was taking and what I was working on. Not so much the first two years — that was community college and I was under his roof, with five younger kids. But when I went off to university (sorry, thought I was British there for a second), and working on the school paper, we’d talk once a week to catch up, and talk about the stories I was working on.

At some point, I won a William Randolph Hearst monthly award — a big deal for college journalism students. He was proud and he told me — but soon after, he was back to being my smart-aleck dad. Often times, the catch-up phone calls would start with, “Did you win a Pulitzer yet?”

During the summer between my junior and senior year I got a newspaper reporter internship at a pretty decent newspaper. I caught a couple of lucky breaks and took advantage of them, and wound up being offered a job at that paper before I started my last semester as a senior — and they held the job for me until I graduated. I was fortunate, and my Dad made sure I knew it.

Just a couple of years later, I caught another really lucky break while covering a KKK rally and I took advantage of it, writing a front page story that was carried nationally — including the Dad’s hometown paper. Again, he was proud and let me know.

A few months later, when I called home to check in, he started off the usual way. “Did you win a Pulitzer yet?”

“No,” I said quietly, “but I got nominated for one.” The silence that followed was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. I’m pretty sure he cried. I know I did.

Which I later had to explain to the woman sitting at the desk across from me.

I’ve thought of that moment a few times, when my sons have done something that filled me with such uncontrollable pride that you want to scream out to the world “That’s my kid!” But instead, you just smile, a lot … and maybe cry at the same time.

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When I chose to leave journalism to become a stand-up comic, it was a decision that was not universally embraced. My mother didn’t like it, my then wife tried to like it but really didn’t, and my editors hated it.

When I told my Dad, he was quiet for a long time.

“Well,” he said after a long breath, “you better be funny.”

Like I said, he had a flair for timing.

He saw me perform a few times,and always seemed to enjoy himself. One time in particular.

At the funeral for my dear father-in-law (a man who deserves his own column), I was honored to be asked to give a eulogy, following his two sons. I knew what they wanted — someone to lighten the mood, and I did.

After the funeral, which my father attended, he came up to me and said “That was really good,” then added, “I sure hope you saved some funny lines for mine.”

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My step-Mom recently sent me a box of some of my Dad’s old papers — articles he wrote in high school, in college, in the service. Some baseball stuff, a Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt. His volunteer fireman’s badge.

I haven’t spent a lot of time with it yet. I miss him enough already.

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As the years go, I can’t help but laugh at the similarities between my father and me. He was a performer who gave up show biz for a family. I was a comedian who put off starting a family, then retired from stand-up when my first son was born.

He continued to perform for his own enjoyment, but put his family first, selling magazine advertising until he retired.

I still perform comedy, work as an auctioneer and emcee at charity events, but guess what I do for a living right now?

Want to buy an ad?

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Jerry Brennan (Dad) with brother Tim
Jerry Brennan (Dad) with brother Tim

I’d like to tell you I have thousands of memories of my Dad, but it’s probably more like hundreds. When I was 21, I had a near-death accident, and there was a bit of long-term memory loss. Ironically, it’s another way I’m like my Dad. He was stricken with Alzheimer’s, robbing him of his greatest asset, his quick and clever mind.

Towards the end, before his mental functions were almost completely gone, he would lose track of who was who, of what he meant to say, or why. It was hard to watch — until he’d walk by a piano. Actually, he’d never walk by.

He’d sit. Put his hands in the familiar positions. And play. Anything. Perfectly.

Like he wrote it two years ago.

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The last time I saw him, I told him I loved him. I had two young sons by then, and he had spent some time with them, but not a lot before the disease started getting to him. I told him I was sorry they wouldn’t get to know him as they grew older. And that I would try to teach them what he taught me about being a man, and that I would still try to be like him every day.

I don’t think he knew I was there, but I told him anyway.

After a couple more years in a nursing home, Dad died on the exact day that was the 50th anniversary of he and my mother’s wedding. As my step-Mom said, “He had a gift for timing.”

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If you’re lucky enough to have your dad still in your life … let him know that no matter how things turned out, whether you live in a mansion or a Mazda, that you love him.

Call him. Get him a card. Buy him a beer, or a burger, or just go hug him, even if it’s an hour or two away. And find a way to laugh with him. Laughing with your Dad is a good thing.

Let me end with something funny — or at least funny to me.

Knock Knock. Who’s there? Fig.

Fig who?

And with that, a Fig Newton comes flying across the room.

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Happy Father’s Day, to all the Dads I know, to the Dads of guys and girls I know, and to the Moms I know who pull Dad duty too. I hope it’s a special day for all of you.

For me, I hope I laugh with my sons today.

And for my Dad, I hope the Mets win, and the piano is in tune.

All photos provided by Mike Brennan.